The TEACHER has just explained the details of an assignment to the entire class.A STUDENT raises his hand.
TEACHER: [to the student] Yes, do you have a doubt relating to what I just said?
STUDENT: As it happens, indeed I do miss. Is this project compulsory?
TEACHER: Yes, it is compulsory for all to do.
[Short uncomfortable pause in dialogue.]
(the same) STUDENT: All right, if you don’t mind miss, I’d like to take a step back and question that.
TEACHER: What do you mean? Could we discuss this later—you’re wasting everyone’s time.
STUDENT: I’m afraid we shouldn’t do this later. I have a genuine doubt that I guarantee appeals to the whole class. When you say it is compulsory, what do you mean by that?
TEACHER: It just means you have to do it—no questions asked.
STUDENT: And why is that?
TEACHER: Because it’s compulsory. The authorities demand of it, you just have to do it. No choice.
STUDENT: No choice, huh? What if I don’t do it?
TEACHER: Then you’ll be in trouble. Your parents will be called and will have to face the Principal.
STUDENT: So? Does that in any apparent way imply I have no choice in this matter?
TEACHER: It usually does.
STUDENT: But wh-
TEACHER: OK stop. You’re being completely unreasonable. We still need to complete the syllabus for next month’s important examinations. There’s no time for this. (to everyone) I hope the instructions for this assignment are clear. You are all supposed to hand in your work by the end of the week.
(the same) STUDENT: “completely unreasonable”? Really? I’m the one being unreasonable here? I thought it followed that this whole concept of compulsion is an existing proof of unreasonability. An easy means to make or not make students do something, disallowing it to be criticized and making them believe you are some sacred entity always spitting out the unquestionable, holiest, infallible piece of advice. Really, what the heck does compulsory even mean? And why do you get that anti-rational, coercive, mind-inhibiting power?
I know there are like an uncountably infinite “two kinds of people in this world”, but there are two kinds of people in this world: those who say it can’t be done because they don’t know how it can be done and those who say (and know) it can be done even when they don’t know how it can be done just then.
There is boundless potential to acquire agency for each person in every situation. But that potential is often covered with layers of pessimism or the implicit “rule-book” (established by society or culture) which people default to that inhibits taking agency. Hence, that potential is barely noticed by some.
If anything is permitted by the vastly admissible laws of physics then the only thing preventing it from being practically possible is not knowing how (ignorance; a lack of knowledge on people’s part). Simply recognizing this, can allow one to notice the incredible potential for agency in seemingly inutile human beings.
To create the knowledge we need to bring about the solutions we want. It’s not impossible. It’s just that we don’t know how (yet) and we can find out how.
I won’t further write here about noticing (or recognizing) potential for taking agency. But rather realizing it, as it’s much more important I think.
How can you go from recognizing that there’s always potential for taking agency to actually being agentic?
The secret is obvious
For some not so obvious reason(s), often the most obvious choice is hardest to be able to grasp into awareness. In his book Obvious Adams: The Story of a Successful Businessman (free PDF here), Robert Updegraff depicts the importance of (and lack of people thereof) doing the obvious thing to get the job done. He uses the character “Obvious Adams” who was so-called due to his incredible knack at realizing the most obvious things at work which no one else seemed to have guessed. He was one of those people who would make you wonder “how couldn’t have I thought of this before?” This skill of his ultimately led to him becoming the very successful person he became.
In the story, after sitting spellbound through a talk from the president of a famous advertising agency, Obvious Adams was determined that he’d like to work for the man.
So what did he do? He made an appointment and went and told him so.
“I have decided that I want to get into the advertising business and that I want to work for you, and I thought the obvious thing to do was to come and tell you so.”
The president originally thought that Adams was not fit for the job since he lacked alertness. But later got convinced that
“there ought to be some place for a lad who had enough sense to see the obvious thing to do and then to go about it directly, without any fuss or fireworks, and do it!”
So, Adams was hired. A series of similar events then turned out. There would be a problem no one else could seem to tackle. Then Obvious Adams would figure something out and solve the trouble. Thereafter people would scratch their heads thinking “how could it have been otherwise?”
Becoming more of a valuable person with each problem solved, Obvious Adams inevitably became the most-talked-of man in the advertising space and was considered a very successful businessman. All resulting from his gift at spotting the conventionally hidden obvious choice.
“What was the secret of this man’s success”, the author pondered. “There is no secret—it is obvious!”
You can acquire great agency doing the obvious thing. It allows to devise a methodic way to get to the intention or goal. Hence letting agency flourish. This whole while that I’ve been talking about obviousness, I haven’t been talking about the feeling of something being obvious. Almost all opinions or beliefs a person has are obvious to that person. But the obvious thing in Obvious Adams’ sense (and in the sense of this blog post) is rarely obvious at first. Even to Obvious Adams, reality isn’t obvious and everything he says mustn’t be obvious. But when Adams does his plain “magic” and comes to a solution, it becomes obvious to everyone. Yet nobody could come up with that obvious conclusion. How do you do this Obvious Adams’ magic? Why is it so hard to conceive of the most obvious choices?
