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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Nice post. I agree very much. This simple observation goes far to explain trends in how beliefs about religion, politics, race, and gender are handed down from parents to children.

It took me all the way up to graduate school to break the molds of childhood on my political and religious beliefs -- and I was helped by a number of factors that most people don't experience: living away from where I grew up for many years, having unpleasant childhood experiences that I prefer to separate myself from, and, if I may say so, being a very intelligent and critical thinker, at least by all the standard measures.

I like to consider myself as a critical thinker who's undergone (and declared) some major changes from childhood or early adulthood, including in the realm of values, who can point to numerous drastic breakpoints, who managed to shrug off his childhood religion without apparent effort, etcetera...

...but that doesn't mean I've broken the clear causal chain between myself and Thundercats. It's not as if I ever literally started over with new source code.

And since I can't do that - is there a reason why I shouldn't have been influenced by Thundercats? Having the same religion as your parents is one thing. Keeping exactly the same politics you grew up with is one thing. But wait a minute - just where is my personality supposed to come from if not from Thundercats and similar sources?

Where is the store that sells personalities created entirely out of Deep Wisdom? Is there more than one store? Because if it's not perfectly unique... then you might end up walking into one store, and not another, for reasons that ultimately have to do with reading A. E. Van Vogt's Null-A books as a kid...

This probably cuts both ways, actually; the other common reaction is wholesale rejection of childhood experience and values, especially if it causes too much inconvenience or cognitive dissonance later in life. e.g., how many people with strong political opinions hold them because their parents held equally strong, opposed views?

Anecdotally speaking it seems to me that, for instance, more staunch atheists come from conservative/very orthodox/fundamentalist religious households than one would reasonably expect from chance; whereas children of, say, the type of Christians who only think about God on Christmas and Easter tend to pretty reliably be "Holiday-only Christians" as well.

I'm somewhat puzzled by how all the influences you quote are fiction. I read and watched fiction as a child, and the only obvious consequence on my personality has been 1) extremely distorted - I can recognize the influence because I remember it, but you couldn't look at that part of my personality and say "Aha, that came from Disney movies!" 2) tossed out of the window in a recent crisis of faith 3) more influenced by real life than fiction. I've been recalculating a lot of things since as young as 4 (most of which ended up wrong because of lack of evidence and a few fundamental mistakes), with a wave of recalculation each time I uncovered a fundamental mistake (happened twice) and many recalculations ended up in a very different place from their starting point, which gives somewhat more credence to the "lovely excuse" when it applies.

What did I pick up from childhood? Altruism? I can't trace back the causal line, I don't remember a point at which I wasn't altruistic in full generality - I do remember stories about "altruism = good" and "ingroup/outgroup dichotomy = bad", but I already agreed with that. What I remember picking up were social norms of the form "Saying 'X is Y' is good" - but unlike other children, I picked up "X is Y" - "Truth is good", "Death is bad" (didn't quite believe that one, had to recalculate later), "Love is good" (tossed out of the window when I realized "love" is vague). But I picked up those from social life, not fiction - and I was a stereotypical bookworm. I may have confused "good fiction" and "good life" due to fiction, but real life influences look more like the culprits.

The simplest hypothesis is not "People are embarrassed". I bet they simply don't know. Most people are just terrible at introspection, and don't even think about it.

Also, yes, I'm going to get you started. Incredible disregard for what?

I'll admit lots of childhood experiences influenced my tastes and values, and that I don't have good reasons to expect those to be especially good tastes and values. So I will let them change to the extent I can.

That's funny. What I learned from He-man was that if you were powerful, you needed to appear 'normal' most of the time by having an alter-ego that in no way reflected your true potential. That, and that honor was most important to women while power was most important to men. Oh, and that it rocks to ride a winged horse. ;)

One wonders exactly how you (EY) think that you can help others...


What standard do you use to identify "good tastes and values" to be open to?

