Against Maturity

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?