TCS is the true parenting theory. The primary ideas are:

- Fallibility (certain knowledge is impossible; people can be wrong)

- No Authorities (ideas must be judged on their merit, the source is irrelevant to truth content -- therefore children can be right and can't be dismissed)

- A state of coercion is one in which a person has two active theories that conflict, and is being forced to enact one prior to resolving the conflict.

- Coercion is bad for knowledge growth (I will write an entry giving the epistemic reasons for this in the future)

- Common Preferences, coercion-free solutions to problems, are always possible

- This means children don't do anything they don't want to

- What people want is subject to morality, and thus children won't want horrible things, as long as parents offer good moral theories

- Good ideas beat out bad ones in argument (and thus if parent's moral theories really are better than some alternative, parent won't lose argument)

- If your ideas are so great, have some faith in them to stand up to criticism

- Criticism Good

- Abandonment Parenting is morally wrong (parents have an obligation to help their children)

- Advice Advice Advice (parents should give children lots of advice, but children should be free to disagree)

- Don't Hurt Children (I can't say this enough)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)
Have faith in your values. Don't expect people to disagree. True ideas win arguments. True ideas win converts. True ideas get popular. Good values reward you. Bad values "reward" their holders (no need to do anything to them).

And as to "rewarding" holders of bad values -- it's a form of imposing one's values, and thus needs a non-arbitrary, non-reversible justification.

To explain "Don't expect people to disagree" this comes up a lot with parenting. Like people will ask "What if my child wants to commit murder?" Well, why the fuck would he want to do that? You're right that murder is wrong, aren't you? Yes, you are, so why expect child to disagree..? Comes up with the pro-death people too, who think it'd be wrong to waste extra life watching TV, but expect people to do it...

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)
Here's an example of a moral theory that fails by it's own standards:

I'm going to spank my children, to help them develop good character.

Note this does not fail by pure logic. But it does fail by explanation. Our best explanations tell us, the basic effect of spanking, is fucking children up badly.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)
Parenting strategies that rely on parents being larger, cannot be right.

Parenting strategies that rely on children having bad memory, cannot be right.

Parenting strategies that rely on children always agreeing with the first idea a parent has, cannot be right.

In different situations, the answers to various questions that depend on the circumstances, can be different.

People who do not understand a proposition, can't know if it's horribly false or exceptionally true.

To live morally, requires creativity.

A mechanical parenting strategy, cannot be right.

People do not do things for no reason.

It cannot be right to ask someone to sacrifice infinately before retalliating.

It cannot be right to come kill me, for the purpose of going to the dentist.

To fully maximise the realisation of one's intentions, one must be willing to change one's intentions to ones that are better realisiable.

Statements like this are interesting due to their truth, and also can provide a framework for solving various problems. But what should we call them? I've been considering them epistemic. This is perhaps not ideal. I don't have a better idea. Normally, I don't care about categorisations such as this, but it seems valuable to me to be able to communicate the idea that I'm referring to statements like this.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

My AIM screen name is curi42. Yesterday I spoke with sylvry79 and fr0ggetoad about TCS, and this chat contains useful explanations on myriad topics. Enjoy. (All smileys that iChat turned into graphical pictures have been lost.)

fr0ggetoad: sylvyr79: whatcha disagree with? [Talking about this article]
sylvyr79: ok, well first of all, there's something he said that i do agree with
sylvyr79: the fact that humans are complex, and one simple influence does not dictate how we behave
sylvyr79: u with me so far?
curi42: yeah
fr0ggetoad: sylvyr79: yes
sylvyr79: ok, but then he goes on to say that it's good to do what you want, including video games if that happens to be what you want
fr0ggetoad: indeed
sylvyr79: what you want is a simple influence, but it is by no means the only one acting on a person
curi42: haven't read the article recently. that's not quite true though.
curi42: you can do what you long as you want the right things. morality first.
sylvyr79: well, he says it's right for a kid to do what they want, not for them to decide what they want first
sylvyr79: kids want to play video games regardless of whether it's a good idea, but he's saying it's good in any case
fr0ggetoad: why would it be bad to play video games?
curi42: well, it's pretty much always right
sylvyr79: there is a value to doing things you don't want to do
curi42: you mean to being coerced?
fr0ggetoad: if there is something that you want to do which has good value, and something you don't want to do
fr0ggetoad: which do you think you should choose?
sylvyr79: you can't generalize that question
curi42: you can ask the general question "Is it *ever* a good idea to coerce children for the sake of learning?"
sylvyr79: i'd say yes, sometimes
curi42: why/when?
sylvyr79: there are skills that people will not learn if they are left to their own devices
curi42: if the skill is important, why will the person not want to learn it?
fr0ggetoad: if something is valuable and has merit, then its likely a person will become more interested in it on their own terms than on someone else's
sylvyr79: what's important to one person is not the same as what's important in their environment
curi42: so we should do things we don't want to "for the sake of the environment" ?
sylvyr79: no, it's for the sake of being happier with yourself overall
sylvyr79: let me explain
curi42: if it will make ya happier, won't you want to do it? ...... ok
sylvyr79: in your immediate situation, you may not realize how your choices could affect your life in the future
sylvyr79: you can miss out on opportunities, and then have much less ability to be happy later on
curi42: yes, sometimes people are wrong.
curi42: but if someone does not know better, how can they take the theoretically better path? they cannot.
fr0ggetoad: your parents could also be mistaken in how they think doing or not doing something will effect your future life
sylvyr79: if a parent has experience and the child doesn't, the parent can help direct them on a good path
sylvyr79: there is no absolute right way to be a parent, so the sensible thing is just to do what you think is best
curi42: well, in general children listen to their parent's advice.
curi42: but when there is a disagreement, what right does the parent have to claim some sort of authority and make the child live out the parent's theories?
sylvyr79: the child is not necessarily acting on theories
curi42: on the stars then? ;-p
fr0ggetoad: lol
fr0ggetoad: people don't do things for no reason
sylvyr79: that's not entirely true
sylvyr79: what i mean to say is, not every action is the result of a reasoning thought process
fr0ggetoad: sure
fr0ggetoad: but we're talking about decisions here right?
curi42: heart beats aren't. and many are not explicit (in a language with symbols and grammar). but inexplicit theories do have a rhyme and reason to them.*
sylvyr79: i think an inexplicit theory is a case where someone doesn't finish the reasoning process, and just goes with what they have so far
curi42: "the reasoning process" ?
sylvyr79: of making a decision
curi42: no, i mean please tell me what this process entails
sylvyr79: considering the costs and benefits of your actions
curi42: that's how we make all decisions?
sylvyr79: yes
curi42: I propose that this theory is not a coherent explanation of all human behavior.
curi42: For example, it is lacking in explaining how we decide what is good and bad (a cost or a benefit).
fr0ggetoad: oh, good point curi
sylvyr79: sure, nothing is definite
sylvyr79: but if we have strong ideas of what's good and bad, we can use them for making decisions
fr0ggetoad: where do we *get* those ideas though?
fr0ggetoad: under your model of how we reason
sylvyr79: some of it is genetic, some is from learning from your surroundings
curi42: learning from surroundings how?
sylvyr79: what values your parents teach you, for instance
fr0ggetoad: how do they get them?
curi42: teach how?
sylvyr79: there are infinite ways to teach values
fr0ggetoad: sylvyr79, what is a mechanism for genes teaching you values?
sylvyr79: in primitive organisms, it's very simple
curi42: genes are expressed in body structure including brain structure
sylvyr79: basically, they give you tendencies to survive and reproduce
curi42: however, human brains are universal computers -- capable of doing any calculation that can be done (with enough time and memory storage)
sylvyr79: ok...
curi42: all running Intelligence software
sylvyr79: yes
curi42: structural differences may effect the speed, but not the function of our brains
curi42: and may effect the initial version of the intelligence software, but not it's subsequent form
sylvyr79: ok, there's a problem with that point
sylvyr79: true, with infinite time, brains could do any calculation
sylvyr79: but there is not infinite time, and different brains function differently in the time provided
fr0ggetoad: we're not saying anyone *will* complete a certain really long computation
fr0ggetoad: merely that if there was infinite time, it could
curi42: I hold brain speed is not a major factor in our lives. we know the speed is very fast, and it seems reasonable that our software is the bottleneck.
sylvyr79: are you saying all our software is essentially the same?
curi42: Here is a theory of human theories: The short of it is that we evolve our theories. By creating vast numbers of theories, most very similar with just slight differences, and then criticising them to eliminate the unreasonable ones, we are able to learn about any sphere. The survivors of criticism are held tentatively true, but may be criticised again in light of a new idea. It is notable that we need not start from any sort of true foundations, or good theories, but rather can start from any crap at all, hold it tentatively true, then criticise it and improve. One reason this is notable, is it means that it doesn't matter very much what initial state our brain software comes in, as long as it allows conjecture and criticism -- evolution -- because the initial state will be improved drastically and be unrecognisable in a short amount of time.
curi42: so, yes, our brain software has the same basic effect for everyone. that's what intelligence *is* -- the ability to learn, ala evolution.
sylvyr79: that makes sense
sylvyr79: but what is at the base of it?
sylvyr79: there has to be something to tell you which theories are good or bad
sylvyr79: whatever that is, it's different in different people
fr0ggetoad: criticism
curi42: well, you will have some sort of initial criticism.
curi42: theory of what it is
sylvyr79: ?
fr0ggetoad: curi, under your model do babies have theories when they are born?
curi42: and you can improve it. and either it will work, or it will not.
curi42: fr0ggetoad ..... probably, dunno. question for science.
sylvyr79: i think they have the tools to construct theories
fr0ggetoad: for sure ya
sylvyr79: and they have some basis for judging them
fr0ggetoad: well, babies left to themselves like won't get very far in that right
curi42: i think babies start with only very simple theories
sylvyr79: theories like "satisfying cravings is good"
curi42: and these are easy to criticise. like a baby might see something, and theorise that it will feel some way, and then touch it
curi42: and in touching, criticise (or not, if the theory was right) the sight-theory.
sylvyr79: that's all you need
curi42: yep
curi42: so, given all this, we can say that "children act on theories"
sylvyr79: ok
curi42: (note that we are not paying any attention that whether the theories are in English now. some will be, some won't. the distinction is useful for some conversations, but misleading in others)
sylvyr79: point taken
curi42: if a child has a theory that he should do X, and an adult has a theory that the child would be better off doing Y, what should happen?
curi42: well, first the adult will offer criticism of X, and the child will criticise the criticism and also perhaps criticise Y. suppose they can't figure out how to agree. then what?
curi42: well, i hold, it's the child's life, and it should be his own choice. the parent has no right to declare himself correct.
sylvyr79: the parent made an investment in this child....they have some right to protect it
curi42: how is trying to rule someone else's life, against his will, protection?
sylvyr79: the parent can consider more things, and has a better understanding of the way things work
fr0ggetoad: ok, so give the extra knowledge to the child
curi42: in general, yes. and thus we except children to usually agree with their parent's advice.
fr0ggetoad: by discussing it
curi42: but in this case, the parent has used all that extra experience to criticise the child's theory, and has been unpersuasive.
curi42: William Godwin: If a thing be really good, it can be shown to be such. If you cannot demonstrate its excellence, it may well be suspected that you are no proper judge of it. Why should not I be admitted to decide, upon that which is to be acquired by my labour?? ? The Enquirer (1797)
sylvyr79: you may not be able to explain it to the child if he doesn't have the background to grasp it
curi42: if it's a major choice, as you seem to be mostly concerned with, explain the background
sylvyr79: whatever experiences the child would need to see that what the parent is saying is actually true
curi42: experience just helps us form theories. communications can do the same thing.
curi42: the problem with this view, that the child does not understand the background, is that it is simply another way to say parent considers child wrong.
curi42: the child could try the same approach. he could say:
curi42: "mommy, i know you know a lot about most things, but about this particular thing, you don't know a lot.
sylvyr79: this is like the idea that you can't learn to ride a bicycle without actually getting on
curi42: in fact, you don't have the background required to understand why i am right about this"
curi42: you could, but that is infeasible
sylvyr79: you need to actually have the experience to be able to understand it
curi42: b/c physical theories about moving muscles are hard to talk about. you'd need some special machine.

[At this point, the chatroom died.]

sylvyr79: where were we?
curi42: i was saying that, the parent thinking child to "lack the right background to understand" is just another way to say the parent thinks he is right.
curi42: and the child could say the same thing. after all, if the decision is about the child's life.....
curi42: well, child has been living it for years, and knows details of own personality parent does not. details of what will work for him and make him happy.
sylvyr79: wait, i'm not sure about that first point
sylvyr79: the parent is not just saying "i think i'm right"
curi42: "you don't understand" == "you are wrong" as far as arguments go
sylvyr79: but the parent does have justification for what they're saying
curi42: your opponent will just say the same of you
curi42: the parent considers himself justified. the child considers parent wrong about that.
curi42: note: that the child also thinks he has justification, and the parent disagrees with that.
curi42: parent's aren't epistemically privileged
sylvyr79: there is a difference between a parent and a child
fr0ggetoad: yes there is
curi42: fr0ggetoad: he means a relevant one
curi42: so let's let him explain
sylvyr79: the parent has experience that he may be able to impart to the child only through coercion
sylvyr79: it's a substitute for actually giving the child that experience
curi42: well, the parent might be wrong. and then he will have wrongly hurt child, won't he?
sylvyr79: yes, but you don't avoid making decisions for fear that you might be wrong
sylvyr79: you act on your best theories
curi42: we generally do avoid making decisions *for other people when they disagree and want to live their own life*
curi42: you certainly wouldn't, say, prevent me from [censored for privacy].
sylvyr79: that's not in my power....
curi42: and if it was?
sylvyr79: it can't're the only one who can make that decision
fr0ggetoad: but but
fr0ggetoad: um
fr0ggetoad: sylvyr79
sylvyr79: yes
curi42: but i have parents, sylvyr79
fr0ggetoad: like you're contradicting yourself
sylvyr79: no i'm not
fr0ggetoad: Elliot's parents have more life experience than he does, right?
sylvyr79: yes
fr0ggetoad: should they be able to make him [censored for privacy]?
fr0ggetoad: if they think that's best?
curi42: [question censored, I said ?nevermind? two seconds later anyway]
sylvyr79: there's too many unknowns, it's impossible to answer that question
fr0ggetoad: replace elliot with child
fr0ggetoad: and elliot's parents with the child's parents
curi42: yeah nevermind
curi42: when a parent thinks his child is making a mistake, he doesn't intervene *every single time* right?
sylvyr79: right
curi42: so, how does parent decide in which cases he should intervene?
sylvyr79: they decide with whatever tools they have to decide
curi42: well, surely it's not about how sure parent feels
curi42: what i mean is what parents *should* do, not what they really do.
sylvyr79: well, parents should use whatever theories they have come up with in their lifetime to try to shape things in such a way that a good result is likely to occur
curi42: good by child's standards, right?
sylvyr79: if we're talking about what the adult should do, then good by the adult's standards
curi42: "a good result is likely to occur"
curi42: parent should aim for child to grow up to be happy and successful *by own lights*, not by parent's. right?
curi42: no matter how much daddy values being a lawyer, if child is all into art instead, child should become an artist.
sylvyr79: yeah....
curi42: we can apply this to various other things
sylvyr79: this is assuming that the parent has declared happiness and success as ultimate values
curi42: when parent and child disagree about whether child should do A or B next, no matter how much parent values A, if child is into B instead, etc
curi42: oh, i didn't mean to say they were. you can fill in something else there. it's not important to the logic of the argument.
sylvyr79: a parent can recognize that other things are important to a child, and guide them to achieve what is important to the child
curi42: it's not clear if this "guiding" includes forcing or not.
sylvyr79: it does include forcing if the parent decides it's useful
curi42: and what criterion should parent use for when he should force?
sylvyr79: if they think there is something the child must do, that he will not do on his own
curi42: why must he?
sylvyr79: in order to keep opportunities open, perhaps
curi42: are these opportunities important to child?
curi42: (yes) then why doesn't he want to keep them open himself?
sylvyr79: he may not have the discipline to do it himself
curi42: "discipline" consists of?
sylvyr79: pushing yourself
curi42: so imagine a child who wants something, but is unable to push himself enough. how is parent going to use force to help matters?
sylvyr79: i'll give you an example
sylvyr79: i want to be a good runner, but i don't have the discipline to do it myself. Someone else pushes me to do it, and that gives me enough incentive to push myself harder
curi42: ok, but this "pushing you" won't involve force.
curi42: (consensual "force" does not count)
sylvyr79: it involves force in a sense
fr0ggetoad: i think what would actually be happening in that situation is that the person gets convinced that its worth it
sylvyr79: parts of my mind do rebel, it's not unanimous consent
curi42: that's bad
sylvyr79: how so?
curi42: because you are torn, and part of you is hurt.
fr0ggetoad: being in conflict with yourself
fr0ggetoad: is not a good thing
fr0ggetoad: right curi
sylvyr79: that's not a bad thing, that's how it always is
curi42: wouldn't it be better to act with the unanimous consent of your own personality?
fr0ggetoad: if you have the option of stopping when you want
fr0ggetoad: then its possible to run with unanimous consent within yourself
sylvyr79: it's never unanimous
fr0ggetoad: well if you have a theory that you should stop when you feel physical pain
sylvyr79: then you don't improve
fr0ggetoad: then you will become torn
fr0ggetoad: when you start to feel pain
fr0ggetoad: but pain is just a state of mind
fr0ggetoad: its input
sylvyr79: yes...
fr0ggetoad: do you agree that its possible to ignore pain then?
fr0ggetoad: by changing your state of mind?
sylvyr79: yes
fr0ggetoad: ok
fr0ggetoad: so then the conflict is being caused
fr0ggetoad: by the theory that pain is bad
fr0ggetoad: if you had a better theory that conflict wouldn't happen
fr0ggetoad: if someone could totally convince themselves of this then they wouldn't be coercing themselves (in respect to pain) when running
sylvyr79: if you could totally convince yourself, you would not be open to new ideas
curi42: no!
curi42: "true and mutable" -- our best ideas should be held true, and also open to criticism and thus change.
curi42: it's not a contradiction to, say, "be totally committed to being open to changing one's ideas"
curi42: even though being open may cause one to change this idea that one was (formerly) totally committed to
sylvyr79: you're saying "being totally committed" is a temporary state of mind
curi42: all theories are at a point in time.
curi42: at some other point in time, you will have different ones.
sylvyr79: yes, so you're never totally committed
curi42: sure you are
fr0ggetoad: sure you are
curi42: there is not a part of me (in this time) that is not committed to living morally, say
fr0ggetoad: you can be completely convinced of something
fr0ggetoad: and then see evidence to the contrary
fr0ggetoad: and get a better explanation
fr0ggetoad: and be totally convinced of that
sylvyr79: why call it completely convinced, if you can change it?
fr0ggetoad: because we know that we are fallible
curi42: because fallibility is not an obstacle to holding up things as true.
fr0ggetoad: knowing that people are fallible does not imply not trying to understand things
sylvyr79: i'm saying that your "completely convinced" is no different from any other idea you might have
curi42: not different from "tentatively held true" in any fundamental way
curi42: it is different from some i claim not to be very sure about.
sylvyr79: ok
curi42: the point is
curi42: fallibility says that we cannot know anything with certainty -- we can be wrong about anything
sylvyr79: yes
curi42: but it does not imply that we should be wrong about any particular proposition.
curi42: if i say some particular proposition is true, fallibility doesn't argue otherwise.
sylvyr79: granted
curi42: therefore, there is no contradiction between the possibility of being wrong (and thus having to change one's view) and saying that one is right (ie that one's view is true)
sylvyr79: this is not a's just, you act on your best theories until you have better ones
curi42: k

Kinda abrupt end, hope ya learned something, *waves*

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)
I tried to post this to the TCS list, but it was rejected. -sigh- Anyway, enjoy:

The better you know someone, and the better they know you, the more intimate things it is safe to tell them. Which meshes amazingly well with a gradual approach to relationships, and extremely poorly with any sort of discontinuous jump.

By the way, this is important to parents who've messed up in the past, and now have an older child but little relationship. "Come tell me all about you, so we can catch up," would be just the wrong thing to say.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (6)
i'm reading my old TCS posts. one esp cool feature, is rediscovering good ideas *of my own* that i'd forgotten. here's one:

Sometimes there are arguments about what things should be offered to kids. Some people acknowledge they should let their kids try things the kids might like, but then deny that kids might like ice cream, or chocolate, or whatever. And then people debate this. But doesn't the very fact that the item is worth debating, mean the kid *might* like it? By the very act of arguing about it, the anti-ice cream people lose the argument.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)
looking at more old TCS posts. here's an important idea, though not one I'd forgotten about:

Fallibillity, does not imply any particular mistake. No real-life failure can ever be blamed on fallibility. which may sound kinda "duh". but ppl ignore this quite often.

for example, sum1 might mention hitting his kid once, and say he was taken over by passion (a diff error) and that mistakes happen (bingo). the fact that mistakes happen, in no way excuses this particular one, whihc was avoidable.

the problem with the passion excuse is all the passion means is that he was in the right environment to act on a facet of his personality that he usually doesn't.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)
Imagine you are a child, interacting with your mother. Your mother is doing things to hurt you. And you say, "Mommy, stop hurting me! You can be my mommy without hurting me." And just imagine if your mother said "no".

Your claim, notably, is the same claim as TCS makes -- that it is possible and desirable to parent without hurting our children. And the mother's "no" is any position that contradicts the TCS claim.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)
Sarah Fitz-Claridge has taken to deleting comments i post on, including this one (see end of post for Henry's comment and my now-deleted reply). why? she says "no meta" and won't give any more details, like pointing out what bit of the comment is allegedly meta. also she says this rule applies to everyone. so maybe i'll point out various other posts with meta to her and see if she deletes them...

I was also put on moderation so comments I write on that site have to be approved to be posted. However, anonymous posts are not moderated. So, like, what the fuck? I logged out, have to type my sig myself now, and will have a harder time finding new comments to read without using the feature that tags new ones for me. Umm, great, she's wasted some of my time, for no reason. *sigh*

UPDATE: all anonymous posts now get moderated too. lovely. if you make a new account you can post with that unmoderated, though.

anyway, henry's comment and my now-deleted reply (judge for yourself how worthy of deletion my reply is, i suppose):

Common Preference is a flawed idea

I certainly like what TCS stands for. Quite literally, actually. I think Taking Children Seriously is a great name, and it really sums up nicely how I think we should treat children: simply take them seriously, just as we take adults seriously. I agree with TCS's most important themes, which I consider to be: don't coerce your kids (well, I think there are rare exceptions where it's good to coerce kids or adults), be creative at solving problems (generally work from the assumption that there is a solution), be skeptical about traditional education, use argument and advice rather than force, look for common decisions which make all involved happy. I attended a lecture once by Sarah Fitz-Claridge about TCS, and she has really good and, I believe, true things to say about how to deal with children. So I much appreciate her insights and analysis of the mistakes so many people make in dealing with children. Mostly boiling down to not taking them seriously and using coercion instead of reason.

But ironically, while I broadly agree with most of the TCS conclusions, it strikes me that the way it is typically philosophically defended is logically flawed on several issues. Some other time perhaps I will argue that TCS'ers are somewhat mistaken about the link between TCS and fallibilism. Here I wish to argue that the TCS notion of common preferences is thoroughly confused. This is evidenced by my analysis of two articles on this site showing that the following three different and incompatible definitions of "common preference" are used interchangeably:

1.A common policy that improves the position of everyone.
2.A common policy that everyone involved prefers to all alternatives considered.
3.A common policy that everyone is satisfied with.

Definitions 1 and 2 follow from the first sentence of the article above:

"Common preferences are policies that all parties after a successfully resolved disagreement prefer to their initial positions: everyone gets what they want."

It is clear that the first part of the sentence implies definition 1. The second part ("everyone gets what they want") seems to suggest definition 2, but this is less clear. However, the following sentences clearly does suggests definition 2:

"To put it simply, you keep making bold conjectures and subjecting them to criticism until you have a solution that everyone involved wholeheartedly prefers to any other candidate solutions any of you can think of at the time. (We call that a common preference, the preference you have in common.)".

This is from the article Introduction to Taking Children Seriously (TCS) . Another except from that article:

" 'Does it have to be a question of being right? Am I actually wrong for wanting to go to a Chinese restaurant, or is that just my taste?' countered Wendy. It is not the fact that you like Chinese food that is the problem, it is that you are not taking into account the fact that the smell of Chinese food makes me feel physically sick. Let me put it another way: if neither of us changes our mind and we don't resolve the disagreement, is it not the case that at least one of us is going to get hurt?"

Apparently the aim here is to find something that everyone can agree to without anybody feeling hurt. This implies definition 3. Now let's go through these definitions.

It's often easy to find a common policy in accordance with 1. Suppose we are all very hungry. I prefer to go to a Chinese restaurant, while my friend doesn't like Chinese food. But since she is very hungry, having a Chinese dinner still does improve her situation, since she'd rather eat something she doesn't like than stay hungry. So we eat Chinese. According to the definition this is a common preference. But of course this is a totally useless definition, because defined this way a common preference isn't a good result at all. Although both our positions have improved, going to a Greek restaurant, say, would have been a much better choice if my friend really loves Greek food and I like it only slightly less than Chinese food.

Definition 2 is obviously ludicrous in the context of how TCS'ers use the term. It's not ludicrous in the sense that such a common preference is impossible. Sometimes it does happen that, say, all in a group prefer to go to the same restaurant. That's a true common preference. But what makes this definition ludicrous is the fact that it is inconsistent with the TCS idea that one can find a common preference in general. This is obviously untrue, a case of wishful thinking. If I prefer Chinese food and my friend prefers Greek food we have different preferences not a common one. The fact that we may be mistaken about our own preferences is irrelevant, for it remains that there is no logical reason to assume people generally have the same preference.

Definition 3 is the most realistic definition. And in practice that indeed seems to be the TCS attitude. Try to find a policy that everyone is happy with, taking into account everybody's preferences. Though I slightly prefer Chinese food to Greek food, I will be quite happy if we go to the Greek restaurant, because I still like Greek food, and I want my dinner partner to be happy as well. So, the idea is good: if there is disagreement try to be rational, creative, loving, etc. and come up with a solution that everyone can live with. Normal people call this a compromise. TCS'ers call this a common preference. But that term is, of course, quite wrong. Agreeing to a solution other than your own preference, to make others happy, is not a preference, much less a common preference. This may sound horrible, but TCS'ers live in the same world as normal people, and therefore they too regularly make group decisions via compromise, voting or whatever. Their third way exists only in Alice in Wonderland. Unless you redefine the word preference to mean a preference for maximum utility for the group, in which case all would have the same preference if they can agree on all individual utilities for all alternatives. But that is not what the word preference normally means. But, again, the attitude is good. In their illogical search for a common preference I imagine TCS'ers will tend to find the best and wisest compromises, making everybody happy. And that's good.

A last comment. One thing I'm missing in TCS is the idea that everybody doesn't have to do the same thing. If you're in a group you don't always have to find a "common preference" (compromise). If the majority very much wants to do one thing and one person has a very different preference, that individual can simply choose not to join and let the rest of the group do what it wants. Or the group can split into two groups, or whatever. This may be much better in many cases than looking for a single "common preference" for the whole group.

by Henry Sturman on 2003/08/22 - 11:19 GMT | reply to this comment

Re: Common Preference is a flawed idea

Henry Sturman,

Definition 1 is, I agree, basically useless. Definition 3 is ambiguous, and hinges on what 'satisfied' means. I agree it could easily be interpreted to include compromises, which should not be deemed common preferences. so i'd throw definition 3 out too, and chastise any TCSers who write like it's true.

