Monthly Archives: February 2009

Against Maturity

I remember the moment of my first break with Judaism.  It was in kindergarten, when I was being forced to memorize and recite my first prayer.  It was in Hebrew.  We were given a transliteration, but not a translation.  I asked what the prayer meant.  I was told that I didn't need to know – so long as I prayed in Hebrew, it would work even if I didn't understand the words.  (Any resemblance to follies inveighed against in my writings is not coincidental.)

Of course I didn't accept this, since it was blatantly stupid, and I figured that God had to be at least as smart as I was.  So when I got home, I asked my parents, and they didn't bother arguing with me.  They just said, "You're too young to argue with; we're older and wiser; adults know best; you'll understand when you're older."

They were right about that last part, anyway.

Of course there were plenty of places my parents really did know better, even in the realms of abstract reasoning.  They were doctorate-bearing folks and not stupid.  I remember, at age nine or something silly like that, showing my father a diagram full of filled circles and trying to convince him that the indeterminacy of particle collisions was because they had a fourth-dimensional cross-section and they were bumping or failing to bump in the fourth dimension.

My father shot me down flat.  (Without making the slightest effort to humor me or encourage me.  This seems to have worked out just fine.  He did buy me books, though.)

But he didn't just say, "You'll understand when you're older."  He said that physics was math and couldn't even be talked about without math.  He talked about how everyone he met tried to invent their own theory of physics and how annoying this was.  He may even have talked about the futility of "providing a mechanism", though I'm not actually sure if I originally got that off him or Baez.

You see the pattern developing here.  "Adulthood" was what my parents appealed to when they couldn't verbalize any object-level justification.  They had doctorates and were smart; if there was a good reason, they usually would at least try to explain it to me.  And it gets worse…

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Good Idealistic Books are Rare

Saith Robin in "Seeking a Cynic's Library":

Cynicism and Idealism are a classic yin and yang, a contradictory pair where we all seem to need both sides…

Books on education, medicine, government, charity, religion, technology, travel, relationships, etc. mostly present relatively idealistic views, though of course no view is entirely one way or the other.  So one reason the young tend to be idealistic is that most reading material they can easily find and understand is idealistic. 

My impression of this differs somewhat from Robin's (what a surprise).

I think that what we see in most books of the class Robin describes, are official views.  These official views may leave out many unpleasant elements of the story.  But because officialism also tries to signal authority and maturity, it's hardly likely to permit itself any real hope or enthusiasm.  Perhaps an obligatory if formal nod in the direction of some popular good cause, because this is expected of officialdom.  But this is hardly an idealistic voice.

What does a full-blown nonfictional idealism look like?  Some examples that I remember from my own youth:

  • Jerry Pournelle's A Step Farther Out, an idealistic view of space travel and more general technological advancement, and the possibility of rising standards of living as opposed to Ehrlichian gloomsaying.
  • Brown, Keating, Mellinger, Post, Smith, and Tudor's The Incredible Bread Machine, my childhood introduction to traditional capitalist values.
  • Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation (and to a lesser extent Ed Regis's Great Mambo Chicken), my introduction to transhumanism.
  • Richard Feynman's Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman (for traditional rationalist values).

Supposing you wanted your child to grow up an idealist – what nonfiction books like these could you find to give them?  I don't find it easy to think of many – most nonfiction books are not like this.

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Seeking A Cynic’s Library

Cynicism and Idealism are a classic yin and yang, a contradictory pair where we all seem to need both sides.  Few of us can really stomach an entirely cynical or entirely idealistic frame of mind.  Yet instead of finding some peaceful balance, these polar views seem to eternally struggle for our sympathy.

This struggle is not entirely symmetric:

Let us first notice some patterns about cynical moods. The young tend to be more idealistic, while the old are more cynical. People can remain idealistic their entire lives about social institutions that they know little about, but those who know an institution well tend to be more cynical. Leaders and the successful in an area tend to be less cynical than underlings and failures in that area. Things said in public tend to be less cynical than things said in private. People prefer the young to be idealistic, and discourage the teaching cynicism to the young. Cynicism is not considered an attractive feature.

