I Won’t Grow Up!

I really enjoyed reading two of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s recent posts on the Overcoming Bias blog: Against Maturity, and Pretending to be Wise.

Please read them both in their entirety, but here are a few choice excerpts:

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.

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.

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.

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.

A special case of adulthood-signaling worth singling out, is the display
of neutrality or suspended judgment, in order to signal maturity, wisdom, impartiality, or just a superior vantage point.

Another example would be the principal who, faced with two children who were caught fighting on the playground, sternly says: “It doesn’t matter who started the fight, it only matters who ends it.” Of course it
matters who started the fight. The principal may not have access to good information about this critical fact, but if so, he should say so, not dismiss the importance of who threw the first punch. Let a parent try punching the principal, and we’ll see how far “It doesn’t matter who started it” gets in front of a judge. But to adults it is just inconvenient that children fight, and it matters not at all to their convenience which child started it, it is only convenient that the fight end as rapidly as possible.

A similar dynamic, I believe, governs the occasions in international diplomacy where Great Powers sternly tell smaller groups to stop that fighting right now. It doesn’t matter to the Great Power who started it – who provoked, or who responded disproportionately to provocation – because the Great Power’s ongoing inconvenience is only a function of the ongoing conflict. Oh, can’t Israel and Hamas just get along?

This I call “pretending to be Wise”.

I identify with Eliezer’s sentiments a lot. There were many occasions during my childhood when I was discouraged from seeking answers and was encouraged to be anti-intellectual and to support obvious mistakes because the former behavior was childish and the latter was mature. Society seemed to get the issue of which of these deserves respect and which doesn’t completely backwards!

I still think of myself as a young teenager, because my impression of what it means to be “grown up” is so negative.

Maybe I can’t avoid getting older, but I can stay immature for a very long time!


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