The problem is rooted in toying around with our own preconceptions and faulty reasoning rather than seeking and analyzing facts and searching for good explanations.
See this video of Elon Musk explaining the concept of first principles reasoning (not compulsory for those who’ll be doing so for the umpteenth time):
Key point from the video:
“Somebody could say, ‘Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be… Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.’
With first principles, you say, ‘What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?’ It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, ‘If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?’
It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour (total). So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”
Notice how obvious it becomes (and how foolish to think otherwise) when Elon explains the battery pack example. Without being caught up analyzing preconceptions, with first principles we note down the stuff needed to make a battery pack. Then each of the costs of those material constituents is figured out. With the facts laid out in front, it’s realized that the costs to create a battery pack are astonishingly low. We just need some clever way to assemble all those parts so we can sell them for way cheaper than they have been sold.
With first principles you don’t follow your preconceptions to arrive at a conclusion. You don’t follow your brain’s tendency to tread on the path of least effort and reason by analogy. You are not being uncritical to whatever the traditional belief is. The conclusion that battery packs are never going to get any cheaper is a very bad explanation. It is reasoned by sheer induction (“it will always be the same because it has always been the same”). With first principles you seek good explanations through a critical lens.
Being able to reason by first principles allows one to abstain from pessimism and the “can’t be done” mindset. It implicitly, but quite strongly influences the person reasoning to acquire agency. It can be very action-oriented letting you go from “We can bring down the prices” to an actually cheaper battery pack that has hit the market. This is the magic.
When the custom tries to steer you off course, fight it with your rational criticisms to the anti-rational ideas in the culture.
The reason the conclusion from this kind of reasoning becomes obvious later is the sheer nature of the explanation. A hard to vary, simple one. But they aren’t obvious before because we rarely think in ways that allow for us to not reason by analogy and reason by first principles. We get caught up analyzing preconceptions, not facts. Nor do we go about critiquing the traditional belief or allowing creativity to flow.
Seeking agency, not authority
You don’t need to consult authority to become agentic. You don’t need anyone’s explicit permission to be taking agency. In a brilliant Twitter thread, Brett Hall writes:
#1 In a dynamic society (like ours) the last reason anyone should seek political office (authority!) at any level is “to make a difference”.
While the first reason should be to protect the mechanisms in place so others (scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, etc) can.
#2 Most (not all) progress happens in wider society in spite of, not because of “political will”.
The history of progress is a history of ideas whose genesis was in labs, cafes, factories, pubs and homes.
Not senate chambers.
Political forces “catch up”. They don’t drive.
#3 The exception is where there exist mechanisms that stifle rapid progress. Reducing the power political (and bureaucratic) authorities have in a dynamic society is perhaps the most virtuous thing a “leader” can do in peacetime.
#4 … No person can flourish most fully by seeking… authority.
Originally tweeted by Brett Hall (@ToKTeacher) on June 20, 2022.
I’m not really suggesting going against the law. But only that seeking authority won’t necessarily give you agency and the proper creative space for doing something good. Any form of compliance that’s based upon an authoritative pull isn’t healthy. It’s quite fixated then. And a little dogmatic.
Instead of seeking authority, just do your stuff. Take agency. Try not to break the thoughtfully laid out laws. If your work does include breaking them, ideally the only harm you should cause is to the arbitrary law. Not to anyone or to anything else.
Uncertainty in the face of agency
The world is uncertain. Things aren’t intended to be and stay as they are. Any plan can be refuted with uncertain events panning out. How can one realize agency when nothing seems to be linear or even certain? That’s an anti-agency excuse that might crop up. So it’s important to address.
Sure, everything is uncertain. But taking agency actually reduces uncertainty. You have control over events. Something entirely unconceived of before could absolutely still decide to pop up. So what? You are much better off taking agency in an uncertain world where, by definition you can produce particular results you want rather than just going with the flow because “it’s all uncertain anyway”.
Reject the helpless mind-set that puts humans at an insignificant scale. We are not insignificant. Human choices can literally change the world. It’s a lack of knowledge again. We can fill the gap by taking agency.
I don’t like to give advice. And I also don’t like most advice. (See why I’m anti-advice here). But some crave the “how to”. They crave concrete advice. This section is for them.
Well, I don’t have a prescription. I just have an opinion on some obvious ways to become a more agentic person:
Committing yourself by various means (having your word on the line, etc.)
Making your potential pool of opportunities grow
Doing the above by being around places and people that are amazing
Do the above by reaching out to them—it’s simple
Create brain neuroplasticity by seeking novelty (in books, music, people) or by
Doing those things you’d never wish to do
Go deeper than the surface in almost everything
Don’t accept “it can’t be done”
Talk to people smarter than you
Be motivated by love, guided by reason
Don’t take anyone’s word for it—question everything
There’s definitely a lot more creative and unique ways to become more agentic. (Feel free to add points you think fit in the comments!)
