Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Love at first sight

Love at first sight

'Love at first sight' is an interesting phenomenon. Our oldest record of it was by the Ancient Greeks, who explained it as a sudden feeling of passionate love, a kind of mania, upon meeting a person for the first time.

One thing that’s interesting about it is that some people believe it’s possible to experience it, to have it happen to them, while other people don’t. And for the people that do believe it, this is part of the causal chain that causes them to experience it. As for the people that don’t believe it, they can’t experience it. It just doesn’t happen to them.

The 'unbelievers' either believed the tradition and then changed their mind, or they never bought into it in the first place because they already had reason to believe that it doesn’t make sense. But most of these people still have basically the same mistake. They still think in a way that is consistent with ‘love at first sight’ for other things, like ideas.

So a person might have an intuition, or gut feeling, and immediately be excited by the idea, without checking it for error. And because he's excited, he doesn't put any effort in looking for problems. This is fundamentally the same as a person who gets a sensation upon the first sight of someone and then interpreting that sensation to mean that he loves that person, all without checking the idea (that he’s in love) for error.

'Love at first sight,' for a person or for an idea, doesn’t make sense. No matter what sensation one has, that sensation doesn’t mean that the idea is true or best. Treating the sensation this way is a form of justificationism. It’s a way to give status to an idea in order to ignore the possibility that the idea might be wrong -- i.e. it's a way to justify the idea.


Justifying an idea by it’s sensation means having no means of finding out that you’re wrong. It means treating the sensation as an authority. It means treating the sensation as an infallible source of knowledge.  Justificationism doesn’t account for the fact that people are fallible, that all ideas people come up with are subject to error. 'Love at first sight' is just a special case of this.

'Love at first sight' is fundamentally the same as getting angry after jumping to conclusions in response to somebody saying something to you. Whatever the intent of the person, you could be wrong about your interpretation of his intent. Your sensation of anger is not justification that your interpretation (of his intent) is correct. Maybe the person had no malicious intent. Maybe he wanted to help you as opposed to wanting to hurt you. No matter how strong your sensation is, that doesn’t make your interpretation true. Your sensation doesn’t give extra status to your interpretation. Your sensation is not an authority. You do not have any infallible sources of knowledge. All your ideas are subject to error, even the ones that you get strong sensations about.

This is about first impressions. If your first impression comes with a strong emotional/intuitional sensation, that doesn’t mean that it’s correct. Your first impression could be wrong. And if you act on your first impression before checking it for error, then you are ignoring that you might be wrong. In the case of 'love at first sight' for an idea, it’s important to check for problems with the idea, as a means of accounting for the possibility of it being wrong.

First impressions, like all other ideas, are fallible, so people shouldn’t act on them without first checking for criticism. One type of criticism of a first impression is another explanation that fits the evidence, an explanation that rivals the first impression. It’s a criticism because if both the first impression and the second explanation are compatible with all the existing evidence, then that means both explanations are wrong since neither of them is better than its rival, in the sense that both of them equally fit the evidence. In order to rule one of them out, you’d have to find another piece of evidence that contradicts one of them but not the other.

This way of thinking affects all areas of a person's life. Lots of people make huge life decisions based on the sensations they get surrounding those decisions. They get married to people because of their feelings while ignoring the glaring problems surrounding the relationships. They choose not to abort pregnancies for feelings of love of unborn children while ignoring things like whether or not the family situation is opportune for the unborn children and for the parents. They switch jobs based on feelings of excitement of a new job, often trading to a worse situation than compared to the previous job, usually in a type of scenario where the person could have found out the danger before quitting the previous job. These are all very dangerous situations. Thinking in this way, of making decisions without trying to lookout for danger, can only be expected to lead to a long string of major disasters. What's needed is a way to think about things where dangerous results can be avoided instead of ignored.

