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XV

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*

Me.

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?

No.

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

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

That is not the natural way of things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn't being rational hard?

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

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

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

What is supposed to be hard about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the hard part is changing these characteristics.

And indeed that is hard.

But not because life is hard.

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

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

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

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

*   *   *


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

Elliot Temple on July 27, 2007

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