It boils down to understanding (in any variant form) that If anything is permitted by the vastly admissible laws of physics then the only thing preventing it from being practically possible is not knowing how and that ignorance is a lack of knowledge. Knowledge that we can create.
To achieve what you intend to you don’t need to know how to do so just then. You just need to know it can be done.
Agency is such a beautiful and important thing. We can take it and shape the world according to our desire.
“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
With this sort of understanding—speaking for myself, at least—not being an agentic person is like a disgrace to me being a person itself.
This post was written keeping in mind Effective Ideas‘ Post Prize for June 2022 (this month’s theme is agency). I hope to win.
I’ve mentioned the Robert Updegraff’s book (Obvious Adams), Elon Musk’s explanation of first principles thinking, Brett Hall’s Twitter thread on not seeking authority to make a “difference”, and Steve Jobs quote in the end. All those things obviously helped crafting this post.
There’s a whole side of argument that supports the idea of keeping false beliefs for psychological consolation—beliefs that act as some sort of a placebo. There are a couple of holes in this argument that make it a bad explanation which I wish to point out in this blog post.
Many people (atheists including) argue with atheists that belief in God has a deep spiritual and psychological importance for human beings. This, of course, does not reveal that God exists (facts don’t care about your feelings and everything) but it is something to consider. Believing in a supreme power provides many people with a sense of relief and consolation. So should we believe in God for the psychological benefits?
First let me point out an obvious fact that you cannot fake belief. You can’t know that God does not exist because there’s no good explanation for him to exist and the evidence is certainly all against him and at the same time believe in God just to reap the psychological benefits. It doesn’t work like that, I’m sorry.
Yet, the argument still lies: why not let believers do their thing if they get a great sense of spirituality and consolation in their believing?
Well, firstly, the same belief can have a very bad effect on one’s mind too. The psychological effect of committing an apparent sin can be tremendous if one thinks they’re going to have to go to hell for it. Or that one’s soul is going to be reincarnated in the body of an insect. It doesn’t all have to be pretty and consoling—false belief can work in the other way too.
Secondly, a seemingly spiritual edge does not weigh strongly in the battle against what is true. And I say “seemingly” because trying to understand the Universe the way it actually is in its natural realm without invoking anything supernatural can have a deeply spiritual effect too. I won’t say it is spirituality. Because the word is clouded with a religiously implicit meaning. But the effect that people may get from a spiritual experience can happen without invoking the supernatural. So often I am struck with awe when I ponder the vastness of the cosmos, when I read a passage in a book that seems to expand the horizon of my consciousness, or when I’m just having a very deep conversation with a friend. A monk need not invoke “the spirit” yet can still gain a much greater psychological effect than when someone feels at one with the spirit or God.
Anyway, I digress there. The point I want to make is that that which is true wins over that which only makes one feel good. A placebo eventually fails to do its job. There’s no guarantee and any good explanation for every placebo to even work. Ignorance may be temporary bliss. But in the long run, you’re better off correcting your misconceptions instead of staying with dogmatic ones.
I don’t know why I’ve stuck with God as an example for explaining the problem I tackle in this post so far but any kind of argument that follows along the lines of “Isn’t it still good to believe in X because it can provide with confidence / comfort / consolation / etc.?” contains holes I’ve already mentioned.
If you believe in a lucky pencil, there’s no good advantage in that. For starters, if you forget that pencil on the day of your examination and then realize so only when you have entered the exam hall, your mental anguish might make you fail the test. Then, let’s say you did use the pencil. Getting an outstanding grade then would only make you perhaps believe more in the power of the pencil; ignoring all the long nights you cranked up in preparation of the test.
All in all, believing in something for psychological benefit is a bad explanation for why someone ought to stick with that belief. It forgets the opposite effect that belief might have and also the importance of taking into consideration only good explanations with reasonable evidence (a truth-based lens instead of a psychologically pleasing one).
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
In 1973 Israeli psychologist George Tamarin presented a mind-blowing study on the effect of what’s “written in the Bible” on the way people uncritically perceive good or bad.
Tamarin presented to over a thousand Israeli schoolchildren (aged 8-14) the account of the battle of Jericho in the book of Joshua (the sixth book in the Hebrew Bible). In this battle Joshua and his soldiers destroyed the entire city of Jericho except for the “silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron [that were] sacred to the LORD [and would] go into the treasury of the LORD”. Other than that, Joshua and his people “utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword… And they burned the city with fire” (Joshua 6:20-21). Why did they do this horrendous act? Long story short: God told Joshua to do so.
After this story (or supposed fact) was told to all those children, they were asked to make a simple moral judgment. They were to answer this question: “Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?” They could choose between three options: ‘A’ for total approval of the action, ‘B’ for partial approval or disapproval, and ‘C’ for total disapproval. 66% of the children completely approved destroying the city of Jericho and everyone in it on voting for ‘A’, 8% went with a neutral stance ‘B’, and 26% went with option ‘C’.