Conventional advice

Another interesting thing about 'love at first sight,' or rather, the boiled down version of it, 'first impressions,' is the conventional advice about how to deal with the uncertainty of making decisions. The advise says that second-guessing yourself is something that should be avoided. It says that one shouldn't think critically about a decision after having made the decision, as a means of feeling better about the possibility of the decision being wrong. But this is a misguided way of dealing with uncertainty. It's like saying: Since I can't be certain about my idea, I need a way to act that accounts for the bad feeling I get when I'm uncertain about a decision I made. This is a bad approach because it's not giving any method for dealing with the uncertainty, and instead it's only giving advice on how to feel in spite of the uncertainty. The problem I see with this is that following this advice means ignoring criticism of one's ideas. It means blocking out of your mind that your decision could be wrong. It means blocking out of your mind that the case might be that you should change your mind. It means blocking out of your mind that you can learn things from your past mistakes, things that you can use to help you in future decisions.

To clarify the issue, let's consider what it means to stop second-guessing in the context of a murder case. The first guess is the detective's first suspect. Second-guessing means looking for other possible suspects that could have committed the murder instead. It means looking for other types of theories like maybe it was a suicide, or maybe it was an accident caused by one or more mistakes made by the accused person and/or other people. If the detective doesn't second-guess his first guesses, then he can't possibly find the truth, unless he happened to get lucky on his first guess. Do you want to be a suspect in a case where the detective follows this conventional advice that second-guessing is something to be avoided? If you were wrongly convicted of a murder, would you want our judicial system to avoid second-guessing (aka appealing) the case?

Consider the equivalent situation in the context of the medical profession. Recently a women died the night of being released from the hospital. The physician had decided that it was ok for her to be released from the hospital, and immediately after making the decision he second-guessed himself, but instead of acting on this, he looked to the nurse for confirmation of his decision, to which she confirmed that it was the right decision. But it was the wrong decision. Not only was it the wrong decision, the physician was also wrong to seek confirmation of his decision as a means of burying his thoughts of uncertainty. Instead, he should have sought criticism. He should have thought it normal to second-guess himself, instead of thinking that it was bad to do so.

How to deal with uncertainty

My description might not be giving the conventional advice a fair analysis. I think the conventional advise says that you should second-guess a little bit, and then at some point to stop second-guessing and decide on your best knowledge. But the problem with this conventional approach is that it's not clear about how to arrive at an idea that can be considered 'the best knowledge.' It doesn't explain that the best idea as a proposal solution for a particular problem is one that refutes all of it's existing rivals. It doesn't explain how to go about criticizing one's ideas. And it doesn't explain how to update one's ideas in the future as new ideas and criticisms are created.

Consider the context of a murder case again. The court system is designed so that any conviction can be appealed. This is because we know that we could have been wrong about the conviction. Our best knowledge to date, at the time of the conviction, was good enough to convict, but we know that it's possible that a new piece of evidence, or a new analysis, could change the dynamics of the case such that the previous theory is now refuted, in favor for a new theory. This shows that our judicial system is designed to account for uncertainty. And this is a way of thinking, an attitude, that individuals can have to.

So the conventional advice is telling us how to feel better about possibly being wrong (aka uncertain). But it doesn't address the underlying issue, that it's ok to be wrong since that's part of the human condition. Being wrong is normal. It's common. The important thing isn't that you're wrong, or that you could be wrong, but rather it's how you deal with the fact that you could be wrong, and how you deal with situations where you have criticism of your ideas. Do you seek confirmation for your ideas or do you seek criticism? Do you block out things from your mind or do you change your mind about your ideas when you do find out that you're wrong?

More importantly, finding out that you're wrong shouldn't be seen as a bad thing because it's actually good -- you went from being wrong, to being right, about that one thing. If you get a bad feeling when second-guessing your ideas, that's an indication that you have the wrong attitude, the wrong philosophy towards mistakes. What's needed is an attitude that matches the human condition, an attitude of enjoying criticism, an attitude of enjoying finding out that you're wrong. Why? Because finding out that you're wrong is the first step towards correcting your mistake. It's an opportunity to improve. It's an opportunity to evolve.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Helping kids learn scientific reasoning

Helping kids learn scientific reasoning

To help a child learn science and scientific reasoning it’s critical to help him when he’s interested in scientific things. So if he wonders why something happens a certain way, then it's important for the parent to help him figure out why it happens.

Beware though that getting interested only works voluntarily. Doing it involuntarily, say where the parent manipulates his child by tricking him into certain discussions, can be expected to lead to hating it (and distrusting the parent).

