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Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: What should I ask about today?
Elliot: How about authority?
Caeli: What about it?
Elliot: Believing ideas because they are backed by some authority is a blight on our society.
Caeli: Isn't that well known? You can't trust something just because the government said it; experts can be wrong; "argument from authority" is a logical fallacy.
Elliot: That's all true. It could be worse. But it could also be a lot better. Take government. Although people distrust it in certain ways, they also think governments have special, magical powers. Only governments can solve public good problems. How? By force. Why can't normal people solve public good problems by using force? Because force is bad. So why does it work for the government? Because people trust the government to do the right thing and not make mistakes. Which is absurd given its record.
Elliot: The reason "argument from authority" is a well-known fallacy is because it's a common fallacy. It needs to be pointed out because people do it all the time.
Elliot: Experts can be wrong, but people often assume they are right, or likely to be right, and trust them based on faith, without knowing the expert's reasons, arguments, or method of reaching his conclusions.
Caeli: Aren't experts usually right?
Elliot: Who knows? Being right isn't a matter of probability.
Elliot: The reason experts are valuable is that in certain circumstances we can reasonably expect they have looked into issues for us, using methods we would approve of. When we ask a lawyer what the law says, we're saving ourselves the trouble of looking it up. We'd only want to look it up ourselves if we thought we might know something the lawyer doesn't.
Caeli: How is that different from what most people do?
Elliot: One of the critical things is that I only listen to the lawyer if I agree with him. If I think he's mistaken, he has no authority over me. I'll form my own opinion, and argue with him, and I won't consider him likely to be right.
Elliot: But it's a frequent occurrence in debates that someone says scientists, research, or "the experts" back his side. That's silly. Expertise cannot overrule disagreement. If I disagree, the person needs to give actual reasons that his side is right. If experts have come up with good arguments, he could quote them, but they will only have whatever power is inherent in the arguments.
Caeli: What if someone says scientists have proven that apples are nutritious? Should that have no more weight than if my neighbor said he had proven it?
Elliot: We can reasonably suppose that a scientist has done something before saying this. If we want to say he's wrong, we'll need to answer whatever basis his claim has. If your neighbor says stuff, it's likely he has just made it up. In other words, when a scientist says something, it's an idea that has been subjected to a lot of criticism already. When your neighbor says something, that isn't so.
Caeli: And being subjected to criticism makes ideas better?
Elliot: Yeah.
Caeli: Then won't scientists have better ideas than you?
Elliot: Not necessarily. I can think about ideas, and criticize them, just as scientists do.
Caeli: So let me try to summarize what your position. If someone believes something because an expert told him to, that's reasonable as a way to save time, but it's no good in a debate. If there is disagreement, we need to give reasons, and they should be judged on their merits not their source.
Elliot: That's correct.
Caeli: I think I'm convinced. But you said authority is a blight on society. Is this really so bad?
Elliot: People get the things you summarized wrong, frequently. But that is indeed not the end of the world. I was thinking of a number of other issues as well.
Caeli: Like what?
Elliot: There's authority over children, granted to teachers, parents, and adults in general. There's government authority, as I mentioned earlier. There is religious authority. But none of those are the worst of it.
Caeli: What is the worst?
Elliot: The worst forms of authority are very subtle. Imagine you play a game, and win. Should you feel proud?
Caeli: I think so. I did well.
Elliot: Did you? Perhaps the game was very easy.
Caeli: If it's easy, couldn't that indicate I'm good at it?
Elliot: It could. But the point is that feeling proud automatically is trusting in the authority of the game designer. I believe that it's important to think about games we play, and consider whether beating them is something to be proud of or not.
Caeli: Are there many games that aren't worthwhile? I don't know any.
Elliot: There are games designed for young children which are simple and I wouldn't be proud to beat, today. It's true that games designed be large companies generally meet some minimum quality standards. However, there are a lot of other games available to play. Many computer games come with "world editors" that let users create their own games. Most of these games are badly done and they often include godly items that let you easily win.
Caeli: Should games never have godly items or power-ups?
Elliot: It depends how easy they are to acquire. If a game gives rewards much greater than the difficulty of the task achieved, then it becomes very easy. That should be boring. But many people keep playing. They are submitting to the authority of the game designer, even though he's just a regular user with no special expertise. They aren't thinking.
Caeli: How can I tell the difference between a good and bad game?
Elliot: In a good game, you'll be learning things. You'll be able to beat the same areas faster and more efficiently after you've played a lot. You'll know useful tricks that you discovered, which weren't obvious. In computer and video games, you'll learn things about the AI, and find its weak points.
Caeli: What's AI?
Elliot: Artificial Intelligence. Whenever there are enemies in a game, controlled by a computer chip, they have an AI which tells them what to do. It's often very simple and can be taken advantage of.
Caeli: If they are usually simple, why is taking advantage of one interesting?
Elliot: Because it's not simple to discover how they work. You see the individual actions that the enemies perform, but the AI consists of a few fairly universal rules. You have to try to find patterns and form general explanations from what you observe.
Caeli: Oh, that's cool. So, how else can I tell which games are good?
Elliot: Consider chess. When you learn more, you'll be able to beat people you couldn't before. And you'll know more patterns. And you'll be better able to invent new patterns. You'll know general principles like "control the center", and you'll know why they are important, and when not to follow them, and how to take advantage if your opponent doesn't do it.