I admit I'm at best a spotty follower of OB, so I'm probably out of my depth commenting here. But I did read the short fiction "Three Worlds Collide" (or something to that effect, apologies if I'm mistaken) from a few weeks back and I must say I'm sensing a parallel between that story (or my interpretation thereof) and this post on formative youth.

I might have developed different feelings about [value/taste] if I had never experienced [seemingly arbitrary/trivial childhood experience]. What does that say about my values?

The Babyeaters might have developed different feelings about baby-eating absent the first (couple? (hundred?)) random mutation(s) that led them down the path of an evolved sense of righteousness w/r/t baby-eating. What does that say about baby-eating? What does it say about my values?

I want to say that the answer is "not much". My values may be the product of random or arbitrary experiences (my own and others), but I value them nonetheless being aware of this fact.

If I missed the point, kindly redirect me to it.

Eliezer, what aspects of you do you think would have been different if you had consumed only non-fiction as a child?

I somewhat recently decided to only read non-fictional books. One of the reasons I gave for that in making that decision was the desire to seek the truth more fully and a distrust of my ability to discount the biases of fiction, but now I think the more operative reason was that there was a large number of non-fictional books I wanted to have read (distinct from wanting to read) and was dissatisfied with my throughput while fiction was able to compete.

Sweet! I thought I was the only smart kid that tried to emulate the Thundercats. Personally, I identified most with Panthro. I am not ashamed to admit this. Discipline, teamwork, and fighting evil. Oh, and the gadgets. Yes, the gadgets.

Childhood is formative, being a teenager is formative, being a young adult is formative, etc. And some of those phases will involve a conscious reversal of previous beliefs and dispositions. It may be difficult to generalize here.

Also, I doubt that many people think their life was "all steered by Incredibly Deep Wisdom and uncaused free will". For most people, life has involved surprises, external impositions, revelations of personal folly, and so on.

Hm. I wonder if you acquired any other implicit assumptions from superhero ideals. Like some of the ones that I found in myself, and described here: Everything I Needed To Know About Life, I Learned From Supervillains. For example, might you have acquired a bias towards doing the "impossible"? I know I did.

See added PS and PPS.

Robin, second Carl's question. Unless the idea is simply that what formed during childhood should be allowed to change if it does so naturally.

TGGP, I can't imagine who I would be, but I think I would be a completely different person... realistically speaking.

Mitchell, of course many parts of my life have been formative. The question is whether we selectively deny the continuing causal influence of the formative parts that occurred in childhood.

PJ Eby, that post makes a good point.

Interesting. Since people are commenting on fiction vs. non-fiction, it's interesting to note that my formative books were all non-fiction (paleontology, physics, mathematics, philosophy), and that I now find myself much more easily motivated to try understanding the problems of the world than motivated to try fixing them.

Plural of anecdote, etc, etc.

So that's how you end up if your first book ever is "Mary Sue Gets a Dragon" ...

I think we could test your claims. I'd guess different cultures and times show different kinds of fiction to children. It would surprise me a lot if that was much difference when it comes to traits like altruism, trust etc. - it seems to me that there are too strong genetic forces at work here for just a bunch of fiction to do much. Religions stick because they work with genetic forces, as a way to mark your own tribe against other tribes. Fashion and other silly preferences stick because they're a way to get social status and tribal markers for youth tribes. You get plenty of real life reinforcement for them. For altruism/wanting to save the world I just don't see a plausible mechanism, or real world correlation. For full disclosure Le Guin/Tolkien/Herbert reader as a kid + tons of video games.


I don't disagree, but this sure seems to me like something Freud and Jung would say and that Judith Rich Harris would say was nonsense, possibly invoking evolutionary psychology and saying that it would be unfit to optimize for chaotically determined attractors.