If you wander a library you will find far more coherent and articulate book-length presentations of idealistic views than of cynical views.  Books on education, medicine, government, charity, religion, technology, travel, relationships, etc. mostly present relatively idealistic views, though of course no view is entirely one way or the other.  So one reason the young tend to be idealistic is that most reading material they can easily find and understand is idealistic. 

This seems to be the way society wants it; idealistic kids make a better impression so most folks want their kids taught that way.  But I would prefer a fairer fight between idealistic and cynical views; I'd prefer that kids could easily find and understand coherent and articulate book-length direct presentations of cynical views.  I've even considered writing something on this myself.  So let me collect the wisdom of our readers:  what is the best stuff out there now?

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Cynical About Cynicism

I'm cynical about cynicism.  I don't believe that most cynicism is really about knowing better.  When I see someone being cynical, my first thought is that they're trying to show off their sophistication and assert superiority over the naive.  As opposed to, say, sharing their uncommon insight about not-widely-understood flaws in human nature.

There are two obvious exceptions to this rule.  One is if the speaker has something serious and realistic to say about how to improve matters.  Claiming that problems can be fixed will instantly lose you all your world-weary street cred and mark you as another starry-eyed idealistic fool.  (Conversely, any "solution" that manages not to disrupt the general atmosphere of doom, does not make me less skeptical:  "Humans are evil creatures who slaughter and destroy, but eventually we'll die out from poisoning the environment, so it's all to the good, really.")

No, not every problem is solvable.  But by and large, if someone achieves uncommon insight into darkness – if they know more than I do about human nature and its flaws – then it's not unreasonable to expect that they might have a suggestion or two to make about remedy, patching, or minor deflection.  If, you know, the problem is one that they really would prefer solved, rather than gloom being milked for a feeling of superiority to the naive herd.

The other obvious exception is for science that has something to say about human nature.  A testable hypothesis is a testable hypothesis and the thing to do with it is test it.  Though here one must be very careful not to go beyond the letter of the experiment for the sake of signaling hard-headed realism:

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Beware Value Talk

Last week I wrote:

[For] lawyers supporting clients, engineers presenting designs, accountants presenting financial accounts, or academics presenting analyses, styles are more "no-nonsense."  They avoid colorful flashy emotional visual aids and music, use precise concise technical and unemotional language, make structured and standardized arguments, explicitly summarize and address opposing views, make methods and premises explicit, and warn early of conclusions and structures. … Authors who want to be seen as minimizing the propaganda element of their communications avoid using flashy styles. … [In contrast,] in such propaganda contexts, impressive charismatic leaders tend to speak in simple repetitive eloquent poetic vague emotional language, often with rambling structures, engaging stories, vivid colorful flashy emotional music and visual aids.

Communities of conversation "serious" about working together to make progress in understanding things tend not only to follow the above style conventions, they also tend to follow a key content rule:  avoid arguing basic values

Communities that mostly agree on how to evaluate claims can make a lot of progress, and such agreement comes naturally enough when discussion is restricted to "facts" connected to frequent observations and actions.  Such communities can also discuss how to achieve a few commonly accepted values. 

For example, athletes can talk about how to win games, lawyers about winning cases, salesmen about increasing sales, business managers about increasing profits, scientists about accelerating scientific progress, engineers about improving design efficiencies, medical experts about increasing health while decreasing costs, and economists about increasing policy "economic-efficiency." 

In all of these cases, explicit agreement on simply-expressed values allows group conversations to progress effectively toward achieving such values.  Members can specialize, develop and use specialized language and techniques, and evaluate others' contributions to the common cause.  In contrast, groups that freely argue about basic values tend to fragment into like-thinking-cliques focused more on clique loyalty than on fairly crediting informative contributions.