Elliot: In a bad game, you might just issue an "attack" order and your hero will kill everything, because he's too strong. There's nothing to learn, no interesting ways to win faster the second time. Or imagine you have some spells. How many different ways are there to use them? If there's only one way to use each spell, then there's very little decision making, and little to learn. But if there are a lot of options to keep track of, that's a better game.
Caeli: Are you sure you couldn't beat a bad game faster the second time? Suppose there was a godly item a little ways in. If you knew where it was you could run straight there and get it faster than you did last time.
Elliot: That's true. No game is absolutely, completely worthless. Their value is on a continuum. Some are very bad, others are very good. We should only be a little bit proud if we beat a very bad game. The main point is that we need to consider how hard the game was before we're proud to beat it, instead of just assuming that the game creator did a good job.
Elliot: Another issue is competitive games that aren't fair. Suppose there is a game where one person controls orcs, and one humans. You might assume that if you're beating another human being then you must be doing a good job. But that is only true if the game designer made the game fairly fair. If humans are actually ten times more powerful than orcs, then the only way you could lose is if the other person was ten times better than you.
Caeli: That sounds silly.
Elliot: I've watched people play games where one player gets a huge advantage, use the advantage, and go kill other players. They think that's fun. The advantage is generally something that takes no control to use, like attacking really fast for lots of damage, and having tons of health.
Caeli: What are some examples of veiled respect for authority besides games?
Elliot: There are a lot at school. People give undo authority to The Instructions. Many people try to do exactly as they are told, and get confused if the instructions aren't clear. They don't think about what might be a better way, or whether they are learning much. I remember people would refuse to take my suggestions simply because the instructions said to do something else. They didn't offer up any reasons that the way in the instructions was better, whereas I did give reasons that my way was an improvement. But it didn't matter. The instructions had authority.
Elliot: Another example is that when people want to learn about something, they often do their homework. Is that the best way to learn the material? Rarely. It's one-size-fits-all learning, and that's not ideal. But people assume that because the lesson plans and assignments were designed by experts, they are best.
Caeli: Got other examples?
Elliot: Suppose people are playing a game together. And don't worry, this is completely different than I was talking about earlier. Now, the rules say to do one thing. But one player doesn't want to. He thinks that won't be fun or interesting. He wants to make a change. Many people will refuse on principle. The rules have authority.
Elliot: This is terribly frustrating. You're in a room with three friends. No one else is around. There should be nothing here to thwart you. It should be very easy to get what you want. But you start playing a game, written by people far away, and for whatever reason you don't like part of it. That's no surprise, games aren't perfect and it wasn't designed for you personally. No big deal, right? Just change it. But your friends may call you a cheater, and think you just don't want to lose. They may think they are winning and like it that way. They may say games have rules for a reason. If you're playing with your parents, they may tell you that you can't change the rules of life, and you'd better get used to it.
Caeli: Next?
Elliot: There are experiments that psychologists have done. They'll assign people roles. Some of them have authority, and some don't. It's not like before everyone plays there part. The people arbitrarily given authority aren't special in any way. They don't know best. But it doesn't matter.
Elliot: In one experiment, everyone was divided into two rival groups. The groups fought. Why? Because they respected the authority of the people who put them in groups. They accepted the rules they were told of how the experiment would work. They cared more about that than being nice to the new people they met.
Elliot: There's another experiment where they told people to use electric shock on others. Even when the others screamed and begged them to stop, they kept doing what they were told. They were told it was important. They had faith. (In fact, the people being hurt were only acting.)
Caeli: That's terrible.
Elliot: Often, just naming something gives it authority. Instead of asking what's the best way to do something, people often pick a named thing, and ask how that school of thought handles it. What is the Attachment Parenting way to handle bullies? What is the Parent Effectiveness Training way? People choose an authority to submit themselves to, and then try to get all their answers from it. Lost is what would be rational and what would work well.
Elliot: This is very common. People want to know the Zen way to think about something, so that they can be Zen. They want to know the Christian way to approach something, so they can be a good Christian.
Elliot: If someone goes up to you and says, "Will you do whatever I say, for a while?" you will almost certainly decline. That's a terrible deal. You should only do what he says as long as it sounds like good ideas. But if he says, "I've found out about this new way of living, called Mystara's Glory. It will make you happy." then a lot of people will agree. And they'll find themselves doing whatever he says, and asking how to do it better. All he has to do is veil his orders with a name, and people will think the name must have at least enough authority to be worth a try.
Caeli: That's sneaky. But are there any good reasons to want to know, say, what Zen says about something?
Elliot: Sure. If you liked Zen ideas in the past, you might be interested in hearing more because you think Zen may be a good source of ideas. And knowing the source and history of ideas can help you understand them better.
Caeli: If there's one thing I should take away from this, what is it?
Elliot: Never obey authority.
Caeli: Why?
Elliot: Because I said so.
Caeli: You're silly.
Elliot: Excellent :)
Elliot: More seriously, people should think for themselves more. Make your own choices, live your own life, be independent, and take responsibility for what you do. If someone tells you to do something, or a Proper Noun tells you to, and you do it, that's your decision and your responsibility. I don't care if it's Hitler, or your father, or Zen. You need to make your own evaluations about what's a good idea. There isn't much point being free to live your own life and have your own ideas if you don't actually use your freedom.
Caeli: Why'd you mention Hitler?
Elliot: Because people try to excuse German soldiers who were "just following orders," and that is no excuse.
Caeli: Oh. Ugh. Anyway, I'm leaving now. See you later.
Elliot: Bye.

Elliot Temple on October 22, 2006


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