Honestly, it seems to me that nerds are far more influenced by childhood and by constructed experiences such as movies, books, TV, religion, and yes, to a more limited extent even classroom experiences than non-nerds are. Partly this is because they consciously choose to try to hold onto their values while non-nerds are content to let their values drift (and "hold onto your values" is an explicit value learned from constructed experiences). Partly this is because nerds tend to simply miss out on many of the less constructed experiences that young people create spontaneously for one another or to get the bad side of those experiences but not the good side. Partly nerds may just be less aware of less processed data and not notice or respond to instincts, impulses, imitative opportunities and assorted influences that would tend to jostle their behavioral patterns into a new equilibrium. They perceive abstractions handed to them explicitly by other people more easily than patterns that show up around them. Oddly, this seems to me to be a respect in which nerds are more feminine rather than being more masculine as they are in many other ways.

Eliezer, so basically you are saying that the type of fiction you read in childhood affects how you weigh different things when making a utilitarian analysis?? if yes, how does this tie up with all rationalists weighing same items by the same amount? (I hope, I have understood your arguments about rationality right)

and the analysis then affects the type of personality you developed??

This is a great post. I didn't realize how much my values were shaped by early childhood fiction until I read this. The ability of Donatello (from TMNT) to use his reasoning ability to fight evil really encouraged me to learn "science". I suppose I should be grateful for Saturday morning cartoons for making me value reason as much as I do.

It seems to me that altruism is evolved, hard wired, rather than learned from influences. Watch kitten siblings fighting and stalking each other. They are practicing their skills, but they never hurt each other badly. How could humans live in such a huge, complex society of strangers without altruism? Guilt, shame, pleasure in helping another, all hard wired to an extent. They can be nurtured, or alternatively knocked out of someone by a chaotic upbringing.

My first answer to this would be "Of course!"

It's obvious that morality is purely a matter of aesthetics, and that these are largely based on the culture you're exposed to during your formative years.

Rationalism can help train you out of things that are contradicted by the evidence, but when it comes to pure values there's no evidence to base them on. Moral values can contradict each other, but not reality.

It's obvious that morality is purely a matter of aesthetics

if nothing else, it's also a matter of what things an imperfect liar must believe in in order to not give off accurate hints that they're a bad person to have around, or more directly provoke retribution.

So perceiving the kind of things which would mark you as someone to be shunned or killed, as having their own special ontological category is very practical.

Even the idea that such things damn you is fairly accurate if you extract the baggage. You murder one lousy person and your option to live a normal life is greatly cut off and your options mostly narrow to escalation or starting your life anew elsewhere.

I think it's also a matter of rationality, insofar as no one is born realising there are other people and those other people's nature is such that they can suffer be happy live etc, much like we can. Being things like kind and honest allows you to perceive your nature and past both rationally and with pride. Conversely rvery time you're evil you damage your past, and so (unless you are a perfect liar) your ability to engage the world directly. Otherwise there has to be some reaction, some crack that forms, whether it's having to lie to yourself, lie to others, face your sins, partition your mind, forget or run from the past, etc.

I suppose all of that is escapable, and there can be equilibriums where it never comes up in the first place, but for an ordinary person there are self-interested reasons to have a moral sense, and in the absence of knowledge of what kind of world you're living in, your instinctive prior should be that it's possible that people who harm others for the sake of it might suffer retribution, and be afraid of doing/becoming that.

So morality is not purely aesthetic, it's also at least our (instinctive) game-theoretical fear of making ourselves the natural enemy of anyone who wants a quiet life. What's natural, or a priori worth consideration can later be screened out when we see we live in a world where justice is weak, but that doesn't mean it isn't a (lets say) natural platonic pattern.

This is very interesting when you compare it to a christian saying he gets his morality from the Bible.

Getting your morality from the Bible is neither better nor worse than getting it from SF and Fantasy novels. "It's not worse" is more important to me because as an atheist I would have a tendancy to look down upon claims of getting morality from the Bible (because they often go hand-in-hand with implying that atheists have no morality). So I should be careful about throwing the first stone.

"Your morality is inborn, just like everyone else's" and "Getting your morality from a book is irrational therefore bad" are both claism that an atheist could make and that in fact might be too strong. I'll have to think about that a bit. (it's a subject I've been thinking about a bit recently, but I didn't link it to my own "childhood reading" 'till now.)