Before I continue, I want to caution you against paying attention to things like 'how most TCSers tend to use the term.' Most TCSers are usually fairly imprecise. And most of them don't get the all subtle or deep bits of TCS either. Even many of the articles on this site are not precise at all (I happen to think this policy is bad.) So anyway, I suggest instead of paying attention to the general attitude of TCSers towards a subject, you should look for the most precise and best couple things you can find, and analyse those.

Definition 2 is basically the TCS one. An alternative way to explain what a common preference is, is: a solution to a dispute in which no parties are coerced.

The point of a common preference is not that everyone orders lemon chicken (and thus has a preference for lemon chicken in common). Rather, it is more likely we will both prefer that you order lemon chicken while I order broccoli beef (or whatever it is we like). This is a common preference even though we order different things, because we each prefer that is how ordering should happen.

So in the case of one person splitting off from a group to do something else, that often is a common preference. the group may well prefer the person to split, while it continues. and the person may well prefer to split, while the group continues. (possible stumbling points would be if the group needed all its members for some reason, or the person didn't want to do his thing alone, in which case it'd take more creativity to solve).

or with Jack who wants greek food, and Jill who wants chinese, various common preferences could be:

- they each go eat alone (this is what people who aren't good friends might do)


- they each care about each other, and want to eat together, and also don't want the other to be happy, and thus agree to:
- get greek now (and maybe chinese next time). this could be a CP if Jill doesn't want to eat alone, and doesn't want to drag jack to chinese, and doesn't think ill of greek food, and basically prefers this to all rival plans.
- same as last, but with them getting chinese b/c they determine food choice is more important to jill than jack
- get takeout from one or both places
- stay home if they decide the food's not worth the hassle, and plan to each get the kind of food they like some time the other is busy.

BTW friends do this *all the time*. initially they want to go different places or otherwise do different things, and then they come to agree on one plan. it is this plan about what should happen (which includes what everyone involved should do, and takes into account everyone's preferences) that becomes common in a common preferences. (and before i sound like a socialist, i should emphasise that far and away the most prevalent kind of CP, that happens all the time, is for people to decide to both do their own thing, individually. like i'm working on my computer while someone else is downstairs, doing something else, and we're both fine with this state of affairs)

-- Elliot Temple

by Elliot Temple on 2003/08/22 - 18:50 GMT | reply to this comment

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)
everyone organises their room. just some people use different organisational schemes. it's a travesty that one particular type of scheme (empty floor, stuff in rows where it's nice to look at and hard to use, not much dust, etc) has a monopoly on being called organised or orderly. esp when it's not even all that great a setup. it's pretty impractical.

on the flipside of the coin, a lot of children could have better-organised rooms, and would enjoy it that way. but the solution isn't to go in there and move stuff around (mess it up even more), it's to not instill cleaning hangups in your kids.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)

email is fun

On Sunday, November 23, 2003, at 08:37 AM, A Poster wrote:

Subject Line: shouldn't TCS be questioned?

Yes, of course. It even says so, does it not? Now, some people seem to have the idea that TCS holds itself up infallible, but reality seems to be against them. For example, I no longer use the "official" TCS definition of coercion.

(Of course, one should not make such a change haphazardly, or on a whim, but rather after deep understanding of the official definition, and its strengths. And one should be careful the new version really is an improvement. etc)

What happens to all those families out there who find that, according to their own lights, TCS seems like a really bad, dangerous idea?

Well, until they give some good reason (an argument), I will consider their lights wrong. But I won't hunt them down; all that *happens* (in my view) is they have worse lives than they might.

Even if some of it has changed their lives for the better? But that certain aspects of - say - hardcore rationalism, dogged belief in the TCS 'way', an abiding faith in the TV as a *good thing*, ditto eating what you feel like....all have and continue to.... feel a bit unnatural?

well i think you've misunderstood TCS here. while i will insist that TV shows are, in principle, great things, just like books, I will also concede that there are both many bad books and many bad TV shows. Personally I don't watch tons of TV. mostly japanese anime and movies and southpark oh and The OC. lots of other stuff is great if you have the right problem situation for it, and many people are too negative about TV, but for some problem situations not watching a whole lot of TV would make sense.

as to eating, well we should eat what we want, and we should want to eat the right things to eat. true and changeable. favorite and changeable. you need *both* sides of that coin. the solution to bad eating habits is not to eat what you don't want to. that's just hurting yourself. the solution is to find some good arguments about what is right to eat, and then want to eat that way because you really do believe it's right.

personally, i eat almost no candy and desert fairly rarely, and have a general distaste for too much sugar. i think i'm weird about that, but *shrug*. i *also* don't like salad much.

What if believing in these things starts to make parent feel totally duped and like he doesn't have enough faith in his own good ideas?

You should not hold ideas true because someone said so, not even Elliot Temple nor David Deutsch. You've got to act on your best theories, which means only arguments that you find make sense. Even if some theory is true, if you don't understand it, it's no good to you (though maybe it will be later). And if you do this, faith in your own ideas should not be an issue, because you would know of none you consider better.

Isn't this TCS working against itself? That would be a good thing, right? But then if the TCS parent turns off the TV because he wants to, and does the things he wants to do, because he strongly believes those things to be better for his children - and,yeah, he 'could be wrong, but so what? - he would be said to be reacting to his coerced and unhappy former way of life (and was possibly evil according to some of the TCS inner circle)?

Well, as to making choices for your children, it's not just that you could be wrong, but also that it isn't your choice to make. Children are people with their own lives. You should decide if you want to watch TV, and if someone says you should, you can decline their advice and not watch. And if your children want to watch, and you advise against it, it's still their call.

Just as TCSers will not rule any parent's life by force, parents should not rule their children's lives by force.

Isn't all this a bit fucked up? Maybe the parent should just go and get a life, take his children seriously the way it makes sense to him, be willing to question himself constantly, be aware of his fallibility, but forget all about the harm done to his home by the less desirable aspects of TCS

I want to point out that your understanding of TCS is fallible, so even if hypothetically TCS was perfect, sometimes your understanding of TCS would be wrong, and you would be right to act contrary to it when you thought you knew better. This is manifest in the way most of what you think TCS is wrong about, I think you've simply misunderstood.

Don't let "I think TCS says X" pressure you into doing X. Maybe it doesn't even.

Sometimes he can't work out which is worse, but maybe it doesn't matter,

Well, I can tell you that how you parent *does* matter to your children. So this stuff is important.

-- Elliot Temple

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)


I know! Since I have hits I should post about parenting. For the good of The Children.

TCS (Taking Children Seriously) is the true parenting theory. Its primary ideas are:

- Fallibility (certain knowledge is impossible; people can be wrong)

- No Authorities (ideas must be judged on their merit, not their source; therefore, children can be right and can't be automatically dismissed)

- Coercion is the state of two or more personality strands being expressed in different options of a single choice so that one cannot see a way to choose without forsaking some part of his personality.

- Coercion is bad for knowledge growth, and quite simply hurts people, including children

- Common Preferences, coercion-free solutions to problems, are always possible

- This means, quite literally, that there is a possible way of parenting in which children do not do anything against their own will

- An important part of getting what one wants is changing what one wants to better desires, including more relisable ones

- Once we realise changing what we want to better wants is good, we no longer need fear always getting what we want as being spoiled or immoral -- as long as we improve our desires sufficiently it would only be good

- What people want is subject to morality, and thus children won't want horrible things, as long as parents offer sufficiently good moral theories

- Good ideas beat out bad ones in argument (and thus if parent's moral theories really are better than their rivals, parent won't lose argument)

- If your ideas are so great, have some faith in them to stand up to criticism!

- Criticism is good. Criticism is a gift. Cherish criticism

- Abandonment Parenting is morally wrong (parents have an obligation to help their children)

- Advice Advice Advice (parents should give children lots of advice, but children should be free to disagree)

- Don't Hurt Children (I can't say this enough)

- And most importantly: send all children to Hebrew School (joking)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

ap and unschooling

lets start with unschooling. is it any good? will it fail to be negligent? front and center on we find:

"I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built upon the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think. Whereas, if the child is left to himself, he will think more and better, if less showily. Let him go and come freely, let him touch real things and combine his impressions for himself, instead of sitting indoors at a little round table, while a sweet-voiced teacher suggests that he build a stone wall with his wooden blocks, or make a rainbow out of strips of coloured paper, or plant straw trees in bead flower-pots. Such teaching fills the mind with artificial associations that must be got rid of, before the child can develop independent ideas out of actual experience." -- Anne Sullivan

leave child to self. add water. mix. instant better child.

but that's not all. being outside causes people to be smarter. so does handcrafts instead of technology. we must oppose anything artificial!

ok next is AP. front and center we find:

“If we are to reach real peace in this world and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with children; and if they will grow up in their natural innocence, we won’t have to struggle; we won’t have to pass fruitless idle resolutions, but we shall go from love to love and peace to peace, until at last all the corners of the world are covered with that peace and love for which consciously or unconsciously the whole world is hungering. -Mahatma Gandhi

So first off children are tools for a political end. Next they are supposed to grow up ignorant -- this must be preserved at all costs. If they grow up ignorant, we won't have to struggle with them, they won't know anything but what we told them, so they'll act just like we always wanted. PS it's all about peace and love! (PPS if you've ever seen Trigun... lol)

But ok that's not quite as damning as the other one. Let's find another. Off to the What is AP? page written by the founders.

Whether you're new to Attachment Parenting (AP) philosophy or not, you've probably experienced that living in our culture can be confusing at best and very difficult at worst. All the popular childrearing books on the market today seem to negate each other--"Don't pick up your baby every time she cries, you'll spoil her"... "Babies can never be spoiled by picking them up" ... or "Babies need to learn to comfort themselves or they'll never learn!" New parents are quickly overwhelmed. The beauty of Attachment Parenting is that it is so simple! AP teaches parents that it's ok to listen to their baby and listen to their own hearts. It's a way of parenting that helps parents see the world through their child's eyes, a world of innocence, a world of unknowns, a world with so much to learn and a world that requires love in order to live. Even when parents feel confident in practicing AP they often have to weather criticism from well-meaning family and friends. Ours is a non-nurturing, no-touch culture against which AP runs counter. The pressure can place a lot of strain on parents. API was born out of these concerns and a desire to support all parents.

so let's see. they hate our culture. they think if we just "listen to our hearts" everything will be ok. now, you're supposed to listen to child too. ... unless you're heart overrides him. hell, even the most abusive parent will listen to child unless he doesn't feel like it. also the main problem with parenting today is failing to hug, "nurture", and love children enough. so do that. also don't stress out. if you're too stressed we have forums where people will say you're doing a good job and mean people are banned. and if you're really stressed, we recommend you just take a break for a while, to nurture yourself. as long as your heart says it's ok.

in conclusion i maintain left-wing parenting sucks. and although right-wing parenting also sucks, i think it's slightly better. mainly because i hate negligence so much.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (10)

Words of Wisdom

Words of Wisdom:

Social people interact breadth first. Anti-social people interact depth first.

Every choice you make excludes choosing otherwise.

Humans live by their creativity, not by devouring limited resources.

People twist their factual views to fit their moral views, not vice versa.

Children are people.

Young people are people.

A Few Consequences:

Anti-social people waste less time.

Trying not to exclude any options is absurd. Trying not to exclude some specific options isn't. "Trying to keep your options open," without the context of refering to some specific options, means keeping the ones that society cares about open. For example "You should go to highschool to keep your options open" means that highschool is helpful on the standard paths through life (it helps get into college and helps you get hired with or without college). Keeping options open in that sense, as a goal, is not a good way to live, because we should seek our own path, not choose between stereotypes ones.

We shouldn't ration our raw materials to last for 50,000 years. Not even for 1,000 years. How long exactly, then? Well, hard to say, but the market knows. The market knows because prices reflect supply.

It's not all that surprising that presenting, say, an anti-semite with a factual history of Israel, is ineffective.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (3)

Apparently Attacking TCS Is Fun

foo commented on this post:

[Elliot] said:

An important part of getting what one wants is changing what one wants to better desires, including more relisable (sic) ones

How could you knowingly tell the difference between changing what you want to better desires, and coercing yourself toward them?

Rational thought? You may think that's a non-answer, but what would you say if I asked you, "How can you knowingly tell the difference between disagreeing with me because you hate me and disagreeing with me because I'm wrong?"

How could you tell the difference between changing what you want to better desires and having been coerced?

Well a good start is checking whether you feel distressed. Or if you feel conflicted. And consider why you changed your view. Again, it's just a matter of rational thought.

You say give advice. Advice is good. Then you say "children SHOULD BE free to disagree."

Does this "should" mean what it normally means? "Should" is coercive, in normal English language.

It means that's the way the world should be. You could swap in "ought to" if you like. It's just a statement about morality -- if children are free to disagree this is a morally good state, and if children are not that is a morally bad state.

1 archaic a : will have to : MUST b : will be able to : CAN 2 a -- used to express a command or exhortation b -- used in laws, regulations, or directives to express what is mandatory

That's coercive? Next you'll be telling me my inability to walk through doors is coercive. And gravity too. And all competitive sports. Just because you can't do anything at all doesn't mean you ought to be coerced; it's irrational to want impossible desires. And it's immoral to desire to do things you should not do. If you want it anyway and end up coerced that was your own wrongdoing at fault, not shoulds in general.

So, you intend to force children to follow their own advice?

No, I was just not going to discourage or punish disagreement.

Or merely have them consider that your advice isn't good? How can they tell the difference, as children, between following your advice to make you happy and following your advice because they want to?

I dunno; how can you tell? (the difference between following my advice to make me happy, or because you want to)

How can they tell the difference between following your advice because it makes them feel safer and doing so because they want to?

How do those even contradict? Someone might want to feel safe.

How can they tell the difference between not following your advice because they should be able not to and being free to not accept your advice?

You're worried people will go against my advice for the sole purpose of exercising their freedom? Why would anyone do that if he was never under my thumb in the first place?

How come coercion is bad for knowledge growth, as a statement, but parents are obligated! to not abandon/help their children?

Erm, the existence of obligations is not coercive. Next you'll be telling me not to make plans to meet someone somewhere. That's an obligation after all.

Aren't you coercing them help/not to abandon their children?

I'm pointing out they should want that, and if they don't they are immoral.

Why is this okay for adults, but not for kids? Is coercion only painful to children?

No, for all people.

Or is it simply that children didn't have a choice about being brought into the world, so it's unfair to force them to do things, but the adult DID have a choice, and in doing so, put themselves into indentured servitude to the child?

Well, yes, bringing a child into this world does give a parent some responsibility. If a potential parent will not want to help his child, he should not have a child.

Common preferences are not always possible. If you are in love with me, so much so that you want to marry me, and I cannot stand you, and never want to see you again, then there is no common preference here for future action.

If I love you so much why don't I want to be accommodating to you?

You can say "but someone will change their mind because they will want to have a "better" desire" but when people are in love, many times they cannot imagine that falling out of love is a better desire. there is no solution to this. No consensus can be reached. Recognizing that sometimes, no consensus can be reached is necessary. Obviously in extreme cases like rape there is no consensus that will be reached, either. Some situations have no solution. To think otherwise is to be utopian.

Common preferences are not possible when I insist on making unreasonable demands of others. As long as I do that, I won't find any. But what if I stopped?

No common preference is reached in a rape because one of the parties is intentionally malicious. That is not the situation when parenting.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (16)


when you buy perishable food, you sometimes won't be in the mood to eat it before it goes bad.

when you serve yourself a plate of food, you will sometimes put too little on the plate and get seconds. so too will you sometimes put on too much and throw the excess out.

when you cook, sometimes you will mess up, and the food will turn out gross.

some food you buy just won't be very good quality (like some fruit that turns out mushy or not sweet)

sometimes you won't read the labels closely enough, and will buy the wrong food by accident

sometimes you will make food for someone else, but because of miscommunication it won't be wanted.

sometimes you will start to cook some food, then change your mind about what you want to eat.

when you buy more than a bite of something new, you may not like it, and would thus throw most of it out.

the error rate on all these things goes down with skill. thus younger people, esp young children, tend to have a higher rate of throwing food out.

this is all to be expected. you shouldn't be upset in the slightest if 10% of the food you buy isn't eaten. more if you are young, or have young children, or have many children.

and none of these things qualify as "wasting" food.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (3)

Some Stuff About Parenting

Parenting as we know it is a horrid thing.

Children are dehumanised - parent knows best. You may say the parent usually does, and that's true, but usually the child doesn't disagree with his parent. In cases of a conflict, when a child is sufficiently confident to contradict his parent, his view must be taken seriously, just like one would listen if a friend thought you were in error.

Many parents consider children like clay to be sculpted into a good adult (read: valid person). This also dehumanises children who are people now. A child has preferences of his own, and these must be taken seriously, not the preferences of some imagined future person.

Parents believe that people can't always have what they want. In practice this is a transparent excuse to deny things to one's child. In principle, it says people are doomed to unhappiness. This is not true. Through a combination of creatively solving problems so people are better able realise their intentions and wants, and creatively analysing and changing their intentions and wants to better, more realisable ones, people can be very successful. There is nothing stopping them; the limiting factor is just their skill (morality).

Parents so often treat their own desires as unquestionable, unalterable truth, and from this point of view declare their children's desires impossible. Examples include the mundane (but still important) like a parent who insists he can't stand even the sound of violence and bans many movies from his home, or a parent who hates messes and insists child meticulously clean his room (why the child should clean the mess the parent hates is unclear). Another example would be a parent who says "I will feel like a failure if you do not graduate college, so you must go." Isn't it obvious this is the parent's problem and the solution is almost certainly for the parent to get over it? (unless child doesn't mind college, in which case parent is lucky and need not address his flaw) Sadly it is not.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Some Stuff About School

Skools are a horrid place. It starts with legitimised grade falsification over discipline issues like attendance and participation, and often over being sufficiently deferential to the teacher. It continues with the implicit assumption that children must be forced to learn that comes out in the constant forced feedback to make sure students are paying attention. This takes forms like graded assignments, quizzes, and participation grades. Worse still is that teachers design tests based on what they consider important, and so one must listen to teacher to pass tests. Tests should be designed by third party certification agencies, and classes should be optional things designed to help people learn the material (only the parts they want to learn, which may or may not be what's on the test - student's decision). Much like SAT prep classes (I imagine - never been to one). Of course, there would be other classes not designed for any sort of certification, with no need for grades. By separating the issues of certification and education, schools would be able to focus on one and thus do it better. And when it became popular opinion that current certification methods hurt people (we all know no one likes tests, but few people seem to care), then new certification companies sporting new methods would spring up to compete with the testing-based ones. And people would flock to them.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (3)

School Is Like Broccoli

Parents have this broccoli stuff they've decided is Good For You, and make you eat it. They don't listen when you say you prefer steak.

Schools have this Educational Method (including homework, tests, textbooks, lectures, etc) they've decided is Good For You, and they have the Right Answers (which are sometimes wrong), which are also Good For You. They make you eat it. And they sure don't offer steak.

PS you can tell textbooks are worse than real books, because when real people (not students) go to a bookstore to buy something, they don't choose a textbook.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Memes I

Some children are *impossible*. Some parents fight with their own children. Some girls are stunningly hot. Some guys are no less attractive, even if less effort has gone into describing it. Some people have midlife crises -- all of a sudden -- when the problem was visible for many years. Others waste their lives on trivialities and never notice. Some people go to great lengths to please others and be socially acceptable. Those same people exert effort to hurt anyone who doesn't do likewise.

These seemingly disparate situations all have a common thread. I now wish to introduce a matter of some consequence. First we will consider the effects, and afterwards I will explain how it happens. So bear with me if at first some notions strain your credulity.

Imagine that all the sins and vices of humanity are not natural, innate, inherent, God-given, or genetic. Consider that they are ideas, passed on through the generations, just like the knowledge to build fire or speak a language. This is not a very popular proposition, because it plants responsibility for the failures of humanity squarely on people and their mistakes. But that is no reason to think it untrue, and it is deeply optimistic because it insists that we are not stuck with our problems forever.

For an idea that isn't naturally reoccurring to survive very long, it must be able to get from older people to younger people. The best known and most effective means of transferring knowledge to the next generation has always been the teachings of a parent to his child. It is rare that any source rivals the influence with a child that his parents have, especially for very young children whose minds are most malleable. So if we consider that sins are ideas, and we further suppose that children do not invent all their sins anew, the most likely source of vice is from their parents.

It may seem a strange concept that parents would teach vices to their most loved ones, who they would do anything to protect. Surely no parent wants to hurt his child, or worse, doom him to a life struggling against vice and immorality. But what happens is not always what is intended to happen. It is well know that everyone has flaws, and that must include parents, no matter how virtuous their desires. Why should not their flaws make them do wrong unto their children?

Here I will ask you to again imagine a fact that seems foreign to the reality you know. We normally think of flaws in simple terms. A person might be a poor judge of romantic partners, or investment opportunities, or quality appliances. A person might have an angry streak and hurt his loved ones, or a cruel streak and hurt acquaintances, or be gullible or miserly or stupid. But where do such characteristics come from, if they are not inherent traits of humanity? They are not well liked like math, and no parent gives lessons to teach his child to be angry. So imagine that a part of the flaw was that the person behaved in such a way that he *did* teach the flaw to his children. Consider what reality would be like if this were true:

The shortcomings of humanity are now comprehensible, explicable phenomena, and we can do something about them. If defects in children are the result of parental behavior, then they can be prevented if parents behave differently. If our neighbors deficiencies are just ideas, we can reason with them. Most importantly, those parts of our own character that we find most distasteful are not outside our power to change. This view, while superficially it seems to cruelly blame people for qualities they'd do anything to give up, in actuality is a message of hope and optimism that we can all change for the better.

To see how it may be plausible that what you have imagined is accurate, let us turn our attention now to a concept that is already well accepted: the meme. A meme is an idea that, in the right circumstances, causes behavior in people so that the meme is copied into other people's minds essentially intact. Earlier we imagined flaws that caused themselves to be copied into the minds of children. If flaws are ideas, memes are a good fit.

Memes function according to the principle of evolution. Evolution simultaneously accounts for how the complexity of memes came to exist and gives us logic to see what sort of memes would come to exist. Complexity comes from competition over many generations. Over time, changes that make a meme more competitive will be favored. It is an easy proposition that improvements that help memes spread effectively would increase complexity. Think of a serious, involved debate like over abortion. Both sides have complex positions, and if you removed most of the complexity from either side it would become unconvincing.

What do memes compete over? Being passed on to younger people. Only a limited (large, but limited) amount of information is passed on. The logic of memes says that only the most competitive ones will survive, so we should expect all memes to have some characteristics to ensure they are passed on to more and more (younger) people (or to be new and on their way out).

How do memes compete? What makes a good one that will survive? It takes knowledge. This can either be knowledge of how to survive directly, or it can be knowledge of reality that people find valuable. This suggests (following David Deutsch) two distinct categories of memes: static and dynamic. The names will make sense shortly. Static memes embody knowledge of how to survive: they have knowledge of how to cause people to spread them. They contain mechanisms to cause human behavior, and function in any environment where people don't know how to resist those mechanisms. Dynamic memes have knowledge about reality, like an explanation of how to fix cars, or a theory of gravity. They function in any environment with people who value good ideas and actively seek them out.

Static and dynamic memes have different methods of ensuring continued survival, and that's where their names come from. Static memes, in essence, work to create a world of stasis. If nothing changes, they live forever. Dynamic memes are so named because they always change. They survive only as long as they remain the best ideas we have, but they are only replaced by better ideas, so the tradition of dynamic memes lives on.

Static memes might sound like a dark fantasy. Ideas that control people and suppress creative thought? However, their logic can and would work if the right ideas existed. So the only issue of their reality is in whether they were ever invented. Designing an idea capable of controlling human behavior and suppressing creativity would be virtually impossible. No one has the necessary knowledge and understanding of human behavior. However, static memes could have begun extremely ineffectively, and evolved to become more effective. At first, one might control human behavior in only a few rare cases, and only be able to suppress a few specific sorts of thoughts. But new variants that were a little more powerful -- that controlled people a little better -- would be selected for. Other qualities that would be selected for include being harder to notice having the meme, being harder (more complex or more painful) to get rid of the meme, and being better at causing people to copy the meme to children.

Returning to our initial queries, the common theme is that static memes offer an explanation of each situation. The child is impossible because his parents are hurting him which makes him irrational which makes him more accepting of static memes that don't make sense. People being attractive makes not enacting the romantic ritual painful and makes choosing mates an irrational process thus ensuring less competent parenting. People waste their lives because they are living statically. And social norms are a method by which static memes suppress new ideas.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (23)

On Banishing Iniquity From Children

School is thought to be a wonderful place, a veritable paradise for those of pure heart. Any child who truly wants to learn will find himself presented with eminently valuable opportunities. The children who do not thrive are losers who rebel against learning and thought. The virtuous children may suffer some at the hands of bullies, but it is a small price to pay for the growth available.

Childhood is thought to be a whirlwind of fun, personal development, and curiosity. Children have so many great activities to participate in, so many chances to bloom and build character, so much help and guidance, and such rich lives. And they have plenty of time to relax and enjoy it because they don't have to work and are free of responsibilities and burdens. It is a great blessing, and life is never the same again after work begins, and especially not after having children. Sometimes lazy children are tempted by sins like excessive television or marathon video game sessions, but as long as their parents do their duty, there is no danger. Being negligent would be a great disservice to those children.

Teachers are thought to be saints, famous for inspiring the best in children. They are kind and motivated. A few are lazy, and that is unfortunate and regrettable, but on balance unimportant. Teachers offer personal advice and help as appropriate, and always have something interesting or important to teach. Any child who has faith and puts his life in their hands will be well served and, when he enters adulthood on his own, will be well prepared to flourish.

The Bible teaches us that to spare the rod is to spoil the child, and promises that everyone will live happily ever after once vice is beaten out of children. Even the non-religious among us see that that is exactly right. Schools never discipline children of good character. But to leave a lazy, uncurious child to his own devices would be utterly irresponsible.

Parents take the Bible's teachings to heart, too. They love their children, and try to help them as much as they can in good conscience. But when their children refuse to listen to reason and persist in immoral actions, they must, for their own good, be saved from themselves and disciplined. Today parents have found new and more humane ways of disciplining children that don't even really hurt, like time outs and letting babies cry themselves to sleep and natural consequences.

The general model is the parent helping the child see the truths (including moral truths) that the parent knows. It is thought that the parent knows best, and that parents should take appropriate steps to make sure child understands. The parent should be as nice as humanly possible, but failing to impart critical moral knowledge, by any means necessary, would be gross negligence. No where does this formula give attention to the possibility of parental error. It is thus a recipe for entrenching mistakes forever.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Feeling Bad

Feeling bad has two distinct meanings. The first meaning we will call "coercion" and the second "inner conflict". Coercion is bad, inner conflict is good. Coercion is when you are hurt, when everything goes wrong. Inner conflict is when you wrestle with moral dilemmas and hard problems. Having conflicting theories is the same as having problems, and problems are not bad. The growth of knowledge can be seen as progress from problems to new and better problems; that's just as accurate a description as progress from solutions to more solutions. Hard problems have two different meanings. Hard problems can be problems that hurt, or just problems that are not simple, take a while to solve, matter, you might never solve. Problems hurt when you are unable to think about them in a rational way that makes progress. This feels frustrating. Not solving a problem does not inherently cause frustration. Having good problems to think about is fun; life would be boring without them. What's bad is when it hurts. We shouldn't shy away from problems for fear of being hurt. Being scared of problems is one of the mechanisms that makes them hurt.

