Taking ourselves seriously

“We do not see our children grow up, and change, and grow old, but they do. Thus there are no solid bodies. Things are not really things, they are processes, they are in flux.”

– Karl Popper, 1962, 2002, Conjectures and Refutations, (Routledge), Back to the Presocratics IX, p. 194

Our minds are physical things that are constantly in motion. They aren’t made out of something that is beyond understanding, but they also aren’t ever a static thing. Something physical is always happening as we think – some electricity is moving about, some molecules are changing to different molecules, or some other explainable thing. Sure, there are always gaps in our understanding, there is always mystery to be had, but in principle we can understand what is going on inside ourselves. And those physical, explainable parts that constantly move around when we think are connected with the rest of our body. 

Imagine a scary spider, fangs dripping with venom as it drops down from a spindly thread directly above your head. This image in your mind alone may have just changed and affected your entire body! Even if we can’t explain or express in words every little thing that is happening at every instant, this is all part of our reasoning, our thinking. Knowledge not expressed or not expressible in words (also called “inexplicit knowledge”) is really useful if we need to do something quickly or are encountering something for the first time for example. We could not do without inexplicit thinking. We do not have direct conscious, explicit access to our inexplicit knowledge, yet it evolves and improves just as our explicit explanations improve: through reason. People tend to think of reason as being explicit reasoning, but it need not be explicit. In the case of inexplicit knowledge, it is not explicit.

Consider the following precepts:

“Think for yourself.”

“Do as you’re told.”

Obviously, you cannot “think for yourself” and “do as you’re told” at the same time. If you are doing what you’re told, you are not doing what your own reason is suggesting you do, but what someone else thinks you should be doing. 

Relying on someone else’s reason can be useful, sure, especially in a pinch, if you yourself think that that is a good idea, but then it is still your own reason informing your actions, as opposed to your actions going against your own will. 

That is to say, if someone is freely choosing to do what someone else is telling them to do (as opposed to doing as they’re told against their will), they have a reason for it even if they may not be able to explain it if asked to do so. 

But when we expect people (e.g. children) to just do as they’re told without question, as if they do not have their own minds and their own reason and their own moral agency, we are asking them to do the impossible. We are asking them to turn off their reason and become some kind of mindless robot and ignore and deny both their inexplicit and explicit knowledge. We are in effect saying that in order to be good, they must act wrongly according to their own reason. And that if they do what seems best to them, they are bad. This puts them in an impossible position.

To get at it from a different angle, even if we can explain why we ourselves want (or do not want) to do something, we will never know all possible reasons that someone else may want (or not want) to do that same thing. The marketing slogan “Just Do It,” encompasses this alignment of wants and reasons by acknowledging that once we have a reason to do something, and our feeling lines up with that thing, we should “just do it.” But if someone else tells you to “just do it,” the magic is gone, isn’t it?

“You have had tons of sweets today! You’ll get a cavity! Just brush your teeth! …In the time we have spent arguing about it, you could have already done it. Don’t think about it too much! If you don’t stop arguing and just do as you’re told and brush your teeth, there will be no sweets for you tomorrow!”

Consider the kind of relationship with knowledge, one’s self, and one’s thoughts that these kinds of demands express – that in regard to our own bodies, our own reasons, wants, and desires are not as important or meaningful as other people’s:

“You’ve had a bunch of sweets, you’ll get a cavity,” sets the reason we should brush our teeth as being out of fear of pain, even if that’s not the only reason we might choose to brush our teeth, while simultaneously justifying the authoritative language of the commands that follow. Further, it makes us out to be bad people if we choose not to brush our teeth, for example in order to test for ourselves the idea that sugar encourages the growth of harmful bacteria, leading to cavities. 

“You could have already done it” suggests that criticizing what other people want you to do is an inefficient waste of time, and that not acting quickly against your own will makes you a bad person. 

“Don’t think about it too much” says you are a bad person for thinking/reasoning. 

“If you don’t stop arguing and just do as you’re told and brush your teeth, there will be no sweets for you tomorrow!” justifies punishment for not being obedient – for not acting against your own reason – and sets you up to feel as if you are a bad person for doing what you yourself think best the next time you eat sweets.

Some may say that parents saying something like the above would not hold themselves to their own standard, but I think this is false. Many people (read: adults) do try to hold themselves to the standards they set for their children. They do things they don’t want to do, because they feel like they have to, and this blocks them both from not having to do the thing (by automating it or whatever), and from making it fun (by putting on some headphones or something). They thereby trap themselves in miserable, stressful self-coercion. Many people undervalue what they want to do compared to what they think other people want them to do. They think that they need to be obedient, without understanding or feeling good about why they have chosen to do so. Doing this to yourself is bad enough. But doing it to someone else, such as your child, is even worse, because now it is not just yourself and your own reason you are violating and harming, it is another person.

“The golden rule is a good standard which can perhaps even be improved by doing unto others, wherever possible, as they want to be done by.”

