Rationality Quotes May 2014

Another month has passed and here is a new rationality quotes thread. The usual rules are:

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be upvoted or downvoted 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  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson. If you'd like to revive an old quote from one of those sources, please do so here.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
  • Provide sufficient information (URL, title, date, page number, etc.) to enable a reader to find the place where you read the quote, or its original source if available. Do not quote with only a name.
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When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny'd myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear'd or seem'd to me some difference, etc.

I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag'd in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos'd my opinions procur'd them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail'd with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

Benjamin Franklin

Unfortunately this self-debasing style of contradiction has become the norm, and the people I talk to can instantly notice when I am pouring sugar on top of a serving of their own ass. Perhaps they are simply noticing changes in my tone of voice or body language, but in sufficiently intellectual partners I've noticed that abruptly contradicting them startles them into thinking more often, though I avoid this in everyday conversation with non-intellectuals for fear of increasing resentment.

I would love to hear what Richard Dawkins would say in reply to this quote.

Personally, I think it's great advice--challenging people immediately and directly is often not a good long-term strategy.

Dawkins, in arguments with theists, homeopaths, etc., is not trying to convince his interlocutors; nor are most of the other well-known atheist public figures. The aim to convince bystanders — the private atheist who is unsure whether to "come out", the theist who's all but lost his faith but isn't sure whether atheism is a position one may take publicly, the person who's lukewarm on religious arguments but has always had a rather benign and respectful view of religion, etc.

In private conversations with someone whose opinions are of concern to you, Franklin's advice make sense. The public arguments of Dawkins & Co. are more akin to performances than conversations. I think he achieves his aim admirably. I, for one, have little interest in watching people get on a public stage and have exchanges laden with "in certain cases or circumstances..." and other such mealy-mouthed nonsense.

I don't know of nontrivial cases and circumstances where homeopaths are right about homeopathy (and where their statements are taken as normally understood).

We could imagine cases where people underwent homeopathic treatments and saw improvements in their symptoms for other reasons. For example, colds usually stick around for 3-4 days and dissipate without treatment, so you take a homeopathic medicine and two days your cold vanishes and you think "It worked." The correlation-causation error that might seem obvious to skeptics, but it isn't to the homeopath believers.

As I interpret the Franklin quote, you provisionally accept (don't immediately and explicitly challenge) the claim that the homeopathic medicine made the cold go away, so you can establish a further dialogue with some chance (let's just say 10%) of causing doubt in the other person. If you immediately say "There is no way that the homeopathic medicine had any effect," the person will get angry at you. You'll probably have a smaller chance of changing their mind, and they won't like you, which generally doesn't help you accomplish goals.

With Franklin's approach, I think it doesn't even matter that there are no merits to a homeopaths treatments (or insert whichever group); you need to cede some ground to keep negotiations open and to get people to like you because it's helpful later.

We could even imagine cases where people underwent homeopathic treatments and saw improvements in their symptoms for that reason. The placebo effect is often a real thing, and is most effective when you don't believe what you're taking is a placebo.

If it were possible to keep homeopathy from being inexplicably muddled up with non-evidence-based naturopathy (where your treatment may have negative side effects), unfortunately mixed up with anti-"allopathy" (where you forgo a more medically-effective treatment), or inescapably tied to anti-epistemology in general, it might even be a net good on its own.

If anyone has found that the placebo effect isn't real, making scientific history by publishing your discovery might be of higher utilty than downvoting my outdated information.

If anyone has found that the placebo effect isn't real

The placebo effect is complicated. See e.g. this.

True. But am I just being biased when I interpret that as support for my claim? "Sham acupuncture" and even placebo pills given to people who are told they're taking placebos both show significant positive effects. I'd be very surprised if placebo pills given to people who are told they're taking real "homeopathic" medicine didn't show real effects too.

But am I just being biased when I interpret that as support for my claim?

What is your claim, precisely?

Sure, giving homeopathic pills to people is likely to make them feel better via placebo. But by the same reasoning, this will also work for voodoo rituals, holy water, and mind rays from outer space.

I'm not sure I know what point you meant to make by this.