Now one thing that helps a person spark interest is for him to connect concrete things in his life with the relevant abstract scientific concepts. These concrete things are his problems, things he wants to know. Things he's interested in.

Here’s some discussions between parent and child that you can use as examples.

[After getting in the car to go to McDonalds on a cold winter day.]

Child: Go!

Parent: But we can’t go yet because I can’t see well through the windshield. If we go now then we’ll probably crash.

Child: Ok.

Parent: Do you want to know why we can’t see well though the windshield?

Child: Ya.

Parent: It’s because there is condensation on it.

Child: What's condensation?

Parent: Condensation is water that went from the air to a hard surface, like the windshield.

Child: There’s water in the air?

Parent: Yes. Do you know why clouds and fog are not see-through? It's because there is a lot of water in the air and that makes light not go through it. So then we can’t see the light that’s coming from the other side.

Child: Oh!

Parent: Do you want to know why the water goes from the air to the windshield?

Child: Ya, why does that happen?

Parent: Ok, so there is water in the air, and when the windshield is colder than the air, then water goes from the air to the windshield. 

Parent: Another example of this is a glass of ice water — the water from the air goes onto the glass.

Child: Oh ya!

Parent: Did you know that the opposite thing happens when we boil water to cook eggs?

Child: What do you mean?

Parent: The water in the pot gets hot, and that makes the water from the pot to go into the air.

Child: Cool!

Parent: I can explain this stuff in more detail so it makes more sense, but it requires knowing what air and water and windows are made of. Do you want to learn that?

Child: Yes!

Parent: Everything is made of atoms. Atoms are like the building blocks of everything in the world, like legos are the building blocks of things we build from legos.

Child: What about trees?

Parent: Yes trees, and grass, and animals, and us, and the sun, the moon, water, tables, paper, TVs, and everything else too.

Child: What about a magic hat?

Parent: Well yes the hat is made out of atoms, but magic is not real.

Child: But it is real.

Parent: How is it real?

Child: When the magic hat goes on somebodies head, the head disappears.

Parent: No it doesn't. The guy is just tricking you, the head is still there, and you aren't seeing it. The head is made of atoms. The hat is made of atoms. Those are real things. There is no magic, like there is no Santa, no tooth-fairy, the boogey man, and no Spongebob.

[While watching Bones, season 2 episode 5, there is a scene where flesh was falling off the bones of a human body in a tub full of hydrochloric acid.]

Child: Why is that happening? 

Parent: Are you asking me why the flesh is coming off the bones?

Child: Ya.

Parent: Well, there is acid in the tub, and that acid makes the flesh dissolve.

Child: What’s an acid and why does it make flesh dissolve?

Parent: An acid is a molecule. A molecule is a collection of atoms that are bound together by forces.

Child: What are forces?

Parent: Forces are what pull things together, or push them apart. So there are forces that hold the atoms together to make molecules.

Child: Ok, but I still don’t know why acid makes flesh fall off bones.

Parent: I haven’t gotten there yet. So one example of a molecule is a protein. Proteins are the machines in our bodies that do things.

Child: Machines in our bodies?

Parent: Yes, but they're not made of metal. Their made of other stuff, other atoms.

Parent: One example of a protein is the one that holds our skin to our bodies. If we didn’t have this protein, then our skin would fall off. And actually there is a gene that causes this problem because the gene doesn’t make the protein the right way, and so if you touch the skin, it falls off.

Child: Wow!

Parent: Now, if the acid gets in contact with a protein, the atoms in the acid react with the atoms in the protein. 

Child: What does react mean?

Parent: It kinda means ‘do something.’ So atoms from the acid react with atoms from the protein, making the protein into a different molecule — so the acid changes the protein into a different molecule. So now the new molecule doesn’t do the job that the original protein did. 

Parent: So if the proteins that hold our skin on our bodies get in contact with acid, then the protein will break apart and our skin will fall off.

Child: Ok.

[While looking at family pictures.]

Child: I look like mama. And I look like you too.

Parent: Yep. Do you know why?

Child: Why?

Parent: Because you got your genes from me and from mama, and genes are what make you look certain ways, like your eye color and hair color.

Child: What are genes?

