Formative Youth

Fol­lowup to: Against 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.