Some who went with ‘C’ were not necessarily guided by a contra-biblical or a non-discriminatory attitude. A ten-year-old girl disapproving the act gave the reason for her choosing so: “I think it (destroying Jericho) is not good, since the Arabs are impure and if one enters an impure land one will also become impure and share their curse.” Another reasoned, “I think Joshua did not act well as they could have spared the animals for themselves (for their own pleasure, instead of killing everyone in Jericho).”
Now now, what made the study mind-blowing was the control group. A group of 168 Israeli schoolchildren this time were given the exact same description of the event Joshua and his soldiers performed at Jericho but Joshua’s name was replaced by ‘General Lin’ and [‘Jericho’] replaced by a ‘Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago’. General Lin only got a 7% approval rating, with 18% partial approval or disapproval, and 75% disapproving totally.
Why did this happen?
We know why. Because it was God who told Joshua. But General Lin? Well, he was a blood-thirsty, genocidal, immorally apathetic, evilly driven, irrational General.
When their loyalty to Judaism (the children’s religion) was out of the picture, the children seemed to follow the common principles modern day humans would converge upon (totally disapproving genocide). But when it was Joshua, it wasn’t looked at from the same critical perspective.
After a while, this observation isn’t even quite surprising.
The conclusion is that chauvinism (the unreasonable belief in the dominance of one’s own group) influences moral judgment and that the uncritical teaching of certain ideas (in the Bible, for example) forms illogical prejudices.
Instantiating these infallible, not-to-be-questioned ideas into the curious minds of children thereby hindering their critical powers only helps in having more followers of an orthodox religion but does not add to the progress of our species, to the amazing potential of humanity and to straight up common sense.
Though this was just a test of ethical reasoning, we really see that religion in its dogmatic form can do much, much harm to society.
Question everything. Peace out.
(Also, before you come at me, please note: I don’t have anything against a particular religion. I have a thing against all religions that do not allow their ideas to be questioned or criticized and hence impede human progress.)
“The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but [hu]mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.”
The Space Race (1955-1975) between the United States and the USSR was primarily motivated by a race for achievement—the craving to display technological and intellectual superiority. Rivalry drawn from the Cold War and sparked by USSR’s launch of the first artificial satellite into space, the Space Race was an intense period resulting in great human progress. If I was a child witnessing the first man step foot on the Moon back then, I couldn’t have helped but imagine all the seemingly far-fetched endeavors humankind would have embraced and succeeded in doing so relating to space travel in the coming decades. If you’d have come from the future and told me in the year 1972 after I’d just witnessed 12 men walk on the Moon that the number of people who will have set foot on the Moon by the year 2022 would still be 12, and that no human will even have touched the surface of Mars by then, I would certainly not have believed you.
Yet, this was bound to happen. After the Space Race ended, humans regressed in their development of space technology. A look at the amount of money NASA was getting during and after the Space Race is shocking. During the competition, outrageous sums of money were allocated to the NASA federal budget relative to what usually should have been the case. (Perhaps this is what made President Kennedy so confident in his famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech?):
The graph shows the preposterous amount of money NASA received as its budget during the Space Race, then we see the giant dip in it as the Space Race ended. (source)
After the Race ended, things got back to normal and Mars sure was out of question.
Though progress was slow after, we were still in the Space Age. Fairly so as we literally entered a new phase in technology. But recently that term needs to add another word before it as the impossible becomes the norm. The Commercial Space Age is here.
In recent years, as space has gotten commercialized, the number of objects people put into space per year has arisen exponentially. (source)
Efforts made by SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Boeing and the others have led to great advancements and allowed for cooperation with government agencies like NASA and the ESA. SpaceX is literally building a rocket to get people to Mars—it’s happening! In seemingly lesser extreme scenarios commercial space is winning still. Inevitably though, with commercialization of space comes deep political and territorial implications. Not to mention moral, scientific, and economical as well. With this an interesting set of problems arise as space becomes democratized and humans explore the vast realms of the cosmos. Problems that can have enormous effects for the whole of human civilization.
Problem #1: Space junk
There’s a ton of debris orbiting our Earth. Ever since the launch of the first artificial satellite into space, we have been sending out stuff to revolve around our planet at an ever increasing rate. And it seems we’ll keep increasing the number we pump out each year. Space junk is stuff we sent out that no longer serves a useful function. Like dead spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, tiny fragments of metal, or even paint flecks that are caused by orbital collisions with other stuff. Garbage disposal almost always requires a lot of mental effort. And there is a huge importance to do so, hence we go through the trouble. But removal of junk from space is supposedly harder than any garbage disposal system here on Earth. Scientists estimate there are more than 100,000 pieces of orbital debris between 1 cm and 10 cm. And tens of millions of pieces are smaller than 1 cm. And there are about 37,000 pieces of large debris (10cm+) as of May 2022 (source). Orbital speeds are so fast that being hit by debris the size of a pea would be like being hit by a bowling ball moving at 300 miles per hour.