Parent: Genes are things that are in our bodies that control how we look, and how are bodies work. And people get their genes from their parents.

Child: Oh!

Parent: Guess what else genes do besides control how we look?

Child: What else?

Parent: Genes also control our proteins.

Child: What are proteins again?

Parent: Proteins are molecules, and they are machines that do things in the body. And one of the proteins is the one that holds our skin.

Child: Oh ya, and if you put acid on the protein then your skin will fall off.

Parent: For some acids, yes, but not all acids.

Parent: And if you have a certain bad gene, then the protein that holds you're skin doesn't get made right, and so your skin just falls off if somebody touches it a little bit hard.

Child: I'm glad I don't have that gene.


Title: something about basement being colder than upstairs

It's cold.

: put some more clothes on.

why don’t you turn up the heater?

: it’s already on 70 degrees.

feels like 0 degrees.

: it’s probably 60 degrees down here.

: if i turn up the heater to 73 degrees, it’s not going to change downstairs much. mostly just upstairs will get hotter.

that sucks.

: you could put more clothes on. or bring a blanket. or just go upstairs.

i’ll get my blanket.

[goes and comes back]

why is the basement always colder than upstairs?

: it’s because hotter air rises. that also means that colder air goes down, which is because the hotter air is pushing up.

why does that happen?

: ok there’s a bunch of parts to explain why it happens, so bare with me.


: do you remember that when stuff gets hotter it get’s bigger?

oh ya! … but i forgot why.

: i’m getting there. do you remember that everything is made of atoms?


: and do you remember that atoms are always moving around?

ya. [balloon of kid imagining atoms moving around]

: well, when something is hotter, that’s because the atoms in it are moving around faster. the hotter it is, the faster the atoms are going. [balloon of kid imagining two jars of gas with different temperatures, and the hotter one’s atoms are moving faster]

: and the faster they go, the more they bump into each other and spread apart from each other. and the more they bump and push onto the thing it’s in. [show picture of it.]

ok. but why does the hotter stuff go up?

: well, do you remember that the heavier stuff goes down, and the lighter stuff goes up?

oh ya, like when we stand in sand!

: right. when you stand in the sand, you’re heavier than the sand so you are pushing down and the sand is being pushed up.

: and the same thing happens with colder air and hotter air. the colder air is heavier than the hotter air, so the hotter air is pushing down and the colder air is being pushed up.

but wait, why is the colder air heavier than the hotter air?

: it’s because of what I said before about spreading apart. i said that hotter air means that the atoms in it are moving faster, and that means that they are bumping into each other more and spreading apart more. so there’s less stuff in one spot.

oh i get it.


why does my finger get white when i do this? [squeezes finger together]

: because you’re making the blood go somewhere else.

that’s what I thought!

: [smile]


why does my hand feel weird while watching a movie?

: you mean it’s tingling?


: how are you watching? i mean, are you laying on your hand?

i’m doing it like this. [shows propping up head with arm]

: well you’re cutting off the nerve communication to your brain. and that weird feeling is because the communication is not working right.

why is that happening?

: well you’d have to learn about what nerves are, what they are for, and how they work.

so what’s a nerve?

: a nerve is a type of cell in the body. it sends signals between the body and the brain.

what’s a cell?

: our bodies are made of cells.

i thought we’re made of atoms.

: yes we are made of atoms. a bunch of atoms together make a molecule. and a bunch of molecules together make a cell. 


: cells live and die, and they divide and make more of themselves.

like us?

: yes except for a cell is the smallest living thing.


: so back to nerves. a nerve is a cell whose job it is to send signals between the body and the brain.

what’s that for?

: well, like for example, when your skin gets hot, there are sensors in your skin that measure that it’s hot. and then your nerves carry that information to your brain.

oh cool.

: another example is where your brain tells your body part to move away so you’re not touching the hot thing anymore.

: but when you put pressure on those nerves, then it doesn’t work right. that’s why you can’t feel much in that area of your body, and that’s why it’s harder to move it the way you want to. and that’s why it’s tingling.

what’s pressure?

: like, you’re putting your weight on those nerves.

is it bad to do that?

: only if it’s for many hours.

like when i’m sleeping?

