Against Maturity

by Eliezer Yudkowsky4 min read18th Feb 200957 comments


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I remember the moment of my first break with Judaism.  It was in kindergarten, when I was being forced to memorize and recite my first prayer.  It was in Hebrew.  We were given a transliteration, but not a translation.  I asked what the prayer meant.  I was told that I didn't need to know - so long as I prayed in Hebrew, it would work even if I didn't understand the words.  (Any resemblance to follies inveighed against in my writings is not coincidental.)

Of course I didn't accept this, since it was blatantly stupid, and I figured that God had to be at least as smart as I was.  So when I got home, I asked my parents, and they didn't bother arguing with me.  They just said, "You're too young to argue with; we're older and wiser; adults know best; you'll understand when you're older."

They were right about that last part, anyway.

Of course there were plenty of places my parents really did know better, even in the realms of abstract reasoning.  They were doctorate-bearing folks and not stupid.  I remember, at age nine or something silly like that, showing my father a diagram full of filled circles and trying to convince him that the indeterminacy of particle collisions was because they had a fourth-dimensional cross-section and they were bumping or failing to bump in the fourth dimension.

My father shot me down flat.  (Without making the slightest effort to humor me or encourage me.  This seems to have worked out just fine.  He did buy me books, though.)

But he didn't just say, "You'll understand when you're older."  He said that physics was math and couldn't even be talked about without math.  He talked about how everyone he met tried to invent their own theory of physics and how annoying this was.  He may even have talked about the futility of "providing a mechanism", though I'm not actually sure if I originally got that off him or Baez.

You see the pattern developing here.  "Adulthood" was what my parents appealed to when they couldn't verbalize any object-level justification.  They had doctorates and were smart; if there was a good reason, they usually would at least try to explain it to me.  And it gets worse...

The most fearsome damage wreaked upon my parents by their concept of "adulthood", was the idea that being "adult" meant that you were finished - that "maturity" marked the place where you declared yourself done, needing to go no further.

This was displayed most clearly in the matter of religion, where I would try to talk about a question I had, and my parents would smile and say:  "Only children ask questions like that; when you're adult, you know that it's pointless to argue about it."  They actually said that outright!  To ask questions was a manifestation of earnest, childish enthusiasm, earning a smile and a pat on the head.  An adult knew better than to waste effort on pointless things.

We never really know our parents; we only know the face of our parents that they turn to us, their children.  I don't know if my parents ever thought about the child-adult dichotomy when they weren't talking to me.

But this is what I think my parents were thinking:  If they had tried to answer a question as children, and then given up as adults - a quite common pattern in their religious decay - they labeled "mature" the place and act of giving up, by way of consolation.  They'd asked the question as children and stopped asking as adults - and the story they told themselves about that was that only children asked that question, and now they had succeeded into the sage maturity of knowing not to argue.

To this very day, I constantly remind myself that, no matter what I do in this world, I will doubtlessly be considered an infant by the standards of future intergalactic civilization, and so there is no point in pretending to be a grown-up.  I try to maintain a mental picture of myself as someone who is not mature, so that I can go on maturing.

And more...

From my parents I learned the observational lesson that "adulthood" was something sort of like "peer acceptance", that is, its pursuit made you do stupid things that you wouldn't have done if you were just trying to get it right.

At that age I couldn't have given you a very good definition of "right" outside the realm of pure epistemic accuracy -

- but I understood the concept of asking the wrong question.  "Does this help people?"  "Will this make anyone happy?"  "Is this belief true?"  Those were the sorts of questions to ask, not, "Is this the adult thing to do?"

So I did not divide up the universe into the childish way versus the adult way, nor ever tell myself that I had completed anything by getting older, nor congratulate myself on having stopped being a child.  Instead I learned that there were various stereotypes and traps that could take people's attention off the important questions, and instead make them try to match certain unimportant concepts that existed in their minds.  One of these attractor-traps was called "teenager", and one of these attractor-traps was called "adult", and both were to be avoided.

I've previously touched on the massive effect on my youthful psychology of reading a book of advice to parents with teenagers, years before I was actually a teenager; I took one look at the description of the stupid things teenagers did, and said to myself with quiet revulsion, "I'm not going to do that"; and then I actually didn't.  I never drank and drove, never drank, never tried a single drug, never lost control to hormones, never paid any attention to peer pressure, and never once thought my parents didn't love me.  In a safer world, I would have wished for my parents to have hidden that book better...

...but I had a picture in my mind of what it meant to be a "teenager"; and I determined to avoid it; and I did.

Of course there are a lot of children in this world who don't like being "children" and who try to appear as "adult" or as "mature" as possible.  That's why they start smoking, right?  So that was also part of the picture that I had in my mind of a "stupid teenager": stupid teenagers deliberately try to be mature.

My parents had a picture in their mind of what it meant to be a "kid", which included "kids desperately want to be adult".  I presume, though I don't exactly know, that my parents had a picture of "childishness" which was formed by their own childhood and not updated.

In any case my parents were constantly trying to get me to do things by telling me about how it would make me look adult.

That was their appeal - not, "Do this because it is older and wiser," but, "Do this, because it will make you look adult."  To this day I wonder what they could have possibly been thinking.  Would a stereotypical teenager listen to their parents' advice about that sort of thing?

Not surprisingly, being constantly urged to do things because they would signal adulthood, which I had no particular desire to do, had the effect of making me strongly notice things that signaled adulthood as mere signals.

I think that a lot of difference in the individual style of rationalists comes down to which signaling behaviors strike us as dangerous, harmful, or, perhaps, personally annoying; and which signaling behaviors seem relatively harmless, or possibly even useful paths to accomplishment (perhaps because they don't annoy us quite so much).  Robin is willing to tolerate formality in journals, viewing it as possibly even a useful path to filtering out certain kinds of noise; to me formality seems like a strong net danger to rationality that filters nothing, just making it more difficult to read.  I'm willing to tolerate behaviors that signal idealism or caring for others, viewing it as an important pathway to real altruism later on; Robin seems to think such behaviors are relatively more harmful and that they ought to be stopped outright.

It's not that Robin is a cynic or I'm an idealist, but that I'm relatively more annoyed by cynical errors and Robin is relatively more annoyed by idealistic errors.  And fitting the same dimension, Robin seems relatively more annoyed by the errors in the style of youth, where I seem relatively more annoyed by errors in the style of maturity.

And so I take a certain dark delight in quoting anime fanfiction at people who expect me to behave like a wise sage of rationality.  Why should I pretend to be mature when practically every star in the night sky is older than I am?

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