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An African Folktale

This is a folktale of the Hausa, a farming culture of around 30 million people, located primarily in Nigeria and Niger but with other communities scattered around Africa.  I find the different cultural assumptions revealed to be… attention-catching; you wouldn't find a tale like this in Aesop.  From Hausa Tales and Traditions by Frank Edgar and Neil Skinner; HT Robert Greene.

The Farmer, the Snake and the Heron

    There was once a man hoeing away on his farm, when along came some people chasing a snake, meaning to kill it.  And the snake came up to the farmer.
    Says the snake "Farmer, please hide me."  "Where shall I hide you?" said the farmer, and the snake said "All I ask is that you save my life."  The farmer couldn't think where to put the snake, and at last bent down and opened his anus, and the snake entered.
    Presently the snake's pursuers arrived and said to the farmer "Hey, there!  Where's the snake we were chasing and intend to kill?  As we followed him, he came in your direction."  Says the farmer "I haven't seen him."  And the people went back again.
    Then the farmer said to the snake "Righto – come out now.  They've gone."  "Oh no" said the snake, "I've got me a home."  And there was the farmer, with his stomach all swollen, for all the world like a pregnant woman!

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Rationality Quotes 26

"Poets, philosophers, acidheads, salesmen: everybody wants to know, 'What is Reality?'  Some say it's a vast Unknowable so astounding and raw and naked that it grips the human mind and shakes it like a puppy shakes a rag doll.  A lot of good that does us."
        — The Book of the SubGenius

"When they discovered that reality was more complicated than they thought, they just swept the complexity under a carpet of epicycles.  That is, they created unnecessary complexity.  This is an important point.  The universe is complex, but it's usefully complex."
        — Larry Wall

"I can't imagine a more complete and precise answer to the question 'for what reason…?' than 'none'.  The fact that you don't like the answer is your problem, not the universe's."
        — Lee Daniel Crocker

"In the end they all moved in fantasies and not in the daily tide of their seemingly useless lives.  Souls forever lost in the terrifying freedom of their existence."
        — Shinji and Warhammer40k

"Thus the freer the judgement of a man is in regard to a definite issue, with so much greater necessity will the substance of this judgement be determined."
        — Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring

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An Especially Elegant Evpsych Experiment

Followup toAdaptation-Executers not Fitness-Maximizers, The Evolutionary-Cognitive Boundary

"In a 1989 Canadian study, adults were asked to imagine the death of children of various ages and estimate which deaths would create the greatest sense of loss in a parent. The results, plotted on a graph, show grief growing until just before adolescence and then beginning to drop. When this curve was compared with a curve showing changes in reproductive potential over the life cycle (a pattern calculated from Canadian demographic data), the correlation was fairly strong. But much stronger – nearly perfect, in fact – was the correlation between the grief curves of these modern Canadians and the reproductive-potential curve of a hunter-gatherer people, the !Kung of Africa. In other words, the pattern of changing grief was almost exactly what a Darwinian would predict, given demographic realities in the ancestral environment…  The first correlation was .64, the second an extremely high .92."

(Robert Wright, summarizing:  "Human Grief:  Is Its Intensity Related to the Reproductive Value of the Deceased?"  Crawford, C. B., Salter, B. E., and Lang, K.L.  Ethology and Sociobiology 10:297-307.)

Disclaimer:  I haven't read this paper because it (a) isn't online and (b) is not specifically relevant to my actual real job.  But going on the given description, it seems like a reasonably awesome experiment.  [Gated version here, thanks Benja Fallenstein.  Odd, I thought I searched for that.  Reading now… seems to check out on the basics.  Correlations are as described, N=221.]

The most obvious inelegance of this study, as described, is that it was conducted by asking human adults to imagine parental grief, rather than asking real parents with children of particular ages.  (Presumably that would have cost more / allowed fewer subjects.)  However, my understanding is that the results here squared well with the data from closer studies of parental grief that were looking for other correlations (i.e., a raw correlation between parental grief and child age).