Normally we engage in an intricate process of scheduling our thoughts, and choices, and problems, and criticism, and creativity. We constantly find short term solutions and juggle a variety of pressing issues. This is a good and necessary part of life. Coercion is when we drop the juggling pins and they fall on our head and give us brain damage. Inner conflict is just when there are a lot of pins that stay in the air a long time. There's nothing virtuous or admirable about coercion. But there is no mechanical way to avoid it. Coercion is not predictable and only happens as a result of failures of creativity. It only seems predictable when someone actively tries to hurt us, and has evolved traditions aiding them in hurting us. But in our own intellectual life, as long as we have some sense of what areas we are extraordinarily irrational about, there is little to fear. That doesn't mean coercion won't happen, it just means there is no specific thing to avoid that will help. Coercion is not caused by struggling with the conflicting theories that TV is worthwhile and a waste of time. It's caused by being unable to decide, for no good reason, whether to, as a temporary measure, watch TV today, or not. Coercion is not caused by being told that you should not hit your sister. That's just a good idea. It's caused by your parent trying to stop you from doing something you think is important to do, and you being unable to see why, and your parent not being helpful or comforting, and you believing your parent won't explain to your satisfaction later, and you being unable to see how to not mind, and you being unable to decide to think about it later in 5 seconds or 30 seconds or 5 minutes or 30 minutes or a day or a week, and you not being able to distract yourself and the issue is painful. Coercion is disasters of scheduling where problem solving goes awry and you hurt yourself. Avoiding problems does not help avoid coercion at all. It helps avoid learning. Not learning causes coercion, because it's harder to be happy when you have a bad life.

Not knowing the answer, all by itself, is not scary. Wondering what is right to do, and feeling conflicted, should not be scary. Do your best, and do it in such a way that if you're wrong you'll learn better. What more could anyone ask of you? And do one thing at a time, if that helps. Delay delay delay deciding while you do other things. Few problems need to be solved at the first moment they are thought of. Do them when it's best to. Be optimistic. You can and will make progress. There's nothing to fear. Just keep trying and you will, at the least, learn about what doesn't work. There is no reason this should hurt.

Parents should not be particularly scared of accidentally coercing their children. Innocent mistakes are as likely to cause coercion as random bad luck. That is to say, they will never cause coercion if people are rational about the subject in question. What parents should avoid is intentionally doing things designed to thwart, hurt, or oppose their children. This especially means all forms of disciplining children. If children do bad things, take their side and help them learn better. Anything that is truly good they will want for themselves. True morality doesn't hurt us, it helps us. It is not criticism, or being contradicted, that hurts anyone, so don't fear to do those. Instead focus on solving chronic problems and avoiding acting irrationally without thinking.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (8)

Positive Interpretations

Finding positive interpretations is a critical part of being optimistic. In our relationships with friends and family, positive interpretations are nearly always true because the people close to us don't want to do bad things to us, or at all. Misunderstandings and miscommunication are common occurrences, so it's wise not to jump to negative conclusions just because something seems bad.

Positive interpretations can be self-fulfilling prophecies, just as negative interpretations can be. Suppose someone asks a question, and he could mean a stupid question, or an interesting one. If we answer the interesting one, it may lead him to be interested in that and see the issue in the proper way, even if he didn't already. And we will be saying something more interesting and therefore better. Assuming the person means the stupid question, or even asking if he does, shows we think he is or may be stupid, and encourages him to see himself that way.

Positive interpretations help make life safer. For example, a child in need of advice, and partially confused about a moral issue, will want to be able to ask his parent questions and make mistakes about that issue without his parent deciding he is wicked. Rather, the parent should stick to the positive interpretation that the child is learning, and is not bad, and will be fine, and wants to be good. And most of the things the child says that seem bad won't be. Some will be glossing over an issue while focussing on a different one. Some will be harmless confusion about an unrelated topic. Some the child will be right about. Some, while the content is bad, won't indicate any defect in the child himself who's just curious about a bad thing.

Another issue is that being wrong about positive interpretations is less costly than being wrong about negative interpretations. That is why criminals only go to jail if there is no reasonable doubt: if there is any reasonable positive interpretation of events in which the man is not guilty, the risk of making a tragic mistake is too high. Similarly, to treat someone too well is nothing to be ashamed of, and no great harm will come of it. But to treat someone, especially your friend or child, too badly is a mistake you will regret.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (6)

Binary Choices

A binary choice is a choice with two options. Most binary choices aren't. For example "boxers or briefs?" is presented as having two options, but in fact there are others, such as going commando or wearing long underwear.

There are a lot of binary choices out there, like disciplining your children or spoiling them. Being permissive or harsh. Being left or right wing. Believing certainty, or that we don't know anything. Believing in God, or not. A child sharing his toy, or being selfish. A mother making her child share, or permitting him to act badly.

Each of the above examples isn't really a binary choice. There are all sorts of alternative options. For example one can be neither permissive and negligent, nor harsh in a variety of ways. One way would be to be helpful. This avoids "letting" kids do whatever bad things they want by helping them find out what is good to do. It also avoids being harsh by helping the child to get things he wants instead of thwarting him.

Common preference finding and non-coercion don't function in a world of binary choices. They involve creating new choices just as much as finding ways to like things other than our initial preference. Frequently, none of our initial solutions are good enough, and we need to think of new options.

If your child doesn't like something, do not tell him these are the possibilities, and that's the way it is, and he can have whichever color toy he wants as long as it's red or black. Buy some pink paint. If he doesn't like the options that seem to be available, it's time to brainstorm. Be optimistic.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)

A Few Thoughts About Education

We must bear in mind that the truth is never clear. If it was, no one would ever disagree with us.

We must bear in mind that the more ignorant a person is of a subject, the more receptive he will be to our advice. Every time a person asks a question he has recognised his own ignorance, so it is a commonplace occurrence for a person to know he doesn't know everything.

We must bear in mind that pessimism and defeatism never solve problems, so it is better to be optimistic about whether a person can or will be persuaded of a good idea.

We must not be scared to disagree. People disagree all the time. But this does not make them hurt each other. It is not necessary to force agreement from a child, or worry overly about what he believes. That is his choice.

We should keep a sense of perspective. The worst that could happen is frequently better than the price of intervening.

We must stop thinking of all situations as the parent choosing what will happen. That is the model of a benevolent dictator. And one of the flaws is the enormous pressure and responsibility it puts on the *parent*.



Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)


If your child doesn't want to look for solutions, this does not mean your child doesn't want to solve problems. Really. Your child isn't insane and *would* prefer if things were better. What's going on is that previous time spent "problem solving" was unpleasant and was itself a problem. Perhaps because it seemed boring and fruitless. Or because it involved the child being pressured to make compromises or sacrifices (same thing), or lectured, or asked questions he didn't want to answer. Or maybe "problem solving" previously interrupted other things like video games.

True morality isn't unpleasant or burdensome. Moral knowledge is knowledge of how to make choices. It's a tool that has information about how to get what we want, and what we should want. It's not arbitrary or artificially limiting. If something is a bad idea, true moral knowledge on the subject will include reasons why it's a bad idea and explanations of what will actually work well. And they will be persuasive. If they aren't persuasive, that indicates a *lack of* moral knowledge. If the "moral" alternative proposed doesn't sound nice, that indicates a *lack of* moral knowledge (either the proposal is wrong, or the explanation for it isn't good enough).

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Being Sympathetic To Children

I'm going to tell a short story about what it's like to be young. It's about food, but it could just as well be about homework or cleaning or all sorts of other things. Then I'm going to make some suggestions about how to talk to young people in a sympathetic way by keeping the perspective in the story in mind.

Suppose your parents are constantly pressuring you: you must eat more beef and lettuce, and less lamb and carrots. It's for your health. And will make you skinny. But dammit you like lamb with carrots and you're tired of beef. And lettuce tastes like dirt. You'd get annoyed with them and you'd pick up they have no real arguments/reasons behind their crap. Well, you might pick that up. But it's hard. Parents bluff. A strong willed independent person will pick it up and ignore them. But that's rare, especially in young people. Not that most people are docile. Many will be unsure and conflicted. Many will sometimes ignore parents but sometimes think they might know something or have a point.

Parents would have hard time doing this alone. If TV was constantly explaining how good for you carrots are, it'd never work. Parents are thus known to complain incessantly about influences (ie sources of information that might reveal their bluffs and lies). But on a lot of issues, the TV isn't going to help much. There are other sources of information as well. Teachers, friends, books, magazines, internet

Overall a young person gets a lot of pressure on the side of your parents. Random adults he meets for dinner will make comments in support of the same bluffs his own parents made. His own friends will face similar lies from their parents, and also be unsure. And the strong independent friends will seem reckless and not good role models.

So, what he really really needs is not one more person saying that maybe his parents are right about carrots. It is someone encouraging him to make up his own mind

Conventional wisdom is true sometimes. So let's pretend you agree with the conventional wisdom about a particular issue. It doesn't matter very much which one. You still face the issue of how to communicate this while remaining sympathetic. Even if the parents are correct now and then, that doesn't mean you should be on their side. So what can you say?

Here's my suggestion:

Before you can rightly say the same thing his parents said you need to comment about how much you agree with him that they are nasty bastards and he shouldn't listen to them. They lie. Then say if they are right it's only by pure luck. Then add stuff about how he should make his own choices and only take your advice if you are persuasive. Then add stuff about how this is not a matter of life and death and he can always change his mind later and this whole issue really shouldn't be a very big deal. *Then* say you happen to think carrots are bad, and give real reasons. (Only do this if he has not heard your set of reasons before. If he is familiar with them, do not repeat, just refer to them and ask what he thinks is wrong with those reasons)

One flaw with the above is that you can't actually tell many children that their parents are nasty bastards. They rightly don't want to fight with their parents. So if you say that, they may be alienated from you. So a real statement often has the even harder task of simultaneously distancing from the parents and being sympathetic to them.

So one possible approach is to say (it really really depends on the person, and your relationship with him):

I saw you arguing with your parents about food again yesterday. Your parents mean well, but they care about you so much that they are over-zealous and over-protective. They are biased and it effects their judgment. So as much as they are trying to help, if your wellbeing is involved ... Their advice is probably perfectly safe but not necessarily the most rational. There are sometimes other choices that'd be good too. So you shouldn't feel compelled to do everything they say. You know that already. That's why you want to eat lamb and carrots, and be a chess player not a lawyer. And I agree with you about chess: being a lawyer is definitely not for everyone and you should try doing something you like. But I wanted to let you know that I actually avoid eating carrots myself (but lamb I do eat now and then). I have a book with me if you're curious about my reasons. It is about zen philosophy and explains why we shouldn't eat carrots. So if you want you can read it and make up your own mind. It's not too big a deal either way, but I thought you'd like to know there are serious reasons people don't eat carrots.

So note some of the key elements:

- Agrees with parent's conclusion (no carrots) without endorsing parents
- Shows seriousness of thinking child should make his own choices by endorsing him in a different disagreement with his parents
- Not hateful towards parents but also says they may be wrong
- Not trying to pressure child, only trying to genuinely offer helpful information
- Has reasons for position and offers them to child so he can evaluate them himself

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

If People Like It, It *Must* Be Bad

200 years ago, William Godwin wrote an essay telling parents that they should not restrict which books their children can read. For example, they shouldn't ban their daughters from reading any novels.

Why did parents hate books? Because their kids might get ideas, or be influenced. Kids are gullible, you know? But far too stubborn and resistant to new ideas for parents to control or advise them.

Now that there is an even larger threat than books (TV), parents have given up on keeping kids away from books, and actually encourage it so as to distract them from the TV. Television is a medium capable of expressing text just like a book, but also capable of conveying pictures and sounds, so it's quite a bit more powerful than books. And people like TV better, and want to spend a lot of time using it. When people really like something, that's called addiction, and it must be stopped.

I'm not joking. There's even "email addiction", and it's just like cocaine.

Here's Godwin's book, which is out of copyright and free.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

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)

Justified True Belief Speech

This is my speech about justified, true belief from September 2006 at a TCS seminar in Oxford, England. This copy could use editing, but I wanted to get it back up now. One of my dialogs used to link to it and someone tried to view it.

This is supposed to follow Lulie's speech so pretend that you already know about Popper.

The topic is: the conventional theory says that knowledge is "justified true belief", and we're going to look at some of the consequences that theory has for parenting and some of the ways that Popper's theory is better. His theory, very briefly, says that the way to create knowledge is to evolve it by making conjectures and guesses and then criticizing them and improving them.

So, the first part of "knowledge is justified true belief" is the justification -- if you -- if the parent regards himself as "speaking justification" this leads the child out of the process. The reason is that justification to truly completely justify a theory and prove that it's correct, it'd have to be a very complex and large thing drawing on many fields of knowledge, because if you don't do that then it won't be a full justification. So if you're trying to do this complex task, an inexperienced child isn't going to be able to help and he won't be able to be part of the process, at all. Whereas with Popper's view, or his epistemology, the child *can* play a role because we need to make guesses about what the answer is, and there's no reason a child can't do that, and we need to find problems with the guesses that we have and it's certainly possible that a child can do that as well.

And so, by letting the child be part of the thinking process you're going to get answers that are better for the child, and that involve the child and that better take into account his preferences, and so on.

The next part is "truth". So because of "knowledge as justified true belief" a lot of people think they have true belief, they think they've done it properly. You can't really get away from that unless you say we don't have any knowledge, and that's not a very good position and no one says that. So you get all these parents who think they have the truth and some of the results of thinking you have the truth are that any criticism of your position is a waste of time because it can't be right. So if the child makes any objections to some rule or policy the parent will just ignore them, and just in general anything the child says can be ignored if the parent thinks he has the truth. There's no point in further commentary, there's no point in discussion: any time the child thinks there's a problem with anything the parent has said then that's the child being silly and he should get over it. And if you think you have the truth then what your goal will be is to transfer the truth from you to the child and anything the child does except listen and absorb it, is a waste of time, it's perverse because it's inevitable that he either learns the truth from you or he just doesn't learn it and it's better that he does learn it and there's no point wasting time. There's no reason to do it later, you have it now, he should learn it.

So by thinking you have the truth, you're preventing any sort of error correction, any sort of input from the child, any sort of possible improvement, whereas Popper's epistemology is fallible-ist. It says we don't have the ultimate truth, and we can make improvements and it does matter what the child says and it also matters that the parent continues to think because the parent can come up with improvements as well.

So, a further problem is that because the beginner can't follow complex justification he's asked to take things on faith and authority. The parent says it's true so he should believe it even though he doesn't see why it's true. And that's not real learning, that's just memorizing what you're told, doing what you're told, being obedient. And that's not the sort of person that we even value in our culture. We value people who think for themselves and have their own opinion, so we shouldn't ask children to do differently than that.

Real learning should address the problems the pupil has, and then one of the benefits is the pupil can see: does this idea the parent suggested solve my problem. And if it did, he can see that it has some value, has some use to it. And if it doesn't, he can see that. So there's no need to take things on faith and authority because he can evaluate the results for himself.

A further issue is that if you take everything on faith and authority it's very hard to *change* the ideas you have and make improvements because you don't know why they work and you don't know how to tell if they're working. They're working because your parents said they're working, so if you make a change how are you supposed to tell if it's an improvement? You don't know the logic of what an improvement is and you can't even check if it's actually made things better because better is in terms of what the parent says is better and he just says that his idea is best and that's it, so there's no possible way to make changes and improvements and that's not a good life. It's not a good life for anyone. For the child if things go wrong he can't make them better and he doesn't get to learn about how to think and how to improve his life. So that's no good. But it's also no good for the parent because it puts this huge responsibility on the parent. Now the parent has to do all the improvements in the child's life for the child. The parent has to think of everything for the child. And if the parent ever doesn't notice a problem in the child's life, the child's going to be unhappy. And because the parent's taken on this great burden it's his fault and his responsibility. And that's very harsh and it puts a lot of pressure on parents and it's needless because if the child was part of the process then the parent wouldn't have to take on the whole burden.

So there's a number of common objections to the things that I've been saying so we're going to look at those.

One is: a lot of people think they've seen knowledge transfer from one to another. The teacher said something and then the pupil knew it. So there's a few problems with this. The thing that actually happens is that the pupil makes guesses about what the teacher means and then after he guesses it he has created his own idea and it's not the same idea the teacher had, it's slightly different because there's no way to guess exactly the same thing. And the things that the teacher has said to explain it, the lecture, the lesson, whatever it is, they only have limited precision. The teacher hasn't said every single detail that's in his mind so there's no way that the pupil *could* get the same exact idea into his own head. There's all these little details and things he has to invent for himself.

So one reason this is important is that it means everyone has different and imperfect theories which contradicts the idea of "justified true belief" because it's not the case that everyone has the same theory so if the goal is to have this one specific theory that's true then everyone except one person doesn't have it and if the goal is to have "perfect justification" then they would need to all be the same and they would need to lead to the same conclusion. They can't all be slightly different or they're all not going to be perfect. So the practice doesn't fit with the "justified true belief" thing.

Another objection is: how can a child make criticisms without a full understanding of the topic. Now the first thing to note is that in the "justified true belief" way of looking at things, he can't. However, in real life he often does. So that again shows that that's not the right way of looking at things. Now in Popper's epistemology, knowledge is a fiddly thing that you tinker with. It doesn't have a huge, complex perfect structure. So you can criticize little parts of it and you can tinker with little parts of it and that's fine. Now the child who doesn't have a ________, he might make a criticism that's false, and in fact anyone might do that, a parent might do that as well. But false criticisms aren't a problem, because there's something to learn either way. If it's false, you can learn why it's false. You can find out that you had a misconception and you can correct it and then you're learned something about the situation and you'll have better views in the future. And then if it's not false, of course, you can make an improvement, you've criticized something correctly and then you can adapt it to no longer fall victim to that criticism.

Another objection is: isn't Popper's epistemology excellent for science but not for morality, and that's not correct at all. It applies to any kind of knowledge. The difference for science is that you have experimental tests that can differentiate between rival theories. But there's plenty of other methods for differentiating between rival theories, too. And those are what we use for all types of philosophy, and in fact we often use them for questions that could be settled scientifically because it's easier. For example, if someone said the moon was made out of cheese we could settle that scientifically by trying to eat it and testing whether it tastes like cheese and testing whether the consistency is correct and comparing it to other cheeses we have, however it's a lot easier to just say: why do you think it's made out of cheese? And to examine this theory which doesn't make a lot of sense. You can look at the physics of it: if the moon was made out of cheese, would it hold together, would it orbit in the same pattern that it does? Would it have the same amount of gravity? Would it look the way it does? And how would that cheese have gotten there? We know a lot about how planets got where they are, and asteroids, and moons, but nowhere in there is there a way that cheese can get to those places unless we put it there. So a lot of times it's easier to settle questions without doing any kind of science and just argue with them.

Another example, specifically about morality is: is stealing wrong? So, there's no way to scientifically test that. There's no way to measure wrongness. You can't use a ruler, you can't use a protractor, so it's a question outside the realm of science. However there's still plenty of things we can do. We can do thought experiments, we can think about: is a life that involves a lot of stealing a worthwhile life? Is it enjoyable, does it have good qualities and good merits or not, and we can say why do you think stealing would be right, what would be good about it? And the person can say: "Oh, well if I steal then I'll be rich" and then we could give economic reasons why stealing makes society poorer and prevents progress and prevents research toward immortality. Which, maybe a thief would rather be immortal than stealing something. So there's a wide variety of non-scientific reasons for objecting to stealing other things.

One more objection is: are children really capable of reason? So, suppose that a two month old child wasn't capable of reason. Well, that still wouldn't be very important because by the time the child is expressing opinions then we know that he can do reason because he is able to create those opinions. So this objection can only ever apply to a very brief period at the start of the child's life. And even then, suppose we're not sure if the child is capable of reason yet, then the best thing to do would be to assume that he is and to treat him humanely, and to treat him like he's capable of reason so we don't make a mistake, a tragic mistake. And also because he may remember this later.

So that's all.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


Taking Children Seriously (TCS) is a philosophy of parenting and education. But it's bad to label it. It isn't one set of opinions that you may or may not agree with. It isn't meant to be a particular school of thought or camp. Other parenting labels advocate specific actions and are tied to those actions. Attachment Parenting wants more parent/child touching, co-sleeping, babies in slings, and things like that. It's a set of ideas you might agree with, and might disagree with. Homeschooling is about taking kids out of school. If your kids go to school you aren't a homeschooler, even if it is morally right that your kids go to school -- perhaps because they want to for a good, thought out reason.

TCS isn't about doing a specific thing and if it's right to do something else you must give up on TCS. It's a different sort of thing. TCS is a set of ideas about what *is* right. If we were to change our mind about what was right, we'd also change our mind about what TCS is. That means it can't turn out to be wrong, at least in the long run, because it will change. No valid criticism of TCS can stay true over time because TCS will change so that is no longer a valid criticism of it.

This all sounds a bit unfair. Like TCS is cheating because it wants to win no matter what. And that gets back to the original point: labeling it is misleading. No one thinks it is unfair that our best ideas of parenting should be continually updated. The only thing that's unfair is calling the best ideas TCS, saying we invented it (or that Sarah did), and trying to take credit for "TCS" even as it changes.

But, there really is a distinct set of good ideas about parenting, which are unpopular or unknown in general, and which are advocated by the TCS movement. The present state of those ideas certainly has flaws and will be superseded. But, at present, it is important, and it's hard to refer to otherwise.

Anyway, this is all about terminology, and a bit dull. The important thing is: what *are* the best ideas of parenting and education that we know of? And we might also wonder why they aren't very popular, and what is the history of the presently dominant parenting ideas, and other fun things like that.

First I want to say that some good parenting ideas are popular. I respect the progress that has been made. We take for granted, today, in the USA, that we should buy things that our children want, and help them to learn, and help them to be happy, and help them to become independent. Each of those has some limits placed on it, but still those are great things. Think of what are goals are *not*. We do not spend all our time teaching conformity and obedience (although parents do expect a certain amount of obedience and discipline, and often encourage conformity, sometimes unintentionally). We do not approve of forcing children to work for our benefit (chores being only a minor exception). We do not, generally, decide what our child should (must) be, and his place in life, independent of his wishes, and force it upon him. We do not foist arranged marriages on our children. We don't mutilate female genitalia.

One thing that is helpful to know about these new and (I claim) better parenting ideas is that many are not full descriptions of how to live. And this also relates back to, above, why TCS does not prescribe particular behaviors and link itself to them. TCS is more about suggested policies of behavior, and it is up to you to decide which particular actions are appropriate within the bounds of the general policies which are right. And it also has many criticisms of present day behaviors, often with no particular alternative given. If this sounds a bit unhelpful, don't worry. There is ample advice about how to think such that you come up with great ideas, and there are explanations of why no alternatives to many parenting practices are needed.

Thanks for bearing with me so long. One of the problems is it is difficult to figure out where to start. There is a big picture, but when you talk about it then it sounds a bit like boasting. But if you talk about the fine details it may not be clear why they are important.

So, let's consider punishment, aka "discipline". Parents generally make some rules, set some limits, some boundaries. And they make requests to their children, and expect certain attitudes like politeness and a degree of obedience. Sometimes this is hidden. Parents often will tell a child it is bad to do a certain thing, and that he must do something else. They expect obedience and become very frustrated if child does not comply. It seems to them child is being intentionally wicked and is a trouble maker. It is good to have reasons for parental commands, such as an appeal to morality, but that doesn't make them any less of commands.

There are two major issues here so let's try to separate them. One is the obedience itself. It's the idea of parental authority -- a legitimate right to command the ignorant child. The other issue is what do parents do if their child is disobedient. They discipline or punish him. Sometimes they plead, or try to make him feel guilty, or other unpleasant things. Those things are designed to control the behavior of the child just as much as a punishment is.

So, authority. Why should a parent have authority? Well, maybe because he knows more. Compared to a young child, a parent is an expert at most stuff. There is really a big difference. Another possible justification is that the parent is bigger and stronger -- he can use force. This is not a good reason, but it's worth mentioning and rejecting because the idea comes up sometimes. Consider a time out. The justification might be that the parent is smarter, wiser, and therefore correct and the child needs to learn to do the thing the parent knows is right. But whatever we might think of that, the form a time out takes is forcing a child to sit in his room or in the corner. So the form of the authority -- force -- does not match the claimed justification very well. If the thing that sets parent and child apart is intelligence then why is the parent using force instead of his mind? Why doesn't he best the disobedience child with rhetoric? With criticism of child's actions? With powerful, undeniable good reasons? People will say it is because the child does not listen. But first, punishing child is a very poor way to make them listen. It turns them against you because it hurts them, which is its purpose. And second, children do listen sometimes, especially when they think you're being helpful. If you're so much smarter and wiser, and especially if you have great knowledge of the issue child is being punished regarding, then that is all the more reason you should be able to talk so child will want to listen, because you have such good things to say.

Authority is never a valid way to argue, you know. Just because I have this fancy blog doesn't make me right. People with college degrees make mistakes. Kings too. Priests too. Experts of all sorts are wrong sometimes. We all know this. If you say you're right because you have authority, so listen to me, you're just being a jerk. You can't say that to people. What you need to do is give a reason you are right -- and one the other person can understand. If you can't give one they can understand -- maybe you say it's too complicated -- then why would they listen to you? A real expert would be so good at his field he could give a summary. It might be missing a lot of details, but it's something.

This is important stuff. If your car mechanic says "I'm a mechanic and I know best" you wouldn't trust him. You don't to find a better mechanic who will treat you like a thinking person and explain his recommendation, and then let you make the final decision if you want the expensive stuff he suggests.

If your college professor makes a claim about a philosopher that you don't agree with, and he says he's right because he's the professor, that's a bad teacher. You shouldn't listen to him. Do your own research and make up your own mind. A good professor with a good point would convince you he was right.

There's one exception. Parents don't have to give reasons. "Because I said so." is an approved sentence. It was even featured in marketing by Apple Computer, which demonstrates that it doesn't offend a significant amount of people. There's a movie by the name now, too.
Because You Said So
More flexible parental controls in Leopard mean you can place restrictions on use of the Internet. You can, say, specify a time of day and duration for your child to play World of Warcraft.
This isn't just rejoicing in taking choices away from children and putting them in the hands of their parents. It isn't just about having power over your child's life. It's also about *not having a reason*. You don't have to give reasons, you just set it up and that's it. You said that's how it will be, so that's how it will be.

That's authority. It's bad. What we should aim for is a life governed by reason. Part of living according to reason -- according to thinking about what is best and why and trying to find the truth of things -- is having reasons for things! And discussing them. If someone disagrees, even a child, you can't just assume you are right. You need to hear their reason and think about it. Maybe it's valid. Maybe not. If you can say why it's wrong that's fine. But then you've given a reason. And if you can't, that doesn't mean you're wrong, but you shouldn't be certain who's right if you can't say what's wrong with the alternative.

Children know a lot less. That doesn't mean they are always wrong though. The times they speak up about something are usually the times they know the most about something! It's not what they know on average that's important but what they know about the specific thing at issue. Say the issue is when they play World of Warcraft. That's actually something they would know a lot about. They know their own schedule pretty well. They know how tired they are and whether they want to go to sleep yet. A parent can have a different opinion about one of these things -- and be right -- but it's no where near guaranteed. If you just block all World of Warcraft after 10pm that's not a very good policy. It's going to make a mistake. One saturday night child is going to be playing with a group of 39 other people completing a major quest and he'll be wide awake, and he'll have no important things to do the next morning, and he'll want to play longer and not abandon those real live people he's playing with. And then the apple software is going to kick him off the internet whether it's right or wrong, and it's not going to give any reason.