Sure, he claims to be reacting to Thundercats, but we all know he is really reacting against Silverhawks.

I've heard (secondhand) stories about people being inspired to enter technical fields because of the television program Square One.

To what degree is this amenability to help others actually hard-wired self-preservation? I mean, if you (Eliezer) hold that superhuman AI inevitably is coming, and that most forms of it will destroy mankind, isn't the desire to save others from that fate the same as the desire to save yourself? Rewrite the scenario such that you save mankind with FAI but die in the process. That sounds more like altruism.

michael vassar:

[Nerds] perceive abstractions handed to them explicitly by other people more easily than patterns that show up around them. Oddly, this seems to me to be a respect in which nerds are more feminine rather than being more masculine as they are in many other ways.
Would you elaborate on this? What is the generally-feminine behavior of which the first sentence describes an instance?

My first inclination would be to think that your first sentence describes something stereotypically masculine. It's an example of wanting things to come in pre-structured formats, which is part of wanting to operate in a domain that is governed by explicit pre-established rules. That is often seen as a stereotypically-masculine desire that manifests in such non-nerdy pursuits as professional sports and military hierarchies.

retired urologist,

There's a distinction to be made between altruism (ethical theory) and altruism (social science). The sense of altruism you use seems more to agree with the former. It seems like Eliezer prefers the latter. To summarize:

Altruism (ethical theory) is just like utilitarianism, except that good for oneself is entirely discounted.

Altruism (social sciences) is a 'selfless concern for others', in which one helps other people without conscious concern for one's personal interests (at least some of the time). It does not require that one abandon one's own interests in the pursuit of helping others all of the time.

Note that the latter is merely descriptive of behavior. Thus Eliezer can say "I behave altruistically" and "I am a utilitarian" (probably not direct quotes) simultaneously without pain of contradiction.

It's getting to the point where ethicists have to define 'ethical x' for all 'x' to distinguish it from its use in other fields.

PJ Eby, if you've not seen it, you may enjoy this.


None of the scenarios in Superhero Bias involve the hero saving his own life by saving the lives of the others. They instead involve the hero putting himself at risk for them. I don't see the analogy with FAI.

@Retired: This is way the hell off-topic, but the point is that I'm not trying to be a superhero or even an ordinary hero, nor striving in any way to reveal virtue. So if you say that I'm revealing insufficient virtue by walking this path instead of the path of a firefighter, all I can do is smile and say, "My motives are far too pure for me to concern myself with such things."

I doubt Retired was comparing you unfavorably to firefighters.

There is something very intemperate and one-sided about your writings about altruism. I would be much relieved if you would concede that in the scholarly, intellectual, scientific and ruling-administrative classes in the U.S., credible displays of altruistic feelings are among the most important sources of personal status (second only to scientific or artistic accomplishment and perhaps to social connections with others of high status). I agree with you that that situation is in general preferable to older situations in which wealth, connections to the ruling coalition, and ability to wield violence effectively (e.g., knights in shining armor) were larger sources of status, but that does not mean that altruism cannot be overdone.

I would be much relieve also if you would concede that your altruistic public statements and your hard work on a project with huge altruistic consequences have helped you personally much more than they have cost you. Particularly, most of your economic security derives from a nonprofit dependent on donations, and the kind of people who tend to donate are the kind of people who are easily moved by displays of altruism. Moreover, your altruistic public statements and your involvement in the altruistic project have allowed you to surround yourself with people of the highest rationality, educational accomplishments and ethical commitment. Having personal friendships with those sorts of people is extremely valuable. Consider that the human ability to solve problems is the major source of all wealth, and of course the people you have surrounded yourself with are the kind with the greatest ability to solve problems (while avoiding doing harm).

I think we have very different concepts of altruism. Altruism is not about sacrifice. It is not even about avoiding self-benefit. It is not about sacrificing your happiness for the happiness of others, nor even gaining your happiness through the happiness of others. It is about neither spiritual benefits nor avoiding spiritual benefits. Altruism is choosing behaviors on the basis of how much they help other people. Only this. Nothing else.