The satellite network allows for global communication, GPS and navigation, weather data, looking out for asteroids and a lot more. Technology we definitely don’t want to lose. The most dangerous possibility is a collision cascading effect. If a satellite clashes with another one in the right manner, it will smash through the satellite and thousands of little pieces will be floating in orbit, ready to clash with other working satellites and destroy them. This may not only lead to most or all satellites being destroyed but it may also create a prison here on Earth not allowing us to send any other rockets up in space until we figure out how to clear up the mess. This is the worst case scenario but it’s very much possible. A few collisions and satellite damages don’t seem to matter but each one does. A single collision can create a ton of junk particles that can lead to even more collisions resulting in this exponential cascade effect.
Problem #2: Who owns real estate and resources in space?
The individual or organization that reaches the territory first? Someone who simply claims they own the land? The government? Who owns space in space? May explicit ownership lead to other parties wanting to conquer the same land for resources and territorial power? Do we need laws for space? (Turns out we do have a field called space law.)
Problem #3: Alien attack
“If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”
I wonder if it is our human condition that fights wars, and destroys whole cities for parochial reasons that is the cause for the common assumption that aliens will be evil and we should be careful encountering them for they might as well kill us all and steal our resources. There is a whole philosophical debate behind this that I don’t want to delve into here but I don’t think it is likely at all that aliens will make us go extinct. For a civilization so intelligent that we come into contact with them, they must have progressed morally as well. And I don’t know of any reason why in the absurdly abundant universe they would want to steal our “resources”. Nevertheless, I may be wrong in my optimism. We would still need to take significant measures while entering into new relationships with alien species (if they happen to be out there in the vastness of the cosmos).
We must take the high road and think and choose in terms of the perspective of humanity, as Toby Ord puts it in his book The Precipice. In our scope of space exploration and the big threats that are posed with it, we must reach a place where we keep chances of something this terrible happening at a low minimum. This means investing and innovating in even those areas with very unlikely chances of existential catastrophe. We are already ideating technology to remove debris from space. One method is catching debris in space using a net. For tinier pieces of debris lasers might be the way to go. In terms of space real estate, we are creating treaties and space laws that would act as sort of the constitution of the universe. In doing so, we must give a lot of thought. We must not create a dogmatic system of any sorts.
Progress is essential for human survival. These are so-called problems which may pose existential implications for the sole reason that we haven’t progressed beyond a point that they no longer be of such extreme threat. In the 1900s tuberculosis (TB) was one of the most feared threats to the future of civilization. But now (though some are still suffering), it is on no one’s list of things that could potentially wipe out humanity. Science allowed us to advance and find out the cause and cure of the Great White Plague. In the last century people also thought we would run out of food for the increasing population and so mass-famine will be the end of human civilization. But then perhaps history’s most underrated important person, Norman Borlaug, who is credited with saving over a Billion people worldwide from starvation, deployed techniques to exponentially increase agricultural production (leading to the term Green Revolution). No one thinks we shall run out of food now. One thing is for sure. We cannot stand here as unaccountable human beings and just watch everything happen. We must interfere and steer the starship of humanity in a direction that allows for the safeguarding of our future potential. The biggest threat to humanity is ourselves if we do not solve the biggest threats that pose a risk to our existence.
It’s important to have a culture of criticism that allows for progress in a free society. At the same time, we need people with interest to be working on the pressing problems we face today. We are lucky to have great minds already working on removing debris from Earth-orbit, making regulations relating to space estate and resources, and pondering on making careful contact with alien civilizations.
We can save ourselves from a catastrophe at any time. Before it sparks up, before it scales to reach the wider world and before complete doom. Although it may be hard in the latter stages, we can still solve problems. Yet, it would be best to prevent the worst catastrophes to even spark up.
“I can’t help myself, it’s human nature, human nature Who’s to say what’s meant to be? Why can’t we be on our worst behavior, worst behavior When it comes so naturally?”
Zara Larsson (I Would Like)
The study of human nature in evolutionary psychology makes us humans seem like totally irrational creatures, “… survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” as Richard Dawkins wrote in one of his most popular books of all time.
Nevertheless, explanations about human nature from evolutionary psychology have been to me, and as I observed to some others too, quite pleasing. It’s entertaining—for lack of a better word—to think that the way humans lead their lives today in some situations is the result of (or is caused by) our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ survival pressures since they evolved in circumstances that needed for example, a fear impulse. And it’s very relieving to put the blame on “human nature” than our conscious human self who can make rational choices.
It’s kind of weird that some feel pleased by evolutionary psychology explanations for human behavior; to think of everyone (whole culture, family and themselves included) as these mechanically driven irrational people—that’s a rare human characteristic. So first I list down a few aspects of evo-pscyh explanations for our behavior as irrational human beings (as it claims) due to which they seem really promising to accept (or simply as the title suggests, below are some points on why evo-pscyh explanations are pleasing):
They bring visual stories to mind: It’s easy to imagine a primitive Homo sapiens with long hair, a healthy physique, a few leaves covering his body, walking around with some stone tools. “Tiger making the bushes rustle” and the whole “eat and not be eaten” necessity for the conditions of being able to survive, reproduce and mutate in the Savannah Plains—we can easily create visual pictures of phenomena that may have led to certain impulses being ingrained inside our big human preprogrammed brains. This helps explicate the theory better and we tend to believe it due to its apparent coherence.
They suggest that “it’s not you, it’s everyone”: Let’s say you’ve calmed down and now rationally judge an impulsive act you’d taken recently. We do this all the time. With these kinds of explanations though, it becomes so simple (although you may argue to the extent to which we actually do this—Zara Larson’s song being an exception) to put the blame on your primitive human self: irrationally guided by an emotion of anger when something in your surroundings tips it and you supposedly lose all control of your rational side. Evolutionary psychology explanations allow you to rest assured. It’s not just you, but everyone. Everyone has this irrationality problem. Explanations about evolutionary psychology are evolutionarily pleasing too (we are casting off blame from ourselves because being accountable for something that goes wrongly is bad for genes!). See, when you’ve studied evo-pscyh as an amateur at least you can’t help but put all of human behavior through its evolutionary lens. That brings me to the next point.
They can easily be used as a thumb rule to (badly) explain most behaviors: It gets easy to explain all we ever do as this product of the evolution of our human mind. In some way we have this encoded information that is responsible for all our choices. Heck we have no choices is what one could conclude! But that’s not the case. We are creative people. And there’s more to just genes that have an impact on human behavior.
Memes & Creativity
If we’ve got a survival impulse to eat and satisfy the feeling of hunger, why do people fast? How do people fast? Why do people abstain from sexual activity? Why do some feel thrilled going skydiving when we’re supposedly to have a fear of heights encoded within? Perhaps the biggest question: why do people commit suicide?
Sure we are all influenced by our human genetic inclinations but that’s not the full picture. And unless we get the full picture, we can’t say we truly understand human behavior.
Memes, as we popularly know of them today are pictures shared on the Internet topped off by certain texts that make them funny. However the term meme was actually coined for a different purpose as you might know. A meme is a cultural idea that gets replicated into minds of people that affects behavior.
Humans create their own knowledge. Knowledge beyond that encoded in their genes caused by a process that we suppose is natural selection. The theory of evolution by natural selection is an example of this in action. That’s a meme in a sense and it affects behavior. People who generally accept this idea don’t believe in the theory of creationism. The idea that a supernatural being or god created the Universe. People who would earlier have believed that god did so must be praying to him (going to Church for instance) but if they adopt this idea they may have changed their minds and they would probably remove church from their routine. Even the idea of god is a meme. It has been replicated through generations in people’s minds and survived. In this sense, memes act on existing memes. But memes can act on genes as well. It’s likely that people fast, commit suicide, and do other such contra-genetic behaviors for this reason. This sort of knowledge influences their behavior.
It is this knowledge creation aspect of people that puts them beyond the mere power of their encoded genetics.
“Creative thought can and does allow us to transcend our genetic programming.”
References & Recommendations
This blog post was inspired by a tweet by Lulie Tanett and contains ideas I grasped from David Deutsch’s work; most notably in his book The Beginning of Infinity.
I’d recommend listening to this podcast on The Primacy of Ideas with David Deutsch as it touches more on the subject of this post.
Lastly, this blog post by O Falibilista on a critique of “human nature” through the lens of evolutionary psychology and memetic theory explains ideas covered in this post very, very well.
I was in the audience of my school debate last week. A two hour experience that made me ponder on the extent to which school debates are meaningless. I suggest a better and complete alternative to debates in this post. But first, let me state my observations during my time listening to the debate held at my school. And then the mistakes I think the system embodies.
Breakdown: When someone rebutted a statement made in a participants’ proposition speech, that participant had a breakdown (or “choked” as they say,) under the apparent pressure. The rebuttal proved that the participant had made a point completely contradictory to her stance in her speech. And because the participant then realized thus, she faced a breakdown. To be fair, there were easily more than 500 people seated in the hall listening to the debate take place. But still it made me wonder why this happened in the first place. What are debates for? Why are they important? In the broad scheme of things: does truth matter or does justifying your “stance” for or against a particular thing? Why is a person feeling so much stress if the supposedly main idea is to seek the truth? Why is truth-seeking a “competition” instead of a collaboration here? What’s going on? (I want to leave!)
