Friday, July 17, 2015

Anger: And How to Change

A lot of people have a short temper and prefer not to be that way. They consider it a problem. But many of these people don’t have much success changing themselves. And many of them end up giving up trying. I’m writing this essay to help those people that want to change but don’t know how, including those people that are on the brink of giving up on the idea that they can change. Now if you’re reading this essay, then you haven’t given up. You’re still trying. So to you I say: You should be proud for putting in effort to improve.


Disagreement between the experts

I want to start by pointing out a disagreement between the experts about whether or not people have the ability to change any part of themselves. This disagreement sometimes comes up as a disagreement about whether or not genes play a role in human behavior, emotion, and thought. The idea goes that if genes do play a role, then that means that there are parts of a person that cannot be changed - things determined by genes. But this is actually a mistake. Genes do play a role *and* people have the ability to change any part of their mind/personality. It's not determined by genes.

To clarify this point it’s helpful to understand our best theory to date explaining how the human mind works and explaining how that contrasts against how other animal minds work.[1] For a non-human animal, software is installed in its brain according to its genes, and then the animal acts according to its software (mind). And it's not able to change that installed software. This is analogous to how a computer chess game can’t learn checkers. It’s because the animal cannot change the software it was given. But for a person, software is installed in his brain according to his genes, and then he has the ability to change any part of his software. So a person can learn anything. Solve any problem. 


Anger has a purpose

Now this doesn't mean that it's easy for a person to change. Lots of people feel as if they have no control over their emotions. To help clarify why they feel this way, it's important to point out that anger, like all emotions and ideas, has a purpose. People don’t get angry for no reason. There’s always a reason, even if it's a bad one. And understanding the reason that triggers a person to get angry is necessary for him to be able to fix that trigger.

So what’s the purpose of anger? Well let’s go back to the first time a person gets angry. Why did he do it? A super common case is where a child gets angry in self-defense against his parent getting angry at him first. They had some disagreement, the parent got angry, then the child figured out how to respond back with anger, and then the parent gave up. And the child kept reacting that way because it kept working. And each time that he reacted this way, his emotional response strengthened - getting faster and more intense with each replay of the emotional habit, making it more and more difficult to control.

A worse problem with getting angry is that it doesn’t discriminate well. I mean, according to the purpose of anger that I described above, a person should only get angry in cases of self-defense, but that doesn’t happen. People get angry in situations where nobody is trying to hurt them. So it’s not selective enough. And it should be. It's not good enough otherwise.


You can’t just stop being angry

Another important issue is that lots of people try to stop getting angry but without trying to replace it with something that works better. The thing is that you can’t just stop your emotional habit. You have to consider the purpose of it and then find something else that you agree works better. Then you'll have a chance at changing your habitual behavior to the new method. 

So, what has basically the same purpose as anger but works better? The answer is rational problem-solving.

Consider an example of a guy getting angry at a driver cutting him off on the road. He flips him off and yells “LEARN TO DRIVE ASSHOLE” as he passes him on the road. Now, does he actually believe that the bad driver is going to change his behavior due to his show of anger? What’s going on here is that this guy is making the same mistake that his parents made when he was a child. He mistakenly thinks that punishing people - for example showing anger - helps them change their behavior. That learning works by pain. It doesn’t.

Punishment makes learning more difficult. It’s a barrier to learning. It encourages a person to focus on the punishment and the resulting pain, instead of focussing on the problem and on coming up with ideas on how to solve it. If a person learns after being punished, it’s not *because* of the punishment that he learned. He learned *in spite* of the punishment. The punishment made the problem harder to solve, and he solved it anyway.

Now lots of people get confused and think that because I think punishment is wrong, then I must think that murderers, rapists, and thieves should be let out of jail. That’s ridiculous. Our government should protect us from harm. This is self-defense. The focus should be on defending people from harm from the criminals. And the jail term and the resulting pain should only be an issue of collateral damage, not something intended to cause pain. Punishment on the other hand, is focussed on hurting criminals for the sake of hurting them, because they think that hurting them will help change their minds. What they don’t understand is that mind-changing requires new explanations, new understanding. And pain doesn’t deliver that.


So what’s the rational way to deal with a bad driver? Well, how about you realize that it doesn’t matter? You aren’t in a position to help him change his behavior. You’re not in a room talking to him about how to drive. You’re not on the internet discussing it with him either. You don’t have access to help him change his mind. So just ignore him.