That's what my adult philosophy says, these days.

Eliezer: So if you say that I'm revealing insufficient virtue by walking this path instead of the path of a firefighter

I did not say that, nor did I intend that. Your post was about the etiology of your altruistic attitude, and I said it seemed to be hard-wired self-preservation.

My brain auto-erases almost all traces of its past. The data that's left is what I currently need for work and hobbies. I have no trouble remembering important things, even old things. I've hundreds of pages of work-related documents and I have no trouble keeping a good overview of them, and remembering key ideas. Neither do I don't forget skills. But if it's of no use to me, like (most) people and places, it doesn't stick at all. Most of my past that my friends easily recall is as if it never happened to me. I have zero recollection.

I feel I've always been the same (though I was more interested in playing games when I was less than 10 years old), just with less skills and knowledge. I've always been focused on ideas and paying very little or no attention to what's going on around; the world's just an unfocused blur and noise that quickly fades from my memory.

I remembered I've also read Dragonlance, but I don't recall anything about it except that the books may have dragons on the cover. Can't be sure. Obviously they weren't tagged as influential by the system.

Oh, and I very easily enter the flow-state. Pure, unadulterated mental focus. I estimate I have spent the majority of my waking hours in the flow, when I wasn't interrupted by people, like at school. This also occurs with conversations so it's not just a solitary thing.

How convenient that it is also nearly optimal at bringing you personal benefits.

For someone to use these pages to promote their online store would be bad, obviously.

But it is natural for humans to pursue fame, reputation, adherents and followers as arduously as humans pursue commercial profit.

And the pursuit of these things can detract from a public conversation for the same reason that pursuit of commericial profit can.

And of course a common component of a bid for fame, reputation, adherents or followers is claims of virtues.

I am not advocating as a standard the avoidance of all claims of virtues because sometimes they are helpful.

But a claim of a virtue when there is no way for the reader to confirm the presence of the virtue seems to have all the bad effects of such a claim without any of the good effects.

Altruism is not about sacrifice. It is not even about avoiding self-benefit.

I think sacrifice and avoiding self-benefit came up in this conversation because they are the usual ways in which readers confirm claims of altruistic virtue.

Man, I can't count the number of times I've started randomly reciting: "I am Adam, prince of Eternia, defender of the secrets of Castle Greyskull and this is Cringer, (chuckle) my fearless friend. Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me the day I held aloft my magic sword and said...."

I don't remember anything else about the show well enough to judge how it might have affected me. Although, I remember my mom liked it and said it was better than other cartoons, so perhaps it was relatively virtuous.

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.

Really? I've never felt ashamed of being governed, in some sense, by my childhood...maybe because I had a pretty awesome childhood in pretty much every way. If anything, I think I've gone TOO far, in the past, towards attributing my present characteristics to childhood formative experiences. This may be an occupational hazard of living with a psych major...

< safely harmless area of my brain

Are there areas of the brain that are harmless unsafely? ;)

Yes. A safeguard that malfunctions. It won't cause harm (just consume energy to do nothing, at worst) but if security breaks down upstream, it'll be unsafe.

That makes sense, and I didn't think of it.


I suspect that a great deal of my cynicism, mistrust of authority and general aversion towered exercising power, even for some supposed "greater good", trace back to The Lord of the Rings. This passage in particular has always deeply affected me:

  And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of a Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark but beautiful and terrible as the morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love me and despair! She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illumined her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad. 'I pass the test', she said. 'I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.' "

I would be wary of declaring that an attitude near-universal to my species, came about as a result of some series of childhood events. Altruism is inherent in chimps and humans, and variation thereof has a strong genetic component as shown by fraternal/identical twin studies. In other words, there's a reason we write and enjoy stories with altruistic heroes. Most people would be glad to save the world given half a chance -- but unlike you, most people think they don't have that chance. Your choice to focus your altruism on global-scale problems, and to attempt the seemingly impossible, does match nicely with superheros and books -- but it is only your choice to act in that regard, that is at all rare.