Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Worshiping of negative emotions

You know you're a philosopher when... you analyze a commercial for its philosophical elements.

For example, this commercial for Vlasic pickles:

I like this commercial, because it shows negative emotions as a source of amusement.

The opposite approach magnifies negative emotions into a scary giant which must not be mentioned at all in any form - it's the approach people showed when they called the Glenn Beck show complaining about frog abuse or the approach I'm sure some people show when they called "animal cruelty!" about the making of this commercial which involved... scaring a cat.
It's a very common approach these days - that negative emotions are important and should take a major role in human interactions (be avoided at all cost).
This social climate makes this commercial a little gem - a reminder of good old fashioned American spirit, under which a little pain is nothing to worry about or pay attention to. Nowadays, a little pain is what we're told we should pay all our attention to, feel guilty about and avoid at all cost. Don't startle, don't insult, don't upset anyone, don't judge.

The philosophical foundation of the commercial is the benevolent universe premise. The opposite - the worship of negative emotions is based on a malevolent universe premise (a term coined by Ayn Rand).

It is based on a view that human beings are not strong, but fragile - that they are not naturally happy, rather they are victims - and that by making the slightest joke, as friendly as it is at their expense, one is committing a terrible crime of attempting to break their spirit.
We are expected to treat each other as if we were all weak victims and made to feel guilty of being a monster if we treat people as strong and happy - as capable of enjoying a friendly joke at their expense (I emphasize friendly).

So, no, this commercial did not say all of this, but it represents this approach, or rather, can be classified under the good approach.

Here are a few cases to illustrate my point:

In college, I decided, one day, to share my sense of humor with my roommate. We were in the kitchen between classes when she started telling me about a certain vegetable and where it grows or something of the sort. It was so boring that I zoned out. I decided that she would find it funny too that I zoned out since the topic was a vegetable, so I told her with a smile that I dozed off. She was so offended she nearly stated crying - she locked herself in the room and would not talk to me for at least a week.
What the hell makes a person fragile to the degree of taking offense on account of a vegetable story? I find it hard to understand. But it is cases like these that make it hard to treat people as strong and independent, that drive people to consider every word they say and honesty on the large out of fear of upsetting someone.

I met my best friend in college in a story entirely opposite to this incident.
We were both undergoing a check by a security guard while we were entering a train station. We had to show our IDs. The guard took specially long time looking at my friend's before letting him in. I made a joke to him that it must be a pretty ugly picture to require so long to decide whether or not he's a security threat.
He laughed and continued talking to me.
I can't imagine how my college roommate would have reacted to such a joke.

Education today seems to be the same. Teachers try to build self esteem in kids by saving them the need to face making errors.
This approach is the same because it views kids as fragile, as unable to deal with failure - since failure is seen as big, as huge and threatening, and kids must be shielded from it.
This, of course, achieves the opposite result - it teaches kids that the proper way to view mistakes is not as something small to correct, but as something big to avoid and fear. Since making mistakes is a normal part of life and of learning - this turns these kids into fragile, unconfident people - the exact opposite of what this approach was suppose to achieve.

A word of clarification before I finish: I do not mean to imply that negative emotions are insignificant or should be ignored or viewed as insignificant. It is important for psychological health to know why one feels what one feels - be it a pleasurable or a painful emotion.
But to view negative emotions as powerful metaphysically (by their very nature) is to view people as fragile by their very nature, and that is what I am against.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Who is the hero - Lois Lane or Superman?

Lois Lane is a determined reporter, acting daily to be the best reporter she can be.
She exposes crime and corruption, sometimes risking her life to do so.
Her work helps some people, but she is primarily working for herself. She takes great pride in doing her job well which is what keeps her going.

Superman does what he does for free. He considers it a bad taste to request money for helping people. What he does saves many lives.
Superman refuses to take any pride in what he does. "This is what every decent person would have done, it's nothing". However, when the streets are clean of crime (this happens in one episode of the second season of Lois and Clark), superman looses his sense of self-esteem, hanging around high school kids to help them with their baseball game just to feel that someone needs him.

Lois Lane's happiness and self-esteem come from her job. Superman's happiness and self-esteem come from being able to help someone in trouble.

A business offering service to aid in disasters has the same focus as Lois Lane has - how to improve their business, how to offer a faster, better service - how to offer such a great service that they get more costumers and make more money.
Like Lois, they derive pleasure from being a good business and their focus in on their own product - not primarily on the trouble of other people.

Superman is suppose to be an ideal - a hero we would all admire and aspire to be. But I think Lois Lane and the insurance company I described are the real heroes.

Superman is a product of an altruistic morality, a morality that teaches people that their only source of self esteem (unadmittedly) depends on the misery of others, on helping the sick and needy. It creates a disgusting, modest kind of empty character.

This is the character that's suppose to stand for "Truth, Justice and the American way". Well, truth and justice - that's fine, but the American way is not to give stuff for free. The American way IS about making a fortune, succeeding in the world - not being a sucker for hire, apologizing for the option of taking pride in what one does for a living. No sir, that is not the American spirit, though it may have become so over the years under the influence of Christianity.

I think Lois Lane is the real star of the show - a person of character and determination - superman is a modest bore in a suit.

I think the creation of Superman is evidence for the idea that there is no glory in the life of ordinary people. That being a man holds no potential for greatness. But take something that can fly and lift up buildings and we have something to talk about.

Nah, I'd look at those who can erect buildings the old fashion way any time over the one who can do it as easily as he can breath. That's where the real glory is.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The meaning of "Percent"

We need the concept of percent because we need a convenient way to measure the size (or amount) or one thing compared to another basic amount. For example, if you are selling apples and you want to know how well you did in a particular year, you need to measure your success compared to how much demand there was for apples in that year.
If the market had 100 people looking to buy apples and 30 of them picked your apples, your success was 30% of the market. If, however, there were 10,000 people looking to buy apples and only 30 of them bought yours, your success was only 0.3% - much lower, which means that there could be a problem with your apples or with the way you are selling them.
This shows that the number 30 (30 apples sold) is not significant by itself to measure performance. Performance is measured by percent - by how one amount is compared to another one (in this case, the amount of apples sold vs. the amount of people looking to buy apples).

Another example is if you are opening a business with a few partners and you want to divide the profits. Suppose you decide that the right way to divide the profits is 50%-25%-25%. Suppose one month you got paid $1000 - is this your fair share or not? The only way to know is to measure this compared to the overall profits in that month. If the profit was $2000 you got 50% which is your share, but if the profit was $10,000 then you deserve more. Again the significant number here is a numerical relation between one amount to the other.

Percent, mathematically, is a conversion of units of measurements. Knowing that you got 16/123 of the profit contains the exact same information as knowing that you got 13% of the profit, yet 16/123 is not an amount we can easily concretize in our head - not a number we can easily relate to. To make sense of it, we would need to see how it stands in relation to something more familiar, like one half, one third, a decimal number or a percent.
Is there something inherit about the base of 123 that makes it hard to measure things like 16/123? Not really. Had we measured percent with a base of 123, the number 16 would have been far easier to concretize (connect to an actual amount of objects in reality) than the corresponding amount (13, in this case) had the base been a 100.
The amount of 100 is easier to handle since we count in tens, but the main reason it is easier to grasp the meaning of 13/100 than 16/123 is because using 100 units as the whole is far more concretized for us - due to extensive use in daily life.

One can see this phenomenon by the need of Americans to convert kilometers to miles to get a sense of the distance and of Europeans to convert miles to kilometers for the same purpose.
There is nothing special about the length of one kilometer or one mile except that one gets a sense of their length by repeatedly using those units and getting a sense of their physical meaning in reality.

When calculating what is the percent of something, what we do is to ask the following question: Given that we have X units from type Y - how many units would we have had we converted the measurement unit into one of a hundred?

For example, suppose we have 15 seconds out of a minute - the basic measurement unit is 1/60. Asking what percent 15 seconds are from one minute is the same as asking - if a minute were composed of 100 units of time, how many units would we have to take to equal the time duration of 15 seconds?

15             ?
__     =     __
60           100

The question mark is the percent (the percent 15 seconds are out of a whole minute).

So, in conclusion, percentage is a measurement of the size relation of one amount to another, represented in a unit base of 1/100 (in which the whole is 100 units).

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Civil discussion" rules on online forums are counter-productive

This common rule restricts users from engaging in "personal attacks" or "personal insults".

Seeing how some people turn intellectual discussions into a king of the jungle war - one might think this rule is a good solution.
I think it's not and here is why:

If a law came to pass forbidding the use of weapons - what do you suppose would happen? Criminals would still get weapons, illegally (since they, by definition, do not care about the law, but about getting away with disobeying it) and the police would not be able to use weapons to combat crime, since they DO hold themselves up to the law.

Crime would be unstoppable.

This applies equally to discussions. Words carry power with them - the power of ideas, knowledge - which result in behavior. Words, when the situation calls for it, ARE weapons - intellectual weapon against intellectual criminals.
When one is not allowed to use them against those criminals, the result is the same as in the case of physical weapons.

To illustrate my point, consider the following examples:

Someone posts the following: "Hi guys! I am really upset. X told me that I am cheating by doing Y! I am so angry. I only do Y occasionally, so how dare he accuse me of doing it?! To fight this injustice I have asked all my friends to stop associating themselves with him to teach him a lesson!"

The appropriate response to this person is by saying explicitly that they are dishonest and unjust. However, the "no personal insults" rule kicks in to achieve its goal of a "civilized discussion". No one is allowed to tell this person that they are dishonest. At best, people can say something like: "I don't think what you did is right"/ "I don't think this guy deserved what you did".
This gives the original poster appearance of rationality and honesty since such replies make it seem like the original poster made a mistake of judgment. The replies focus on whether or not such "judgment" was mistaken. The truth is, the original poster used no judgment at all - they used evasion and were thoroughly dishonest both in the actions they reported and in their reason for posting.

This "civil discussion" rule gives them the safety of posting any kind of dishonest act without being called on the immorality of their mental process.

How about this example: Two people are discussing a topic. One of them brings facts, arguments and logical analysis of the topic at hand and of the other side's viewpoint. The other side, however, replies without any attempt to digest what is being said to them - they barely even read what is said - all they are looking for is how to prove they are right, but without relation to the facts or arguments presented to them.
This type of debate is very common, yet the "no personal insults" rule forbids anyone from calling someone else on doing this.
Instead the rational side has to either quit the discussion quietly, or continue it AS IF they were talking to a thinking person (in the context of the discussion).

Having to absorb the intellectual corruption of someone else to try to translate it, in replies, into an appearance of an honest intellectual process is damaging to the honest person's psychology because it instills a habit of self-imposed deceit about the nature of corruption (e.g. "X is not dishonest, they are just misjudging", "X is not trying to secretly insult me, they are simply judging me wrongly", "X is not a non-thinking, self-made idiot, they just don't know enough about this subject" and so on).

Again, the corrupt intellectual behavior goes uncalled and unchallenged - and therefore, safe and secure, while the rational side is left to quietly carry the burden of the intellectual corruption of the other side. This tends to chase good people away from those forums or discourage them from engaging in an intellectual discussion.

The result is that it is very difficult to find people willing to think and discuss topics in online forums devoted to intellectual discussions. The good guys give up after a short while and the bad guys stay and enjoy the freedom to do whatever they want. If someone insults them in any way by calling on what they are doing, all they have to do is call a moderator to protect them.

It is important to make the distinction between those whose main goal in a discussion is to "appear right" and insult the other participants as a tactic of achieving this end, vs. those who pronounce honest criticism of the one they are having a discussion with.
The "no personal insults" rule fails to make this distinction; before this rule, policemen and criminals are nothing more than men with guns, which need to be equally penalized for it.

Ad-hominem is a symptom of irrationality, not an essential, just as the problem with promiscuity is lack of spiritual values - not the amount of sex, or the problem with hateful people is their irrationality, not the emotion of hate.

To come up with a good set of rules one must go through a process of induction to identify the essential characteristics of rational vs. irrational behavior. Only rules based on identifying the essentials of proper intellectual discussion will do to create a good environment for rational, prosperous, discussions.