Now what if that driver caused some other problem for you? Let’s say he made you late for work. Well if that’s the case, then maybe you should change your routine so that you leave home earlier every day - that way you're better protected from unforeseen problems. The point is that you should focus on what you *do* have control over - your own actions - instead of focussing on stuff you *don’t* have control over - like other people’s actions.


Why people want punishment and anger

Keep in mind that if you’re not wholeheartedly persuaded that punishment is wrong, then you won’t be able to fix your anger problem. Your emotions depend on your ideas. So if you think that punishment is righteous, then your emotions will reflect that - you’ll get angry as your way of punishing somebody because deep down you think it’s the right thing to do.

But more generally, your ideas depend on your other ideas. The reason somebody believes that punishment is righteous is that his worldview agrees with that idea. You can't fully change your mind about punishment unless you also change your mind about some major ideas in your worldview.

One major difference between the worldview that agrees with punishment and the worldview that implies that punishment is wrong, is in how they understand morality - the branch of philosophy about how people should live their lives. The punishment-oriented worldview says morality is about avoiding doing what you want - following a set of obligations dictated by God or society. It's about living a life of suppressing your desires for fear of punishment.

In contrast, the merit-oriented worldview says morality is about getting what you want, but first checking if what you want is good. It's about living a life of embracing your rationally-considered desires in search of reward - where reward comes in the form of mutual benefit. You never sacrifice something you want. Instead, you change what you want - let’s say because you found out that what you originally wanted is not good for you. So people with this worldview don’t live their lives by trying to avoid punishment. Instead they live their lives always trying to make progress. They run towards the good, instead of running away from the bad.

This is a clash of understanding, and it boils down to a fundamental difference in how each worldview understands reality. The punishment-oriented mentality hinges on the false premise that conflicts of interest between people are inherent to human nature. So people with this worldview mistakenly think that some human interactions must have a winner and a loser (win/lose) - that it's impossible for everybody involved to win. So they think that at least sometimes someone must sacrifice something he wants. They think that some human interactions must be win/lose. People with this worldview think punishment is necessary as a teaching tool. They think that somebody should lose or sacrifice something as a punishment for him, so that he learns something. What they misunderstand is that learning doesn’t work this way.

In contrast, the merit-oriented mentality explains that there is a natural harmony between humans. That conflicts of interest are not inherent to human nature. That any human interaction can be win/win - where everybody gets what they want and nobody sacrifices anything. You go after a win/win with somebody or you avoid interacting with him at all. So, a win/lose can and should always be avoided. And if a win/lose occurs it is because somebody acted irrationally and immorally. People with this worldview understand that punishment is wrong. It doesn’t help anybody learn anything. It’s a barrier to learning. They understand that what’s needed to learn is new explanations, a new understanding of the problem and the tentative solution.

To clarify why punishment is wrong, consider what should be done in a scenario where somebody made a mistake, like let’s say he came to work late. Let’s say his manager discussed the issue with him and he learns that it was a problem of his alarm clock not waking him up because his power went out overnight. So, should the manager punish the employee to teach him a lesson to not be late going forward? Well, let’s say he did punish him. What would that do for the no-power problem? Nothing. If his power goes out again, then his alarm clock will not work and he’ll come to work late again. What’s needed is a solution - something that addresses the content of the problem. For example, the employee could use multiple alarms, like on his phone, a battery-powered alarm clock, and the regular alarm clock. So if the power goes out, he has two other alarms to wake him up. This proposed solution actually addresses the content of the problem, while the punishment idea completely ignores it. Actually the punishment idea is not just neutral - it’s negative. It encourages the employee to fear getting to work late again, fearing that he’ll get punished again. And by focussing on this fear instead of on the content of the problem, it acts as a barrier for him to find a solution, like the idea of using extra alarm clocks that don’t depend on the electrical grid.

So if even a tiny part of you still holds on to the win/lose mentality, then part of you will agree with punishment and you’ll continue to get angry. And if you wholeheartedly embrace the win/win mentality, then you’ll have the opportunity to change your emotional habit of getting angry.


How to change

Now I'm not saying it'll be automatic or easy. If you've only recently learned your new worldview, your emotional habits will contradict it. You created those habits while you had your old worldview, so it's going to take serious and sustained effort to change them to be consistent with your new rationally-considered worldview.

In order to change your emotions, you need to pay attention to yourself. Pay attention to your heartbeat, your breathing rate, your posture, your facial expressions, and also your thoughts. Is there any indication that you're angry? Are you treating the situation as if the person you're interacting with is your friend (win/win) or your enemy (win/lose)?