I read Franklin's advice as applying, and intending to be applied, quite readily in those cases where one's interlocutor is totally and clearly wrong. The idea is that you take a certain roundabout approach to telling them that they're wrong, without quite coming out and saying it straight out. The fact that they are wrong need not be in question; it's merely a matter of which tactics are effective in convincing them. (The assumption, of course, is that you're interested in convincing them.)

In any case, I am unsure in what sense your comment is a response to what I said... could you clarify?

The way I read Franklin's quote is that if someone says "well, (factual statement X) is true, and from it I draw (unwarranted conclusion Y)", we should claim to agree with him (because we agree with X) and act as though drawing conclusion Y is a minor flaw in his theory that doesn't negate the fact that he's basically correct.

But he's not basically correct. He did invoke X, and X is true, but to say that he's right, or even partially right, means he's right about a substantial part of his argument, not that he's based it on at least one statement that is true. A homeopath doesn't become partly right just because he says "well, vaccines work by using a tiny amount of something to protect against it, so perhaps homeopathy can also use a tiny amount of a substance to protect against it", even if the statement about vaccines is literally correct.

What do you think of the following?

'If the data is good, but the argument is not, argue the argument (e.g. by showing that it doesn't hold water). Don't argue about the conclusion and point to the bad argument as evidence.' (not a rationality quote, just curious about your reaction)

I think that is not what Franklin was saying.

PLAYBOY: So the experiment didn’t work?

[Craig] FERGUSON: No, the experiment always works. There’s no such thing as an experiment that doesn’t work. There are only results, but results may vary. Here’s what I learned:

I tend to disagree.. I have done some things which I thought was experimenting with but did not come up with any clear conclusion after the experiment and analysis. On rewriting the thesis it turned out there were a lot more implicit assumptions inside the hypothesis that I was not aware of. I think it was a badly designed experiment and it was rather unproductive in retrospective analysis. I suppose one could argue that it brought to light the implicit assumptions and that was a useful result. Somehow(not sure how or why) I find that a low standard to consider something an experiment.

Systems built without requirements cannot fail; they merely offer surprises — usually unpleasant!

— Robert Morris, quoted in Brian Snow's "We Need Assurance!"

Experiments can fail if they are executed or planned improperly. If both the control and the experimental group are given sugar pills, for example, or the equipment fails in a shower of sparks, the experiment has provided no evidence by which one can update. It is a small quibble, and probably not what the quote meant to illustrate (I'm guessing that the experiment provided evidence which downgraded the probability of the hypothesis), but something to note nonetheless: experiments are not magic knowledge-providers.

Experiments can fail if they are executed or planned improperly. If both the control and the experimental group are given sugar pills, for example, or the equipment fails in a shower of sparks, the experiment has provided no evidence by which one can update.

I think Ferguson would call those "results," and from those you would have learned about performing experiments, not about the original hypothesis you were interested in.

If anything, I think a really failed experiment is one that makes you think you've learned something that is in fact wrong, which is the result of flaws in the experiment that you never become aware of.

I think Ferguson would call those "results," and from those you would have learned about performing experiments, not about the original hypothesis you were interested in.

Ferguson's proposed new language is a downgrade. Being unable to identify something as a failure when the outcome sucks is fatalism and not particularly useful.

An experiment is supposed to teach you the truth. If you run the experiment badly and, say, get a false positive, then the experiment failed.

One afternoon a student said "Roshi, I don't really understand what's going on. I mean, we sit in zazen and we gassho to each other and everything, and Felicia got enlightened when the bottom fell out of her water-bucket, and Todd got enlightened when you popped him one with your staff, and people work on koans and get enlightened, but I've been doing this for two years now, and the koans don't make any sense, and I don't feel enlightened at all! Can you just tell me what's going on?"

"Well you see," Roshi replied, "for most people, and especially for most educated people like you and I, what we perceive and experience is heavily mediated, through language and concepts that are deeply ingrained in our ways of thinking and feeling. Our objective here is to induce in ourselves and in each other a psychological state that involves the unmediated experience of the world, because we believe that that state has certain desirable properties. It's impossible in general to reach that state through any particular form or method, since forms and methods are themselves examples of the mediators that we are trying to avoid. So we employ a variety of ad hoc means, some linguistic like koans and some non-linguistic like zazen, in hopes that for any given student one or more of our methods will, in whatever way, engender the condition of non-mediated experience that is our goal. And since even thinking in terms of mediators and goals tends to reinforce our undesirable dependency on concepts, we actively discourage exactly this kind of analytical discourse."