Arrogance: I noticed there being a sense of arrogance in the tone of some speakers’ voice when giving their main speech and especially while answering other people’s questions/rebuttals. It seems teenagers find this sort of arrogance in the form of drama as great entertainment so there definitely was hooting and cheering which encouraged more of this behavior from the participants. But it was completely unnecessary. And sounded foolish too, at times. People would speak in a mocking way and make comments on how anyone could be against (or for) the given subject provided the “evidence” (which was a couple or so—at times parochial—”examples”). But why? Is there really a need to be arrogant in the search for truth? Or has this debate bubble mistaken that competition and not critical collaboration is what it takes to come to a rational conclusion?
Simply justifying the arbitrary perspective matters: Participants in the debate are given “marks” (yes, this system is everywhere) and a good weightage is imposed on justifying or proving the perspective (for/against) with arguments for the same. Apart from falling into a few common logical fallacies, it all just neatly needs to fit to prove the stance. But being a truth seeker is way more important than being a persuader for the long-term progress and well-being for society. A persuader can’t hide the truth for long. Weightage (if there even should be a system as such for finding out the truth—hint: there shouldn’t) should be stressed on how well a participant reasons to find out what actually is the case instead of on the participants’ capacity of using arguments to please their arbitrary perspective. Truth is not a for/against discussion.
Speaking well matters more than the truth: Speaking of the criteria of marks given, a huge chunk is reserved for how well a participant speaks out there in front of their “respected opponents” and the crowd sitting in the audience. Sure, public speaking is important. But some aren’t so good at it. So the “competition” is already reserved for people who are confident speakers. But confident speakers can be faulty reasoners. And even though explicating knowledge is important, some can be better at doing so in other forms. Like through written (or typed out-) words or other art forms, rather than plain-old speaking. Apart from this, speaking confidently while all other things being seemingly more or less coherent is “all they look for”. Maybe it’s that wannabe confident speaker feeling that makes the person become a little arrogant—though that’s just my guess. Speaking is not that important as school debates make them to be relative to the truth.
Focus on truth: The debate framework is rigged and it misrepresents what’s actually important—reality that is and not your point of view. To fix something is to change it (at least to change it from its broken nature). So I’ll suggest an alternative to school debates (that is very far off from what a debate is) but it emphasizes on the important. So here’s a suggestion… do a collaborative project where a relatively complicated topic of interest—perhaps a meaningfully important one to human society (which almost necessarily should be of interest to the ones doing the project—this is key) is selected. The team gets to decide a specific time period (preferably anywhere between a week and 4 weeks) where they’d go through information about the topic through books, research papers, experiments, etc., conjecture new ideas, perform an experiment(s) on their own if they like, rationally observe phenomena regarding the topic at hand if possible, or conjecturing theories on others’ observations. Then, when perhaps all is done they come to a conclusion by the end of the time frame. We can create multiple teams if there’s multiple people. After the time ends, perhaps they converge on the truth. If they don’t, contradicting theories from different teams can criticize one another’s theories. Not argue and do rebuttals and all that in the debate sense (please that is hard to bear for me). But criticize maturely.
Less meaningless arguments, more cooperation and converging upon truth: If, after that whole process, two (or more) theories contradict by different teams doing their individual work, we don’t need to let the two teams keep arguing and pointing out their theory as the valid one. We don’t even need to make a compromise to seemingly end the conflict. Those two teams can still conjecture new theories, perhaps different from the individual two they came up with on account of new evidence or criticisms. But they shall come to something that really satisfies everyone (i.e. definitely isn’t a compromise), and of course aligns with reality. Again, truth seeking is not a competition so this shouldn’t be treated as one. Getting it right with your team shouldn’t matter. Getting it right as a whole should. Figuring out stuff is a reward in itself. And this is the reason why I stressed above that choosing a topic that interests everyone is important.
School debates don’t, in practice, allow for the all so important critical and creative thinking aspects of the mind to be utilized in search for truth. Because their primary focus isn’t the truth! It’s justifying an opinion (for/against) on a subject matter that has been imposed onto the participant. Speaking coherently and confidently is what’s rewarded. It’s sort of meaningless really. Competition is prevalent instead of collaboration. As a complete alternative to debates I suggest search for truth via a collaborative, creative and critical explanation seeking way to come to a conclusion regarding a subject/problem of interest.
Impatience usually is the cause of these four words. Sure, one may object saying, “I can’t explain everything to a child. Their understanding is not as high as mine. If I try to explain, there’ll be an infinite regress of “why” questions. Therefore, it’s just best to tell them to do or don’t do certain things because I say so.“
But isn’t that impatience? Why does the child need to match your level of understanding? If it’s a good, hard to vary explanation, there will be no protests or further “why” questions from the child since they shall understand why.
That aside, with those four words you’re unwittingly implicitly instantiating in the child a longing to seek for justification from authority. Authority, I emphasize, and not reality. You’re teaching the child that what matters is you and what you say. Above reason, above logic, above the truth—what matters is what you say. What you say is the truth (!) you teach.