Understand that reflecting on yourself is a learnable skill. If you're brand new to this, then you'll be slow to change because you'll be slow in noticing your actions, thoughts, and emotions. But as you put in effort in reflecting on yourself, you'll improve your skill, getting faster and more accurate. Initially you might notice that you're angry a few minutes after you already calmed down. You should use these cases to think about why you got angry. What thoughts triggered it? Do you agree with those thoughts? Do they contradict your new worldview?

As you keep trying to improve your reflection skill, you'll notice your anger quicker and quicker. You'll get to the point of getting angry and then immediately calming down within seconds. And then you'll get even faster to the point of catching yourself even before the first moment of anger. You'll have replaced your habit of anger with a habit of reflection. It'll feel like the world is moving in slow motion while you're moving at regular speed.


Barriers to change 

Now there are some barriers that can block your progress. These barriers are ideas that already exist in your mind. For example, a common barrier to learning is shame. Shame is a type of punishment, a self-imposed one. Society tries to shame people to get them to change their behavior. But like punishment, shame is a barrier to learning. People who feel ashamed try to stop the feeling by lying to themselves, tricking themselves into thinking that society isn’t displeased with their behavior. They want to know that they are good, so they hide their mistakes. And some of them try to stop the feeling by putting the idea out of their mind entirely, like by getting very drunk.

The problem with this is that you can't find and fix your mistakes when you deny that you make them. You can't make progress when you turn off the engine that drives progress - that is, criticism, which is explanations of flaws in ideas.

Criticism can't hurt you. It can only help you. It doesn't criticize anything about you that you can't change. So there's no reason to dislike it. So if you're treating criticism as a bad thing - by hiding your mistakes - then that means that at least part of you still holds on to the win/lose mentality. It's the win/win mentality that sees criticism for what it is. It's wonderful! Criticism is what helps us go from wrong to right. Without it a person would stay wrong forever - doomed to stagnation. With it a person has the opportunity for unlimited progress.

Shame, like punishment, is not part of the win/win mentality. We don’t feel shame. Instead, we look for flaws and fix them. And we are proud to do it. Our pride does not dwindle when we find a flaw in ourselves, and instead we feel ecstatic that we’ve revealed a new opportunity for progress. Finding a flaw is not seen as negative. It's seen as positive because it means another opportunity to evolve.


Improving your skill at reflection/criticism

Now if you find yourself not making progress as fast as you like, then that means you need to improve your skill at criticizing, because that’s what you’re doing when you’re reflecting. The best way to do that is to learn what others have already learned about that - because it would be bad to try to reinvent the wheel. Now the best source I know of for this purpose is the Fallible Ideas (FI) website.[2] Actually, studying the ideas in those essays helped me write this essay.

I should clarify that studying the FI essays doesn't just mean reading them once. You should expect to make a bunch of mistakes in understanding the ideas. On your first read you might learn 30% of the ideas well. You should expect the same thing from reading this essay too. So to account for these mistakes, you should be criticizing your understanding of the ideas in these essays. 

Now people already do this a little bit subconsciously. But by doing it deliberately, you dramatically improve your opportunity at finding and fixing flaws in your understanding of the ideas.


Get help

Another important point to clarify is that your deliberate attempts at criticizing your understanding can be dramatically improved if you enlist other people, especially people who have the right attitude towards criticism. For this reason, FI also hosts a critical discussion email list.[3] So you can expose your understanding of these essays to other people who understand the FI worldview.

Another thing you can do is tell your friends, family, and coworkers that you're working on changing your anger problem. Ask them to point out when you're angry because that'll help you reflect and calm down. Ask them to have some canned responses ready to give you - like "are you treating me like your friend or enemy?" And if this succeeds at dissolving your anger, then this can become a new trigger for you. But instead of being a trigger for an emotional habit, it's a trigger for you to reflect on yourself. So reflecting on yourself will have become second nature.

You could also participate in an anger management counseling group in your area. And if you don't have one in your area, then you can start one. That's what I intend to do in my hometown. 

To learn more about how to start and operate such a group, visit my website for details. I'll be updating it with information about my group and about how to run your own group.[4]

[1] Chapter 15, The Beginning of Infinity, by David Deutsch. 

[2] fallibleideas.com, by Elliot Temple.


[4] [not done yet]

Thursday, July 9, 2015

What’s Next For The Arab World?

What’s Next For The Arab World?

