Formative Youth

by Eliezer Yudkowsky3 min read24th Feb 200946 comments


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Followup toAgainst Maturity

"Rule of thumb:  Be skeptical of things you learned before you could read.  E.g., religion."
        -- Ben Casnocha

Looking down on others is fun, and if there's one group we adults can all enjoy looking down on, it's children.  At least I assume this is one of the driving forces behind the incredible disregard for... but don't get me started.

Inconveniently, though, most of us were children at one point or another during our lives.  Furthermore, many of us, as adults, still believe or choose certain things that we happened to believe or choose as children.  This fact is incongruent with the general fun of condescension - it means that your life is being run by a child, even if that particular child happens to be your own past self.

I suspect that most of us therefore underestimate the degree to which our youths were formative - because to admit that your youth was formative is to admit that the course of your life was not all steered by Incredibly Deep Wisdom and uncaused free will.

To give a concrete example, suppose you asked me, "Eliezer, where does your altruism originally come from?  What was the very first step in the chain that made you amenable to helping others?"

Then my best guess would be "Watching He-Man and similar TV shows as a very young and impressionable child, then failing to compartmentalize the way my contemporaries did."  (Same reason my Jewish education didn't take; I either genuinely believed something, or didn't believe it at all.  (Not that I'm saying that I believed He-Man was fact; just that the altruistic behavior I picked up wasn't compartmentalized off into some safely harmless area of my brain, then or later.))

It's my understanding that most people would be reluctant to admit this sort of historical fact, because it makes them sound childish - in the sense that they're still being governed by the causal history of a child.

But I find myself skeptical that others are governed by their childhood causal histories so much less than myself - especially when there's a simple alternative explanation: they're too embarrassed to admit it.

A lovely excuse, of course, is that we at first ended up in a certain place for childish reasons, and then we went back and redid the calculations as adults, and what do you know, it magically ended up with the same bottom line.

Well - of course that can happen.  If you ask me why I'm out to save the world, then there's a sense in which I can defend that as a sober utilitarian calculation, "Shut up and multiply", that has nothing to do with spending my childhood reading science fiction about protagonists who saved the world.  But if you ask me why I listen to that sober utilitarian calculation, why it actually has the capacity to move me - then yes, the fact that the first "grownup" book I read was Dragonflight may have played a role.  It's what F'lar and Lessa would do.

Why not really start over from scratch - throw away our childhoods and redo everything?

For epistemic beliefs that might be sorta-possible, which is why I didn't name an epistemic belief that I think I inherited from the chaos of childhood.  That wouldn't be tolerable, and when I look back, I really have rejected a lot of what I once believed epistemically.

But matters of taste?  Of personality?  Of deeply held ideals and values?

Well, yes, I reformulated my whole metaethics at a certain point and that had a definite influence on my values... but despite that, I think you could draw an obvious line back from where I am now, to factors like reading Dragonlance at age nine and vowing never to end up like Raistlin Majere.  (Bitter genius archetype.)

If you can't look back and draw a line between your current adult self and factors like that, I have to wonder if your self-history is really accurate.

In particular, I have to wonder if you're thinking right now of a deceptively obvious-seeming line that someone else might be tempted to draw, but which of course isn't the real reason why you still...

PS:  Of course I don't directly justify any of my decisions, these days, by saying "That's what the Thundercats did, therefore it is right."  The question is more like whether I ended up finding developed altruistic philosophies more appealing as an adult because, sometime back in my youth, I was bombarded with altruistic messages.

If there are many different stores selling developed philosophies, then which store you walk into to buy your sophisticated adult judgments might depend on a factor like that.

PPS:  Several commenters asked why I focused on fiction.  I could point to several real-life events in my childhood that I still remember and that seem promisingly characteristic of "me" - for example, the only time I remember my kindergarten classmates ever praising me or liking me was the time I used wooden blocks to build a complicated track that they could "ski" along.  Making something clever = peer approval, says this memory.

But because this was a one-off event, I doubt it would have quite as much influence as messages repeated over and over, through many different TV shows with similar themes, or many different books written by science-fiction authors who influenced one another.  I couldn't recite the plot of even a single episode of He-Man, but I have some memory of what the opening theme song was, because it was recurring.  That's the power of a fictional corpus, relative to any single moment of real life no matter how significant it seems - fictions can repeat the same message over and over.

My childhood universe was very much a universe of books.  The nonfiction I read (like the Childcraft books) might have been formative in a sense - but factual beliefs you really can recheck and redo.  Hence my citation of fiction as a lingering influence on values and personality.

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