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.
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?
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.