In my last essay I explored the question: What’s Holding Arabs Back?[1] The conclusion I drew is that not enough Arabs have embraced Enlightenment values, like progress, criticism, freedom of speech, freedom of the pursuit of happiness, tolerance of dissent, respect for reason and science, and respect for the rule of law. I also pointed out that this is a soluble problem. But what exactly would it take to solve it? What would it take for a critical mass of Arabs to embrace Enlightenment values and usher in a new era of progress for them? To address this question it’s important to point out some fundamental differences between the Arab world and the West.


Philosophy

One major difference between us is in how we understand morality - the branch of philosophy about how people should live their lives. In the Arab world the dominant worldview says morality is about avoiding doing what you want - following a set of obligations dictated by God or society. It's about living a life of suppressing your desires for fear of punishment. Many Westerners, on the other hand, have embraced a very different worldview that says morality is about getting what you want, while first checking if what you want is good. It's about living a life of embracing your rationally-considered desires in search of reward - where reward comes in the form of mutual benefit.

This is a clash of cultures, and it boils down to a fundamental difference in how each worldview understands reality. The fear-oriented morality hinges on the false premise that conflicts of interest between people are inherent to human nature. So people with this worldview mistakenly think that in any human interaction there must be a winner and a loser - that it's impossible for everybody involved to win. So they think that there is always someone taking advantage of someone else. They think there is always the oppressor and the oppressed. 

In contrast, the merit-oriented mentality explains that there is a natural harmony between humans. That conflicts of interest are not inherent to human nature. That any human interaction can be win/win - where everybody gets what they want and nobody sacrifices anything. You go after a win/win with somebody or you avoid interacting with him at all. So, a win/lose can and should always be avoided. And if a win/lose occurs it is because somebody acted irrationally and immorally.


Effects on psychology 

This difference in understanding makes a huge impact on people. Ones philosophy greatly affects how he thinks, how he feels, and how he acts. As an example, consider that somebody who doesn’t believe that mutual benefit is possible will misinterpret the intentions of somebody who is striving for mutual benefit with him.

Take me and this essay as an example. I am writing this essay for mutual benefit. I benefit from writing it, explaining my ideas, exposing them to criticism so that I can improve my understanding. And others benefit from learning from it. 

But some Arab Muslims will misinterpret my intentions because of their unquestioned, and in many cases, subconscious assumption that there always has to be a loser. They will think that I’m trying to cheat them. That I’m trying to hurt them by encouraging them to betray their way of life. They will cling to the age old conspiracy theory that Jews have paid me off - that I don’t actually believe what I’m saying and that I’m doing it only for money. 

But they are wrong. I only want good for people. I want good for everybody, even the evil people in the world. I want them to turn good. That’s better for everybody! I don't want them to be harmed. I don't want punishment. Punishment itself is evil. It's the win/lose morality that views punishment as righteous. And it's the merit-oriented win/win morality that implies that punishment is evil. 

It’s sad that they misunderstand me. I wish they would take my words at face value, that they believe me when I say that I don't want to hurt them, that I don't want them to lose. I want all of us to be winners! That's better for me.

Now keep in mind that the West hasn't fully embraced the win/win mentality. There are still lots of Westerners who believe the false premise that conflicts of interest are inherent to human nature. Or they don't have this belief explicitly but many of their ideas contradict the win/win mentality as if they did have a belief that humans are inherently at odds - for example some westerners don't value freedom or criticism.

Here's a summary of the two opposing worldviews:

Win/lose worldview
Win/win worldview
People are naturally at odds
Natural harmony between people 
Fear-oriented
Merit-oriented
Status-seeking
Truth-seeking
Run from shame
Eager for self-improvement
Hide ones mistakes
Find and fix ones mistakes
Stagnation
Unbounded progress
Hates criticism
Loves criticism


The bare minimum of agreement

With such a striking difference in how we understand the world, how can we get along? Well that's sort of the point. In order to get along with each other we must agree on a bare minimum of things. For example if we don't agree that murder, rape, and theft are wrong, then we can’t get along. If we don't agree that initiation of violence and threats of violence are wrong then we can’t live in peace. This is why governments made up of people who value Enlightenment traditions put murderers, rapists, and thieves in jail, to protect people’s freedom to live peacefully, to live in harmony with others.

Now a lot of people in the West defend the Arab world saying that the West props up dictators there. Yes, a dictatorship is bad compared to a democracy. But a democracy isn’t even a possibility yet in the Arab world. Most Arabs today don't even know the basics of self-governance and democracy. So when they have the opportunity to replace a secular dictator, they end up replacing him with a religious dictator. This is a major barrier. Democracy has no chance in a country where most people align themselves politically by their tribe and religion instead of aligning themselves by their ideas.