– Karl Popper, 1945, 1966, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 2: The High Tide of Prophesy, revised, addendum 1 (1961), p. 386
(see also: this tweet)

Parents who hold themselves to this irrational standard sometimes justify their coercion with an appeal to stoicism, as if stoically doing something you don’t want to do, avoiding thinking about it too much, with a smile on your face, were a good thing to do! Suffering with a smile becomes virtuous! The grain of truth in stoicism is that managing not to be completely destroyed by something terrible is better than being unable to carry on. But we can do so much better than that! And if we all stoically suffered instead of creating real solutions that do not involve anyone suffering, how would things ever get better? How effective can our efforts to make progress be if we keep violating reason and doing what does not seem best instead of acting rightly by our own lights, our own ideas?

This way of looking at problems separates us from the reality of being in the process of solving them. Every justification one makes for suffering becomes a blockage. Rather than being in the process of creating a solution to a problem, we are now denying that there is a problem, and we are actively avoiding using our creativity and reason. It makes the creation of a solution (the fun part) into a burden to be placed on someone else’s shoulders – a pseudo-‘solution’ – a never-ending regression, always appealing to some greater authority.

“Happiness is a state of continually solving one’s problems, they conjecture. Unhappiness is caused by being chronically baulked in one’s attempts to do that. And solving problems itself depends on knowing how; so, external factors aside, unhappiness is caused by not knowing how.”

– David Deutsch, 2011, The Beginning of Infinity, (Penguin Books), A physicist’s history of bad philosophy, p. 318

Taking our child’s wants/desires/concerns seriously involves taking ourselves seriously, too. When we understand that each person, including our child, should do what they themselves think right/best, and that no good can come of people acting wrongly, or not doing what they think best according to their own standards, we understand that the same is true for ourselves too. Accepting that a child disagrees with our teeth-brushing theory – that the child has reasons for disagreeing – is the same as criticizing ourselves:

“Wait, why do I brush my teeth? Maybe my teeth-brushing theory is objectively mistaken? No one has to do anything. And anyway, if I didn’t do it twice a day, every day, forever, would I absolutely get a cavity? Some people who don’t brush and floss do seem to get cavities; others don’t. Maybe there are lucky genes involved, and teeth-brushing is of more marginal benefit than conventional wisdom suggests? And is it really the end of the world if we do end up with some cavities? Cavities hurt, sure, but they aren’t that bad, right, and our dentist is nice and understanding and very skilled at filling cavities without causing pain. When I was kid, why didn’t I like brushing my teeth? Have I sort of institutionalized (self-coerced) myself into brushing my teeth? Is the child’s reluctance to brush and floss a reaction to our crazy coercion? Does it hurt? Would a sensitive toothpaste help? Have we explained that flossing only hurts when you first start doing it? What about using flosser sticks instead of the floss that cuts delicate finger skin? Does the child dislike the taste of the toothpaste? Do I myself even like the taste?! Could we find or make a better tasting toothpaste? What if it tasted good AND we could actually eat it!? Wait, they do have gum and candy that helps with dental hygiene already, right? What if we had some sort of nanobot that could clean our teeth for us, or even rebuild our teeth? What if there was some kind of video game that would make the teeth brushing more fun? What about teeth brushing music, brush to the beat (Brush Brush Revolution)? I really do like the way teeth brushing feels, but I have a nice expensive toothbrush, so maybe my child might like a nice cool fancy toothbrush that feels good, too! Or what if we worked on and designed one together when we had free time? Or what about water flossers? Some people prefer that teeth-cleaning system. Or what about the painless, effective blue light teeth-cleaning system our dentist mentioned? Maybe we all might prefer that to brushing and flossing?”

“An unproblematic state is a state without creative thought. Its other name is death.”

– David Deutsch, 2011, The Beginning of Infinity (Viking Penguin), p. 63

There are infinite problematic scenarios we can imagine besides brushing teeth. If we accept that we want and can create more knowledge than we have, and that we can be mistaken even about the behaviors we have created to govern our own lives, I think we can feel the elation and joy of a world with infinite creative possibilities again, just like kids sometimes seem to do so effortlessly.

When we notice and start questioning coercion, both of our children and within our own minds, even fixed ideas that have been impervious to reason for a long time can suddenly become improvable. Fixed ideas in our thinking systematically fail to take ourselves (and others) seriously. When we have a fixed idea in our mind, even if another part of our mind wants something different, or disagrees with the fixed idea, it is stuck. Not open to criticism. And that hurts us. We have to inure ourselves to the pain. 

One of the special benefits of being a parent is that our children often show us the no-go areas of our own thinking – the fixed ideas hitherto impervious to reason. Our children have had fewer years in which to entrench their biases, so they are often more genuinely reasonable than we are with all our entrenched not-open-to-question ideas. They can thus help us to see what we may have been unable to see before. And when we see, we have improved our thinking, which improves our own life too, as all improvements do. The more we see, the more seriously we are thereby taking ourselves. So taking our children seriously necessarily also helps us take ourselves as well as everyone else seriously, and it accelerates growth and improvement more generally, perhaps in a way that we haven’t felt in a long time.

Cody Baldwin, 2023, ‘Taking ourselves seriously’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/taking-ourselves-seriously/

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