Sometimes children think they know enough to have an opinion when they really don't. But that's not so hard to deal with. If you help them figure out how to tell if they know enough -- and how to learn enough -- to have good opinions that is genuinely useful advice and there's every reason they will want to know that and listen (unless they think it's a mean trick to control them more, of course). But besides that, the argument can still proceed rationally even if they are mistaken about how much they know. It's really not a problem. If they don't know enough just ask them some questions about their position and they won't have the answers because they don't know. Problem solved. They'll see their ignorance when they can't answer.

A lot of times children don't want to do as they are told because they think they won't like it. That, again, is absolutely no time for a parent to put his foot down or rely on authority. If child thinks he won't like something out of ignorance just tell him a little about it focussing on the fun and enjoyable parts.

You might think all this explaining things to children is a waste of time. Well, not a total waste because it's educational. But how important is it, really? What if you're tired and don't feel like it right now? If you know you're right, what does it matter if you don't give your child a lesson about the reasons every time?

The answer in very short is that you might be mistaken. Don't take it personally. Everyone is mistaken sometimes. But it's more than that. The process of giving reasons is actually a part of how we can avoid mistakes. The more you know, and the more right you are, the easier it is to give reasons. But the less you know, and if you are wrong, then it's much harder to give reasons or arguments or to persuade anyone. So the times when you most feel like giving reasons is too much trouble are actually hints that those are the times you are most likely to be wrong or at least not to have thought it out carefully.

So part of the concept of authority is obedience. That's what the child is supposed to do. The authority gives a command, and the child obeys. Obedience is kinda mindless. It's not about considering if the command is a good idea. It's just about doing it. That's not a good habit to be in. It won't serve you well in life. And even if it would, is that really the kind of life you want for your children? We rightly value lives of thinking and reason where we make a lot of our own decisions and we can pursue happiness according to our own values. The idea with children is they can do that when they are older. But isn't it strange to live one way and then suddenly change later? If thinking is so great why not start young? Very talented people usually do. It's kind of well known that young kids sometimes learn really fast. Other times people say young kids don't have fully developed brains. But that's a load of crap. English is very complex and they figured that out.

Thinking isn't important just to get in the habit. You learn more when you think things out. And that dispels ignorance. And ignorance is the justification for authority over kids in the first place. By expecting obedience you take away opportunities for them to grow up, essentially. Even making mistakes is important to people's learning process. Most mistakes have no serious lasting harm so don't worry about it so much. Say child stays up late *and it was a mistake*. Who cares? Next time it will be even easier to persuade him to go to bed -- if he doesn't want that on his own! -- because of the bad experience. Being able to try out your own ideas is important. Discussion is great but sometimes people find this or that thing hard to understand just from words and it'd help to experience it.

Obedience also is about not questioning or criticizing authority. But questions are a great thing. They help people to learn and understand better. People don't ask enough questions. And criticism is good too. It's a chance for you to learn your mistake. Or if you think the criticism is wrong it's a chance for you to point out a mistake in the criticism and then the criticizer can learn. In general, criticism helps find good ideas because they stand up to it best. And it helps get rid of bad ones because they can't stand up to it very well. With no criticism you can't really tell the difference between good and bad ideas because you aren't looking to see what's wrong with any of the ideas.

As a reminder, the other major issue we were keeping separate earlier was about what you do to a disobedient child -- how you exercise and enforce your authority. I'm stopping here. I might write about that tomorrow.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


Should my posts ever seem to contradict each other you have two choices: believe the most recent post, or think about it yourself. You can apply the same options when I seem to be mistaken, if you like. The most recent post then would refer to the one you are reading and think is dumb, since it's the only one in the relevant set.

TCS does have some constant points, which I alluded to in saying there is a present day group of people who are identifiably "TCS". Should they give up the constant points, they'd probably think they should give up the name too.

But the constant points are not, as I also mentioned, the sort of things you'd expect. There are no prescribed behaviors. Common debates on the TCS email list include the merits of TV, ice cream, no bed times, and home schooling. But if we turn out to be wrong and TV really is harmful that won't make TCS wrong. The TV thing is just our best ideas about TV, not a necessary part of TCS.

The more constant things are much more abstract. TCS says that morality is a type of knowledge and that the same laws of epistemology (study of knowledge) which apply to knowledge in general also apply to moral knowledge. It is also committed to parenting according to rational principles and not, say, parochial ageism -- this is part of a general commitment to *living* rationally. TCS is also generally committed to the idea that the laws of epistemology are Popperian (roughly: evolutionary).

None of these things are especially about children or parenting. But TCS is about how they apply to parenting. When we apply them we reach conclusions like TV being good. We might have applied them wrong. Maybe they are true and TV is bad. That'd be our mistake but not any fault of TCS's core ideas.

I'd like here to say something like, "so, for example, if X was true, then TCS could be essentially given up on. the world would not be the way we think it is. it'd be like y." but the problem is there are no rival theories to Popperian epistemology which make even the slightest bit of sense. I don't mean to express any sort of certainty that Popperian epistemology is correct. it's just there aren't any respectable rivals today. i think we're lucky to have one sensible theory -- 100 years ago we had zero (well we had the beginnings).

let's talk about disobedient children now and ways of exercising authority.

hitting people is good for obedience. it has its flaws -- they might disobey when they think you won't find out. but essentially it is effective. people don't like being hit. they will go to a lot of trouble to avoid it.

the standard theme in parenting advice, historically, has been if you hit your kids early they become obedient quickly and you don't have to hit them very many times.

recently hitting has been confined largely to spanking. people say two different things about spanking. one is that it helps improve obedience, even if you only do it once or twice. well they usually don't put it quite like that. they might say it improves behavior. but they are judging the improved behavior in terms of which behaviors the parent finds pleasing. so that means good behavior consists of obedience to the parents wishes. the second thing they say is spanking your kid just a few times isn't cruel. if he's very young he will hardly remember later. it's just a very temporary pain. no big deal. but the behavioral improvements will be lasting.

this is kind of contradictory. how can the behavior improvements last if the fear does not?

i think what happens is the fear becomes less explicit. child isn't thinking to himself all the time "if i better do X or i'll get spanked". he doesn't verbally complain about spankings. but he is in the habit of obedience and has vague fears of doing otherwise. of course parents do many things to encourage this. vague threats are very common. "you better not do X". why not? what, exactly, will parent do if you disobey? almost all parental commands are backed up, implicitly, by some threat of force, but it's vague what it will be, and it frequently does not come to that.

other force parents use is time outs. these are supposed to be more humane than hitting children. as i understand it they originated as a "time out from love and affection" essentially. they are absolutely a tool for controlling and manipulating children. if you notice your kid really values your kindness, affection, warmness, etc, then you just take it away when he doesn't do what you want. sigh.

now let's stop and think a moment. these sorts of use of force are common expressions of authority. we sort of take for granted they actually have something to do with authority. but do they? parents aren't able to hit their kids due to parental wisdom. it's b/c the parent is bigger. how is the authority of a parent's intelligence being shown or used in any sort of punishment of discipline?

maybe a parent could claim that he uses his great wisdom to decide which punishments will be good. ok but good for what? the options are:

- obedience
- education
- other types of good things in the child's life such as not being arrested or killed

as i mentioned punishments are pretty good for causing obedience. but that's bad! obedience isn't a rational way of life. it presupposes the parent is right. it doesn't allow for making mistakes and learning from them. it doesn't allow for discussion, questioning, and criticism.

how does obedience function, really? well say parent wants child to eat more carrots, and child thinks they taste bad. well, then child has to eat them. never do they communicate about how important the reason to eat carrots is and compare that to how important the dislike of carrot flavor is. how can the parent know he's right without such a comparison? he doesn't know how they taste to the child -- he doesn't know what it's like to eat them. the only way to really figure out what's best is to communicate about the issues so one person can understand the points on both sides and compare. i'm not saying if you do that you are guaranteed to find a good answer, i'm just saying if you don't do that you can't possibly find a good answer except by pure dumb luck.

what about education? are punishments educational? parents often say, "go sit over there and *think about what you did*".

well the first thing to consider is if punishments are educational *in general* then shouldn't we use them with adults too? you and I should wish to be punished in educational ways. stop reading this and go have a time out. pretty silly concept, isn't it? adults don't learn by being ordered about and made to suffer. they learn from good explanations and from choosing to reflect on things. also from practice and such.

so if punishments are obviously no educational with adults why should they educate children? what on earth is it that not only makes suffering educational but makes it only educational for young, small, weak people who just happen to have parents who want obedience?

while there may be a good answer to that, it certainly isn't a well known part of modern thought. if we don't have the answer *already* then all that punishing of children can't possibly be justified by a rational expectation of it being educational.

as far as keeping the child from dying and such, that is essentially an attempted justification for making children obedient. then you can order them not to drink sweet sweet draino and they will obey. if we are going to claim making children obedient is good then fine, but let's be clear about what we are doing.

obedient children is not the best way to keep them safe. as i mentioned earlier, they won't obey when they think they won't be caught. and they won't obey any more when they grow up. the only thing, ultimately, that can keep people safe is knowledge of dangers. and the best way to have a child with a lot of knowledge is absolutely not to expect obedience. it is to have an attitude of being open to discussion and debate. people learn far more when they can discuss the merits of things and ask for your reasons and have their own reasons taken seriously and be given criticism of them.

it may be hard to recognize, in modern society, the sort of obedience that is expected of children and is common. many old types are fading. chores are only a remnant of what they once were. fathers no longer choose the husband of their daughter and take it for granted that she will go along with it (and will also obey her husband once married. sigh. stupid past.)

what do parents want today? well they say things like they want a good kid. they probably want good grades, or at least respectable. they probably want to keep him safe, which means to them things like having a curfew and not letting him be friends with bad influences who might do drugs or get drunk or something. some want polite, "respectful" children. parents want their children's love. most want to be called "mom" or something else which is not their first name. most want their child to go to school. and they want him to succeed in a career and "be happy".

all of this sounds sort of pleasant when you say it like this. they are trying to look out for their kids, and help them, aren't they? well, each of these things is a potential for disagreement, and a potential place a parent might want obedience without having to defend his view in debate (which, perhaps, he cannot do).

a good kid -- good natured, fun loving, happy, well rounded, and many more positive traits -- means a child who agrees with certain values. when a child is not "good" there are two possibilities. one is that he's making mistakes while trying to do it. but in that case obedience is useless b/c even if you order him to be good what difference will it make? he's already trying and just doesn't know how. the other possibility is there is something about being "good" that he doesn't like or want, so he's avoiding it on purpose. why would that be? well the conception of a "good" kid people have is very complex and detailed -- there's a lot there. plenty of room for differences of opinion. especially if there are no open discussions to clear up misunderstandings and give reasons which is how you can rationally reduce differences of opinion by coming to agree. so if there is a difference of opinion child might seem "bad" in parents eyes -- he keeps not doing as expected and as parent thinks is best. parent might be frustrated and then think his child isn't listening and then want obedience (he might not even think of it as obedience, but you can see how he could unconsciously want something like that).

what about grades? well we all know a lot of people don't like school and find it unpleasant and aren't learning much. also a lot of teachers aren't very good, and sometimes are arbitrary, capricious, and unfair. getting good grades in every class might not be best. especially if child isn't very interested in what that class is teaching. so again we find room for a parent to want obedience, and to think to himself he's just helping his child, when really he might be fighting to make his child do something which isn't best. the rational thing isn't to assume of the child is right, of course, it is to seek the truth of who is right. and that has to be done without any use of authority. if you're such an expert just say and think wise things and you'll both find the truth faster, whatever it is.

what about keeping kid "safe"? well basic things tend to be easy to agree on. people rarely fight over whether it's ok to tie yourself to a stake and light a bonfire. common issues are more like curfews where it is not at all obvious to child that there is any serious danger of anything more than fun. or maybe "danger" of alcohol -- but to child that isn't a danger b/c no one will force him to drink he will only drink if he chooses to. (yes i know child may be pressured to drink but it is ultimately his decision and he also chose to have those friends b/c he thinks it is best). whether there are safety concerns or not there is easily room for a parent to want obedience here after he finds it hard to persuade his child.

being polite is a specific case of the issue of being conventional. most people are conventional, and don't see how life could be otherwise, and condemn other ways of life. children who haven't had a given convention entrenched in their mind often won't want to obey it. this causes disputes with parents. conventions tend to be short on good reasons, so parents are very tempted to want obedience even if they can't give good reasons.

i may be wrong about politeness. maybe it has more merit than i see. and certainly i don't advocate complete rudeness. i just think a fair amount of politeness is unnecessary waste of time and energy. but anyway the point isn't really whether i'm right or wrong about any particular convention, nor whether it's good or bad. the point is the logic of the situation tempts parents to desire obedience. and the rational thing to do capable of discovering the truth of what is right is not obedience. obedience never ever finds the truth. how could it?

ok enough examples you get the idea. there are lots of temptations for obedience today. so any sort of punishments don't find the truth, and don't seem to be educational with adults. and how could they be educational? sitting in the corner is rather different than reading a math book. while sitting there you might think of a good idea. but the corner isn't going to tell you one. when you are hit again the hitting doesn't tell you any good ideas. it just pressures you to come up with ideas about how to please the people hitting you so they stop -- obedience.

another type of punishment is various types of "consequences". if you get up late you have to walk to school. if you stay up too late playing video games you can't watch TV for a week. if you lie to your parent you can't see your friends for a month.

sometimes they are "natural" consequences which are supposed to be justified by being natural parts of the action, but which in fact can easily be avoided by parenting choosing to avoid them.

these consequences are sort of manipulative. you get child to relate waking up late and having to walk, for example. but those don't really have anything to do with each other. it's a very weird life where these arbitrary things are tied together.

and they are clearly punishments. they are things the child doesn't want, and which the parent just does to him to make him suffer and to make him obedient. how do we know it's for obedience? well parent wants thing 1 so he threatens thing 2. these consequences are never about convincing. they aren't reasons thing 1 is best. they are just threats of the nasty stuff parent will do if child doesn't do what parent wants done.

and they are clearly not educational. say waking up early has merit but child doesn't see this. how is threatening him with walking around going to show him the merit? it isn't an explanation of the merit.

we could claim that child might learn the merits himself by trying it, and the point is just to get him to try it. in fact that must happen sometimes. but is threats the best way to get child to try something? won't he learn more easily if he's going into it with an open mind trying to learn?

of course if child would try it just because he was asked that would probably happen. so issue number one is parent either can't give any reasons it's probably worth trying or he just doesn't want to bother b/c he's used to obedience and finds that easier (it means he has to think less). that's no way to find the truth. maybe the reasons are hard to give because there aren't any. and issue number two is if child doesn't want to try it that is because child sees benefits to something else. if you threaten him and make him obey you are taking away those benefits that he believes the alternative has. you are depriving him of the good things he believes his preferred lifestyle has. and how do you know you are right to do that? the only way to get a good sense is to have an open discussion and communicate the merits of each approach and compare to see which is better. if you try to do that you still might not agree -- which is evidence that either it's hard to see the answer (so you shouldn't be so sure of yourself) or someone is being irrational (which could be you, so again don't be so sure of yourself. i know you're saying it's not you. but imagine if you did have an irrational idea in you. you'd probably still say you didn't, right? because they usually make you blind to their presence.) the bottom line is anything that doesn't communicate the rival ideas and compare them -- such as threats of consequences -- can't possibly be a good way of seeking and finding the truth of the matter of what is best. and if you aren't striving to find what's best, aren't you in a really poor position to be demanding obedience?

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


TCS says that you should live morally, and you should live rationally, and these are essentially the same thing. Actually, I don't know how clearly that message is said. But who cares? *I* say that. And *you* should evaluate whether it's correct or not. You shouldn't obey TCS, like one follows the tenants of a religion. (You shouldn't *obey* a religion either.)

A lot of people would say it's obvious we should do what's right, and that they, and most people, already try. Partly they are correct, and that's why our society is much better than during the Dark Ages. But if we consider the basic steps required to do what is right we will soon discover they aren't all so common and popular. To do what's right you must have knowledge of what is right. To get that you must seek the truth. To do that you must be open to new ideas, and to criticism of your present ones, and you must be able to have *critical discussions*. You don't absolutely necessarily have to discuss with other people. You could read books at home. But if you do you have to simulate critical discussions in your head: you need to argue both sides of points that come up. If you only argue in favor of your own side, the book isn't going to respond very well. So either you need a lot of intellectual integrity to criticize your own ideas, or you need to enjoy to have other people do that for you. Or better, both.

A lot of people have somewhat different goals. Some want their present idea to be true. Some want to be happy. Some want all their conversations to be polite which includes hiding disagreement and therefore criticism.

If you want to be happy that can be fine. In fact it's very good if it means the right thing. If you have a choice between happy and unhappy, go happy. If you have a chance to seek happiness, or not, then seek it. etc. But if you have a choice between an option that appears to be best for happiness, and another that appears to be better for learning the truth of the matter, you must choose the truth, and many would not.

If you chose happiness over truth you get neither. You may well fool yourself and think you are happy. But that's no life worth living. If we wish to be fooled we may as well do it right: use hard drugs. And in the future use Virtual Reality technology to fool ourselves into believing we have the life we want. The only way to get a good sort of happiness is to know the truth, and to then be able to make an informed judgment about which lifestyles are good, and to enjoy and be happy about having a good one. Knowing more is no guarantee of happiness, but not knowing guarantees you have no way to make good choices so it doesn't even give you a chance.

Ever heard of "constructive criticism"? Of course you have. People all the time say they only want constructive criticism. Partly they have a point. Some criticism is of the form, "that sucks" which is pretty useless. Though I must say I don't see how one can really mind "that sucks" from a stranger -- what on earth do you have to feel bad about? He hasn't bested you in any sort of argument. He hasn't given a reason your work sucks, and therefore hasn't given you any reason to think it sucks. You should just disregard his unsupported assertion. But anyway many people don't want to hear such insults. I'd rather have a truer sense of what sort of people exist and how they react to my work.

But does wanting constructive criticism only rule out unsupported criticism? Not at all. It also rules out anything very harsh -- even if that is the most accurate and reliable way to communicate an important critical idea. It also indicates the author is fragile and that a long list of criticism will not be appreciated no matter how high quality every listed point is. It also means that if the work in question is in fact bad, and should be abandoned, the author doesn't want to learn that truth. The author only wants "constructive" criticism, ie focussed on how to improve it and not focussed only on pointing out flaws, no matter how important they are. Any reader who notices a flaw but doesn't want to take the time to provide the extra help of also finding a way to fix the flaw isn't able to offer "constructive criticism" and therefore must offer no help at all.

Constructive criticism is about hiding from the truth. Not fully hiding. Just partially. But that's what it does.

Why do people do it? One reason is that they take criticism personally. That's very bad. How are you going to find the truth if you are attached to certain ideas, true or not? We should let our ideas die in our place, not attach ourselves to them and die with them. Bad ideas must die. Our ideas might be bad. How should we know they aren't? People make mistakes all the time. If valid criticism comes then the idea is flawed. It must be changed or possibly given up entirely. That is best. We should be pleased. We were going down a dead end by mistake and now we know better and can avoid that fate. We have at least a chance of pursuing something good and being happy now, because we know more.

Taking things personally and being attached to debatable ideas obscures the truth. It makes it harder to understand the "opposing" side (they should not be seen as the opposing side. it's just a different side and you should dispassionately consider if it has a point). getting offended by things which say the idea you are attached to is wrong helps nothing. it doesn't make it easier to figure out objectively which idea is true.

So suppose you like what I say and agree with it in theory. What is needed to actually apply it in your life? Because it's common that people agree with philosophical ideas then thoroughly fail to actually follow through on them. So what are the important things to keep in mind for actually being able to objectively find the truth?

The first and perhaps most important thing to keep in mind is that there is far more to learn about the philosophy than I've said here. Even if you know more than me, you could understand all these things better. Learning more makes applying it easier and more effective.

Next, there is a sort of self-awareness that is very important. Many people assume that they understand themselves and know why they do things and that they choose to do all the things they do. This is very false. Many things people say about why they did actions are guesses, often very bad and thoughtless guesses. And often the reason for that is they did not have a reason when they did it -- they didn't think about it and choose what seemed best to do -- so there is no good answer to why they did it. But that's hard to admit. And hard to notice in the first place. I think it's worth mentioning this is partly caused by static memes, and those are very good at hiding themselves and being hard to criticize, and also causing emotional distress in those who do criticize them. But it's not just memes. Remembering things at all is guesswork. And finding the truth, including the truth about our own personalities, is hard, and requires being open to criticism and not being attached to particular ideas and not taking things personally and so on. People find that hard with their own personality above all!

So, self-awareness. If we pay close attention to how we live, how we feel, how we think, then we will be able to spot problems and to try to change them. We can notice we are sometimes thoughtless, which among other things means not carefully considering what's best and not carefully considering what is the truth of the matter, and if we get good at self-awareness we can notice *in real time* and then intervene and do something different.

Some people would find that scary. Notice their flaws? Then they have to admit to having them. Change personalities? Then they have to admit to being messed up so much they need to change. Really that's a harsh way to put it. No one is perfect. Imperfect people should change so they can get better. But people often think of it the harsh way. Regardless, noticing our flaws is the only road to getting rid of them. Knowing the truth is the only way we can move on to better things. While we might seem and feel happy in our ignorance we must remember those flaws are making our lives worse. All sorts of things we care deeply about are not working out as well as they could. Flaws make us less wealthy. They make it harder to get promoted. They make us hurt our children, and fight with our loved ones. They make us less able to help loved ones and friends in need who we want to help. They can make us less successful at everything we do. Now I'm not saying every flaw does all these things to a huge degree. But flaws do things like this. And how do you know what the bad effects are if you won't look honestly to see what your flaws are?

This thing about perfect and imperfect people brings up an interesting point. If we are imperfect do we really need to change? We might just have the tiniest little flaw. I would say every little bit counts. Being the best we can be means caring about even small improvements. But also the smaller the flaw the easier it is to change, so that's no reason to "not bother" or something. When people are scared of facing flaws they aren't thinking of tiny imperfections -- those aren't scary. It's big things that are definitely having a significant effect on their life.

What else can we do to get better at seeking truth? One important thing is asking questions a lot. People often think they understand things when they don't. People also often pretend to understand things to avoid looking ignorant. A friend told me that in Mexico if you ask for directions people will make them up if they don't know just to pretend they aren't ignorant. How can you tell if you understand well? Try to apply the idea to other issues. Or try to explain it to someone else. You don't need an actual person you can just imagine explaining it. And imagine this person asks questions about it. Can you answer them all? If so, fine. But if it's even a little blurry in your mind then you could understand better. You should be asking those questions so you know more about it. Really the only thing that *should* be embarrassing is *not* asking questions: that is just dumb. You have this opportunity to learn something, which you should be proud to do, it's part of a good and admirable lifestyle to try to learn all the time. And instead some would waste it on a different lifestyle: pretending they have nothing to learn.

Question asking isn't just a matter of being willing to ask. It's also sometimes a matter of seeking out people to ask. If you want to know something you can find someone to ask. And of course you can also find books to read, google it, and so on, and that's important too.

It's also a matter of skill. Often people aren't totally clear on a concept but also can't think of a question. They aren't sure what it is they don't understand well. But with enough skill we can quickly create lots of questions. Unfortunately it's hard to explain how to do that. You might try reading my series of dialogs starting with How To Ask Questions which attempts to provide a good example: Caeli asks a lot of questions.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


Parenting is important because it's the biggest factor for what knowledge is transmitted to the next generation. We all know this (though few keep it at actively in their thoughts). But we don't all know what to make of it.

Some people take the importance of parenting as justification for parents to have extreme powers to make absolutely sure nothing goes wrong. This is not a freedom-loving attitude. If power over other people is bad in general, then when things are important is the *worst* time to rely on such power. The higher the stakes, the more critical it is to do things properly! The same issues come up in politics. People say courts and police are too important to leave to the market. (Why don't they say this about groceries?) That only makes sense if the government is better at doing them. If the market is better then we should be saying it's too important to keep letting government do it.

What information transfer to the next generation means to me is that this is where improvements need to happen. For an improvement to be lasting it needs to be appealing to young people. If we raise kids to know exactly what we know, and be just like us, then progress comes to a halt. That isn't what we actually do. But it may be something we do for certain issues. Children are especially supposed to adopt the religion, morality, and values of their parents, but then are given scope to, for example, believe newer scientific ideas. So scientific progress continues, but religious progress barely exists.

It seems plain to me that we should absolutely want our children to question all our ideas and not accept anything uncritically. While that is a good attitude for everyone to have in general, it is most critical for children to have that attitude towards their parents. Children have a fresh perspective. They aren't yet set in their ways. Their life doesn't revolve around any opinions they have -- changing them is still easy. Contrast with a politician or a scientist or a preacher -- if they change their mind it's a big deal. Changing your mind about your spouse is hard. Changing your mind about your hobbies, even, is hard -- you might have a decade of experience with a present hobby, and many friends who share it.

If we have mistaken ideas that we do not improve that is unfortunate. But if our children have the same ones that is much worse. The idea sticks around a lot longer. And if their children are its victim as well, and their children after them, and so on, that is just what we really don't want. So how do you avoid that? Well what absolutely will not work at all is if parents decide which ideas their children should believe according to which they think are good. Then any bad idea they have which they don't realize is bad will be passed on. And we all know we are often blind to our own flaws. Memes can evolve to make their holders blind to them. If children make their own decisions that does not guarantee a better result. It could even turn out worse. But it gives a chance of getting away from bad ideas that make their holders blind to the badness. It also respects human dignity to prefer people choose their own ideas.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


Parenting one child (well) is a very large project. Deciding to do it is a big deal. It creates lots of obligations towards the child. And they are very time-sensitive -- child needs help now, not later. They are hard to reschedule.

Lots of questions and hypotheticals about parenting involve two children (or more). Many of them try to prove painless parenting is impossible by putting forward difficult situations and claiming there is no solution. Fundamentally, these issues are not very interesting. Two kids? Well of course it's easy to craft very difficult situations out of that. You've taken on two, separate, very large, very time sensitive projects, with unpredictable and hard to change schedules. Of course that's probably not going to work very well. Just like one kid + one arctic expedition. Or one arctic expedition + one space expedition (simultaneously). Or trying to raise your young kid attentively while President.

Many people would say, "But I want 2 (or more) children, and I don't want to have the second one when I'm 50." I agree that with present lifespans having multiple children while avoiding overlap is not much of an answer (occasionally people have more kids after their first one or set grow up. it can work. but it isn't like some great idea to recommend to everyone). Also, by the way, there always must be a little overlap unless the first child dies. But when child is mostly independent then it is no longer problematic: you have plenty of time, attention, etc, for a new large project.

Note also that any problems which result from choosing 2+ children were in no way fundamentally inevitable dilemmas! They were avoidable. You chose to face them. And, if they are seriously troubling you, then you chose to face them without being adequately prepared, which again is not at all inevitable. And note also that many common examples of potential problems with 2+ kids, such as them fighting ... well they are common! They are well known! If you have a second kid without thinking about how to solve known difficulties in advance, and being satisfied that it will work out OK, then that is gross negligence. And if you do think you can solve them, but turn out to be mistaken, then you were mistaken, so again there was no inevitability here, just human error.

So, what *is* my answer? It is: wanting 2+ children does not address the issue of what should be wanted, which is what I'd like to know about, and consider most important. Should we want that? If we are prepared to deal with the problems it entails, then it's fine, if we are not, then we should not. This is a very liberal rule. It allows for a wide range of personal taste. It only says that if we aren't prepared to handle it, then we shouldn't want it. Otherwise, it's up to you. Judge based on your values, and I have no particular advice (Well, I guess I do think people should in general move away from large families, and towards paying more attention to less children. In fact that is a trend: more developed nations have less kids per family.)