So, the diplomatic policy of the West has been to give financial aid to the dictators that share some level of agreement with Western interests. For example, the U.S. gave billions in financial aid annually to the dictator of Egypt Hosni Mubarak because he wanted peace with Israel and economic ties with the U.S. It was a necessary step in the right direction because previous to that Egypt was in a constant state of war with Israel.

Now I’m not saying there is no reason for hope. A few years ago, immediately after the Arab Spring, King Abdullah II of Jordan made an important move towards democracy. There are now many political parties, which means that Jordanians are starting to align themselves politically by their ideas instead of by their tribe or religion. This means that any political party could have members from any tribe or religion. 

This is a start in the right direction but there's a long way to go before there is a critical mass of people good enough to operate a democratic government. The existence of a democratic government does not guarantee that the current rulers won't destroy the democratic engine by outlawing all other political parties. That's what the Nazis did, and not enough Germans opposed them.

A crucial point here is that bad rulers should be able to be replaced peacefully. If this sort of mechanism isn't in place, then people will resort to replacing bad rulers violently. But it won't work if enough people represented by a government consider violent revolution as their main tool to oust bad rulers. Violent revolution should be the last resort because it destroys any existing infrastructure necessary for non-violent replacement of rulers.

People need to respect the non-violent way of changing rulers. If you aren't happy with your current rulers, then you should make it your responsibility to vote against them in the coming elections and to persuade others to vote the same. In the mean time, be patient. Or, you could move to a country that better aligns with your values. 


Charges of hypocrisy 

Some Westerners read what I have to say about Arabs and tell me that I shouldn't be judging and condemning them. So I want to address these charges.  

First, I don't condemn people. Condemning a person means that you don't think they can improve. Like some people will say "you're going to hell." That means they are making a prediction that the person will never change for the better. I don't do that. Arabs can improve. That's one of the main themes of my essays. 

If you read this essay and come to the conclusion that I'm condemning Arabs then the problem is that you are operating under the win/lose mentality, because it's that mentality that falsely implies that people can't change their flaws. The win/win worldview explains that any person can change any part of his mind. There is no law of nature preventing it.

Second, I do judge Arabs but these people are confused about the meaning here. They act like judging is bad. Well what does it mean to judge? It means to criticize flaws. Now you can view this as a negative thing, since a flaw is negative. But a better view is that criticism is positive because learning about a flaw gives you the opportunity to correct it. So criticism is good. Judgement is good. And for the same reason, not judging people is bad because it hides flaws and causes them to persist. And pressuring me and others to stop judging people amounts to spreading evil because you are working to silence us, to stop us from helping people fix their flaws. Viewing judgement as negative is part of the win/lose mentality, and viewing judgement as positive is part of the win/win mentality.

Now a third charge that some Westerners level against me is that I shouldn't be criticizing Arabs for lack of democracy while my own country, the U.S., doesn't have the ideal democracy. This charge doesn't make sense. It's like saying that I shouldn't criticize somebody because I'm not perfect. This is a mistake because if everybody went by this standard, then nobody would ever criticize anybody else since nobody is perfect. So the criticism engine would completely halt which would usher in a new era of stagnation. Progress is made possible because of criticism! 

Take note that this anti-criticism view is part of the win/lose mentality. In contrast, the win/win mentality embraces criticism for what it is, wonderful!

A fourth charge that some Westerners level at me is that my ideas could be used as a propaganda tool resulting in future invasions by the U.S. This one I'm really shocked to hear. My essay is clear that initiation of violence and threats of violence is wrong. We should not be invading countries unless we've been invaded or there is a credible threat of attack. An example of a credible threat of attack is Iran who is making nuclear weaponry while simultaneously calling for the complete destruction of Israel. 

Other than eminent war like this, we should not be invading countries. We should not try to topple a dictator to replace it with a democracy. Instead, our governments should use diplomacy to encourage dictators to make steps towards democracy, for their own good.

Now if the people of a dictatorship revolt, and if those revolutionaries show signs of wanting a democracy and knowing how to do it, then we could consider helping them create a democracy while also helping them have a military chance against their dictator. But be clear that it is they who must make the first move. We should only play a helping role. We should not be spearheading any violent revolutions. Spearheading a violent revolution would mean going against the people of that country. We would be acting as if they want our help when we have no reason to believe that they do want our help. That would be a win/lose situation. That's evil. 