: if you don’t move at all? ya it could be bad.

[concerned look]

: but when you sleep you move around some, especially when you’re uncomfortable.

oh ok. [relieved look]


For more on parenting.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Understanding Terrorism

A lot of people think terrorism is a new phenomenon since the term terrorism was only recently used a lot in the media. But actually it's much older than that. The term was first used in 1795 during the French Revolution, but that's not a good way to figure out how old the phenomenon is. I mean, just because a word is 200 years old doesn't mean that the idea the word refers to is 200 years old.


Terrorism is the systematic use of violence from one population to another, in order to instill fear, as a means of bringing about political change. I expect that this sort of thing is as old as civilization.

In history, one case that comes to mind is Islam during it's founder's life, 1,400 years ago. Most Muslims don't know the history and assume that Islam spread by voluntary conversion, since that seems the most logical to people in today's open societies. They are descent people who understand the importance of peace, and so they assume that Islam was peaceful too. But actually it spread by the sword. Kingdoms were given a choice, convert to Islam and come under the rule of Mohamed, or die by the swords of Muslims. And for the kings that did not capitulate to Mohamed's demands, what resulted was Islamic invasions of those kingdoms. So Mohamed instituted a systematic approach of using violence in order to make these kingdoms into provinces of his own nation, which constitutes political change. He justified murder, rape, and theft during his military campaigns -- he said it was for the sake of spreading Islam, a command from Allah.[1] The prophet of Islam boasted, “I have been made victorious with terror".[2]

During this period of military expansion, there were tribes in Arabia who were rejecting Islam, and a law was instituted where apostates were to be given a chance to reaffirm their submission to Allah or be killed -- again a command from Allah.[4] That decree is still being enforced today in some countries. This is a means of instilling fear in the population so that they don't reject Islam -- fear of murder is a strong motivator.

So Mohamed was a terrorist. Not the first terrorist, but definitely one of the worst in history -- if we're counting most deaths as the worst.

To be clear, had those kingdoms initiated violence on the Islamic nation, then Mohamed would have been retaliating in self-defense, which would be good. It would be good because it's a means to restore peace, after the aggressor had already forcefully/involuntarily dragged the victim into war against his will. But that's not what happened. Mohamed sent envoys with his letters to these kingdoms unprovoked, [3] which is evil.

So terrorism is at least 1,400 years old, but really the fundamental feature underlying terrorism is much much older than that, and it pervades our societies a lot more than most people realize. The most important feature of terrorism is related to the fact that it is involuntary. This can be explained by pointing out how it contrasts with liberalism.


Liberalism says that individuals should be treated equally under the law. One key issue in liberalism is tolerance -- which is about agreeing to disagree without initiating violence. So, under liberalism, things like murder and rape are considered wrong.

Terrorism says that it's ok to initiate violence, as a means of causing political change. So terrorism is intolerance. It contradicts liberalism.

The fundamental feature of terrorism is that it is involuntary, against an innocent person, with the goal of involuntarily causing the victim to submit to the aggressor's will. To help clarify this issue, let's consider the alternative way, which is to help someone to change his mind voluntarily, by rational discussion.

Rational discussion

In any given disagreement between two or more people, in order for agreement to be reached, they must find an idea that everybody involved agrees with. Otherwise, they are still in disagreement. And when agreement is reached, it means that one or more of the people involved have changed their minds, which implies that it was voluntary. Now this doesn't require that the people agree on everything. But at the minimum, what is required is that they agree to disagree, in the sense that they don't resort to violence. So rational discussion requires that people willingly change their minds, and it requires that they refuse to initiate violence as a means to end the discussion. So rationality -- the willingness to change one's mind, and the refusal to use involuntary means, is a requirement of each person involved. If just one person involved in the disagreement is being irrational, then agreement cannot be reached.

Dissent is ok

Consider a society where dissent is ok. If a disagreement does not end with agreement, then nobody involved retaliates against another with violence. This is what is known as tolerance. So they "agree to disagree." This means that they still disagree about the issue they were discussing, but they agree on the narrow matter of leaving that disagreement alone without resorting to violence. But, in a society where dissent is not ok, where there is no tradition of tolerance, if a disagreement does not end with agreement, then one or more of the individuals involved may initiate violence in order to force the dissenters to "change" their minds, to force them to obey. Note that I put "change" in quotes because they don't actually change their minds, and instead what they do is change their behavior in an effort to avoid violent retaliation from the aggressor.