And the student was enlightened.

I don't think there's such a thing as "unmediated experience of the world".

(I like the quotation a lot for giving a plausible, lucid reason why Zen might spurn the usual sort of analytical discourse. But it's so clear an explanation of an idea that I think it's revealed a basic problem with the idea, namely that it points towards a non-existent goal.)

There is such a thing as a less mediated experience of the world.

Can you give some examples of more and less mediated experiences?

That's an interesting question-- "mediated" should probably be modified by "of what?" and "by what?".

It's definitely possible for perceptions to become less mediated by focusing on small details so that prototypes aren't dominant. It's possible to become a lot more perceptive about color, and Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is about seeing angles, lengths, shading, curves, etc. rather than objects and thus being able to draw accurately.

If you get some distance on your emotions through meditation and/or CBT, is your experience of your emotions less mediated? More mediated? Wrong questions? I think meditators assume that the calm you achieve is already there-- you just weren't noticing it until you meditated enough, so your emotions are more mediated and your calm is less mediated, but now that I've put it into words, I'm not sure what you would use for evidence that the calm was always there rather than created by meditation.

Thank you for the evidence that it's possible to get 12 karma points for something that doesn't exactly make sense.

Reasoning inductively rather than deductively, over uncompressed data rather than summaries.

Mediated: "The numbers between 3 and 7" Unmediated: "||| |||| ||||| |||||| |||||||"

Because? People who claim it are lying? You dont have it, and your mind is typical?

Or maybe they and satt mean different things by “unmediated”.

Because causal mechanisms to relay information from the world to one's brain are a necessary prerequisite for "experience of the world", so one's "experience of the world" is always mediated by those causal mechanisms.

And it's not possible for just the cognitive mechanisms to shut down, and leave the perceptual ones?

If you shut down the cognitive mechanisms completely, would you even remember what you have perceived? Or even that you have perceived something?

Maybe not. That matches some reports of nonordinary experience.

I doubt it's possible. I'm sceptical that one can cleanly sort every experience-related bodily mechanism into a "cognitive" category xor a "perceptual" category. Intuitively, for example, I might think of my eyes as perceptual, and the parts of my brain that process visual signals as cognitive, but if all of those bits of my brain were cut out, I'd expect to see nothing at all, not an "unmediated" view of the world — which implies my brain is perceptual as well as cognitive. So I expect the idea of just shutting down the cognitive mechanisms and leaving the perceptual mechanisms intact is incoherent.

(Often there're also external physical mechanisms which are further mediators. You can't see an object without light going from the object to your eye, and you can't hear something without a medium between the source and your ear.)

So are people who claim unmediated experience lying?

Or using a different definition of "unmediated", or confused about their experience, or...

My best guess is that the vast majority of them are sincere. Being correct vs. being a liar is a false dichotomy.

So are they sincerely ,mistaken about that they think unmediated experience is, or about what you think it is?

(Presumably your first "that" is meant to be a "what"?) That question implies a false dichotomy too. The mistaken people might not be mistaken about what anyone thinks unmediated experience is; perhaps everyone pretty much agrees on what it is, and the mistaken people are simply misremembering or misinterpreting their own experiences.

This conversation might be more productive if you switch from Socratic questioning to simply presenting a reasonable definition of "unmediated experience" according to which unmediated experience exists. After all, your true objection seems to be that I'm using a bad definition.

Anybody can be wrong about anything, That isn't an interesting observation, because it is general. Earlier you gave a specific reason, which you think is empirical, and I think is partly conceptual.

There are also people who claim that they feel God's presence in their heart, you know.

I believe them. I don't believe in God, but I do believe that it's possible to have the subjective experience of a divine presence -- there's too much agreement on the broad strokes of how one feels, across cultures and religions, for it to be otherwise. Though on the other hand, some of the more specific takes on it might be bullshit, and basic cynicism suggests that some of the people talking about feeling God's presence are lying.

Seems reasonable to extend the same level of credulity to claims about enlightenment experiences. That's not to say that Buddhism is necessarily right about how they hash out in terms of mental/spiritual benefits, or in terms of what they actually mean cognitively, of course.

I don't disagree with any of that. Who knows, could be even one and the same experience which people raised in one culture interpret as God's presence, and in another as enlightenment.

The research summarized in this book seems to suggest that this is indeed the case.

And people who claim to see cold fusion and canals on mars.

There is a happy medium between treating empirical evidence as infallible, and dismissing it as not conforming to your favourite theory.

It's like neutrality on Wikipedia. You'll never attain neutrality, but there is such a thing as less and more, and you want to head in the "more" direction.

I think I see what you mean; if I mentally substitute "is closer to an" for "involves the", and "that state would have" for "that state has", the practice the quotation describes makes more sense to me. (I'm leery of the idea that it's better to head in the direction of less mediation — taking off my glasses doesn't give me a clearer view of the world — but that's a different objection.)

So while the original quotation talked about not thinking at all, your revised version urges that we think as little as possible. How does it qualify as a "rationality quote"?

It can be rationally beneficial to realise now much mediation is involved in perception, in the same way it is useful to replace naive ealism with scientific realism.

Relatively unmediated perception is also aesthetically interesting, and therefore of terminal value to many.

How does it qualify as a "rationality quote"?

You tell me; I have to squint pretty hard to make it read as telling me something useful about rationality.

Words are used to point to places. The thing that comes to your mind when you hear the words "unmediated experience of the world" might not exist. That doesn't mean that there aren't using people who use that phrase to point to something real.

Couldn't you say exactly that to anyone who doubts the existence of anything?

Couldn't you say exactly that to anyone who doubts the existence of anything?

You could. And the way to resolve a dispute over the existence of, say, unicorns, would be to determine what is being meant by the word, in terms of what observations their existence implies that you will be more likely to see. Then you can go and make those observations.

The problem with talk of mental phenomena like "unmediated perception" is that it is difficult to do this, because the words are pointing into the mind of the person using them, which no-one else can see. Or worse, the person isn't pointing anywhere, but repeating something someone else has said, without having had personal experience. How can you tell whether a disagreement is due to the words being used differently, the minds being actually different, or the words and the minds being much the same but the people having differing awareness of their respective minds?

This is a problem I have with pretty much everything I have read about meditation. I can follow the external instructions about sitting, but if I cannot match up the description of the results to be supposedly obtained with my experience, there isn't anywhere to go with that.

Couldn't you say exactly that to anyone who doubts the existence of anything?

The assumptions in that sentence are interesting. It presupposes that a debate is an interaction where you compete against other person by proving them wrong. I rather want to offer friendly way to improve understanding. Whether or not the other person accept it is their choice.

In cases like this it's very useful to think about what people mean with words and not go with your first impression of what they might mean.

It presupposes that a debate is an interaction where you compete against other person by proving them wrong.

I don't think so. I just meant to point out that what you said was a triviality. If you intended it as a protreptic triviality, that's fine, I have no objection and that's justification enough for me.

I don't think so. I just meant to point out that what you said was a triviality.

Could you define what you mean with "triviality"?

I mean something which follows from anything. I don't intend it as a term of disapprobation: trivialities are often good ways of expressing a thought, if not literally what was said. If you intended this: "In cases like this it's very useful to think about what people mean with words and not go with your first impression of what they might mean" then I agree with you, and with the need to say it. I just missed your point the first time around (and if you were to ask me, you put the point much better when you explained it to me).

Yes, that roughly what I mean. However there might be no way for you to know what they mean if you lack certain experiences.

If a New Agey person speaks about how the observer effect in Quantum physics means X, his problem is that he doesn't have any idea what "observer" means for a physicist. Actually getting the person to understand what "observer" means to a physicist isn't something that you accomplish in an hour if the person has a total lack of physics background. .

The same is true in reverse. It's not straightforward for the physicist to understand what the New Agey person means. Understanding people with a very different mindset then you is hard.

You seem to be saying two things here:

Actually getting the person to understand what "observer" means to a physicist isn't something that you accomplish in an hour if the person has a total lack of physics background....It's not straightforward for the physicist to understand what the New Agey person means.

This entails that it is possible to simply explain what you mean, even across very large inferential gaps.

However there might be no way for you to know what they mean if you lack certain experiences.

Yet here you seem to entertain the idea that it's sometimes impossible to explain what you mean, because a certain special experience is necessary.

I endorse the first of these two points, and I'm extremely skeptical about the second. It also seems to me that physicists tend to hold to the first, and new agers tend to hold to the second, and that this constitutes much of the difference in their epistemic virtue.

Yet here you seem to entertain the idea that it's sometimes impossible to explain what you mean

I said impossible in an hour not impossible in general. It simple might take a few years. There a scene in Neuromancer where at the end one protagonist asks the AI why another acted the way they did. The first answer is: It's unexplainable. Then the answer is, it's not really unexplainable but would take 37 years to explain. (my memory on the exact number might not be accurate)

On the other hand the idea that teaching new phenomenological primitives is extremely hard. It takes more than an hour to teach a child that objects don't fall because they are heavy but because of gravity. Yes, you might get some token agreement but when you ask questions the person still thinks that a heavy object ought to fall faster than a light one because they haven't really understand the concept on a deep level. In physics education it's called teaching phenomenological primitives.

This entails that it is possible to simply explain what you mean, even across very large inferential gaps.

You can't explain a blind man what red looks like. There are discussions that are about qualia.

It takes more than an hour to teach a child that objects don't fall because they are heavy but because of gravity.

"Because of gravity" isn't any better an explanation than "because they are heavy". Why does "gravity" accelerate all masses the same? Really thinking about that leads to general relativity, so it actually takes many years to explain why things fall, and it can't be done without going through calculus, topology, and differential geometry.

Cf. Feynman on explanations (07:10–09:05).

Just being able to recite "because of gravity" is not enough for many purposes. I myself did well in physics at school and finished best in class in it but I haven't studied any physics since then and I'm well aware that I don't understand advanced physics.

"Because of gravity" isn't any better an explanation than "because they are heavy".

It's not perfect but it is better. Airplanes fly well based on Newtonian physics.

but when you ask questions the person still thinks that a heavy object ought to fall faster than a light one because they haven't really understand the concept on a deep level.

No, they think that a heavy object ought to fall faster than a light one because that's how it actually works for most familiar objects falling through air.

If you've just been telling without demonstrating, this is pure reliance on authority.

If you've just been telling without demonstrating, this is pure reliance on authority.

(Or taking a hypothetical seriously.)

An important factor is just understanding the details of how everything supposedly fits together. Even if you don't know from observation that it's the way things work in our world, there is evidence in seeing a coherent theory, as opposed to contradictory lies and confusion. Inventing a robust description of a different world is hard, more likely it's just truth about ours.

No, they think that a heavy object ought to fall faster than a light one because that's how it actually works for most familiar objects falling through air.

Empty water bottles don't exactly fall faster than full water bottles.

But my point isn't about whether you rely or authority or don't but on how people actually make decisions. There literature on phenomenological primitives in physics.

The one time we tested the theory of gravity experimentally in school I did not get numbers that the Newtonian formula predicted. At the same time I don't think those formula are wrong. I believe them because smart people tell me that they are true and I don't care enough about physics to investigate the matter further.

Empty water bottles don't exactly fall faster than full water bottles.

Through air full water bottles do fall faster than empty ones.

The one time we tested the theory of gravity experimentally in school I did not get numbers that the Newtonian formula predicted. At the same time I don't think those formula are wrong. I believe them because smart people tell me that they are true and I don't care enough about physics to investigate the matter further.

LOL. "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"

Through air full water bottles do fall faster than empty ones.

A bit maybe but I think they should have roughly the same speed. How much faster do you think they would fall?

LOL. "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"

Sometimes you have to make hard choices...

There was a time were I thought it was about picking sides and being for empiricism or against it. I'm well past that point. There are times when believing the authority is simply the right choice.

A bit maybe but I think they should have roughly the same speed. How much faster do you think they would fall?

If the fall is sufficiently long, they reach different terminal velocities, which are proportional to the square root of their masses.
According to the Teh Interwebz, an average 0.5 litre empty plastic bottle weights about 13 g. A full bottle weights 513 g. Therefore, at terminal velocity it falls about 6.3 times faster.

If the fall is sufficiently long, they reach different terminal velocities, which are proportional to the square root of their masses.

What does sufficiently long mean in practice?