Agent of change

One thing that’s clear is that diplomacy isn’t enough. A democracy can only work if the people have the values necessary for a democracy to work. So what’s needed is something that could help Arabs learn these values. 

What's needed is an agent of change. What’s needed is ideas. Now one major hurdle here is that most Arabs only know Arabic. They can't read articles, books, or websites written in English or any other language besides Arabic. So, my idea is to bring Enlightenment values to Arabs - in their language.

Consider the Fallible Ideas (FI) website.[2] As far as I know, it has the best explanations advocating Enlightenment values. It helped me understand what's holding the Arabs back, hence these two essays. My plan is to translate the FI essays to Arabic, and then publish them on a website for Arabs to read. And I want to host a critical discussion group for Arabs to discuss these and other ideas amongst each other, and so that they could contribute their own ideas.

This could spawn a new era of philosophical evolution for Arabs. And if it succeeds, it would mean more mutual benefit for me and other Westerners! It would mean that our worlds will merge, becoming one.

If you’re interested to help with my translation project, please donate whatever you can at Help the Arab World Embrace Enlightenment Values.[3] Or if you are an English-to-Arabic translator and you want to donate your services, please contact me using the contact page.


[1] What’s Holding Arabs Back? [GET LINK OF THE MAGAZINE ARTICLE]

[2] Fallible Ideas website: http://fallibleideas.com

[3] Help the Arab World Embrace Enlightenment Values [NOT CREATED YET]


Sunday, July 5, 2015

What's Holding the Arabs Back?



A question I've been interested in for years is: Why are so many countries making so much progress while most of the Arab countries are not? For years I explored potential answers and recently I think I've reached a good answer. I found it by learning a certain perspective - one that understands the key elements required to make progress.

If we look back in history, looking at all the cultures that made huge progress, we can see a certain feature shared between those cultures. Cultures that are exceptional in this regard are the Ancient Greeks and the Europeans during the Age of Enlightenment. The Ancient Greeks only made progress for a few centuries before they went mostly stagnant, but the Age of Enlightenment is still going strong centuries after it started and has spread across so many cultures outside of Europe.

Now before I explain the shared feature between these cultures, it's helpful to understand what these cultures were like before they started making huge progress. In Ancient Greece, schools were conducted in such a way where students were expected to learn what their teachers had to offer without any challenge from the students. Teachers tried to teach students to exactly copy the teachers' ideas. Students weren’t expected to create any new ideas, and instead the culture tried to suppress new ideas. As a result, in a typical person’s life, he didn’t see many changes to the society he lived in. Nothing much changed in the traditions of his society during his lifetime. [1]


Tolerance of dissent

But at some point in Ancient Greece a new school of thought began. One that expected students to challenge their teachers' ideas. One that expected students to invent new ideas, ideas that rivaled and even surpassed that of their teachers. Dissent was cherished instead of shunned. And as a result of this new school of thought, in a typical person’s life, he saw so many changes to the traditions of the society he lived in. And those changes were expected and encouraged.

This new tradition respected new ideas and respected criticism. The previous tradition disrespected new ideas and disrespected criticism. This tradition — ‘the tradition of criticism’ — is the key element that results in huge progress.

More than a millennium later in Europe people began to learn from the Ancient Greeks. In the minds of Europeans the tradition of criticism was born again. This was the Age of Enlightenment. This rekindled tradition spawned huge progress in politics, in science, and in all other fields. It was widely understood that people can and should expand human knowledge beyond that of their ancestors. People again expected change and welcomed it. 

To illustrate the contrast between these two kinds of attitudes, it helps to describe them a certain way. The first kind of attitude effectively believes that “I already have the full truth, so I'll rest on my current ideas. No need to challenge my ideas because the challengers are automatically wrong." The second kind believes that “I don’t have the full truth, so I’ll seek out the truth, challenging my current ideas.”


Static and dynamic societies

The first attitude is that of the static society, and the second is of the dynamic society. All static societies eventually die off - or become dynamic - because a static society cannot adapt to the changes that the world brings. In contrast, dynamic societies make huge progress and so they are able to adapt to the changing world.

In a dynamic society it’s common for people to have an attitude that respects criticism - they see criticism as a gift. In disagreements, they see themselves as equals. So someone with this attitude strives to seek out quality criticism because he knows that without it he is doomed to stagnation. 