This usually gets extended for the child to agree with all kinds of authority growing up (because of parenting tactics that instantiate in the child a longing for justification). The child will seek justification from her teachers, for instance. She won’t question a method the teacher uses she knows to be wrong but would rather simply do as is told. She may start converging with the teacher’s methods and literally forget that it’s wrong since she’s been implicitly told “whatever the authority says is true”.
Then it may spread out to the boss at work, news and media, the government, downright irrational cultural norms among others.
Those four words.
With those four words and the patterns of behavior that imply anything close to what those four words signify one inhibits the creative and critical faculties of the child. Curiosity is punished through that lens. Agreeing is rewarded. This is not how we solve our world’s problems! Who’s going to find a solution to cancer? A person who does things the way they’ve always been done? No wonder why they depict scientists as crazy individuals in movies. Heck, Albert Einstein is commonly known as the Mad Scientist! Yet his name is synonymous to the word Genius. I often wonder why there are so many contradictions in society.
The fact that one can simply use Because I say so as a tool to shut up the child, to make him do a thing or drop another, to let him completely be directed by what the authority wants of him, to damage the mind on what it means to find truth (justification from authority is what it teaches) and to hinder the sense of wonder a human child is blessed with having—all this shows why it is so not cool to utter those four, so easy to use words anywhere you want.
There’s no reason to feel bad doing this. Unfortunately the cause behind why it is so mainstream to replicate this kind of behavior of saying Because I say so is how we were all raised and all the ideas we implicitly received through culture. We were raised by society having this justification from authority mindset. Now when we find ourselves at an authority standpoint (as a parent, for instance) we assume the natural role following from that philosophy. But minds can change. The philosophies you embody are malleable. Please start Taking Children Seriously.
I turn 16 today. Here are some ideas (and questions) on my mind:
1. Are you going to wait for death to enjoy life too?
2. Tomorrow is simply a bonus.
3. Why do we choose to stay in a bad place when reason can easily get us out of it?
4. Some die at 25 yet aren’t buried until they’re 75.
5. Human feeling is beautiful when you understand it.
6. Question authority.
7. School is messed up. We’re going to change that for people to create a better world, who’s with me?
8. We’re going to Mars sooner than later.
9. The greatest of joys for me comes with understanding.
10. Opinions are like clouds in the sky. It’s hard to observe with opinions since they hide what’s beyond them.
11. Curiosity takes you places structure cannot.
12. Adults are fools. Children are wise. For children, everything is new. The adult hasn’t seen a new thing in years.
13. Life is simple. We make it complicated.
14. One of the most important questions you might ever ask yourself: “Are you letting yourself be guided by fear or by love?”
15. Don’t let the ego speak louder than your (desired) principles.
16. Dogma exists in many forms today. It is like poison to society but no one seduced by it knows their helpless condition.
17. Creating knowledge is how we understand the world.
18. The Universe does not speak our language. We go forth explaining it. Thereby creating explanatory knowledge. That’s how we understand it.
19. Our place in the Universe today may seem insignificant but people’s choices really do have the ability to transform the world.
20. Reason is fun.
21. Reading books probably had the greatest impact on my life and it continues to do so still.
22. Not anyone should be worthy of being called “a friend”. Have a strong definition of that supreme word.
23. If they really love you, they’d care about your desires rather than their expectations.
24. Make sure you’re having fun. Otherwise you might as well have been an investment banker.
25. Criticism is good. We tend to shun away from it. That inhibits growth.
26. You tend to dislike ideas by people your emotional human self hates. Separate ideas from people to have greater judgment.
27. People aren’t inherently bad. There can be good intentions behind evil actions. The bad ideas that a person holds in their mind are the cause to why you think a person is bad. Separate ideas from people.
28. Allow for neuroplasticity of your mind. Hear out ideas, listen to songs and study people you’d naturally disagree with.
29. More history, less forecasts.
30. Cold DM/email people more often. Remember though: people care utmost about their self-interests. Find the area where you mutually gain.
31. “Experienced” people that tell you the world or the Internet is a dark place, a dangerous one either haven’t seen as much as the world as they claim to or they have (unbeknownst to them) fallen into a dark human tendency to remember bad events more vividly than the good ones.
32. Reasons to hate are seemingly stronger than reasons to love.
33. Things that are underrated: thinking, waiting and learning (not the school way of course; learning the real way).
34. Take nobody’s word for it. Not even yours.
35. Actions speak louder than words.
36. The future lies in people’s choices. There’s an infinite number of possibilities that future can carve into, so being pessimistic is simply being ignorant of our potential.
37. Writing to the mind can be like what massage is to the stiff muscles of the body.
38. Don’t be guided by your mechanical way of reasoning while making important decisions.
39. Perspective is everything.
40. Isn’t life so beautiful?
If you had a fraction of the fun reading this as much as I had writing it, I think we both win.
Hat tips (a few ideas in this post are direct or almost direct quotations by other people. They deserve to be identified with their quotations. Here they are):