One kid is a massive responsibility. People wildly underestimate it. Kids take time and money. People know that much, although they actually take more time than is thought if you want to parent really well (and if you don't want that, please don't have kids). They also take more money than people expect, if that money is available. And being budgeted for beer and cigarettes counts as available.

Kids are born in ignorance. Not like your stupid friend. This is serious ignorance like you can't imagine. I can't imagine it either. To properly imagine it we'd need to realize that most of our ways of looking at the world don't exist in such an ignorant person, so they give us inaccurate views. The more we think about it and create knowledge and understanding of what it means to be so ignorant, the more we are *not* seeing through their eyes. Damn hard to imagine what it's like. But understanding, and explaining, is something else. We can do that. One thing we can understand is that children need a lot of help and advice to become knowledgeable members of our culture. Expecting them to figure it all out themselves is lunacy. It is *not* lunacy because children are dumb, or their brains don't work right, or they are lazy, or they are incapable, or anything like that. But consider the past. Think of the dark ages. Think of the static societies. Think of the wars (war is on the decline). Why would past societies live in such ineffective, violent, awful ways, when they perfectly well could have invented all the good ideas we have today like democracy and freedom? Because inventing all these good ideas is hard! So, if you were to not help your kid they'd have the same sort of chance of coming up with good ideas as a neglected kid from the dark ages (with various caveats: other people might help. TV might help. Books might help. Modern appliances create extra leisure time. School would ruin everything. etc). The point is the truth is not manifest. Whole societies failed to find a lot of our good ideas for generation after generation. So it's important to help new people to learn all the great stuff we already know, not to expect them to reinvent it. So, parenting takes a lot of "teaching" (teaching is a loaded word).

School, church, and daycare cannot be expected to educate your children for you. (And if you want them to then you should reconsider why you want to have a child in the first place.)

Daycare hardly tries. I don't think many people would seriously try to argue daycare is the best place for kids. They would only say parents have a right to work and have their own lives, and daycare may be a necessary evil. That doesn't seem logical to me. If you want to "work and have your own life" and not have enough time in it for a kid then don't have a kid! What if you want to parent but only a little? Part time? Well, you could babysit. Or you might consider sharing one child with another couple. If you are thoughtful and live close (or share a house) then that certainly could work out fine for child. Why is it better than daycare? Because then child is around people who care about him personally and want to help him. At daycare there isn't much personal attention: the caretakers are focussed more on avoiding disasters (fights, tantrums, very upset children). You might object that having 4 parents would lead to fights about which values to teach child. I have two things to say about that. The first is that if you care so much about what values child has then shouldn't you be willing (and happy) to spend lots of time with child teaching him those values? The idea that daycare is better than extra parents because they won't teach him values (or much of anything) so he won't be changed when you get him back is essentially praising daycare for *not* being a place of learning, while simultaneously advocating daycare. My second comment is that it's silly to fight over which values to teach child: you should all present your best ideas and then child should make his own decision about what makes sense to him. All parents need to be prepared for the possibility their child will disagree with them about one of their values (or about anything). Complaining about some other adults being in positions of too much influence (that is, as much as you have) really comes down to complaining you have less power to control your child, and fear that he will not be obedient. That is a bad attitude.

What about Church? First, religions are very strong memes. Caution advised. Next, Church's don't claim to teach you everything you need to know. They have only a limited sphere they address. Next, religious philosophy contains errors. Never mind whether it's right *on the whole*, there are individual errors in thinking -- mistakes. It would be irresponsible to send your kids to be taught such things without helping them to understand rational philosophy, critical thinking, and logic, so that they are equipped to evaluate religious claims in the best ways that we know how. One specific example is faith. Religions ask people to have faith. Philosophically, rationally, that is no good. We should think about our beliefs and do our best to choose good ones. Embracing faith means being less thoughtful. So, at most Church can provide an incomplete education while requiring some other education for it to approached with reason.

For what it's worth, I may be not religious, and I believe there is no God, but I do not hate religion. I say this because the mainstream position of atheists today is extreme hostility to religion. Examples include Dawkins and Hitchens (Christopher. His brother is religious!). And even though I believe the largest claims made by religions are false and are magical thinking, I also think a lot of what they have to say is pretty good.

That leaves school. The first thing to consider is that most schools are Government run, and are run much worse than the post office. But that can be dealt with: you can get your kids into a private school, or a particular public school you believe is better, if you care enough. The second thing to consider is that schools expect children to be obedient. This makes them largely unsuitable places to get an education for thinking people. There can be exceptions, but people who expect obedience make very bad helpers for helping you to learn what *you* want and what *you* are interested in. Schools teach the lesson plan, not your interests. And they don't let you pick and choose what to learn according to your interests. They have homework and tests and quizzes about each topic to monitor you. Why do they need to monitor you and invade your privacy? Why can't you decide for yourself how it's going and whether you want extra help? Because they want obedience, and they need to monitor if you are being obedient, so they can punish you if you haven't learned what they want, at the time they want, and agreed with their conclusions about it. So, schools are bad places. Don't expect your children to attend. And if they do attend, don't expect them to receive much education. And if they do attend, much like with religion, it will go much better for them if they learn critical thinking skills first. It will be better if they understand that the people with authority are not necessarily right, and that obedience is bad (and also that disobedience will be punished -- children should be warned of detentions, various types of mental pressure, failing grades, and so on). School is easier to deal with for people with the knowledge to be confident, assertive, and calm in the face of hostility or adversity. Children should understand that their interests *do* matter, and that following the one-size-fits-all lesson plan is *not* the best way to learn, though it is important for avoiding trouble. And so on. Lots of skills help.

So, if school, church, and daycare won't education your kid, that leaves you. You need to be prepared to explain all sorts of things. If you don't like giving explanations then what business do you have wanting to be a parent? You also need to be prepared to learn all sorts of things that your child asks about and you don't already know. And also to sometimes learn with your child, together. And to teach him how to find things out. And so on. Big responsibility. Remember, children are born with huge ignorance.

The theme has been that parenting is a big responsibility. Many parents have a kid and suddenly feel hugely responsible for the child's safety and well being. This is a somewhat strange phenomenon. Didn't they think about this in advance? Why should the child being born be a major learning experience or cause a revelation? But, OK, they are right. They have that responsibility. They need to be careful. Just leaving everyday objects in places a child can reach could be dangerous and requires some thought.

What happens next, often, is that parents are so protective, and are so used to doing things for child's own good, to help him, and help keep him safe, is that when child wants to do something parent considers dangerous then parent tries to thwart child and is frustrated by his lack of obedience. "Why won't you listen to me? I do so much to keep you safe. Why won't you cooperate?" But obedience is not the right way to help people, offering good ideas is the way to help. Obedience is the way to force.

Another thing that happens is parents want to protect their children from *ideas*. And I don't just mean a meme that causes suicide, or an idea designed as a weapon of war, or something out of a sci fi book. I'm talking about mundane, ordinary ideas like about courtship, sex, profanity, drugs, birth, and sometimes TV in general. And sometimes even anything the parent disagrees with he labels a "harmful influence" and wants gone. This is absolutely the wrong approach. The way to fight ideas is not to hide from them, it is to criticize them. This isn't just best because it's most effective. The crucial issue is that it helps test whether you are right or wrong: it's hard to criticize effectively when you are wrong, but much easier when you are right. So using criticism causes *error correction* whereas refusing to think about the other idea has no way of correct errors if you are wrong. And some of the above it isn't even a *wrong* idea the parent wants kept hidden. It is the truth. Parents try to make their children ignorant of sex and birth, for example. What good can come of such a thing? The justifications for this are laughably flimsy. Children "aren't ready" to know such things. But why? There is no reason. People might claim to be scared of pedophiles. But that is all the more reason to make sure children are *not* ignorant about sex. A child who knows nothing of sex and relationships is a much easier target! He won't even understand what the danger is. And also he may be glad to be helped to learn what his parents were keeping from him. Hiding sexual knowledge from children is about as rational as scaring them with the idea that masturbation causes hairy palms. And it's an important part of the process by which people are made wildly irrational about sex, which is why parents are acting this way in the first place: their parents did it to them, and it has evolved to make people do it to their own kids.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


Brief theory of war: voluntary actions -- those which all involved parties consent to -- are best; disputes should be decided with reason. The justification for war is: the enemy acts in such a way that the outcome will not be voluntary no matter what you do. Because then he makes a voluntary, consensual outcome impossible. Since the issue will not be decided by reason regardless of your decision, you are not wrong to use force. And in fact there is a reason you should use force: better you (who values reason) win the war than the enemy (who does not).

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Libertarian ethics allow a minimum amount of human cooperation including free trade, while avoiding force. that's very good. that line is approximately what the law should be.

it's also good for some people to cooperate more closely (ie, be friends). friends cannot automatically justify their actions by saying libertarian ethics finds those actions permissible. what works well for friends is a restricted subset of what is allowed for business partners. just because something is legal does and peaceful does not make it a good way to treat your friend. it could still be mean, callous, unhelpful, etc

one of the hallmarks of friends is that they sometimes help each other with problems. not because they have to. but because doing so benefits them -- both of them. helping someone is a perfectly interesting learning experience in its own right, but it also means having a better friend in the future which is nice. and later being helped yourself is good too.

if your business partner is annoyed by your hat, who cares (unless he will ruin the business deal over it. in which case you almost certainly don't try to reason with him about hats, or help him form better preferences. you either give up the hat or the business deal.) if an acquaintance is annoyed, you can say "who cares?", or not, your call. but if a good friend is annoyed, then while it's perfectly legal and libertarian not to care, that does not facilitate cooperation or coordination with him. it creates distance if you never resolve the hat thing and can only meet on days you aren't wearing a hat. better, generally, is to ask why he doesn't like the hat and seek a mutually agreeable solution.

even if it's entirely his fault -- an irrationality about hats -- still it is better to be helpful about it if you want to continue cooperation elsewhere. why let this little hat problem get in the way of the mathematics paper you are writing together? or your ski trip? or anything else of importance.

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Most kids are dirt poor. Not because their parents are dirt poor, but because their parents don't give them much money. This is partially and inadequately made up for with gifts, and with the ability of children to ask for parents to buy things. Children should not need parental approval to buy things -- what that really means is that if they disagree then parent gets his way by force (if they agreed it doesn't matter who is in control). Having to go through your parents also compromises your privacy. And also parents generally think kids don't need much, and prefer to keep the money (how self-serving!)

Parents prioritize a lot of things above wealth for their children. Such as lotto tickets, beer, cigarettes, kitchen remodeling, new cars, vacations, and generally whatever else they want.

For now I will make one simple suggestion: is donating to charity really more important than giving your poor kids more money?

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


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

The answer may seem obvious: yes.

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

*dramatic pause*


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

That is not the natural way of things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn't being rational hard?

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

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

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

What is supposed to be hard about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the hard part is changing these characteristics.

And indeed that is hard.

But not because life is hard.

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

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

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

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

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

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


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

In general:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are emotions learned or inborn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)


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

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

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

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

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

Here are examples of rational conversations:

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

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

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

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

And here's some ruined by politeness:

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

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

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

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

To avoid that, Joe is more likely to say:

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

3 Flaws in Conventional Parenting

Here is some conventional parenting advice:
Good kids don't suddenly go bad. Drug abuse, irresponsible and early sex, and teen opposition to authority are all preventable acts.
The examples chosen are telling. What, in particular, constitutes a teenager "going bad"? Drugs, sex, and disobedience. Comments on each follow:

I don't like recreational drugs. I think they are bad. But it's not the end of the world if someone smokes some pot. It's common, and arguably better than getting drunk. It's definitely not true that a child has "gone bad" if he tries some drugs. Lots of the parents reading this advice tried drugs when they were younger, and don't consider themselves to be ruined because of it.

If teens have sex, it's ridiculous to say they have gone bad. Our culture values sex very highly. Why shouldn't they want to have this thing which is held up as one of the best parts of life? Adults are the hypocrites here. They teach that sex is good, then they tell young people not to do it. Why not? Because that's slutty. Because sex is only for married people. Because young people "aren't ready". And so on. But there are no actual reasons on this list. What preparation do young people lack? What about marriage makes sex work better? Calling youthful sex "slutty", and therefore bad, is just labeling without giving a reason.

What's going on regarding sex is that our culture believes that as great as sex is, it's also sinful, unless there are special circumstances (marriage) which justify the sex. This is a horrible way to approach life which is very good at hurting people. It tells teens that sex is great, but then rebukes them if they try it. It tells people to enjoy sex, but to feel bad about having sex. It's created a culture where words like "slut" and "nympho" mean something. People are hateful towards girls who have and enjoy sex, while simultaneously being jealous.

Add to this that young people are considered most attractive, and also pressured most strongly to avoid sex, and you have a recipe for hurting children. But how do parents react? By blaming children who have sex as having "gone bad". That's so unfair. Teens are put in an impossible situation, and then somehow the whole thing is blamed on their age.

Lastly we have opposition to authority. This, we are told, is preventable. What would that mean? That teens obey without question and without independent thought. Obey who? Authorities of all types: parents, teachers, priests, government officials, even experts with PhDs.

This highlights one of the major clashes between conventional parenting and reason. Parents wanted their children to "listen" (obey), whereas reason says we should discover the truth and do that. Parents want to assume they are right, instead of finding out what is right. This is a way of entrenching error -- if they make a mistake, it won't be corrected.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Old TCS Posts 1

Quotes are from the Taking Children Seriously email list from 1994 or 1995.
Non-coercion requires the interplay of reason. I think that fairly young children (under six) do not find *reason* very persuasive.

As I've watched my children develop, I think I've observed them grow from a basically pre-rational stage
Children under six learn English. English is extremely complex. It is much harder than learning any programming language, which many people, adult or child, have great difficulty with. So we can see that children under six routinely engage in high quality rational learning.

But I want to look at this claim another way. How does a person come to this conclusion? What sort of things did he actually observe? The specific detail given is that children do not seem to be persuaded by reason. So we have this scenario: Parent says something which he considers reasonable. Child disagrees. And parent concludes young children don't use reason. But all the evidence seems to show is that he had a disagreement or misunderstanding with his child. Those are common among adults, so why shouldn't they happen even more between adults and children (who have less shared knowledge in common, so communicating is harder).

Essentially, the attitude is that if his child doesn't agree with him, his child isn't using reason. His criterion of reasonableness is obedience.
My 18 month old has *never* liked getting his diaper changed (after all, it's a transition from warm to cold), but it *is* a matter of his health and well-being that the diaper get changed.
This is supposed to be an argument for why things have to be done to children that they don't like. But it is silly because it's so easy to think of a solution. Why does diaper changing have to have an unpleasant hot-to-cold transition? If parent had looked for a solution, couldn't he have come up with using a heater? This is, by the way, from the same post as above. So how confident can we be that this adult is usually right? He apparently does not use reason to solve simple problems to help his children.
Most absurd was the part about striking a bargain for the child to pay for his own dental work. This strikes me as a threat, rather than the non-coercive relationship you are trying to acheive.

That only begs the question of why the child has any right to have her dental work paid for by her parent(s).
Seriously? He's defending threatened children with the prospect of not having dental care, by saying parents do not owe dental care in the first place?

From contextual details I know the reason for this position: libertarianism. Some libertarians have a disgusting habit of considering children property. Children use their parents' resources, so they are in debt to their parents. They can either abide by their parents' rules, or move out. This moving out option does not actually help children or make the harsh treatment acceptable.

If you don't want to help a child, and provide for them, until they are reasonably and happily independent, then you should not have a child. Why bring someone into the world who can't take care of himself, and then abandon him (or only help him conditionally if he will obey you -- that's giving him a choice of slavery or abandonment).

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Old TCS Posts 2

...and it's not as though the child has the *practical* freedom to leave the relationship if they don't like the rules the parent chooses to live by.

Whose fault is that?
From context, we know the intent of this question is to say that it's the child's fault for not being an adult yet, and therefore it's not the parent's fault or problem if his child doesn't like "my rules or move out."

Let's reconsider who's fault it is. The parent created a dependent. And hasn't yet changed that dependent into an independent person. So who's fault is that? The parent's. This is a result of his decision and he should take responsibility for it.

I'm not saying the parent did anything wrong, it's just that he chose to cause the situation and is thus responsible for it. On the other hand, a young child had no choices which would let him be financially and otherwise independent of his parents, so blaming the child is ludicrous.
Any act of definition is a selection of axioms, and is therefore not subject to reason. If someone disagrees with your choice of axioms, reason cannot come into play to convince them to change their mind, outside of inconsistent axioms. In the case of property, you're restricting the actions of someone else. If they disagree with your definition, one or the other of you will have to capitulate when it comes to those restrictions.
The right way to approach axioms is that they are just ideas, about which we might be mistaken. If someone else points out a problem with one of our axioms, or suggests a reason an alternative would be better, we should consider it and be open to changing our mind. In this way, a person with different axioms can have a fruitful discussion with us.

What prevents reasoned discussion from being effective is not choosing different axioms, it is holding them with a closed mind. If we refuse to reconsider our ideas which we call axioms, that is the cause of the problem, and if we don't, there is no difficulty.
Force may be justifiable in those cases where incompetent use is a danger not just to oneself but to others

I agree. What I don't agree with is the notion that people should be presumed incompetent.

Then you can come up with your own examples to support it. For me, in my community, it all depends on what risk one's incompetence poses to one's neighbors, I think. In some cases, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, in others the pound of cure might be so cheap it doesn't matter.
Using contextual clues, we can tell that the issue is whether to use force against your children on the justification that their incompetence might create a danger to others. For example, if your child picks up a gun, but isn't trained in gun safety, then you can force him to put it down.

First of all, how often does this happen? (And if your young child gets ahold of a loaded gun, that is your mistake for leaving it lying around on the floor.) When do small children have the power to hurt people? It's pretty rare. They are just looking for an excuse so they can oppose the TCS principle that, "it is possible and desirable to raise and educate children without either doing anything to them against their will, or making them do anything against their will."

Second, they bring up the specific issue of whether children should be presumed incompetent on account of their age. Why presume? What is their to gain by it? Why not use our knowledge of the child to evaluate what he is competent at? Sadly, the answer is that the poster wants to say, "it all depends" and hide behind vagueness, so that he can maintain that "sometimes, in some situations" children should be coerced. He doesn't want to offer a plausible example. It's hard to think of an example where it isn't blatantly the parent's fault (like letting a toddler have a weapon). If child would be dangerous in possession of something, shouldn't you keep it on a high shelf or behind a lock? There, problem solved without coercing child.

I think the ounce of prevention, which is worth a pound of cure, is to make children obedient. With this simple step, all dangerous situations become safe. When child gets a loaded gun, now we can just say, "Put that down, son," and he'll obey. This obedience "just in case" is necessary for our neighbor's safety. In what specific situation? Umm, it depends on what you consider a risk, and where you live, and what your children's personality is, and stop asking me for details I'm busy teaching my child to listen.

Notice that this kind of bad, vague arguing and failing to listen to reason (as explained by me) is just the kind of thing these people accuse their children of, and use as a justification for force. Well, as far as I am concerned, they are ignorant, and don't listen to reason. So by their own logic, shouldn't I force them to listen, for their own good?
Nor do I understand how non-coercive parenting can be effective with a very young child who has an unusually strong temper and little to no self control. It's not that I prefer coercion. Yet in certain situations reasoning with a child just isn't a viable option and immediate action is necessary to contain the impending violence.
See what I mean? Parents claim they have to use force to defend themselves against their violent three-year-olds. Absurd!

And look at the excuse implied: it's not the parent's fault, the child was born bad. It isn't that the parent has failed to teach self-control, and temper control, it is the child's fault (somehow). The child was born with original sin. He's already going down the path of wickedness by resisting his parent's wise, reasonable ideas.

Back in real life, tempers are not inborn, they are cultural. "Lack of self control" is the same. These traits, which are supposed to justify mistreatment of the child, were in fact taught to the child by the parent (unintentionally).

This should not surprise us. No one designs a lesson plan to teach "turning into your mother". Yet, many women discover that, at some point, they learned how to act like their mother. And the best explanation is that they learned it from their own mother. That's why people usually turn into their own mother and not someone else's. As this illustrates, parents often unintentionally teach major ideas, even to children who consider it a bad idea and do not want to learn it.

Also notice how this poster is asserting something in the mode of, "I don't want to coerce my child. But my child forces me to do it. He has power over me. It's his fault, not mine." This is upside down. The parent is the one with all the power and control.
In such situations, force must be meet with force. The child is not exercising his better judgment. He is out of control. It may take years to develop enough self control to handle such a strong temper. In the meanwhile, there must be constraints placed on such a child's behavior. Certain types of inappropriate behavior can not be tolerated.
This paragraph directly follows the previous quote. In it, the poster's motivations are even more clear. You see, three year olds are very dangerous. If parents aren't authorized to use force, they would be killed or maimed. Non-coercive parenting would be like hunting angry tigers and cannibals without a gun. That's suicide! Don't do it!

More philosophically, the idea is that until the child's original (inborn) sin (lack of self control) is defeated, he is not a real person. He is dangerous. But after you beat the sin out of him by force (but only using force if he won't obey peacefully), it's all smiles and puppies. He's a person (adult) then, and you can get along peacefully.

Very telling is how the poster fails to give an example of a type of behavior that cannot be tolerated. Are we talking about back talk? Refusing to share his gameboy? Not wanting to visit Grandma? Beating up his frail parents? Or what? The poster simply wants us to imagine whatever we would feel justifies violence, and then agree with him that, in general, violence against children is sometimes necessary to protect parents from intolerable behavior.

Besides, the phrase, "inappropriate behavior," is a give away. It reveals we are talking about mundane things like the child being rude.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Old TCS Posts 3

The age of the child makes no difference? Sometimes newborn babies don't initially want to nurse. Such situations can be difficult.

I have no doubt that such situations can be difficult. What I doubt is that the problem is caused by the _age_ of the baby. In this case, I'd attribute the problem to the baby's unwillingness to nurse, rather than its age.

It isn't that the problem is caused by age. It's that the age limits the possible solutions. It's not always possible to negotiate with a very young child.
That's odd. Prima facie, if a baby does not want to nurse, that isn't a problem. It's an indication the baby isn't hungry at this time. What are we to imagine: a starving child that refuses nourishment until dead?

And supposing we did imagine that. Is that a problem caused by age? Of course not. Countless other people of the same age do not have that problem.

Is the problem causing by not wanting to nurse? No, that doesn't make sense. That isn't a problem by itself. The issue is when and why the baby does not wish to nurse. Apparently this is a wicked, sinful baby, and not wanting to nurse when it should is one of the manifestations.

Or not. Perhaps it's just an honest mistake. And there is a solution to be found. No one must be hurt. However, we are told, the baby's age limits the possible solutions. Well, that's true. You cannot solve the problem with a quick trip to the pub to drink it away. The baby won't be admitted due to its age.

But we are told something more specific: the especially young people do not negotiate. The implication is that they form unreasonable preferences, which will cause serious problems, and that they become so attached to these preferences that there is nothing to be done. Except to force the baby. It will cry now, and protest, but it's for its own good. This is a very disturbing notion. But necessary, so we are told.

As has been the case previously, examples are somewhat lacking. The particular example of nursing is ridiculous. Babies don't starve themselves to death by refusing to eat. If the baby does not want to nurse, it is in no danger.

So what are the critical situations where babies don't negotiate and thus sabotage reaching an amicable solution? It must be something like this:

Babies need diapers. This is their own fault for not being potty trained. This is due to their age. This results in unpleasant hot-to-cold transitions when the diaper is changed. Some babies don't like that sensation; it is a problem. But the baby won't negotiate! It won't compromise and agree to a certain number of unpleasant sensations per month. It won't agree to speed up its potty training by a few years, and to look forward to the end of the problem as a way grit its teeth and happily bear it. It won't even propose that maybe it could accept the diaper changes if only parents would get a heater, because its ignorant of heaters. I mean, too young to comprehend what a heater is. We are told the issue is age itself, not ignorance.

I'll leave the lunacy of this analysis as an exercise for the reader, and try again.

Parents have hired a baby sitter and are preparing to go to a romantic restaurant. Baby starts crying. It doesn't want to stay with the sitter. If only child were older, they could negotiate. They could bribe their child with some money or TV. Or makes threats if it doesn't stop raising a fuss. There are many ways the older child would be caused to obey no matter how unpleasant the sitter was. That's the sort of negotiation parents like, and the sort babies are too young for. You see, babies cannot be bribed with TV or other distractions. Except that, umm, they can: younger, more ignorant children are actually easier to distract and amuse. Well, what about threats? The father should take care of that. If you can't scare a baby, you're not much of a man. Hmm, so what kind of negotiation won't work? Oh, it must be the kind where you tell your eight-year-old how important the dinner is, and how bad you would feel if you missed it, and how he wouldn't want to hurt his parents, would he? That kind of slightly subtle and indirect pressure helps parents feel good. They didn't threaten, they used reason. Not wanting to upset his parents is a great reason for a child to do something. He was very helpful and rightly so. But babies, they don't negotiate like this. They just don't listen. You have to communicate more explicitly, or they won't pick up the implied threats.

So there you have it. Babies really are impossible to negotiate with in the usual way because they are not well versed in euphemism, and not yet trained to respond to emotional blackmail. Older children are really much nicer. All you have to do is have a personality such that you would be upset if they do not obey, and then obedience is a matter of reason: it's only reasonable that children do not upset their parents.

Despite it all, I must insist this is not really a matter of age itself, but of knowledge. An especially precocious baby could perfectly well negotiate in this manner.
Understanding the _limitations on non-coercion_ would seem to me to be the most essential single issue for those who subscribe to non-coercive parenting exclusively.
That's strange. That seems to me more of an essential issue for those who would advocate coercion. If they can prove non-coercion has limits, it will help them feel better. They are not hurting their children because they are cruel and callous. It simply isn't possible to avoid.

But a person who subscribes to non-coercive parenting. What does he care for these limits? If it would be of any use to him -- perhaps the situation is avoidable if you see it coming -- then it is in fact not a limit on non-coercion, because there is a solution. A problem truly with no solution but pain -- there is no value in seeing that coming. No foresight will save you from it. It is useless except to depress you.

Those who subscribe to non-coercive parenting would be much better advised to approach life in a spirit of optimism. To solve what problems they can, and if they should fail, to expect that to be their own mistake and not a necessity, and then to look for a way to do better next time. This attitude will lead to the best possible results whether non-coercion is entirely possible, or not. Any time coercion cannot be avoided, it will happen, no matter what our method is. But any time it can be avoided, that is when our approach matters most, and we must not be lured into temptation of imagining that we have done the best possible, when we have not.

Seeking limits on non-coercion is a strategy to comfort coercive parents, not to help non-coercive parents to do better.
You're beginning to piss me off, Steve, with these constant personal attacks. I don't want to have to get personal with you, so why don't you spare us all the abusive ad hominems? As a matter of fact, you were the one begging the question and you damn well know it.

At least Steve has remained a gentleman in demeanor. Why don't you just take Steve seriously? I think his questions are sincere.
This is very funny, don't you think? First, apparently, Steve makes personal attacks. Then someone replies to say that personal attacks are bad, and thus Steve is an abusive jerk. He doesn't want to get personal, but he has to. It's Steve's fault for provoking him. Steve is guilty of so many crimes.

The poster himself must have imagined that he was not writing a personal attack of exactly the sort he criticized. How that can be is a tough question. Perhaps he figured that Steve had caused him to be angry, so it was only natural for him to act in anger, and the consequences all belong to Steve. Or he imagined that what he said was true, and that that somehow changed its character.

As amusing as that is, next we have a third person writing in with yet another personal attack, again attacking someone for writing personal attacks to the list. This third person saw that the second person was a hypocrite. He recognized that the personal attack guised as righteous fury was, in fact, just the sort of ad hominem it rightly decried. And then he proceeded to do exactly the same thing himself. Truly amazing.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Old TCS Posts 4

[Our young child is] probably brighter than Dear Ol' Dad, but we try not to encourage that thought.
The poster states his best idea of the truth, and then that he does not want his child to believe it. He would prefer his child believe something he considers false. That's awful.
Proof number two came in the form of Anthony
How can you prove something twice? Why bother? It was already beyond doubt after the first proof, wasn't it?
we are firmly in the camp of coercion where necessary


Oops. We LET him get opinions? Yup, and he fiercely defends them, too. Even when (or *especially* when?) they don't agree with ours. Which brings us to: DISCIPLINE.

Here's where all our careful planning landed in oblivion. One moment everything was going according to plan, and the next -- he didn't listen when we said, "No." We were devastated. We were nonplussed, too. Being an actor, my gut reaction was, "Hey! This kid isn't reading the script!"


We slowly learned which forms of discipline were effective (added chores, time outs, rare spanks), and which were complete wastes of time (yelling, hand slapping, grounding)
This sort of speaks for itself. Child gets opinions. Parent disagrees. This brings them to discipline. The problem is the child sometimes says "no" (which is equated with not listening even though it's very different). To parents, this is "devastating". Children are supposed to obey.

So, the parents tried lots of punishments like hitting their child, yelling at him, and making him do chores. (Remember this next time you meet a child who has a chore list ostensibly so he will learn responsibility or otherwise "for his own benefit". Chores are used as to discipline children, and you don't discipline people by making them do what's best for them -- they would appreciate that and want more discipline.) So with time, the poster learned which type of hitting his child was most effective to cause obedience, and which sorts of other ways of hurting child he is most fearful of. We are supposed to congratulate him.

Putting this in perspective, the poster believes in "coercion where necessary" but his parenting included yelling and hitting, and more, which were "complete wastes of time" (i.e., unnecessary). Further, the child-hurting, such as spanking, which he does deem necessary, and indeed all the punishments, were not to save the child from imminent harm or for some other clear necessity. In fact, they were for a bad cause: the child said "no", and the parent wanted to force the child to say, "yes". All this coercion has nothing to do with necessity and everything to do with the parent's irrational attitude that the solution to a child who disagrees is to hit him until he agrees. This could only seem necessary if "coming up with good, reasonable ideas that child would be happy to agree with" is well beyond the capacity of your imagination.
Our key to success has always been showing greater love to the child after having applied the coercion, to show that all things are done in love. This is what keeps our family running.
This is the same post, which grants us some insight into what this means. Child is given a time out and a spanking and then told it's all because they love him. How sweet? They discovered that telling children they love them makes the children more obedient than telling them they are adversaries.

One wonders just what they love. They do not love the child as he is today. They think the child today is so wicked that coercion and suffering is necessary to change him. What they actually love is an imaginary child, similar to their own child, except that he never says "no". And for the sake of this imaginary child, they are willing to hurt their real child. That's the kind of love they are talking about.
In the short week I have been subscribed to this list, I have witnessed it QUICKLY devolve into:

The Name/Name2/Name3 Arguing With Each Other and Calling Each Other Everything But Blatant Evolutionists While Using the Most Verbose and Banal Language Possible List.

I had hoped this list would bear fruit, but fear the fruit has taken over.

Please remove me from it.
This person wants to leave the list because it has unpleasant arguments and name calling. But before he goes, he felt it best to post some verbal abuse. That will really show those people who are ruining the list with verbal abuse!
Sarah Lawrence writes, in part:

Most parents, including unschoolers, disagree with us about whether refraining from coercion is *right.* They say that coercion, as we have just defined it, is natural, desirable and unavoidable, because unless children are treated in some of these ways some of the time, disaster will result. The sort of "evidence" they cite typically includes: *children need to be trained to clean their teeth regularly because otherwise they will lose them in later life;

This is precisely where I part company with Sarah. I believe in letting children do what they want, when they want - so long as it's not dangerous. (If it involves me, there's also a laziness factor involved; I know there are more energetic and willing parents on the various home-ed lists, but I assure myself that in this, too, I'm well in the 99th percentile.) But what should a non-coercive parent do when a child does not like to have her teeth flossed and brushed, and will kick and fight to avoid it?

Sarah will probably say that the kicking and fighting is a reaction to the coercion, and to my reaction to the kicking and fighting, and I partly agree: If I didn't think it was funny/annoying, it wouldn't keep happening. But our oldest, at least, never liked having his teeth brushed, and always resisted. And, this is not something we can just ignore and wait for him to grow out of: He already has a mouth full of cavities (well, $2K worth of fillings and caps, now) and we do *not* want this to happen to his second set of teeth.

I submit that "no coercion" is a bad ideal. If Sarah has been able to avoid health-related coercion, this says more about her particular children than the general case.
Hmm, let's see. This parent believes health-related coercion works, and has practiced it. And the result has been ... failure. The proof that non-coercion cannot work is that dental coercion doesn't work. Seriously? Sigh.

If non-coercion was just another way to make children do things like brush their teeth, but nicer and less effective, then we could agree that when stronger methods fail, the weaker ones will too. But it isn't about making children do things! One of the key ideas of non-coercive parenting is that if something is actually a good idea, it's possible for any person to see this. Merit can be explained, argued, and demonstrated. Thus, if a child does not brush his teeth, but should, the knowledge of the value of teeth brushing can be communicated so that child will want to brush. And this is in fact much more effective than trying to force child. When he cares about brushing his teeth, he'll do a much better job than what can be coerced out of him. Just as this poster has so kindly illustrated: coerced brushing was not effective enough to prevent cavities. Something else is needed, like cooperation towards common goals. Which means that step one should not be insisting child "listen" (obey), it should be coming to agree about the goals. If you start by creating a common point, such as agreement about the teeth brushing issue, then it's much easier and more effective to proceed because you won't be working towards conflicting purposes.
The argument that "I, as the parent, have to pay for their mistakes" is easily solved: don't pay for their mistakes if you don't want to. If you don't want to pay their dental bills if they neglect their teeth, then make that clear to them ahead of time and stick to your position. Let them pay (or not) for their own dentistry.

If they don't have any income, then they'll have to take that into account in deciding whether or not they prefer not brushing their teeth and having to get a job to pay for possible dentistry in the future or not. If you tell them: "Do it, but if you don't I'll pay for your dental work anyways," then they've got less incentive to prevent the dentistry in the firstplace.

This is some kind of libertarian insanity. By this logic, you can justify anything at all. "Agree to my rules about your entire life, or I won't pay for your food. When making this decision, take into account how much income you have for buying your own food." And of course your child, who isn't even legally allowed to work, won't be able to afford his own apartment and food and so on (let alone take care of himself alone). So this is simply a recipe for parents to justify any set of rules they want, no matter how coercive. It is worse than conventional parenting, which acknowledges that parents have some obligations to provide for their child.

But then the same person says:
I don't see how the age of the child changes anything. I think what you're trying to say is that if your child is old enough to have been sufficiently indoctrinated into the absolute goodness of what you're trying to get the child to do, then your preferred outcome is more likely. But what I question is why all you care about is whether the child brushes his or her teeth, without caring about whether the child does this because the child thinks it's in his or her own best interest based upon their own independent judgement or whether they do it because their parent said so.
Which is, well, good. Posters do indeed like to imagine older children so they can imagine a child who already agrees with them. And it is indeed important whether your child thinks brushing is a good idea or is just avoiding punishment. Notice, for example, what happens when your child moves out, in each case. Parents claim they coerce to instill habits which will be beneficial when the child is an adult. But the habit of brushing-when-under-threat won't be much use when he's an adult -- no one will threaten him, then.

There's also the further issue that sometimes parents are mistaken, and the policy, "the parent must always be obeyed," does not have any mechanism for error correction. If the parent is mistaken, then a mistake will happen. The rival policy, "the parent and child should come to agree on something, and do that," does have a mechanism for error correction: during the discussion, bad ideas will be criticized and thrown out.
Infants have to be coerced into wearing diapers and clothes, even though they'd probably prefer to avoid the latter.
How parochial! Clothes are the kind of necessity requiring coercion? Why? What disastrous harm will come to your infant from not wearing clothes? He won't get the job as a baby fashion model? His parent will be mildly embarrassed?
the need for and/or justifiability of coercion is inversely correlated with the child's abilities


some teenagers have to be coerced into writing those damn college application essays.
Some teenagers do not want to write college application essays. Let's consider why that might be. Maybe they aren't enthusiastic about college. Notice the child is not allowed any more leeway to make his own judgment when he is older. Parents say that older children with more abilities don't need to be coerced, it's only ignorant babies. But then when it comes down to it, if a child of any age has a different opinion than his parent, this is taken as proof he's still a child at least in some ways, and still must be coerced. Because mother always knows best. Mother is so amazing she even has a logical justification of the statement, "mother always knows best." I'd love to hear it, but unfortunately, she doesn't share it with mere mortals like myself, who probably couldn't understand it anyway.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Old TCS Posts 5

Here are some quotes I like:
There may well be times when being non-coercive is inconvenient -- but not necessarily more inconvenient than being coercive. A child who hasn't been coerced has no reason to see adults as adversaries.
some parents go to enormous lengths to do what they think will benefit their children. If they did believe that non-coercion was best for their children, many parents would be willing to accept some inconvenience to that end (in addition to the effort required to break away from what they learned from *their* parents).
Do you mean that knowing someone's age makes it possible to completely exclude from consideration any evidence or argument to the effect that they could make rational decisions?
Explaining to the child that (s)he will need to pay for future dental work because (s)he did not practice adequate hygene means nothing to a four year old who can have but a limited grasp of finances.

Then that is not a very good explanation to give a four-year-old.
when coercion is used, it really doesn't *matter* whether your reasons make sense, or whether the task is the right thing to do. *They have to do it regardless*. It's as easy to make a habit of wrong things as right things. Coercion doesn't call for children to reason; indeed it calls for them *not* to reason, or risk punishment for reasoning to a different conclusion than the adult.
Those were all by the same person. Unfortunately, that's the end of his posts in this monthly archive, so I guess it's back to quoting bad ideas.
Yes, we coerce our children and, in reality, we're proud of it. But it's not arbitrary. We take special care to explain to them the reasons behind our actions.
The implication is that explaining the reasons makes the coercion non-arbitrary. But if the child agrees with the reasons then coercion is pointless. The only case where coercion would be used is if the parents explain their reasons, and the child considers those to be bad reasons. So, coercion takes place in exactly the cases when child considers parent to have a misconception. This policy of, from the child's point of view, using force when mistaken, certainly is not a very effective way of demonstrating to children that you care about reasoned discussion and wouldn't act arbitrarily.
This does not mean that we allow them no choices. Choices of taste [...] are left to them (within certain limits of practicality [...] and safety (no, that uninsulated demin jacket is not going to be adequate as a winter coat in Iowa)
Children have to be forced to wear warm clothing? If they don't, they won't notice anything is amiss and will die? Or what?

And consider a parent so bad at explaining things to their children that they can't even convince child that wearing enough clothing not to be dangerously cold is wise. He takes his own lack of ability to explain even very simple things as proof that children are irrational creatures who must be coerced. That's ridiculous. No wonder he can't persuade child to brush his teeth or anything else. Even the negative consequences of being painfully freezing cold are beyond his ability to communicate.
In the case of watching television and videos, again, it is not simply that he should have the right to choose to watch televsion whenever he wants. When the television is on I have to be willing to have that sound in the house in which I exist also. (We live in a small house, in which I spend a fair amount of time in the living room where the TV is.)

In short, if the decision affects only him, then he has the right to make whatever decision he wants. Fine. But, if that decision affects other people, then the rights of the other people come into the situation as well. There is an expression that says: "Your right to swing your arms ends at my face." Yes, children should have equal rights with adults, but not rights which take away from my rights
Children want to watch TV as a way to metaphorically punch their parents in the face. If a child wants to do something that doesn't effect anyone else, that's fine, but if it requires the parent's involvement in any way, or uses the parent's resources, then he needs permission. So, for example, watching the TV also causes wear and tear and uses electricity. Children have no right to damage their parent's property, so he needs permission. And what about head phones so the parent doesn't have to listen to the TV while child is watching? (Why didn't they think of that? Are they even trying to find solutions?) Headphones would cost the parent money, which does not belong to the child, so, as with pretty much everything, child needs parental approval. But, the rights of the child are being respected. He has the same rights as anyone else. The difference is only his lack of resources. If he'd just get a job, he could buy his own headphones and then watch TV.

Sigh. Instead of admitting he treats children differently, this poster insists children have equal rights and the fault is their own for not having resources. It's the child's fault he doesn't have his own sound proof room (or headphones) to watch TV in. He doesn't have a right to that if he won't earn it in the free market. Children create their own lack of options by not acting like adults. But it's fair! Really, it is!
A better question for her is clothing... She loves to take off her clothes, regardless of the weather and especially if I just put them on her! She'll try to put them back on, but if she can't she doesn't spend too much time worrying about it... she just goes on about her business. So, is she just warmer-blooded than I or should I make her wear clothes around the house? She doesn't seem to do this when we're away from home.
The child takes the clothes off and doesn't complain or show any kind of upset. And does wear clothes when outdoors where it is colder. And parent is worried she'll freeze? Seriously? Don't children cry when it starts to hurt? You'll have plenty of warning. If you're really that worried, go touch her skin. You'll see it doesn't feel like an ice cube. If you're still worried, take her temperature. You'll notice it's normal. There's plenty of simple ways to find out if she's actually too cold. There's no need to be considering "making her wear clothes" yet! There is no evidence of any sort that child is making a mistake; in fact there is evidence child is discriminating and makes appropriate choices about clothing. And parent's intuition is maybe it's already time to resort to violence.
How do you know when a child is able to handle making different decisions for herself?
Children make decisions from day one. For example, they make choices about what to grab, or what to focus their attention on. The only issue is whether parent forcibly stops child, or not. How do you know when child is ready to not be controlled? That is the wrong attitude. Even if you take the attitude that coercion is sometimes necessary, surely there is no case that it should be the default approach! A better issue is: in what relatively few cases should a parent intervene to try to prevent a harmful mistaken decision? But even that is a mistaken way to look at the situation. Because it sees the primary issue as whether the parent should use force, or not. But that should be a last result, if it's a consideration at all. Considering it from the start is clearly bad. The first issue should be to consider what advice would help child to make a better decision, and what sort of information child would appreciate. Children don't want to ruin their lives with bad decisions. A better attitude is to cooperate with your child and find good decisions with him.
If Mary won't put her laundry away, then I just might not have the time or inclination to read her a story or help her set up an art project. [...]

I don't look at these things as being coercive. I have needs, too. If Mary won't shoulder her responsibility, then I either have to shoulder it or let the work pile up.
So let's see. First, Mary is under threat that if she won't obey about laundry, she will be deprived of stories and art. Then her parent says this isn't coercive. How can that be? Mary apparently wants to do art and hear stories, but not do the laundry. But is unable to get what she wants. Clearly this is coercive behavior by the parent.

The poster goes on to justify this coercion based on his own needs. You see, children have responsibilities, and if they won't pull their weight, they are coercing the parent, and coercion them is purely a defensive measure. But wait, what did the parent's needs have to do with the child's responsibilities? Could it be that the child's responsibility is to do whatever the parent feels he needs the child to do?

PS Aside from Sarah Lawrence (now Fitz-Claridge), names are often changed, especially identifiable names.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Old TCS Posts 6

"Wow, you put all your laundry away all by yourself. I'm glad because now we have time for an extra story."

This is one reason I *loathed* the *How to talk so kids will listen* books. Quite simply, the statement quoted here is a *lie*. This is horrible manipulation.
That's Sarah talking. I agree with her point. But she is rather hostile. This raises an interesting question: How did TCS grow when the majority of posters were hostile to the core ideas, and the most active founder was hostile to people who who express relatively normal parenting ideas? Sarah goes on to take apart this person's statement in detail and explain what he "*really* means" and how it is coercive.
"You sure got dressed quickly this morning. Now you have time to paint before lunch."

Well in that case, the child would have *even more* time if she did not bother dressing at all, wouldn't she? But that would not fit in with the behaviourist plans of the authors of that book at all (despite its undoubted practicality for such a messy activity).
Well, it's true. But it's Sarah being hostile again.

There is a second unquestioned assumption which I'd like to point out. It is the fixed lunch time. You don't have less time to accomplish things if you wake up later in the day, and move lunch correspondingly. When you have lunch, and how much is done before it, actually has nothing to do with how much you can get done in a day. Lunch takes the same portion of your waking hours regardless.

Oh damn, there's only this one Sarah post this month. It was hard to tell from context, but she might be less hostile than it seems. Maybe someone asked if the type of statements quoted are good ideas instead of actually advocating them. I guess I'll find out later.
My children have so many choice - they wear what they want, they control their own learning (they don't go to school and don't do any schoolwork) etc., but in somethings there can be no choice.
What things? As usual, no details are given of specifically when and why a child must be coerced. But despite not being able to think of a single strong example, this poster is very attached to defending the principle that coercion is sometimes justified. Presumably it will help him feel better about those times he hurts his child.
In our case, our noncoercive philosophy is easy to follow when it comes to clothes, hair, education, bedtime and yes, even toothbrushing, but I don't start the car unless everyone has a seatbelt on, I don't let kids smash private property and I don't let them hurt each other.
This is a later post by the same author, and gives genuine examples! Coercion is justified over seat belts, vandalism of others' property, and sibling violence.

Well, maybe. He doesn't start the car until people buckle up. Prima facie, that sounds helpful, not coercive. It keeps his children safe even if they are forgetful. Wouldn't they appreciate this concern? So why does he think it's coercive? Do his children want him to start the car and drive around with their seat belts unfastened? If so, then they'd be in a state of coercion if this is refused to them, and they still want it. This sounds fairly unlikely. I wonder if the real issue is that the children don't want to go on the car ride at all.

But let's take it at face value for a moment. Events take this form all the time. Any time a child forms any preference at all, and his parent does not immediately comply, we have a situation like this. But coercion is usually avoided. How? Sometimes the child comes to agree with the parent. Sometimes they discuss it and find a new point of view they both agree with. Or they discuss it, and then the child gets what he wanted once some kind of understanding is reached -- the parent gives some safety advice, or just realized he was mistaken. There is no reason for a disagreement to end in force or coercion. It can be resolved amicably.

So even in the interpretation of the seat belt scenario where the child initially wants something which the parent initially refuses, coercion is still far from assured. We have yet to depart from normal life. The same thing happens among friends all the time. The only reason this situation would reliably result in coercion is if one or both parties had an entrenched irrationality.

What about vandalism? Or violence against another child? Well, what about it? What if my child wants to assassinate the President? Prima facie, all these problems are extremely easy to solve. They are much easier than the seat belt problem. The reason is that the case against doing each of these things is extremely strong. The case for brushing teeth may be hard to make, but the case against violence and criminal actions is easy to make! They are very bad and easy to argue against. Easy to show downsides for. Easy to suggest better alternatives to. As in the seat belt case, the only reason these would present a chronic problem is if there is an entrenched irrationality involved. And if there is, the solution has nothing to do with the ostensible problem. The problem is about the irrationality, and the details of how it works and the how the other parts of the person's personality can help get rid of it or circumvent it. It isn't vandalism that is hard to deal with, it's irrational theories and behaviors that contain mechanisms to sabotage rational criticism and prevent changing to better ideas.

Children are not born with entrenched, irrationalities. Parents, at the time of the birth of their children, already have many entrenched, irrational theories. So the theory that the irrationality is "probably in the child" is ridiculous.
It is all distilled into what I tell squealers who try to tattle tale to me - Unless someone is hurting or being hurt, is endangering themselves or others or is destroying someone's property, I don't want to hear about it.
Squealers who tattle tale? Why does this poster think of children in terms of demeaning schoolyard terms?

A "squealer" is usually a child who has a problem with another child, and wants parental help. Or he is a child who is acting obedient to adults, and helping them enforce the rules they say are very important. Or, sometimes, he is trying to use an adult to hurt another child, which is a very unfortunate state to be in deserving of much sympathy. Don't you feel sorry for someone who doesn't know how to be happy and is so desperate that he would hurt someone else in a futile attempt to improve his life? What have his parents been doing? He needs help!

And why doesn't this adult want to hear about it? Apparently the child considers it important! There is a problem of some sort. Or if there is no problem, then the child has a misconception that there is a problem, and this misconception is itself a problem which could be solved. So instead of "not wanting to hear about it" the poster should listen carefully and try to help. Ignoring child who reach out to adults is hugely irresponsible.
Next, I disagree with your premise that survival consists of taking actions that fend off immediate death. Survival and hygene properly consist of pursuit of a optimal state of health, not just staving off death.
LOL. This is pretty funny. First he says coercion is justified if the child would die otherwise. Coercion for the sake of survival is justified. Then he goes on to explain how survival actually means maintaining an optimal health state complete with tooth brushing (it is a thread about tooth brushing and this was specified in the surrounding text), eating vegetables, daily exercise, staying on top of current medical advice, becoming rich and funding life extension research, and so on. So, for example, your child can't become an artist because that doesn't usually pay very well. I know children should only be forced when necessary, but that extra income will pay for better medical care, so it's justified. It's a matter of life or death!
Why is it, in your view, that initiation of force is wrong? In my view, it is because that force overrides the judgement of the victim - and that judgment is a human being's means of survival. For an act to be coersion, it must be overriding a capacity that the victim actually has. In the case of children, if you're forcing a 16 yr. old to brush his teeth, its coersion, but if you're forcing a 2 year old, it is not - since the two year does not have the capacity to understand tooth decay or the relationship with brushing preventing it. I'm not talking about strapping the child down
Of course not. Why would you strap a child down? They are small and easy to control without straps :)

Seriously though, parents today usually use threats instead of a whip. They threaten to withhold love, withhold approval, be upset, act grumpy and unhelpful, withhold stories and various kinds of help. Or they use emotional blackmail. These are ways of coercing children too. They are ways of making children do something while not wanting to do it.

Force prevents rational discussion. When force is used, it means that the stronger person gets his way, independent of the merit of his ideas. This is bad because it more often implements bad ideas than a rational approach. It's also bad because it hurts people.

The poster has used an ad hoc reasoning for why initiating force is wrong specifically designed to give him an excuse for forcing children. He has gone out of his way to fit in a clause about whether the victim is capable of judgment, so he can exclude children as possible victims. And anyway, choosing to move a brush back and forth, or not, is a capacity a two-year-old has. The whole point of coercing children is not that they are unable to make a choice, but that they have made one the parent does not like. Anyway, imagine you didn't have the capacity to understand something, say quantum physics. And you had to make an important decision that depended on details of quantum physics. And imagine your father is a world class expert in the field. What would you do? Of course you would want to recognize your ignorance, and to ask for advice. Children have it even easier than that. Their parents tell them about their ignorance, and volunteer the dental information, and any other relevant, helpful information. If they go wrong, it isn't due to a lack of capacity for understanding long term dental consequences. Those are not relevant -- the child can make a rational decision without understanding them. Just like you can make a rational decision about the quantum physics issue without learning about it. You can ask your father, and make a judgment about whether he is an expert, and whether what he says seems to fall within his expertise, and makes sense as far as you can tell. Similarly, a child can make a judgment about whether his parents' advice has generally seemed to help him or hurt him, and act accordingly. This is, in fact, what children frequently do. The only problem is their parents already have a history of hurting them. Then they take the refusal of the child to trust them as proof children are stupid, and so they start claiming force and violence are justified to overcome the inborn stupidity of children.

Have you ever watched a parent with a baby? You will see things like the parent hardly paying attention, and then when the baby reaches for something, for half the items in the area, the parent will move it out of reach because he doesn't want the baby to have that. Why did he put it in reach, then thwart the baby when the baby reached for it? Why doesn't he watch his baby and look for a way to help him? Why doesn't he form theories of what his baby is interested in, and think of new ways to explore it? This sort of parenting is common place. And fully explains why some parents cannot seem to reliably get their children to take their advice. As well as, you know, the fact parents commonly give bad advice. How many parents actually read scientific studies carefully before giving their children health advice? Instead they read a magazine article which summarizes a summary of a study, and they have no idea if the study is valid or not. They read some guy, who might be an expert but they don't really know, misquoted by a journalist who definitely isn't an expert and wants an exciting sounding article, and they then insist they know an important truth.
You have said age isn't a factor. This is puzzling to me because it seems fairly obvious that children do not have the same capacities as adults. How do you take this into account?
By taking into account ability, skill, and ignorance directly, when they are relevant, instead of using a one-size-fits-all judgment based solely on age.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Two Girls

Waiting in line near me were two girls, age 4, and their mothers, who were talking. The girls entertained themselves.

The girls left, and returned holding a glass bottle containing red liquid. The bottle was large compared to their height. One held it, in two hands, cradling it protectively, and vigilantly attending to its safety. The other stayed close, watching too, in case the first failed in her duty.

They were instructed to put the bottle back, because they already had one at home. As they left, the second mother said, "Don't drop it." Hearing this, the first mother was spurred to action and said, "Be careful, it's glass." Satisfied, the parents resumed talking without a further glance to their daughters.

As the girls walked away, the bottle carrier replied, "I know."

In general, it is unreasonable to give advice to someone when you know less about the situation than he does, and have no reason to think the advice will be useful. We can infer that the children had heard this advice many times previously. This is noticeable in the casual way the mothers said it, the overly-careful behavior of the girls, and the "I know" reply.

A good parent would think about what his child wants, and use questions and observations to help him understand, and then find ways to be helpful. These parents gave advice tailored to any child of that age and never, in all the times they've repeated it, watched to see if the children were careful or not. They simply assumed their children did not listen to them, or that all young children are careless. And they gave the advice anyway, with no reasonable expectation that it would help anyone.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Hacker News vs. Taking Children Seriously

Hacker News doesn't like Taking Children Seriously (TCS). My thoughts follow quotes.
If you substitute in someone with the same level of rationality and decision making skills as a young child.. let's say.. a meth addict, does it [TCS] still work?
Logical appeals on a young child would work as well as on a dog.
How ignorant children are, and how unable to make decisions, and how to deal with that, are perfectly legitimate and interesting subjects. But comparing children to dogs and meth addicts is not a way of delving into them.
Parents are meant to make decisions for their children and children are meant to do things they don't want ... That people think otherwise scares the bejesus out of me, but perhaps explains why kids are so pampered and spoiled nowadays.
Wow, is that [TCS] creepy.
thanks qqq [aka curi]. thanks for inflicting yet another monster on society, who thinks the world needs to justify itself to her. Hopefully the creature's teenage years will be a punishment enough for you.
TCS is unnatural, scary, and creepy, they say. And causes children to become stereotypical "spoiled" kids. "Spoiled" kids are commonly created by conventional parenting. TCS is different. Why expect it to have the same kind of results as parenting within the conventional spectrum? And if it would have conventional results, why is it especially creepy or scary or weird or anything?

Notice the hatred. The main theme of my comments was that I didn't want anyone to be hurt. In return someone hopes that I be punished.
Dr. Foster: Would you please tell your son to stop?
Ned's Dad: We can't do it, man! That's discipline! That's like tellin' Gene Krupa not to go [starts banging on the desk] "boom boom bam bam bam, boom boom bam bam bam, boom boom boom bam ba ba ba ba, da boo boo tss!"
Ned's Dad: We don't believe in rules, like, we gave them up when we started livin' like freaky beatniks!
Dr. Foster: You don't believe in rules, yet you want to control Ned's anger.
Ned's Mom: Yeah. You gotta help us, Doc. We've tried nothin' and we're all out of ideas.
This person hasn't made any attempt to understand what TCS does advocate.
My daughter is 7 and she will take your eyes out before she lets you poke her with a needle --- and that's after the inevitable well-reasoned, polite, non-patronizing conversation about why vaccinations are important, which she of course understands and appreciates.
Based on the outcome, we can conclude the daughter did not gain the necessary knowledge of how to get through a vaccination from the conversation. That means either the conversation didn't contain the knowledge, or the daughter didn't understand it. Either he has made the mistake of thinking his daughter understood his explanations, when she didn't, or he has not given good enough explanations. So from his own story, we see the parent was wrong about something. Somehow he concludes that children are irrational and must be controlled by their parents who are better at life, and also that children finding vaccinations distressing could not be avoided.
Please stop guys.
- Paul Graham (site owner)
Apparently there's a limit to how much discussion is allowed. I think the limit only applies in cases where not everyone agrees. I think it's sad how pessimistic people are about creating agreement. It's not just children they think can't be persuaded of anything. It's also adult forum posters.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

Can Children Think?

Here are some studies about how children are bad at making decisions:

I'm not sure what their purpose can be in a debate about TCS (where they were brought up). None of the children in the studies were raised in a TCS fashion.

People think if you did raise kids in a TCS way, it wouldn't change these things, because they are genetic. But how do they know that?

The reason they think it must be genetic is they think that's the only explanation. Their argument goes like this:

- my kid is like this
- i didn't do anything wrong
- therefore something outside of my control, like genes, must have done it
- and therefore changing things under my control, like how i parent, wouldn't work

That argument uncritically assumes that most parents don't make any mistakes. It assumes there is nothing they could do better.

TCS can point out a lot of things that they might be able to improve on. Would it work well? We have good reason to think it would, in theory. Why won't they try it? They are the ones saying interventions based on changing parenting behavior are powerless, so what harm could be done? Oh, yeah, interventions are only powerless to help, but can hurt! Why? Because they are already parenting perfectly, so any change must make things worse. It's so arrogant to think you couldn't do any better than you have done!

The fact is that very young children have already faced the following:

- gotten some bad advice from their parents
- seen their parents set a bad example about how to handle some situations
- seen their parents get angry
- been intentionally thwarted by their parents
- been made to cry by their parents
- not being allowed to make a lot of decisions in their life (how are they gonna improve without getting to practice? and why are they going to try to learn about decision making if they have no decisions to make?)
- being intentionally indoctrinated with some dogmas the parents have accepted uncritically (and if child resists accepting it, his parent gets angry and hurts him)

Parents do a lot of things that cause their children to be bad at making decisions. Then they use that badness to justify doing it more.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Does Trying Not To Hurt Kids Spoil Them?


Here is a theory of how kids are "spoiled":

1) Parents deny kids stuff the parents could easily provide.
2) Kids quite reasonably complain about this.
3) Parents feel guilty and eventually give in.
4) Parents don't know how to help kids, but do know they are messing up, so buy lots of stuff to try to make up for it.
5) Throughout it all, parents are on the neglectful side.
6) Otherwise, parents act normally.

TCS recommends doing none of these, so of course it doesn't spoil kids. There are other theories of how children are "spoiled", such as "not enough boundaries". That particular one is vague and incoherent. The theory behind it is something like, "If you get some things you want, you'll be really demanding and arrogant, so the solution is to make sure you rarely get anything you want, and then you'll be content". What?

The theory that not hurting kids spoils them, in particular, goes something like this: "Real life hurts kids. Not hurting them will give them unrealistic expectations. It creates an overly nice environment, and they get used to it, and then the real world comes along and they can't handle it."

The idea is to say to your kids, "You will be hurt later. You better get ready for it now. So just hold still while I hurt you." And parents wonder why kids don't listen!

TCS has a better attitude. Life can hurt us, but also we can try to live well and make not being hurt a goal we strive towards. This is known as "the pursuit of happiness" where you try not to be hurt all the time. The other attitude is like making kids sad all the time so when they are sad later they'll don't care anymore. That's not trying to pursue happiness; it's just giving up.

By the way, most objections to the idea of not hurting kids go something like this: if you don't hurt them, something bad will happen, which will hurt them and you.

In other words, they say "if you try a way of not hurting your kids, AND IT FAILS, that will be bad!" Well, duh. We know that. But that shouldn't stop us looking for ways of not hurting anyone that will actually work.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)

Children Becoming Independent

Everyone knows a major goal of parenting is that children end up independent. TCS wants to have that goal in mind from the very start. In general, TCS is disposed to consider it good when people have control over their own lives.

Conventional parents think the way to make a child independent is to decide what the components of a person ready for independence are, make a list, and then instill each item on the list into the child, no matter what he thinks of them.

Conventional parents all defend this attitude, and everyones' right to parent this way, even though their lists of what makes a person ready for independence are very different. They disagree about what parents should do, but agree that each parent should decide for himself what's needed and do that.

This is indefensible to Popperians. We know that errors need finding and correcting, and devising a master plan, way in advance, and ignoring the child's ideas, is a recipe for mistakes not to get found or fixed. People will reply saying they do listen to their children, and take into account that feedback, and then make a final and fair decision themselves.

What's the difference between not listening to someone, and listening only to the parts you find agreeable? If the issue is changing your mind and finding ways you are mistaken, then there's no difference at all. Taking under advisement only the stuff you find reasonable is a recipe for not finding out about any of your mistakes. It will catch the very easy mistakes, like if someone points out you made a typo you'll fix it and thank them. But the hard mistakes to correct are the ones where you have a blindness, and don't see that you're wrong. In those cases, anything that contradicts you seems unreasonable, so only listening to "reasonable" stuff means never fixing those mistakes.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

Hitting in Education

Schools used to hit people who got an answer wrong.

Hitting people for being wrong is very un-Popperian!

A) it doesn't help them create knowledge
B) mistakes are common (among everyone, adults too)
C) finding mistakes is good! they should celebrate. why connect it to pain?
D) they see the problem like this:

we KNOW the answer. the difficulty is how to suppress disagreement (which must be bad, because it's mistaken, b/c it contradicts the KNOWN TRUTH). in other words, we know what ideas should rule, and the only thing left is to enforce their rule.

of course Popper would prefer this problem: we have some ideas about the answer, and they may be mistaken, and by discussion with people who disagree, and culture clash, and self-reflection, and criticism, and by a serious effort, we may learn something about our mistakes, and come nearer to the truth.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)

One Truth and Parenting and Morality

There *is* a single correct parenting strategy, and anyone who says otherwise is denying that truth exists.

The right way to parent works something like this:

def how_to_parent(situation)

it can't return an answer unless you give a situation as input.

the situation includes the location, the details of the problem, a list of the people involved, etc

the people are complex data structures, including physical characteristics, their history, and their minds.

their minds are complex data structures with all their ideas.

if you change any of the people, or even change one idea in one person's mind, then you are calling how_to_parent with a different input, so you might not get the same answer.

when we say "there is one right way to parent" we mean that for one input, there is one correct output.

what does the how_to_parent function do with its input? it looks at the input and then calls a sub-module depending on what type of problem it is. it has lots of sub-modules that are specialized for different sorts of problems, and it just directs the question to the right one.

it's the same with morality. if we say "there is one moral truth" we mean for a given input situation, including every last detail, there is an answer, and it doesn't change if you ask the exact same question again, with the exact same inputs.

this explanation has a problem. people think it's so trivial and obvious that they get bored and tune out. it seems pedantic, and unnecessarily precise.

however, those same people constantly make mistakes about the exact issues i just covered.

then there is also the legitimate issue that the same situation never happens twice. so what use is it that there is one truth, one right way, if it's not re-usable? if i find a truth, and use it, why would you want to know it, since you'll never face exactly the same problem?

the answer to that has to do with the reach of knowledge. but that is advanced epistemology that people don't know about.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

TCS Basics 1

A kid wants to do X. His parent thinks X is bad.

Conventional parenting then asks: "how do we make the kid not do X?" Everything it does is an answer to this question. First you tell the kid why X is bad. This isn't an open ended discussion. You are trying to persuade him, but not thinking "maybe he's right" whenever he says stuff.

If you tell the kid why you think X is bad, and he still thinks X is good, then he "doesn't listen" and it's time for more drastic measures. That's because the issue is how to make the kid not do X, and explanations are deemed ineffective, so we move on to other ways to achieve the same goal. So next parents manipulate. They say X makes them feel bad, or they say it will make the neighbors feel bad, or they lie about how it breaks a law or angers God, or they never remind the kid to do X and always remind him of Y, or they try to make him feel guilty about doing X, or whenever he is about to do X they order him to do a chore.

If that doesn't work, they threaten the kid, and start moving on to punishments and getting angry. That usually works because kids would usually rather give up X than have their parents openly trying to hurt them. If that doesn't work, they deem him a "bad egg" and make his life hell all the time or get him diagnosed with a mental illness and drug him, or send him to a reform school to get rid of him.

TCS has a different approach. It starts with an entirely different question, which is: is X good or bad? Then everything it does is about how to find the truth of the matter, without assuming what's true from the start.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

TCS Basics 2

Suppose a parent thinks pizza is so unhealthy it should never be eaten, and tofu is so healthy it should be eaten very frequently by all people.

What a lot of parents would do is buy tofu but not pizza. They control all the money, so that's easy. They make tofu really convenient becasue there is always plenty around, and pizza really inconvenient because there is never any around. Requests for money to eat at a tofu restaurant are always granted. Requests for money to eat at a pizza restaurant always get replies about money not growing on trees. (BTW, apples grow on trees, and apples are worth money. So that saying is kinda silly.)

In the kid's life, tofu and pizza aren't fighting a fair competition for a place in his diet. Suppose the rational way to decide what to eat involves considering the price, convenience, nutrition, and flavor of foods. Of course there are other factors, but those are good enough. The parents make pizza less convenient and tofu more convenient. So they tip the scales. Whatever the rational evaluations of the foods are, they've distorted it. If tofu would normally win 40 to 25, now it wins 50 to 15. So the kid gets the wrong idea of the real value of the foods. The parent is spreading irrationality. The parents don't care about the truth as long as they get their way.

A good way to think of it is that the parent could do the same thing, except in favor of pizza and against tofu. It's totally arbitrary. Whenever the parent could reverse what he's favoring and disfavoring, then it's clear that the parent's policy doesn't depend at all on what the truth is. Maybe he's using reason, but maybe he's using whim. If it's whim, how's he going to find out? His policy doesn't have a mechanism to correct that error.

This is an example of how parents try to make their kid do what they consider best, instead of trying to find out what really is best. They can do it with anything that costs money.

Another resource parents control is transportation. They can hesitate more and smile less when asked for transportation to one place, and behave in the opposite way for another place. That is a way of distorting the value of the places to their children that bypasses reason and disregards truth.

Another resource parents control is what they will help with. Parents know parenting is a lot of work. Good parents are prepared to do it. They change diapers, cook meals, wash clothes, clean messes, patiently answer some questions, read books aloud, and so on. But what if their kid wants help, which is his right, doing something they don't approve of? Then conventional parents resist and try to impose their values on their kid. They deny him the help that is his right, and which they would give if he were doing something they approved of. And often they lie about it. When the child wants one thing they say it's too much work and they are tired, but then if he asks for help finding books about tofu recipes suddenly they aren't so tired anymore and are ready to be very helpful.

Manipulation of these sorts is designed to control the child and make him behave in the ways the parent considers best, both when the child agrees that's best, and also when he doesn't. TCS instead is concerned with figuring out what's best, especially when there is a disagreement, and finding an answer that doesn't distress anyone or cause suffering.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

TCS Basics 3

A lot of parents think they should decide what's best, and then make their child do it. If he turns out 90% the way they wanted, then that's a pretty good success.

But consider what happens if I make my kid 90% of what I think is good. Then he takes his values, and makes his kid 90% of that. And then the next kid is 90% as good as his parents. And so on. See how it gets worse every generation? As a percentage of the original, the generations go 90%, 81%, 73%, 66%, 59%, etc

TCS aims for children to be even better than their parents. For that to happen, they are going to need to be something more than not quite perfect copies of their parents. You can't just take the parent, copy it with only a couple flaws, and call it better. That's obviously going to be a little worse.

Children, to turn out better than their parents, are going to have to disagree with their parents about at least one thing, and be right. Parents need to allow and encourage that, not suppress it.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

TCS Basics 4

If I parent has "the final say" on all issues, that means all the parent's mistakes are final. They aren't going to be corrected.

Parents often speak of "taking into account" the child's ideas, and then making the final decision in a fair way. What this means is that the parent alters his decision exactly as much as he considers right, and if the child considers that wrong, that's too bad, and if the parent is mistaken that's too bad as well.

I do not advocate replacing the rule of the parent by the rule of the child. I advocate that all disagreements be resolved in such a way that everyone genuinely agrees at the end. Until that happens, they must be considered open questions.

One benefit of this is that it does a child a lot more good to learn why something is best instead of having a misconception about it but following some orders. If the child just follows orders without understanding that isn't educating the child.

Another benefit is that it raises the bar for the quality of ideas the parent needs. Everyone makes mistakes, and this will help the parent make fewer. The bar in a conventional household is: whenever the parents feels upset, feels certain, or finds further questions hard to answer (and therefore frustrating), then he ends the discussion and tells the child he needs to stop the sass and listen.

In fact, some of those situations seem to hint that maybe the parent is wrong. (That doesn't mean the child is right. Often they are both wrong, and some other idea is right.)

Having to persuade the child means having to think about how to explain the issue in an understandable and compelling way. It's OK if the parent wants to take a break as long as he comes back to it later. A real discussion also means answering the child's questions. That helps the child learn; any parent should be happy to answer questions. And for the parent, there are two possibilities. Either answering is easy, so it won't be any trouble. Or answering is hard, which means the parent didn't know the answer well enough, and it's good that he thinks about the issue a bit more.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (6)

TCS Basics 5

Suppose your child starts smoking. A lot of parents would say, "smoking is bad for your health, therefore you must stop smoking immediately." If the child stops they are happy. If the child continues they are sad and start threatening or punishing or manipulating him.

I agree smoking is bad for your health, and is generally a really bad idea, and it's good to point that out. But there is a flaw in the approach I describe. It treats children as not having reasons for the things they do.

In addition to offering advice about smoking, a parent should try to find out why his child wants to smoke. The best way to do this is usually to ask and then to listen without arguing or interrupting (just asking questions to get clarifications and elaborations). Don't worry if everything the child says is wrong. It's not going to kill him in the next 20 minutes, so just hear him out before you respond.

Once you know why your child wants to smoke it can make a big difference in how you react. At the minimum, you can give your child more useful advice. If he doesn't know smoking is bad for your health, then tell him all about that. If he read some pseudo-science saying it makes you smarter, then explain to him about proper science. If he thinks smoking makes him cool, then don't tell him about the health risks in detail, just mention them and then focus on discussing the coolness issue. And so on. This is pretty simple but a lot of parents get it wrong because think don't think of their child as a thinking human being who has genuine reasons for his actions, they just think of him as a simplistic partial human to be ordered about and controlled into doing the right things.

When the issue is something less clear cut than smoking, then it's even more important to find out what the child's reasoning is. Maybe he has a reason you've never heard of before. Then you'd need to think about that instead of just telling him all your standard arguments that don't engage with his idea. Maybe if you know what he wants you can suggest a better way to get it, and then he'll change his approach voluntarily. To have any real hope of getting a child to change his behavior by choice, which is always preferable, you have to think about things from his point of view and see what reasons he does and doesn't have behind a given decision.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

TCS Basics 6

Young children are ignorant. They don't know very much. Does that mean they'll never have any useful ideas?

No. They can contribute a lot to a discussion, even though they don't know very much.

The main reason is that although there is a lot they don't know, there are a few areas where they know quite a lot. In particular, they have a lot of knowledge about what they want, and which sorts of situations they would be happy or unhappy with. If you are trying to find a way of proceeding that everyone will consider acceptable and voluntarily agree to, then this knowledge the child has will come in very handy. It will play a major role in figuring out what to do. You couldn't find a way to proceed that everyone likes without some knowledge about the likes of the child.

Children, like everyone else, do not have perfect knowledge. They can be mistaken about what they want, or in their estimations of what future possibilities they would like. And this kind of knowledge is not exclusive to the child. The parent can have some too. But taking those facts into account, it still remains that children have useful knowledge that can help find solutions if it's allowed to.

Let me give a few examples. Suppose the child left out a board game, and it's in the way now. It could be put away in the box, or it could be carried elsewhere to preserve the positions of the pieces. How are you going to know which would be best? You should probably ask the child. And bear in mind he might say something else, like that it's very important to him not to disturb the game, so could it please be left where it is and some other solution found? If he says that, he is contributing important knowledge that's highly relevant to what the best thing to do is. It really is the case that some proportion of the time its important that a game be left undisturbed, and it's good to find out when that is the case or not.

Suppose the child wants a red baloon, but there aren't any more. Which baloon would he like as a replacement? The child probably has the best knowledge of that. And if it's a surprising answer, like he'll accept green baloons but he needs two, or actually if there's no red baloons he'd prefer a water baloon instead, then you'll never get stuff like that right without the child contributing his ideas. And should you go to the store to get more red baloons? That is a question you won't be able to answer accurately without the child contributing some knowledge about how valuable the red baloon is to him (and also the parent contributing knowledge about how inconvenient a store visit would be).

Suppose the child doesn't want to wear his seatbelt. The parent thinks of everything he can to make it better. He gets the child an ipod so he'll have a distraction from the seatbelt. He glues pillows to the seatbelt to make it softer. He paints the seatbelt the child's favorite color. He glues glitter on it. He tells the child stories about seatbelts saving lives, and with heros who like seatbelts. Yet still when he drives he sees his child pushing at the seatbelt, and shifting in his seat, and with a sad look on his face. Finally the parent says: "I give up. Why does the seatbelt bother you so much?" And the child says: "I can't reach the controls to raise the window." And the parent says: "That's so easy to fix. I'll give you a stick you can reach them with from further away. Why didn't you tell me?" And the child says: "It didn't occur to me to tell you, because you didn't ask, and you don't act like my ideas matter." (Or more likely, the child would say "I don't know", but that would be the reason.)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

TCS Basics 7

Sometimes parents say, "My child doesn't listen because he doesn't know anything."

Other times they say, "TV is dangerous. My child doesn't know enough not to listen to it."

These two statements represent opposite views about ignorance. One view is that ignorance cause stubbornness and a closed mind. The other is that it causes gullibleness and an open mind.

So, which is it?

Suppose it's the closed mind. Children are born with a very closed mind. Whatever you do, and whatever they are exposed to, it won't make much difference. Slowly, they will become slightly more open minded, and learn a little. The older they get, the more easily they will learn new things. By the time they are 40 or 50 years old, they will finally be very open minded and learn new things all the time. I think we can see this is not what the world is like. People learn more rapidly when they are young. They appear to get more closed minded with age, not less.

Now onto the possibility that children are born with a fairly open mind. Then, when a child doesn't listen, one has to wonder why. (Asking why a child does or thinks something is a major theme of TCS.) He wasn't born closed to what his parent is saying. If he's rejecting it, there is some cause after his birth. It could be a history of his parent's advice being unpleasant for him, or it could be that he has a different (contradictory) idea he thinks is superior, or it could be that he's trying to listen but there is a failure of communication (e.g. the parent's explanations are too complicated and confusing, or too dumbed down without enough persuasive content).

If the child doesn't listen because listening has gone badly for him in the past, that is a problem the parent can and should do something about. He needs to take all of his advice and consider it carefully from the point of view of whether it will be pleasant for his child.

If the child doesn't listen because he has a different idea, the parent can talk to him about what his idea is, and offer criticism of it, and ask questions about it (the child could learn a lot trying to answer questions about it). The parent could can also accept criticism of his own idea from the child. That way the child will learn to think of criticisms, and see which ones work and how well (some criticisms will result in a short explanation of how they are trivially mistaken, some will lead into a whole new area of interesting discussion, and some will lead to the parent changing his mind).

And if you're going to have a discussion with questions, criticism, new ideas, and explanations being exchanged, then that is just as if you were having a genuinely open-ended discussion where the final answer isn't a foregone conclusion. So as one final step, the parent should himself have an open minded, and it should really be a truth seeking discussion, instead of a "how to make the child listen to the idea I already KNOW is right" discussion. If your idea is right, it will be the conclusion of a truth seeking discussion anyway, so you don't have anything to lose.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

TCS Basics 8

A theme of TCS is to have discussions where you try to learn something (about what is true, rather than just sticking to the ideas you already have), and find a way of proceeding that everyone is happy with (or content with, the point is no one is distressed or suffering or hates it). But what if your child doesn't speak English yet? Or doesn't want to sit still and talk for an hour?

I only use the word 'discussion' because I don't know a better one. The important thing is there be communication with certain qualities. It can be spread into lots of little pieces with no long sessions, that's fine. If it's not in English, that's fine too, just try to express things (like options the child has) and try to understand things the child communicates (like whether he likes or dislikes something) and keep an open mind (if you expect your child to like something, but he hates it, then your prediction was mistaken and you need to change your mind about what your child's preferences are). So young children who don't have long, English discussions are no problem.

The 'discussion' (communication) does need to have certain properties. It needs to be rational. That means if either side has a mistaken idea it could be corrected. It means ideas are treated as having a degree of uncertainty. It means never relying on authority in place of using your own judgment and understanding, and especially not expecting your child to submit to authority against his better judgment. The communication needs to facilitate voluntary interaction. That means if a child should do something, you don't force him to do it, you help him understand why it's right. If something is morally right, and you don't help a child see that for himself, then you are doing him a great disservice. And if you force him to do it while he thinks its wrong, you are making him act in a way he considers wrong so he loses respect for right and wrong, and also for you. Principles like these work just as well with young children as older children, and also work with adults. Forcing adults to do things is bad too, and with adults too if something is right to do (like being kind to one's children) then it's very important he understand that for himself, and not do it just because someone commanded him to.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Sad Story

In May 2007, I posted to the TCS list a Sad Story:
Show: Lizzie McGuire

Background: Lizzie is a pretty normal girl, about age 14. Larry
Tudgman is a nerd her age and one episode he asks her out. She feels
bad about rejecting him and decides to go on a date, but then he
tells people at school that they are boyfriend and girlfriend. She
breaks up with him and says they aren't compatible. She expects him
to cry. The conversation continues as follows:

Tudgman: I guess you're right. We're living a lie. I need a
girlfriend who's into astrophysics, amphibian skeletal systems, and
rotisserie baseball.

Lizzie: Yeah. And I need a boyfriend who's into
"stuff". (small laugh)

The show then cuts to Lizzie's thoughts, and she thinks:

"Maybe I should develop some interests."

But then she adds:

"And then I could join a club and meet a boy there."
Someone replied:
I don't think that's necessarily a sad story at all.

Inexplicitly Lizzie is into a lot of things ... like figuring out
relationships, attraction, cultural ideas and expectations for girls.

These things are at least as important as amphibian skeletal systems.
And David Deutsch wrote:
In a way, yes. But in practice that's not really comparing like with like. There's 'figuring out' and there's 'figuring out'.

For instance, if the boy's figuring out leads him to the conclusion that existing ideas about amphibian skeletal systems are fundamentally flawed, and if he's right (or even interestingly wrong), then it will lead him to *gain* exactly what he's looking for: more and more chances of being entertained, respected, mentally enriched -- and indeed paid -- for doing that very kind of thinking, which he is already doing for the intrinsic fun of it even today.

But if Lizzie's figuring out leads her to the conclusion that existing ideas about relationships, attraction, cultural ideas and expectations for girls are fundamentally flawed, then whether she's right or wrong, this will lead her to *lose* all the things she is currently looking for. She will only get those things if her thinking ends up with the same conclusions as most of the other girls who are doing it.

I think the story is indeed sad because of the pause, and her subsequent thoughts, during which she did *not* say that she found those cultural ideas wonderful to think about -- nor anything else, for there was no such thing. It was precisely because Lizzie recognized her own life as being devoid of the kind of interests the boy had, that there was a painful gap. Which she eventually filled by deciding to do *more* of what she's not intrinsically interested in.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Taking Children Seriously

All long lived ideas are spread from older persons to younger persons. If that didn't happen, an idea could not outlive the current generation. The future of civilization depends on its knowledge (including traditions, institutions, ideas about a good society, etc...) continuing to exist over time. Consequently, the future depends on which ideas are passed on to younger persons, and in what way. Any civilization which does a bad job of this cannot last but will die off.

For passing on ideas to younger persons, the most important thing is the behavior of parents. Parenting is by far the biggest influence and factor here. Bear in mind that for a child to attend school, his parents choose to send him, and if they behaved otherwise then the child would not attend. (There are exceptions for some countries with laws suppressing that freedom, but they could choose to emigrate instead of comply, so again the behavior of parents is the most important consideration.)

All the major current civilizations do manage to reliably transmit ideas to the next generation. However, there is a second issue: this needs to be done in a way that allows for improvement and progress. Otherwise the civilization will never change for the better and will inevitably die off when some problem comes along that its knowledge cannot handle (like a meteor impact, or even just a tsunami for a civilization stuck with less technology and wealth).

Western civilization is in a mixed state. Improvement and progress are possible, but they are limited and we could do a better job. Better parenting and educational ideas can address this problem, as well as making family life happier.

Imagine a way of life which is perfectly transmitted to the next generation. They will therefore do the same things their parents did, including the same methods of parenting. So they will transmit that same way of life to the next generation, and this will repeat until external circumstances intervene. But no progress will ever happen. This is the nightmare scenario of a static society.

Western society is not static, but most people do parent similar to how their own parents did, in most respects. Unfortunately, that means passing on many mistaken ideas. What would be better is a method of parenting which can pass on good ideas while selectively not passing on any mistaken ideas.

No method can accomplish that perfectly because that would require omniscience. But we can do a better job of it. The most important issue is how disagreements, disputes and conflicts are approached, and whether it is in a rational and truth seeking way or an irrational way that suppresses innovation.

What most parents in the West do is consider what they think is a good or bad idea. If they judge something is bad, they'll try not to teach it to their children. This is a good start which allows for some progress over the generations. However, it has weaknesses. It misses the opportunity for the child to contribute. Parents make mistakes and those will be taught to their children. And, sometimes parents decide an idea is bad but accidentally pass it on to their children anyway.

Parenting and education can be improved by addressing these weaknesses. How can do we that?

Taking Children Seriously (TCS) is an educational and parenting philosophy. Its most distinctive feature is the idea that it is possible and desirable to bring up children entirely without doing things to them against their will, or making them do things against their will, and that they are entitled to the same rights, respect, and control over their lives as adults.

TCS is the only educational philosophy that draws heavily on the correct philosophy of knowledge (explained by Karl Popper). By applying some of the most important existing philosophical knowledge to this area, and finding its implications, TCS provides important insight. TCS is also the only parenting philosophy fully compatible with (classical) liberalism.

TCS has the philosophical answers for addressing the weaknesses.

TCS proposes that family disagreements, disputes and conflicts be approached by finding a common preference -- a way of proceeding which everyone prefers. This is different from a compromise in which the action taken matches no one's preference.

Common preferences are always possible and are a better approach than compromises, sacrifices, or the use of force. A common preference can be thought of as any solution to a problem. Anything else is not a solution but at best a "partial solution" which means some problems are not solved.

Solving problems is good. When they are not solved, people get hurt and suffer.

Let's now return to the issue of passing on ideas to the next generation while correcting mistakes in those ideas, improving them and filtering out bad ideas. Solving problems is one of the elements of how to accomplish this. It is not accomplished by people being hurt or suffering.

It's important that children use their own minds. Children should only accept ideas they are persuaded of, which is the rational approach to thinking. This will help filter out bad ideas.

As long as parent and child agree, life is easy and a wide variety of parenting approaches are in agreement about what to do: do what both the parent and child agree on. It might not be perfect but it's the best option known to them.

What sets people apart more is how they handle disagreement. If the parent and child disagree, what happens next? Does the parent force, pressure or manipulate the child to "listen" (obey, believe) as the parent says to? If so, that is irrational. It is not a truth seeking approach. If the parent is mistaken, his idea is passed on anyway, even though the child initially recognized the potential that this particular idea is a mistake. The child's input is ignored in the cases where it's most important because it could correct a parental mistake.

A rational approach which can do a better job of filtering out bad ideas must, in the face of disagreement, judge ideas based on their merits not their sources. It must not be biased against the child's mind in favor of the parent's mind. When there is a conflict it needs to open mindedly seek the truth. That means that the parent and child each may try to persuade each other and explain themselves. They both have a voice.

So, they discuss it. They explain their understanding of the problem at issue, and how it can be solved, and what they see as flaws in the other proposed solutions. And they explain how their solution can be altered to meet any criticism, or why that criticism is itself mistaken. But they still disagree. What next? They can either agree to disagree and drop the issue for now, or try to come up with better, more persuasive ideas.

Although parents know more than their children in general, that has no bearing on the specific case where the child -- knowing that his parent is knowledgeable -- still thinks he knows something important, or his parenting is missing something, about a specific issue. Because parents know more, children will usually agree with their ideas, but in the case of a disagreement then people must not assume the parent is correct. When a parent says, "Because I said so," or, "I know best, so just listen to me," that is the epitome of irrationality.

Especially crucial is that a parent never coerce his child. And it's in disagreements, disputes and conflicts in particular where parents may be tempted, but must instead rely on voluntary, mutual persuasion (just the same as liberalism's approach to disputes between adults).

All problems have solutions which are best for everyone, and if a parent fails to persuade his child of something -- if the parent is offering something the child does not see as best for himself -- then this indicates a weakness of the parent's thinking, not a character flaw in the child. The child may be ignorant, but if the parent fails to explain the issue to correct the child's ignorance then that is the parent's mistake and he should learn to be a better educator. The child may be mistaken and have bad ideas, but if the parent fails to come up with compelling criticisms of them, that is his own weakness. And if the parent offers something which isn't best for everyone, so the child rejects it, again that is the parent's mistake not to have come up with a better idea that wouldn't compromise the child's well being.

When a parent fails to rationally persuade, this is exactly the sign we need to identify potentially bad ideas being passed on to the next generation. This is the perfect opportunity to stop trying to pass on the idea and reconsider it, and only to pass it on if the parent can improve it to the child's satisfaction.

The issue of parents accidentally passing on bad ideas can also be ameliorated by never making children do anything against their will. If they are in control of their lives, they can resist picking up ideas they don't want to. So at least in some cases we can get a better result.

Although we cannot have perfection, we can recognize disagreements as places where at least one person is mistaken, and therefore as opportunities for learning, progress and improvement. If a child is mistaken, help him understand better instead of becoming frustrated and coercing him. And the more he resists parental explanations, the more unsure the parent should become, and the more the parent should begin to question the quality of his knowledge on this topic which is either mistaken or not good enough to help the child understand.

Normal parenting and educational practices today are routinely irrational. Parents punish and force their children. They coerce and manipulate. Teachers have curriculums and lesson plans and make it their goal that the child learn and agree with the material; they irrationally expect the material to have no mistakes and not to need improvement (despite the evidence that it has plenty of room for improvement: bored and unhappy children getting test questions wrong or, contrary to the irrational assumption, perhaps disagreeing about some test questions the teacher may have gotten wrong).

The irrationality of forcing children to do things applies to brushing their teeth, attending school, having a bedtime, and everything else that parents might want to make an exception for.

Improvement in this area can change lives and change the world. It's a huge opportunity. Join us and help expand and refine TCS. Learn it yourself and explain it to others.

Join the TCS discussion group:

Update: TCS discussion has moved to the Fallible Ideas group.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (11)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (28)

Helping Resource Budget

People help each other. I will discuss parents helping children. These comments apply to many other situations.

John helps his daughter Lily in lots of ways, but he can’t give her unlimited help. He has a limited amount of resources: time, money, energy, attention, creativity, etc.

When Lily is very young, John decides how to help her. He uses his best judgment. He tries to take into account Lily’s gestures and reactions, but he makes the decisions. He decides how much to help and which types of help to provide.

As Lily gets older, she can make verbal requests for help, and John is often responsive to those. And later she can start planning her life more and having long term goals that she asks for help with. How John helps is still partly his decision, but he partly lets Lily decide for him. Sometimes John does something to help that he doesn’t want to, or disagrees with, because Lily cares a lot.

Since Lily gets a limited amount of help, it must be budgeted just like any other scarce resource. Lily could benefit from more help than is available. Choices have to be made about which help happens and which help does not happen. John and Lily have to say “no” to some types of help that would benefit Lily because they don’t have the resources, like time, to do them all.

John and Lily will be better off if they know that helping must be budgeted and they try to understand the prices of different types of help.

In order for Lily to get helped effectively, cost and benefit must be considered. How expensive is a particular piece of help, and how big are the benefits?

Suppose John can provide 100 points of help per day. Having a 30 minute tea party with Lily and her dolls might cost 20 points, and having a 2 hour tea party might cost all 100 points. And going out to the park is 40 points, and watching Lily’s TV show with her and answering questions is 30 points, and making her an easy dinner is 10 points, and making her a hard dinner is 50 points, and so on. That means, for example, that Lily shouldn’t ask for a 2 hour tea party if she also wants to go to the park today.

Some days, John goes over budget. That’s unsustainable. he can’t help that much, on average, every day, but he can do it occasionally as an exception. If John helps too much and keeps it up for months, then his own life will suffer, he’ll be unhappy, he’ll be exhausted, and he’ll end up having a worse life and being less helpful to Lily.

For life to go smoothly in general, John and Lily need to be aware of the budget and make reasonable choices about which things to fit into the budget and which not to. That requires having some idea of how big the budget is and how expensive different types of help are.

The prices are just estimates, but they can often be pretty decent estimates. You can’t make perfect predictions, in advance, about how expensive an activity will be. For example, John doesn’t know exactly how tiring taking Lily to the park today would be.

Technically the budget involves many different currencies: time, money, energy, etc. An activity can use 3 points of time, 7 points of money, and 5 points of energy. To simplify, it’s often OK to just think of a single budget for help and hope things average out OK (some activities cost more money than average, but some are free, so overall if the help budget comes out OK then the money budget may come out OK too). If there’s a notable shortage of a particular resource (commonly time, money or energy), then paying attention to that budget can help. People are pretty aware of time and money as limited resources, but pay somewhat less attention to energy. Sometimes you have plenty of time to do something but you’re too tired. E.g., after work one day, John might have 4 hours of free time, but because he’s tired he doesn’t want to do much more than watch TV.

Typical families do a poor job of communicating about budgeting. Parents don’t tell their children much about money. The child doesn’t know how much money the parent makes or what it’s spent on. Instead of rational budgeting, parents help in socially normal ways with no overall plan. As individual things come up, the parent tries to help if it’s a normal way that parents help children, and the parent can help (the budget hasn’t already run out). Then when the budget runs out, the parent starts saying “no” to stuff and the child is disappointed. Then the parent talks about how much he already helped his child, and how much he does for his child in general, instead of talking about how to stop doing some of those ways of helping so that the child can get some more things of his choice without running into “no”. The parent doesn’t normally say, “I don’t have time to do that for you today, but we can talk about which things I can skip doing for you tomorrow in order to save time for it and for your other requests.”

Parents often find their children’s requests unpredictable. Some days have way more requests than others. This makes it hard for the parent to know how much budget to save for the child’s requests, vs. how much help to offer the child earlier in the day.

Children often don’t think about budgeting, they just want all the help that seems reasonable or normal to them, that they see on TV or see their friends get, or that sounds good to them. That doesn’t work and leads to disappointment. They would be better off if they thought about budgeting. A 4 year old can understand and think about some budget, and a 14 year old can do a lot.

Parents can think of helping their children in three different ways: asks, expectations and guesses. Asks are things the child asks for. Expectations are things the parent is pretty confident the child wants, e.g. because he’s asked for it a lot in the past or likes it a lot. And guesses are things the parent thinks the child might like. Guesses should usually be small things so it’s not a big deal if it doesn’t work out. If the parent guesses the child would like a big thing, the parent should ask the child about it before spending a lot of resources on it.

With babies, parents start out guessing. These guesses are informed by our culture. People know, in general, what kinds of stuff babies commonly like and dislike. That gives the parent some ideas about how to help. Then the parent sees how the baby reacts, and what happens, and can start customizing the help and having some expectations. As children get older, they ask for more and more things. Once they are adults and move out, they still occasionally get help from their parents, and most of that help is specifically asked for.

At first, the parent controls the whole helping budget. Over time, he gives up control of an increasing large amount of the budget to the child. This makes rational budgeting harder. When the parent makes all the decisions, he can have a master plan. Parents are often stressed and don’t do a great job at bigger picture planning, but at least they can do it, and do give it some thought. Once the budget has two people deciding on expenditures, it’s harder to control and plan. The two people don’t have all the same goals. So one person is spending the budget for some goals, and the other is spending it for different goals, so it’s not all being used according to one single plan. People fight over budgets when they have different goals: John is trying to get Lily to do the stuff John thinks should be done, and wants help budget spent on that, but Lily has other ideas and wants more of the budget used her way. It gets really bad when people’s goals contradict and they are using shared resources, so they end up using up the resources to work against each other.

It’s hard for 10 year old Lily to control the helping budget because she doesn’t control the help provided in the expectations or guesses categories. And it’s hard for John to control the helping budget because he doesn’t control the help provided in the asks category. Lily does have some control about expectations (John is paying attention to what she likes, what she wanted in the past, etc) and guesses (Lily has less control here, but John tries not to spend a lot of budget on this because, for that reason, it’s a riskier category). And John does have some control over asks – he can say no or he can discuss whether an ask is a good idea and maybe change Lily’s mind.

John and Lily often don't see the costs or benefits of help the same way. Sometimes Lily asks for something which she believes is easy, but it's hard for John (it uses up a lot more budget than Lily expected). Sometimes John offers help which he thinks is very helpful to Lily, so it's worth the price. Lily accepts because it helps her a little, but it's not actually worth the price.

The budget model of helping can help John and Lily understand that there are limited resources (rather than just trying to do socially normal help in an ad hoc way) communicate about the costs and benefits of different ways of helping, think about big picture plans and goals, and try to figure out a budget which will do a good job of helping with those goals.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

The History of Taking Children Seriously

This is a history of Taking Children Seriously (TCS), particularly the online community leaders: Sarah Fitz-Claridge (SFC), David Deutsch (DD) and Elliot Temple (ET).

TCS was founded in 1992 by SFC and DD. (SFC was Sarah Lawrence at the time but changed her name in 2003.) It started with a paper journal. When ET joined in 2001, the community had TCS list (an email discussion group with around 1,000 members), a website with articles, and a chatroom.

SFC, a mother of two, did most of the recruiting. She met with homeschoolers and libertarians, networked and gave speeches internationally, and posted at many online parenting and homeschooling groups. TCS advocates frequently got banned from other online groups but did get the word out first.

DD, a theoretical physicist, did most of the intellectual theorizing. He had made significant contributions related to quantum computation and learned about Karl Popper’s Critical Rationalism (CR) philosophy. He and SFC were libertarians with ideas like individual freedom, minimal or no government, and laissez-faire capitalism.

DD’s books are The Fabric of Reality (FoR, 1997) and The Beginning of Infinity (BoI, 2011). They discuss science and CR philosophy. DD also wrote hundreds of blog posts about politics between 2003 and 2008.

A main idea of TCS is that CR – a philosophy about how to create knowledge – applies to parenting and education. DD thought we must understand how learning works in order to know how to treat children. There are no reasonable philosophical positions which imply that punishments are educational. And if punishments aren’t educational, then they’re cruel and abusive, and “coercive” as TCS calls it.

TCS was also based on (classical) liberal values like peace, freedom, cooperation, individual rights and opposing tyrannical authority (be it a king, parent or teacher). Karl Popper shared these values, although he was no libertarian.

CR says all people learn by brainstorming, critical thinking and critical discussion. TCS concluded that even young children, even babies, think and learn this way. People learn on their own initiative with help from others, not as buckets which educators can pour knowledge into like water. Learners are the leaders of their own learning.

TCS’s big claim was that children could be raised well without doing anything to them that they disliked. It’s always possible to find “common preferences” – win/win solutions that everyone prefers. The main obstacle to this kind of rational problem solving is the irrationalities that adults have. Irrationalities aren’t inborn, they come from coercion, so don’t coerce your child and he won’t become irrational.

TCS Activities Timeline

SFC wrote around 1,000 TCS list posts (emails), mostly from 1994-2002. DD wrote around 2,000, mostly from 1996-2002. ET wrote around 3,700, mostly from 2002-2012, though he hasn’t stopped writing about TCS and still answers questions and posts.

SFC secretly began building a separate community unrelated to TCS which she launched in 2003. This partially explains why she reduced her involvement with TCS. Year after year, SFC hid these other activities, while leading people to expect more TCS activity soon and misleading people about her interests and priorities. She avoided transitioning to a new community leader, and blocked messages sharing alternative TCS resources, which left many TCS-attempting parents with little support and fewer resources than they reasonably expected.

SFC stopped creating the TCS Journal in 2000 after 32 issues. She never announced that it ended and left the webpage up where people could pay money to sign up. People were still confused about the matter years later and SFC still didn’t clarify, while still advertising herself as the TCS journal editor.

In late 2002, SFC deleted the TCS IRC chatroom that she’d started in 2000. She said she didn’t know how to run it well and received too many complaints. Rather than solve the problem, she shut it down.

In 2003, SFC discontinued the TCS website. She let the domain name expire without putting a notice on the site telling people about the new site, redirecting traffic, or leaving it up as an archive. She created a new site which had a worse layout and she never even finished transferring over all the old articles. The new site was never very active and SFC mostly stopped work on it after only 3 months. There was an occasional update later, e.g. there were 4 posts in 2004. After trying to be active for one month in 2005, the updates stopped entirely in 2006.

In 2006, SFC announced moving the TCS list from AOL to the new website. People were supposed to be automatically transferred but the new group had no posts and people kept using AOL. This was never explained. Then in 2008, SFC moved TCS list to Yahoo Groups and intentionally didn’t automatically transfer anyone. The result was reducing membership down to around 50 people from a past high over 1,000.

After these disasters, ET created the TCS Google Group in 2009 and Fallible Ideas website in 2010 which included articles about CR and TCS. ET’s TCS list had around double the membership of SFC’s and many more discussions. It became the primary TCS list while SFC’s group went inactive. Meanwhile, at DD’s request, ET also made the BoI Google Group and BoI website in 2011.

ET also became the owner of the Autonomy Respecting Relationships (ARR) forum in 2010 or 2011 after running the group as moderator for over a year. ARR was started by SFC and DD as a way to apply TCS ideas to romantic relationships. Major ARR ideas included that standard romantic relationship patterns are irrational and hurt people, and that freedom implies polyamory instead of monogamy. ET, however, criticized polyamory as well as monogamy.

Elliot Temple Joins TCS

ET read DD’s book, FoR, in 2001, then read DD’s TCS articles and joined the email group and chatroom. DD regularly talked with TCS community members on IRC and on the email group. ET quickly got much of DD’s attention due to energetic curiosity and quickly learning and arguing in favor of CR and TCS ideas. Over the next decade, ET and DD had around 5,000 hours of discussions (the majority were one-on-one, not on the public groups). In 2002, ET started a private email discussion group named curi where DD frequently participated. In 2003, ET started his blog, Curiosity.

After only a few months, ET became TCS’s most active advocate. He was more interested, and wrote more, than anyone else. He’d debate anyone about anything (like DD, ET was interested in ideas broadly, not just parenting), and whenever he had trouble winning an argument, he brought the issue to DD for advice. That way, ET learned how DD would argue each issue and address each challenge. DD heavily influenced ET’s views and arguments. For example, DD converted ET from left to right wing, persuaded him of capitalist and libertarian ideas, and got ET reading Ayn Rand. DD also persuaded ET to favor George W. Bush and the Iraq War politically, to support Israel, and to reject environmentalist ideas like recycling and global warming.

Due to the close association and agreement on so many issues, people, including one of DD’s close friends, accused ET of being DD’s puppet. However, the agreement was achieved by rational discussion, not puppetry. ET argued with DD more than anyone else and persistently followed up on disagreements. It took ET around five years of learning to become skilled enough to win any significant arguments with DD, at which point some disagreements started forming as ET developed more of his own ideas.

ET began providing detailed feedback and editing for BoI in 2004, which continued until publication in 2011. DD and ET routinely discussed topics related to the book. In total, ET wrote around 250 pages specifically to help with BoI, which is enough material to fill a book. That’s why the acknowledgments say “especially Elliot Temple”.

ET was also recognized favorably by SFC. For example, in 2006, ET, SFC and another speaker gave a TCS seminar to a paying audience in SFC’s home. In 2003, SFC tried to persuade ET to “becom[e] a regular contributor to the TCS blog/web site”. She said more articles from ET would help with her goal to “make it more difficult for people to bitch about TCS the way they are now.” SFC had some mixed feelings, stating “In the past, I have sometimes found your posts a bit too harsh and dismissive and lacking explanation, but I have noticed you have written some beautiful posts which are both true and also kind and non-alienating.” Overall, SFC saw ET positively and wanted him to be more involved with TCS including writing official articles because, also, “I really love your writing.” Similarly, in 2005, SFC was also asking ET for more TCS writing: “If you would like to write articles for the site, and if you would like to contribute to a new FAQ for it, that would be splendid!”

TCS Affects Lives

Thousands of people took an interest in TCS. As with many communities, especially controversial ones, the majority quit for one reason or another. Some had major disagreements with TCS from the start. Others liked TCS initially but had major disagreements when they learned more. And others liked TCS but drifted away without planning to – they just never really got around to doing much. But hundreds of people made TCS a major part of their life. TCS affected how many children were treated.

SFC led people to believe that TCS was an important, growing movement that they could join and then get ongoing help and advice. People thought TCS came with resources and support, at least articles, a chatroom and the email group. But then SFC and DD stopped writing articles, SFC discontinued the chatroom and journal, and SFC reduced her TCS list to complete silence. This harmed people who were struggling to live by TCS ideas, as well as preventing other people from joining TCS.

These problems were made much worse by the lack of announcements, clarity, transition plan, etc. The original TCS founders didn’t take responsibility for the movement, what they led people to expect from them, and the consequences of their actions for people’s lives. Instead they broadly kept up public appearances years after ceasing most TCS activity.

The continued availability of TCS materials, and discussion places where people can ask questions, is due pretty much entirely to ET. But ET has done more to take over DD’s intellectual role than SFC’s community leader role, so it’s not a full replacement. And SFC sabotaged the transition to ET’s leadership by preventing many people from finding out that the new resources existed. Even some of the more involved TCS parents were left not knowing what happened or how to continue with TCS.

SFC knowingly poured time and effort into a different, unrelated, non-TCS community, in secret, while misleading the TCS parents that had trusted her. These actions go beyond explanations like merely neglect, failure or incompetence.

DD Quits

DD gradually left TCS for several reasons. First, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, many TCS members sided with the terrorists by making anti-American comments. The political conflict divided the TCS community. Most parents open to TCS were left wing, while DD and his intellectual associates were right wing.

By the end of 2002, DD didn’t write public posts as frequently, although he actively discussed with ET and others. From there, DD’s public posting gradually declined, but it took a decade to stop. Meanwhile, DD often watched ET debate in favor of DD’s ideas, like TCS, and encouraged and advised ET behind the scenes.

As time went on, DD pushed back the publication deadline for BoI but eventually had to face it. In the several years leading up to the 2011 publication, he became increasingly busy and talked with everyone less. He even had to cut a few planned chapters from the book in order to finish.

Although DD hoped and planned for things to return to normal after the book was done, they never did. Instead, he quit every discussion forum, stopped talking about TCS, and decided to focus more on his new physics idea, Constructor Theory.

After gradually distancing himself, DD stopped collaborating with ET and most other active community members around the end of 2011. DD never gave a clear explanation of why, never wrote an article arguing his case, never announced anything had changed, and never even tried to claim that ET had changed in any significant way. It was DD, not ET, who had changed. DD was disillusioned by how little TCS had changed the world, and how few people had learned his ideas. DD wanted to try to get along with the mainstream more, while ET continued developing non-mainstream ideas like TCS and CR.

Looking Back At TCS

From day one, TCS had always offended many people and attracted hateful comments for its unconventional ideas. DD hoped it would spread and gain traction over time, and it did some, but less than DD wanted. Meanwhile SFC ended the journal, chatroom and original website, reduced TCS List membership by 95%, and stopped creating content or recruiting.

ET kept TCS alive as a philosophical theory with some resources to help, but the number of participating parents dropped over time. Eventually, there was little discussion about parents trying to use TCS in their life.

To see quotes from the harsh, offensive side of early TCS, as led by SFC and DD, see this post and the comments under it.

The TCS list grew initially. But SFC said that whenever the list got over 1,000 members, a bunch of people would unsubscribe when there was an active topic causing them to receive lots of emails. Many of the people SFC recruited were not interested enough in TCS to direct the emails to a folder outside their inbox, and just left instead.

The TCS list was moderated. SFC and her buddies blocked whatever posts they wanted, quite frequently and aggressively. It was common for posters to regularly have some their posts blocked and keep participating anyway, though some people left when they weren’t allowed to speak freely. Consequently, SFC had control over the content of the list. If the content alienated people, that was her choice.

At his groups, ET always emphasized free speech instead of controlling what you were allowed to say. He thought this better fit the total-freedom-and-libertarianism-and-maybe-even-anarcho-capitalism type principles of TCS and its founders.

Conflict Between DD and ET

When he quit TCS, DD also quit associating with TCS’s new leader, ET, as well as with active participants in the TCS community. ET wanted to do problem solving. What about CR, common preferences, and win/win solutions? ET wanted to fix things but DD refused.

At the end of 2012, over a year after DD had become unfriendly and withdrawn the help and support he’d led ET to expect going forward, DD had refused many olive branches from ET. ET wrote I Changed My Mind About David Deutsch. This carefully worded piece left out most details to respect DD’s privacy because DD didn’t want the problems discussed and debated openly. Every statement was written so that it could easily be defended and explained if private facts were included in the discussion. DD saw the article prior to publication and made no objection then or later. Others in the community supported the article or didn’t mind; there was no opposition to it because people had seen DD change and leave over the years. ET thought the article was necessary because he’d been such a fan and promoter of DD, so he thought he should update people when he changed his mind about stuff he’d told them. ET was taking responsibility for the advice he’d given other people, as he believed SFC and DD should have but did not.

Although preferring to mostly leave DD alone, ET also wrote David Deutsch Interview Undermines His Philosophy in 2017, Accepting vs. Preferring Theories – Reply to David Deutsch in 2018, and David Deutsch Smears Ayn Rand in 2019. ET thought it was important to defend the ideas he’d learned from DD, even against DD himself. Again DD had no objections, publicly or privately. DD didn’t want to defend or explain his opinions or offer any rebuttal. Although critical discussion and rational truth seeking are major parts of the CR and TCS philosophies, DD didn’t do them nor explain why he wasn’t doing them and how that was compatible with his philosophy. ET’s claims remain uncontested. Meanwhile, DD never said anything negative about ET, leaving him to continue running the BoI, TCS and ARR groups and explain philosophies like TCS and CR to the world.

SFC Destroys FoR Group

Alan Forrester (AF) ran the FoR discussion group, about DD’s book, for a decade. He has a CR blog. Although AF ran the FoR group alone, SFC was the original group creator and never gave AF ownership. This allowed SFC to do whatever she wanted with the group, regardless of AF’s opinions or consent.

After 10 years with no posts or involvement by SFC, she suddenly took over FoR in order to ban ET as revenge for the I Changed My Mind About David Deutsch post. (AF agreed with ET regarding the philosophical issues that ET and DD disagreed about, and didn’t want ET banned.) Then SFC immediately neglected the group and soon everyone stopped using it. She’d been uninvolved because she wasn’t interested in FoR ideas and because she was still involved with her secret, unrelated community; being motivated to ban someone didn’t change that situation.

Just like when SFC neglected the TCS Yahoo Group, everyone interested in discussion moved over to one of ET’s groups. In that case, they went to ET’s TCS group. In this case, they went to the BoI group: since DD’s second book was out now, fans of the first book naturally were interested in the second book too, which covered similar topics.

SFC didn’t attempt problem solving, consent or common preference finding with ET, AF or the FoR group membership. She violated the standard group policy of giving warnings before banning people. And she said nothing indicating that DD himself had any problem with ET’s article. It seemed to be her own personal vendetta, and she didn’t care that she was primarily punishing AF and the FoR discussion group members, not ET who owned the BoI group anyway.

DD and ET had always had a relationship based heavily on explicit communication: if you want something, request it; if you prefer something, say so. DD knew he could make requests of ET and had wide latitude to get whatever he wanted. Several times, DD had asked ET to refrain from saying something or take something down. But this time, DD made no request and expressed no preference, knowing that ET would take that as a go ahead signal. DD, to this day, hasn’t said anything negative about ET or ET’s critical articles.

Fallible Ideas Group

In 2013, ET merged several discussion groups into one, the Fallible Ideas (FI) discussion group. Although the older groups were left unchanged, ET simply asked people to switch and every active poster voluntarily started posting on FI. This smooth transition stands out in contrast with SFC’s disastrous move of the TCS group.

ET merged the groups because the topics are all related. They’re all about understanding good philosophy and applying it. And, over time, under his leadership, the groups had become more philosophically sophisticated. For example, it had become unusual for posters to be unfamiliar with DD’s books. With a smaller membership that was more knowledgeable about all the ideas, and had more consistent ideas, having a single forum made sense.

Thus, the FI group is the continuation of the TCS group from 1994, as well as the ARR, FoR, BoI groups. The FI group also merged some more minor groups: TCS Society (a companion to the TCS group for political discussion), Rational Politics (a newer group by Justin Mallone, which ET and DD participated at), and an Ayn Rand discussion group (by ET).

Where Are They Now?

DD has gone on to work on Constructor Theory. He also became a member of the Royal Society in 2008. DD and SFC seem to no longer like to talk about TCS or be associated with it, but don’t make clear statements or requests about the matter. ET has withheld the older TCS archives posts from the public at DD’s request, even though DD has not provided any public statement about his reasons.

SFC stopped being involved with philosophy, TCS or ARR. She still hasn’t explained what happened or apologized to any parents.

SFC’s two children were friends with DD too, and one was also a friend of ET. They are adults today but never got very involved with TCS or CR. No other child with any sort of TCS upbringing became very involved either.

ET has gone on to improve CR with new ideas like Yes or No Philosophy, Paths Forward, Overreaching, Impasse Chains, Using Intellectual Processes to Combat Bias and Rationally Resolving Conflicts of Ideas. As of today (2020), ET still posts regularly to the FI discussion group and has been a consistent, active poster continuously for 18 years, and he’s branched out to videos and podcasts.

Editor’s note: I made a serious effort to get the facts and dates right. If anyone believes any fact is in error, please let me know.

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Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (18)