That said, consider some of this experiment's elegant aspects:

  • A correlation of .92(!)  This may sound suspiciously high – could evolution really do such exact fine-tuning? – until you realize that this selection pressure was not only great enough to fine-tune parental grief, but, in fact, carve it out of existence from scratch in the first place.
  • People who say that evolutionary psychology hasn't made any advance predictions are (ironically) mere victims of "no one knows what science doesn't know" syndrome.  You wouldn't even think of this as an experiment to be performed if not for evolutionary psychology.
  • The experiment illustrates as beautifully and as cleanly as any I have ever seen, the distinction between a conscious or subconscious ulterior motive and an executing adaptation with no realtime sensitivity to the original selection pressure that created it.

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The Evolutionary-Cognitive Boundary

I tend to draw a very sharp line between anything that happens inside a brain and anything that happened in evolutionary history.  There are good reasons for this!  Anything originally computed in a brain can be expected to be recomputed, on the fly, in response to changing circumstances.

Consider, for example, the hypothesis that managers behave rudely toward subordinates "to signal their higher status".  This hypothesis then has two natural subdivisions:

If rudeness is an executing adaptation as such – something historically linked to the fact it signaled high status, but not psychologically linked to status drives – then we might experiment and find that, say, the rudeness of high-status men to lower-status men depended on the number of desirable women watching, but that they weren't aware of this fact.  Or maybe that people are just as rude when posting completely anonymously on the Internet (or more rude; they can now indulge their adapted penchant to be rude without worrying about the now-nonexistent reputational consequences).

If rudeness is a conscious or subconscious strategy to signal high status (which is itself a universal adapted desire), then we're more likely to expect the style of rudeness to be culturally variable, like clothes or jewelry; different kinds of rudeness will send different signals in different places.  People will be most likely to be rude (in the culturally indicated fashion) in front of those whom they have the greatest psychological desire to impress with their own high status.

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Beware Ideal Screen Theories

Variable B "screens" variable A from variable C when learning the value of B makes A and C no longer dependent on one another; once you know B, A says nothing about C.   Screening is a useful concept, but we are often over eager to apply it.  For example:

Mood Swings – Since your internal state must pass through time, you know that in the absence of outside influences, your state today can only depend on your state two days ago via the intermediary of your state yesterday.  So if something bad happened to you two days ago, but yesterday you felt fine, you might conclude you are over it; that bad event can't hurt your mood today unless it causes some new outside influence on you.  Alas, your mood only summarizes a small part of your internal state.  What happened two days ago can pop up and bother you today, even if yesterday you were fine. 

Disagreement – When someone disagrees with you, you should wonder what they know that you do not. They might explain their reasons for their differing belief, i.e., their evidence and analysis, and you might hear and ponder those reasons and yet find that you still disagree.  In this case you might feel that the fact that they disagree no longer informs you on this topic; the reasons for their belief screen their belief from informing your belief.  And yes, if they could give you all their reasons, that would be enough.  But except in a few extremely formal contexts, this is not even remotely close to being true.  We are usually only aware of a small fraction of the relevant evidence and analysis that influences our beliefs.   Disagreement is problematic, even after you've exchanged reasons.

Evolved Betrayal – We take actions that influence people around us, and we wonder how blameworthy we are regarding those actions.  We know evolution shaped our minds to promote our selfish genetic interests relative to others, but we'd like to feel we can ignore that fact when we are consciously aware of positive intentions toward them.  If our conscious intentions toward others were our only evolution-influenced mental factors which change our behavior toward others, this would be correct; intentions would screen evolved selfishness from our behavior.  Alas, this seems quite unlikely.  Our minds are very complex, and a great many processes influence each choice we make, processes about which we are mostly unaware. 

For example, if we take an action that gives us selfish benefits, and if our minds saw clues with enough info to feasibly identify that selfish action, the fact that we had no conscious awareness of intending to achieve that selfish benefit should offer little reassurance.  It is a good bet that our mind was influenced by this selfish benefit, as well as by the impressions others might get from seeing such a selfish action.  You can hurt the ones you love, on "purpose."

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