In contrast, without the tradition of criticism, a person sees criticism as an insult, as an attack on his character. He runs away from criticism as though it is the plague, or he responds to criticism by initiating violence or making threats of violence in order to quell it. He expends his energy trying to preserve his current state of self, instead of trying to learn and improve.

This is what’s wrong with the Arab world today. They haven't embraced the tradition of criticism. It hasn’t become integral to their culture. Most Arabs still think that respecting their parents means never contradicting them. They think that dissenting implies disrespecting their ancestors. They take this even further by trying to raise their own children in the same way that their parents raised them, because they think that doing anything else amounts to disrespecting their parents. So the next generation doesn’t improve much from the previous. So stagnation is built in to their culture.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali explained this contrast in her book Infidel. She's from Somalia, which isn't an Arab country but it has the same missing key element that the Arab world is missing. She explained that Somalians don’t criticize their own country among outsiders because that is seen as an insult, a lowering of their reputation, while Westerners do criticize their own countries because they know that criticism is necessary for progress. She said that the same thing happens within smaller circles too. The typical Somalian wouldn’t criticize his own family while someone outside the family is present to hear it. And he wouldn't publicly admit his own mistakes, and instead he would take those secrets to his grave. They think that admitting mistakes means ruining ones reputation.


Honor/shame culture

This tradition, known as honor/shame culture, which I'll call 'the tradition of honor,' is integral to Arab culture. People with this attitude think in terms of their social status instead of in terms of the truth. They care about their reputation, and the reputation of their family, tribe, country, and religion, while not really caring about the truth. So if somebody criticizes them, their family, tribe, country, or religion, they see this as an attack on their honor, instead of as an opportunity to learn something. This attitude greatly affects the way they think, feel, and act. They would rather hide the truth in order to preserve their reputation, than to let the truth be heard.

What they misunderstand is that truth-seekers do not respect status-seekers, so status-seekers already have a bad reputation in the eyes of truth-seekers. We do not respect people that would rather hide the truth for fear of ruining their reputation. We respect people precisely because they are willing to publicly admit when they are wrong. Admitting when one is wrong, and also admitting the fact that one might be wrong, is what creates a good reputation among truth-seekers. [2]

This tradition literally competes with the tradition of criticism. A person cannot fully embrace the tradition of criticism without fully rejecting the tradition of honor. So this tradition stands in the way of Arabs embracing the tradition of criticism.

Part of the problem is that these traditions are part of Islam, which is the dominant religion across the Arab world. Now I’m not saying that Islam invented these traditions. They existed long before Islam. But because the traditions were incorporated into Islam, this caused these anti-criticism traditions to spread more and last longer. And it acts as a barrier for the spread of the tradition of criticism.


New inventions against criticism

Another part of the problem is that with Islam also came new inventions that were even more antithetical to the tradition of criticism than compared to pre-Islamic Arab culture. Consider that Islam instructs Muslims to kill those who leave Islam. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, said: “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him." [3] This invention is one of the worst barriers for the spread of the tradition of criticism.

Islam effectively says “My way of making my ideas survive is to literally kill anybody who has competing ideas. I will not let ideas compete by merit because in that arena my ideas would die off.” This is one of the most effective ways to stop new ideas from forming and spreading, by literally killing the minds that create and contain them. 

This is not just something in ancient history. Even in the 21st century one of the most influential Islamic scholars, Qaradawi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said: “If they had gotten rid of the apostasy punishment Islam wouldn’t exist today." So he is admitting that Islam cannot win by merit. It can only "win" by force. The effect of this tradition is to make people fear voicing their dissenting opinions, so most people decide to censor themselves for fear of being killed. 

To make matters worse is Islam’s idea of punishment in hell for the "crime" of questioning or even doubting Islam. This is clarified in so many verses in the Quran that it's not worth quoting here. This belief results in most Muslims fearing even *thinking* of having dissenting opinions, of questioning their ancestors belief system. So most Muslims end up censoring not only their voices, but also their critical and dissenting thoughts, simply because of their false belief that they will burn in hell for thinking differently than what the Quran instructs them to think.

There is another invention playing a role preventing the adoption of the tradition of criticism - and Islam did not create it. Islam did bring it back stronger though. It's a phenomenon where people value the afterlife more than life on earth. So they don't value progress in this life. This means that criticism has no value too since you only need criticism so that you can make progress. Some Islamic traditions even teach that suffering on Earth buys credit in the afterlife. So it's treating human suffering as a good thing, and progress as something that isn’t awesome. These things are inextricably connected - you have to value progress in this life in order to have any reason at all to value criticism.