Now that we've established the fundamental difference between terrorism and non-terrorism, let's consider how pervasive this idea is in our societies. Who do you know that tries to "change" other people's minds involuntarily? Parents. Many parents will punish their kids for disagreeing with them, as a means of causing them to "change" their minds. But as I said, they don't actually change their minds, and what actually happens is that they change their behavior in an effort to avoid the pain of punishment. Parents will also raise their voices and give ugly facial expressions, as a means of threatening punishment on the child if he doesn't "change" his mind.[5]

I suspect that the tradition of coercing people, with violence and threats of violence, as a means of causing obedience, is older than human civilization. And this tradition still pervades our societies today, even in our most open societies -- even in the USA where the tradition of tolerance is engrained as fundamental principles in our constitution.

Tradition of criticism

As I said before, some societies embrace dissent and tolerance, while other's don't. So what's the critical difference between them? The difference is the tradition of criticism.[6] If the people in a disagreement have a good attitude towards criticism, then they will enjoy their discussion, and they won't resort to initiating violence. And if they don't have a good attitude towards criticism, then they won't enjoy their discussion, and they may initiate violence. More importantly, having a good attitude towards criticism means understanding that disagreement between people is common and ok. Dissent is good. Criticism is good. The important thing here is related to one's attitude towards criticism, which is connected to his attitude towards dissent, which is connected to his willingness to change his mind if he finds out he's wrong.

Now the tradition of criticism is not a knew thing. The ancient greeks had it, though they lost it later. The tradition of criticism sprang up again in the 1500's or so, resulting in what we now call The Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was many things, and science was one of them -- science has a strong tradition of criticism. Scientists expect to have their ideas criticized by other scientists, and they try their best to make their theories more criticizable, so that flaws can be more easily found.

The Enlightenment resulted in a boom of knowledge growth, one that we are still experiencing today. It started in Italy, but many other cultures have adopted this tradition of criticism since then, and so they too have joined The Enlightenment era.

For people to stop resorting to terrorism, they must adopt the tradition of criticism -- to hash out their differences with discussion instead of violence, criticism instead of intolerance, rationality instead of irrationality, peace instead of war.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali on Terrorism

"Many people in Europe and the US dispute the thesis that we are living through a clash of civilisations between Islam and the west. But a radical minority of Muslims firmly believes that Islam is under siege, and is committed to winning the holy war it has declared against the west. A larger group of Muslims, most of them in Europe and America, believes that acts of terror committed by fellow Muslims will unleash a western backlash against all Muslims indiscriminately. With this collective feeling of being persecuted, many Muslim families living in the west insulate themselves in ghettoes. Within those ghettoes, the agents of radical Islam cultivate their message of hatred and seek foot soldiers to fight as martyrs. Unhappy, disoriented youths in dysfunctional immigrant families make perfect recruits to such a cause. With continuing immigration from the Muslim world and a significantly higher birthrate in Muslim families, this is a phenomenon we ignore at our peril." [8]


Join me to help finish my Islam book — give honest feedback, get your questions answered, and contribute your own ideas.


[1, 3] _Embrace Islam or Else: Prophet Mohammad's Ultimatums to Foreign Kings_, M. A. Khan. [link:]

[2] Hadith, Bukhari: 4.52. 220

[4] These wars are called the Wars of Apostasy, or Ridda Wars [link]

[5] Now, whether or not the parent intends to raise his voice as a means of instilling fear doesn't matter. The act of raising one's voice when somebody disagrees with you was designed to cause someone to involuntarily "change" their mind. So just because the parent doesn't see it that way, doesn't mean that the child is not fearful of his parent. My point is that what matters is whether or not the child is scared from the parent's voice being raised, rather than whether or not the parent intends to instill fear.

[6] _The Beginning of Infinity_, by David Deustch. [link:]

[7] _Parenting and Reason_, by Elliot Temple. [link:]

[8] _Nomad_, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali