Rationality Quotes: May 2011

by CronoDAS1 min read2nd May 2011124 comments


Rationality Quotes
Personal Blog

It looks like, this month, I get to be the one to start the quotes thread.


  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be voted up/down separately.  (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments.  If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
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If you think something's supposed to hurt, you're less likely to notice if you're doing it wrong.

Paul Graham

1gwern10y"How to Do What You Love" [http://www.paulgraham.com/love.html]

The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

-Paul Graham, Keep Your Identity Small

7Nornagest10yNice one. I've thought for a while that LW could use more material on identity management, but I'm not well-read enough on the subject to write it.
1Matt_Simpson10yThis quote was timed very well.
0Document10yI didn't understand this comment until I came back with comments sorted by Old.

"War, Nobby. Huh! What is it good for?" he said.
"Dunno, sarge. Freeing slaves, maybe?"
"Absol--Well, okay."
"Defending yourself from a totalitarian aggressor?"
"All right, I'll grant you that, but--"
"Saving civilization against a horde of--"
"It doesn't do any good in the long run is what I'm saying, Nobby, if you'd listen for five seconds together," said Fred Colon sharply.
"Yeah, but in the long run what does, sarge?"

-- Terry Pratchett, Thud!

I never trust anyone who's more excited about success than about doing the thing they want to be successful at.

XKCD (the mouseover text)

For "success" and "successful" one might substitute "rationality" and "rational".


A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

[-][anonymous]10y 20


Nature is fucked up, and anyone who argues otherwise has not actually seen nature in action.

Michael Anissimov

[-][anonymous]10y 13

Put up in a place

where it's easy to see

the cryptic admonishment

 T. T. T.

When you feel how depressingly

slowly you climb,

it's well to remember that

 Things Take Time.

--Piet Hein

When I was eight or so I first picked up a copy of Piet Hein's book of poems. They came with his original doodles, and, having been brought up among academics, I thought 'He doodles just like a physicist!' Many years later I wiki'd him and found out that he was, indeed, a physicist.

8Eliezer Yudkowsky10y
1RichardKennaway10yDuplicate of one posted a few hours previously. Was this supposed to be something else?
3AdeleneDawner10yNope; look at the context [http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/5ig/rationality_quotes_may_2011/42rn].

Too large a proportion of recent "mathematical" economics are mere concoctions, as imprecise as the initial assumptions they rest on, which allow the author to lose sight of the complexities and interdependencies of the real world in a maze of pretentious and unhelpful symbols.

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money (1935), Book 5, Chapter 21, Section 3, pg. 298

If a guy tells me the probability of failure is 1 in 10E5, I know he's full of crap.

Richard P. Feynmann, "What Do You Care What Other People Think?"

For a complex task, agreed. For a simple task, a failure rate of 10E-5 can happen. How often do people trying to eat put their forks in their eyes rather than in their mouths? And, to consider mechanical processes... If the cpu I'm running this browser on failed every 10E5 instructions, it would fail 10E4 times a second. It doesn't.

0zntneo10ywouldn't the point be that its an amount of precision that is absolutely ridiculous given almost all situations?

It is quite easy to show, decision-theoretically, that the greatest chance of survival generally belongs to those who have most of their beliefs about things which affect our survival ability true. Philosophy, however, is totally irrelevant to survival from an evolutionary point of view. Natural selection has no way of weeding out veridical intuitions about the basic constitution of matter, for instance, from false ones, because humans have not generally been killed before they can procreate due to having erroneous metaphysical intuitions. Or bluntly put: having a true metaphysical theory does not help you getting laid.

– Staffan Angere, Theory and Reality: Metaphysics as Second Science, p. 17

Sokka: Can your fortune telling explain that?! (points to volcano eruption)

Villager: Can your science explain why it rains?

Sokka: Yes! Yes it can!

-- Avatar: The Last Airbender

3[anonymous]10yA repeat [http://lesswrong.com/lw/37k/rationality_quotes_december_2010/34tf] but with more context this time.
3ewang10yI really need to generalize my search terms. Feel free to de-upvote.

Until the third morning, when Wim finally declared, "Everything's a trick, if'n you can see behind it, just like with them witches in the hills. Everything's got a–reason. I think there ain't no such thing as magic!"

Jagit fixed him with a long mild look, and the specter of the night in the Grandfather Grove seemed to flicker in the dark eyes. "You think not, eh?"

Wim looked down nervously.

"There’s magic, all right, Wim; all around you here. Only now you’re seeing it with a magician’s eyes. Because there’s a reason behind everything

... (read more)

If a statement is false, that's the worst thing you can say about it.

-- Paul Graham

5Tyrrell_McAllister10yBut see also: -Isaac Asimov, The Relativity of Wrong [http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm] (This was quoted by MichaelGR in a previous quote-thread [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ud/rationality_quotes_march_2010/1p43].)
2SilasBarta10yHuh? Isn't it worse to say that a statement is "not even wrong" -- that's it's content-free and doesn't specify a probability distribution you should move toward?
3shokwave10yIf a statement is false - that presupposes it having content of some sort, albeit wrong content. There are plenty of worse things that can be said about statements (not even wrong, for example) but these can't be said of statements that are true or false; they can only be said of statements that have no content. So the hierarchy goes: True > False > Not Even Wrong, and false statements are better than not even wrong ones.
2wedrifid10yI was thinking of making that rebuttal myself - but realised I had been preemptively countered. Because the statement is wrong and so already ahead of those statements that qualify for the even worse charge.
2arundelo10ySource: http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html [http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html]

Judging from polls and personal interviews, half the public seems to believe that there is some sort of "common sense" solution, involving no major cuts or tax hikes, which is eluding politicians only because they're a bunch of partisan jerks. The other half is busily encouraging their politicians to engage in as much partisan jerkitude as possible. Neither is conducive to actually achieving a solution. So we have to cut our politicians a little slack; they're acting insane because we're acting insane. -- Megan McArdle, "Debt and Taxes"

You don't become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.

— Randall Munroe in today's xkcd, Marie Curie.

5sark10yYou won't be great just by sitting there of course, but I suspect great people wouldn't be as great if they weren't driven by an urge to achieve greatness to some extent for its own sake. Great people also like to countersignal how their greatness was never something they had in mind, and that they are just truly dedicated to their art.
3arundelo10yI liked this half-hour talk [http://fora.tv/2010/11/07/Wonderfest_2010_Emmy_Noether_Mistress_of_Natures_Laws] by Ransom Stephens on the life of Emmy Noether (with a nontechnical explanation of Noether's theorem).
2Vladimir_Nesov10yWhich relates to this heuristic [http://lesswrong.com/lw/53e/just_try_it_quantity_trumps_quality/].

"And what are the rules? Ask me and I will strike you because you are not looking; I will have decapitated you without your knowing. One can try to formulate obscure theories to avoid playing the game or one can play the game to win."

– Daniel Kolak, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: Translator’s Preface

(Mind, I love formulating obscure theories. Which is perhaps why I also love this quote - because it's such a necessary reminder to myself at times.)

1PhilGoetz10yIsn't this an anti-rationality quote?
1shokwave10yI took "formulate obscure theories to avoid playing the game" as anti-epistemology, and "one can play the game to win" as instrumental rationality. You could convincingly argue that you need to formulate, test, and confirm extremely not-obscure (clear? obvious?) theories to avoid losing.
0wedrifid10yIt does not seem to be. It seems to be instrumental rationality along the lines of Prince or 'Laws of Power'.

Agitating for a specific policy is like complaining about a price — and forgetting that it’s set by supply and demand.

Patri Friedman, source

2Manfred10yIt's true that both prices and policies are unlikely to be changed by individual efforts if everyone has perfect information and is perfectly rational. We don't live in that world, though. Both prices and policies are often far out of equilibrium. This quote is witty, but at the cost of being entirely wrong.
2Kutta10yThe quote - as in the context of the source - hasn't much to do with perfect rationality or perfect market considerations. Supply and demand of policies undeniably influence policymaking regardless of the actors' rationality, in a political environment like the US. Patri Friedman's point was that if you support a policy that cuts against the grain of mainstream (libertarianism in his case) it is ineffective to engage in the usual lobbying behavior. In a nutshell, it's not that policies are already perfect, but that policies are already set by people other than you.
2Manfred10yOh, yeah, reading the context, that makes a bit more sense. Although people trying to get specific policies implemented is a very important part of our political ecosystem, he's not satisfied with "incremental increases in freedom" and recognizes that agitation (and, more importantly, the U.S. democracy) is not going to give him radical changes. The impression that agitation flat out doesn't work is just an emotional argument for the real ideas.

Kind of cheesy, but worthwhile, and ironic since it occurs in the context of a game where Gods and magic are real.

"Remember when we first met in Kvatch? I told you that I didn't want any part of the gods' plan. I still don't know if there is a divine plan. But I've come to realize that it doesn't matter. What matters is that we act. That we do what's right, when confronted with evil. That's what you did at Kvatch. It wasn't the gods that saved us, it was you."

--Emporer-apparent Martin Septim, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

It's snowing on the goddamn map, not the territory[!]

-Michael Pemulis, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

9atucker10yThis scene is hilarious. In case you haven't read the book, The kids at a tennis academy are playing a nuclear war simulation by having countries, silos, cities, armies and whatnot represented by particular articles of clothing on specific places on a tennis court. You attack a target with a thermonuclear missile by lobbing a tennis ball at it, and then intense calculations are done in order to determine damage caused and scoring. The particular game in the book goes horribly horribly wrong when one player lobs a tennis ball at another player, and then tries to argue that that player is vaporized, and that that entire country can no longer use nukes. It also starts snowing.
3ewang10yActually, I believe that the snowing on the map, which is claimed to affect the blast radius of a nuclear strike on the territory, occurs before the Global Crisis as the beginning a sort of slippery slope into the complete confusion of map and territory and the resultant chaos.

I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's. --William Blake

Best taken in the context of AI.

I have long entertained a suspicion, with regard to the decisions of philosophers upon all subjects, and found in myself a greater inclination to dispute, than assent to their conclusions. There is one mistake, to which they seem liable, almost without exception; they confine too much their principles, and make no account of that vast variety, which nature has so much affected in all her operations. When a philosopher has once laid hold of a favourite principle, which perhaps accounts for many natural effects, he extends the same principle over the whole

... (read more)

Many people believe that they are able to be fully objective in evaluating claims - even those which run counter to their deeply-held beliefs. They further believe that by claiming themselves to be objective, this is reason for others to accept that they are objective. Not only is this false, but in fact the reverse is often true. People who delude themselves into thinking that they are objective are even more likely to fool themselves in other areas. The first step in overcoming bias is acknowledging its existence.

... (read more)
1MinibearRex10yI'd be inclined to disagree with part 3 as well. If you are biased, your probability estimates are off. The fact that everyone's probability estimates are off to at least some extent does not change the fact that yours are off.
1JoshuaZ10yI don't think Slifkin is talking there about wrong or right in the Bayesian sense. To translate that into a more Bayesian form it might be something like "Just because one is biased doesn't mean that one's probability estimate is drastically off" or something like that.

Where does a ball alight,
Falling through the bright midair?
Hit it with your snout!

-- unnamed neo-dolphin poet, Uplift War by David Brin

4wedrifid10yWhat the?
4Theist10yI'll take the upvotes here as a request for explanation. I see two things in the poem. The first that occurred to me was the best way to predict the future is to create it. The second is related: Observe the situation and put yourself in the best position to affect or determine the outcome.
4wedrifid10yThat is something to quote. :)
0[anonymous]7yFrom the context in the book, I always thought it was a sort of gentle Zen-esque admonishment. "Why are you worrying over hypotheticals and subjunctives? Get busy doing or get busy dying."
1Desrtopa10yIs this supposed to be a haiku? It almost is one, but it's off by one syllable.
1Theist10yIn the book, it's presented as a translation from the neo-dolphin language Trinary. I expect the resemblence to haiku is intentional.

From my fortune cookie yesterday:

Be curious always! For knowledge will not acquire you: you must acquire it.

A brief search said it is attributed to Sudie Back .

2Nominull10yLike many deep sayings, the really interesting thing is the extent to which it is not true. There's a reason we send kids to school, and then older kids to college, even if they are only interested in kite-flying and binge-drinking respectively. If you stop for a moment of honest reflection, it is amazing what you pick up without even trying.
3Nominull10yI bet if you took a sample of random kids and sent some to college and prevented the others from going, the college group would spend more time thinking about certain specific socially-valued college-related topics than the control group. If you want a horse to drink, it often helps to lead him to water.
0CronoDAS10yOr it could go horribly wrong [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077975/]... ;)
-4zntneo10ypfft college is just about liberal indoctrination anyway.....
0[anonymous]10yFor your own edification, I have up-voted your comment so that it is now visible to others who might have a similar urge to post this sort of thing, and will issue this piece of advice: it is not wise to talk about politics on this site. We generally all agree with the sentiment that politics is a mind killer [http://lesswrong.com/lw/gw/politics_is_the_mindkiller/], and even though you likely made that comment in jest and you peer group would likely think that it is amusing, you are likely being voted down because of the inflammatory and political nature of your post. It is not a matter of political affiliation, only of objection to certain types of content by the community.

The few exceptional men who really sought peace and true brotherly love reached this condition by perfecting their awareness, not by suppressing their passions.

-- Moshe Feldenkreis, "Awareness Through Movement" p.172.

We have always had a great deal of difficulty
understanding the world view
that quantum mechanics represents.
At least I do,
because I’m an old enough man
that I haven't got to the point
that this stuff is obvious to me.
Okay, I still get nervous with it…
You know how it always is,
every new idea,
it takes a generation or two
until it becomes obvious
that there’s no real problem.
I cannot define the real problem,
therefore I suspect there’s no real problem,
but I’m not sure
there’s no real problem.

-Richard Feynman, set in verse by David Mermin

"No pupil should be an exact copy of his master, otherwise the art would make little progress."

Frederick Grinke, quoted by Donald Brook in "Violinists of Today" (1948).

2wedrifid10yUnless, of course, 'progress' is not the goal. Sometimes simple productive output is important, in which case exact copies may be just what you need!

It is easier to say new things than to reconcile those which have already been said.

Vauvenargues, Reflections and Maxims, 1746

"You never say anything straight out. It's all I believe this or I've found that. You never say, The sun rises in the morning. It's always, I think the sun rises in the morning. It's like you're trying not to promise anything."


"I'm surprised you noticed that," he said, then smiled at having done it again. "I have a talent for being believed, and I've found it to be problematic. I suppose I've adopted habits to soften the effect, and so I try not to assert things unless I'm certain of them. Absolutely certain, I mean. I'm ofte

... (read more)

You are an intelligent human being. Your life is valuable for its own sake. You are not second-class in the universe, deriving meaning and purpose from some other mind. You are not inherently evil — you are inherently human, possessing the positive rational potential to help make this a world of morality, peace, and joy. Trust yourself.

-- Dan Barker

And I think that’s actually an interesting thing about my brain. If there’s a God and he/she/they made me this way, they chose a real fun way to go about it. They gave me utter domination and brilliance over certain things and then they just stopped.

--Mark Oshiro

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” -Walt Disney

"I think that it is a relatively good approximation to truth - which is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations-that mathematical ideas originate in empirics, although the genealogy is sometimes long and obscure. But, once they are so conceived, the subject begins to live a peculiar life of its own and is better compared to a creative one, governed by almost entirely aesthetical motivations, than to anything else and, in particular, to an empirical science. There is, however, a further point which, I believe, needs stressing. As a m

... (read more)
3Skatche10yI'm inclined to disagree. Deep abstraction gives us powerful tools for solving less abstract problems, including those that come out of the empirical sciences. Even fields developed with a deliberate eye to avoiding practical applications have sometimes turned out to make significant contributions to the sciences (I understand knot theory, for example, began this way, but has since turned out to have important applications in biochemistry).
1Zetetic10yYou make a strong point, however; the question as to whether we can or cannot improve the efficiency of mathematical research appears to be an open one. I think that perhaps the real issue is that we don't have a correct reductionist account of mathematics, and thus are not able to see clearly what we are doing when we build our theories. If we had a better road-map, I think that at the very least we could tie mathematics down to level 1/level 2 space [http://lesswrong.com/lw/58g/levels_of_action/] so that we could have a better idea as to how we can measure the profitability of various possible lines of inquiry.
1PhilGoetz10yWhat do you mean, we don't have a correct reductionist account of mathematics? I could define mathematics as the study of systems with a complete reductionist account.
2Zetetic10yWell, my idea would be along the lines of thinking of mathematics as a combination of certain types of cognition combined with some sort of social feedback loop. We are phenomena and so are our actions. We do mathematics, therefore we should be able to make an empirical study of it. I suppose that I would like an empirical dissection of mathematics as it is practiced by humans, something that would allow us to measure the statistical usefulness of various areas of mathematical thought. Do you think that this can't be done? Do you think that it has already been done? If so I would be interested to hear your views, but I was under the impression that numerical cognition was still an open field. Or do you not think that this is related to numerical cognition? I'm really not sure what to make of your reply. Even if you do shouldn't we be able to give a reductionist account of the methods we use to give a reductionist account? This is one of those things that I do not feel I have a clear method for thinking around, yet it still seems like a problem, and a not-quite-mysterious one to boot. Intuitively it seems that we should be able to give a neurological account of mathematical thought and gain an empirical understanding of why some mathematics appears/is more applicable than others and what sorts of applications we might expect out of certain types of mathematical thought.' Any insight you feel like sharing on this topic would be greatly appreciated. Am I just confused by some embedded mysterious question?

"The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars."

-- Carl Sagan

"If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!"

--W.S.Gilbert, from the opera "Patience"

Rats are very similar to humans except that they are not stupid enough to purchase lottery tickets.

Dave Barry

Not quite sure whether this is a rationality quote - I do not completely understand it, but Charlie Munger said this (in a Bloomberg interview), so at the very least it's food for thought.

I fixed one of the flaw in my life, having tantrums, at four or five, for the rest of the flaws I balanced them with opposite virtues.

3wedrifid10yA good rule of thumb is that if you aren't sure whether or not a quote is valuable... discard it. Quotes are the sort of thing that can be constructed to sound deep and be persuasive even when they are bullshit. So only accept them if you already understand in detail exactly what the reasoning is and find the quote just serves as a concise reminder of the theory.
1Dr_Manhattan10yI agree in general, but having read quite a bit of Munger I have a low prior on him saying something that's deep BS. I prefer to keep things like this filed until a possible moment when the blanks fill themselves.
0khafra10yI agree with wedrifid in principle, but there's an opposing rule of thumb that if Charlie Munger said it, it's probably rational. This may be related to flaw balancing.
1Dr_Manhattan10yI don't think you need a separate rule, having a prior covers it. What Mungers statement makes me think of is an alternative approach to weakness; I think the default approach for many people is to "improve themselves". In many cases this might just not be worth the time; looking for an imperfect "opposite virtue" might be workable. E.g. if life demands you to rise early instead of trying to become an "early riser" get an alarm that works and move on.

Grem: I am a goblin prince. I know when to fight. Dies: I AM A COWARD! I KNOW WHEN TO RUN!

Goblins Comic

It is from our earliest experiences, which are necessarily of the parental type, that follows the attitude we will later have towards the other. We may then, with the help of reason, moderate this imprinting, going even as far as reversing it, and thus switch from being prone to believe that the other is fundamentally good to thinking that he is fundamentally evil, or vice versa, but usually reason will only help to find points supporting of the imprinting. Thus we will end up with points supporting the thesis that man is born good or the opposite one (

... (read more)
1gwern10yFWIW, that strikes me as a bit long for a quote. I've upvoted longer quotes in the past, but only when they had a really good payoff.

What is freedom, after all? It's discerned necessity.

A. and B. Strugatsky, from Escape Attempt, translated by me from Hungarian translation.

It's a mangled quote from Marx: "Freedom is the consciousness of necessity". In the Soviet Union this phrase was a staple of state ideology, and a popular folk mockery of it went like "freedom of speech is the conscious necessity to stay silent".

2Kutta10yInteresting, I wasn't aware of that. Nevertheless I didn't detect any purpose of social commentary in the way the Strugatskys used it. Instead, I posted this as a comment because it gels well with Eliezer's take on free will. [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Free_will]
1cousin_it10yThe alternate future Earth of "Escape Attempt" is a communist utopia. Many (most?) of their other works are set in the same world. Some of them describe it in more detail, like "Midday, XXII".
1Kutta10yI haven't read Noon: 22nd century, but the other works I did read either steered clear of discussion of communism (like Dead Mountaineer's Hotel or Definitely Maybe) or more or less subtly criticized it (Inhabited Island, Roadside Picnic, Beetle in the Anthill).

"If you break it down, each of my comic pages is viewed over a million times. If each page is read for about 5 minutes, that translates to about two years of reading time per update. One month's work for two years is pretty good if you ask me."

  • Aaron Diaz

Source: http://www.formspring.me/dresdencodak/q/198161294036078826

The difference between the strong emperor and the weak is simply this: the former makes the world his arena, while the latter makes it his harem.

-- The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

To the common soldier, the strategy of a general may seem obscure. But to the general himself, his way is as clear as if he were marching his army down a broad, straight highway.

Source unknown. I'm sure I read this in some ancient military writing, but I've never been able to find it again.

Sounds suspiciously like something a general would say even if it was untrue

2wedrifid10yAnd if I saw a general make that claim I would start looking into the options I had for defecting. Generals who see the path that clearly lose in the face of underwhelming odds.
0RichardKennaway10yOne could make a similar remark about most of the quotes.
2wedrifid10yI don't think that is the case.