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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 on January 4, 2006

Comments (8)

I have a comment and a question.

My comment is that moral problems do not seem to fit neatly into your two-fold classification of problems into painful "coercion" and painless "inner conflict". A scientist can struggle with the contradictions between quantum mechanics and relativity for half her life, without feeling bad about the problem. But if she is struggling with the conflicting demands of striving for academic tenure, and being available to her children when they need her, that problem necessarily hurts.

My question is this: If through negligence you hurt a good friend, ought you to feel bad about it?

Kolya at 3:26 PM on January 4, 2006 | #65
Hi Kolya,

I'm going to skip your question for now, because I need to understand more about your view. I'm not clear on just why you think the teacher's problem absolutely, necessarily must hurt.

Some teachers struggle with those issues and believe it to be a hard but pain-free process. What are they missing?

On some level moral and other problems are the same: they are electrical impulses and they are solved by conjecture and refutation. What are the specific differences above that level which are critical to setting them apart? I think the best way to answer this would be to show the differences between feeling bad about a moral issue, and feeling bad about a purely factual issue (which I believe you agree need not hurt).

Elliot at 1:44 AM on January 7, 2006 | #66
we may ahve to chuck this one to a difference of opinions, tgheories, or definiations:

for you, coercion seems to be the defination of evil, bad, etc. While I can understand that coercion can have a bad effect, its effects and whether a persons actions and life are good is debatable. It is not reliable, but neither is any other method. I have first and second hand accoutns of explainations going in one ear and out the other, and I also see sometimes force or manipulation instills the emotional response desired [and most likly good or nuetral effect]. Additionally, the idea of causing pain or confusion for a greater good in the long run is surly not a foriegn concept.

Perhaps due to the definition or the late hour, I found this post particularly hard to follow

I understand that you subcribe at least in part to TCS, and that that lifestyle holds certain truths sacred, and this idea stems from what I understand of those. I do not subscibe to TCS, and on the 1 point I disagree, I too seemd to disagree with this extension of that thinking. Chalk it up to foolishness, idocy, or contrariness on my part if you must, but I doubt any argument you could muster would change my mind on this.

Sitraahra at 5:22 AM on January 28, 2006 | #67
Why would I "Chalk it up to foolishness, idocy, or contrariness on my part if you must" when this is the perfect opportunity to blame Bush?

Seriously, those are not the kinds of explanations I go for.

As coercion describes problem solving gone wrong, I don't see how that could be any good.

Elliot at 5:33 AM on January 28, 2006 | #68
well, it reminds me abit about a definition fo a gun I once read in Lois McMaster Bujolds sci-fi series:
a gun is a tool for changing a persons mind.

In other words, coercion, which you say is the breakdown of an argument, may have a place in problem which you are not allowing by that definition. That is why I said coercion may have good effects.

I specifically marked out possible excuses for disagreement since I anticipated that this concept might be a basic truth or rest on base truths for you, and a conflict of paradigms is unliky to reveal much for either of us

Sitraahra at 11:56 PM on January 28, 2006 | #69
Guns don't change people's mind. They still think they are right. They just prefer not to be shot. When you stop pointing the gun, they go back to what they were doing before.

Godwin explained it this way:

Let us consider the effect that coercion produces upon the mind of him against whom it is employed. It cannot begin with convincing; it is no argument. It begins with producing the sensation of pain, and the sentiment of distaste. It begins with violently alienating the mind from the truth with which we wish it to be impressed. It includes in it a tacit confession of imbecility. If he who employs coercion against me could mould me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak.

Elliot at 11:58 PM on January 28, 2006 | #70
whether a gun changes a person mind depends on how the tool is employed. It can persuade other that you are not an easy target, that you are dangerous, that they should not attack you, that an area is defended, that a person should act carfully around you. As I said, your thinking is too narrow,a nd you elimnate all sorts of possible ways to communicate. Simply pointing a gun is imbecilery, but usualy the perosn pointg a gun wants it to have some sort of effect,a nd historically it has proven useful for both agressor and defendors. This metaphor can be explanded to war in gerneal, and indeed, wars have forced changes in thinking in the past.

I find godwins resposne inadequate and full of assumptions. Coercion is an extension of an argument applied with mental, emotional, or physical forcec, and be employed in such a way as to manipulate a person, and the person being coerced may not realize that they are being maniupulated. It will probably induce discomfort or pain, but not neccesarily at the purveyor of the coercion. Coecrion can also be employed intelligently [as opposed to blindly, ie, stupidly] to evoke responses that you want. Coecrion may be a last, dangerous resort in some cases, or more quickly employed in others, but the man who belitles it lives in a fantasy where the only force that matters in wining an argument is the weight of logic: this does not reflect history, politics, or commen sense.

Sitraahra at 2:13 AM on January 29, 2006 | #71
You are not differentiating properly between changing one's mind and changing one's environment.

Suppose I think my door is open, and then you close it. This is not changing my mind or persuading me. It is just moving my door. I already believed that if you closed my door then it'd be closed. How I interpret situations has not changed.

Contrast this to if I believe my door is made of solid wood, but then you explain it is actually hollow to save money. You poke a hole in the door to show me. Now I change my mind about what the door is and was made of. How I interpret situations has changed.

Elliot at 3:16 AM on January 29, 2006 | #72

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)