How to move forward

Now this doesn’t mean that Islam must die in order for Arabs to adopt the tradition of criticism. It's quite possible for the Arab world to embrace the tradition of criticism while they remain Muslims. Some changes will need to take place, but Islam does not need to end in order for progress to be made.

There was a time when people from the Islamic world embraced criticism. They made advancements in math, science, medicine, architecture, etc. It was a time when Europe was in a deep sleep after Ancient Greece went stagnant and before Europeans rekindled the tradition of criticism by learning from the Ancient Greek texts. And actually it was those people from the Islamic world that preserved the Ancient Greek texts and reintroduced them to Europe. This helped Europeans rekindle the tradition of criticism. And we should return the favor. 

In the future, I think Islam will evolve like Christianity did. Criticism in the form of words or cartoons will no longer result in people reacting with violence. Muslims will embrace the tradition of criticism and reject the tradition of honor, and this will usher in a new era of progress for the Arab world.


[1] For more on this and related topics in epistemology, morality, science, politics, and more, see _The Beginning of Infinity_, by David Deutsch. This book is currently being translated into Arabic.

[2] For more on the tradition of honor and it’s effects on a person’s thoughts, emotions, and actions, see my essay Honor Violence: And why nobody should demand respect. It’s currently being translated into Arabic to be published in the Arab Atheist Broadcasting magazine.

[3] Bukhari 9.84.57 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Gaming the ACT. Is that the right way?

Lots of tutors tell students that scoring high on standardized tests is more about ‘gaming the system’ and less about actually understanding the concepts that the test is supposed to be testing for. I think they have a point. But I think their understanding is incomplete.
The game-the-system camp are right that the test makers try to trick you with their multiple-choice questions. But what they misunderstand is that real life works the same way. In real life it’s easy to get tricked. And it’s especially easy to fool yourself.
The test makers aren’t so much trying to trick you, as much as they are trying to present you with types of test questions that you’ve never encountered before. It’s their only means of separating the exceptional people from the not so exceptional.
So, what are these so-called “tricks”? The “trick” is just to try to get you to misinterpret the question and it’s answer options. That’s it. That’s the goal.
And there are an infinite number of possible ways to achieve that goal. So you can’t just try to learn a handful of types of test questions and think you can cover all of them or even most of them. There will always be new one’s you haven’t encountered. The test makers will continue to invent new ways to try to trick you. And you’ll always encounter new ones, even if it’s only new to you and not to the rest of the world.
The solution here is to learn how to catch more mistakes in interpreting the questions and the answer options. More generally, it’s to learn how to catch more mistakes of any kind. In other words, we’re talking about improving your general reasoning skill. That’s the focus of my book _How to Get More Right Answers: on standardized tests like the ACT, SAT, MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, etc_.
This reminds me of my college years studying Physics at Bradley. I remember students complaining that their professor would put problems on the test that weren’t covered in the lectures or homework. They thought that their professors were being unfair. But they’re wrong. That’s the point of the test! It’s to check your understanding of the concepts by changing up the situations so that you can’t just memorize your way through the material. It requires that you understand the abstract concepts thoroughly enough so that you can apply them to any situation that the concepts apply to. Any! That’s an infinite set.
Why do it that way? Because that’s actually how the real world works!! Like for those guys that locate utilities underground, there’s no such thing as studying every single possible situation and getting tested on all of them. These guys don’t have an infinite amount of time to train. They only have 3 weeks. So it’s an infinite set of possible situations, and what these locators do during training is learn all the necessary general-purpose information about electricity and other physics concepts, meant to be applied universallyto any possible situation that a locator can find himself in.

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This book is about helping you learn a better method of choosing between options. So learning these ideas will help you not only with the test you’re going to take, but also with all of your pursuits in life.

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I've been in love with how the physical world works for longer than I can remember. At Bradley University I studied Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Math, and I tutored my friends and others in Physics and Chemistry so that they could do well on the MCAT test. All that tutoring helped me refine my own understanding of the concepts I was explaining, and it also helped me dramatically refine my explanatory skills.

Much later I helped some students with the ACT/SAT and the MCAT tests, and not just on the science and math sections. Actually most of the improvement that my students experienced was in the verbal/reading sections. One student improved his ACT score from 23 to 32, which allowed him to get into just about any university he wanted because it put him in the 98th percentile of students taking the ACT. I helped students improve their MCAT score dramatically, allowing them to get into US medical schools. With results like these I decided to write out what I was explaining, and the rest is history.

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