Rationality Quotes August 2014

by RolfAndreassen1 min read4th Aug 2014237 comments

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Rationality Quotes
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Hollywood is filled with feel-good messages about how robotic logic is no match for fuzzy, warm, human irrationality, and how the power of love will overcome pesky obstacles such as a malevolent superintelligent computer. Unfortunately there isn’t a great deal of cause to think this is the case, any more than there is that noble gorillas can defeat evil human poachers with the power of chest-beating and the ability to use rudimentary tools.

From the British Newspaper 'The Telegraph', and their article on Nick Bostrom's awesome new book 'Superintelligence'.

I just thought it was a great analogy. Nice to see AI as an X-Risk in the mainstream media too.

6elharo6yProbably true. It's not like Hollywood is an accurate source of information about anything. (Climate change, asteroid impacts, the legal system, the military, romance, sex, business, anything.) But I fail to see how this is a rationality quote. I'm sure there are many more quotes of the form "Group X is wrong about Topic Y." I would prefer to limit quotes to those that that teach us how to tell whether or how much Group X is right or wrong about Topic Y, and skip quotes that merely turn on the applause lights on a particular topic.
6NancyLebovitz6yThe quote isn't just about Hollywood being wrong, it's about a specific way that it's wrong.

A good rule of thumb to ask yourself in all situations is, “If not now, then when?” Many people delay important habits, work and goals for some hypothetical future. But the future quickly becomes the present and nothing will have changed.

Scott Young

6alanwil26yI just bought a book on procrastination. I am going to start reading it tomorrow.

That's why I'm skeptical of people who look at some catastrophic failure of a complex system and say, "Wow, the odds of this happening are astronomical. Five different safety systems had to fail simultaneously!" What they don't realize is that one or two of those systems are failing all the time, and it's up to the other three systems to prevent the failure from turning into a disaster.

-- Raymond Chen

7satt6yIn other words, some of the slices in one's Swiss cheese model [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_cheese_model] are actually missing entirely.
7dspeyer6yCorrelary: if you're running a system for which five simultaneous failures is a disaster, monitor each safety system seperately and treat any three simultaneous failures as if it were a disaster.
6Gunnar_Zarncke6yAlso known as Fundamental Failure Mode. From Systemantics [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systemantics]:

"I want information. I want to understand you. To understand what exactly I'm fighting. You can help me."
"I obviously won't."
"I will kill you if you don't help me. I'm not bluffing, Broadwings. I will kill you and you will die alone and unseen, and frankly you are far too intelligent to simply believe that the stories of ancestral halls are true. You will die and that will probably be it, and nobody will ever know if you talked or not—not that conversing with an enemy in a war you don't support is dishonorable in the first place."
"You'll let me leave if I stonewall, because you don't want to set a precedent of murdering surrendered officers."
"We'll see. Would you like another cup?"
"No."
Derpy smiled deviously. "You know, in that last battle? We didn't fly our cannon up there to the cliffs. Nope. We had Earth ponies drag them. Earth ponies are capable of astounding physical feats, you know. We're probably going to be using more mobility in our artillery deployment going forward, now that they've demonstrated how effective the concept is."
"...why did you tell me that? What would drive you to tell me that?"

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This sounds like something from Schelling's strategy of conflict, although I haven't read it

9jaime20006yYes, that's exactly what I was thinking. General Broadwings thinks General Derpy is bluffing, so Derpy credibly precommits herself to not releasing him by telling him information that would surely doom her army if she did. She gives up the choice of freeing Broadwings, and comes out ahead for it.
7satt6yIt's kind of reminiscent of this, from pages 43-44 of the 1980 edition: Compare also Daniel Ellsberg's Kidnap game [http://books.google.com/books?id=0EXl-FXxs2oC&pg=PT66&lpg=PT66&dq=Daniel+Ellsberg+"game+theory"+kidnap] .

A man is walking on the moon with his eyes turned up toward space And the bright blue world that watches him reflected on his face. The whole world sees the hero there and the module crew also. But few can see the guiding team that guards him from below.

Here's a health to the man who walked the moon, and the module crew above, And the team that watches from the sky with worry, joy, and love. To all who blazed the sky-trail come raise your glasses 'round; And a health to the unknown heroes, too, who never left the ground.

Here's a health to the ship's designers, and the welders of her seams, And all who man the radar-scan to watch our dawning dreams. For all the unknown heroes, sing out to every shore: "What makes one step a giant leap is all the steps before".

Leslie Fish, musically praising the Hufflepuff virtues.

-6Lumifer6y

Surgeons finally did upgrade their antiseptic standards at the end of the nineteenth century. But, as is often the case with new ideas, the effort required deeper changes than anyone had anticipated. In their blood-slick, viscera-encrusted black coats, surgeons had seen themselves as warriors doing hemorrhagic battle with little more than their bare hands. A few pioneering Germans, however, seized on the idea of the surgeon as scientist. They traded in their black coats for pristine laboratory whites, refashioned their operating rooms to achieve the exacting sterility of a bacteriological lab, and embraced anatomic precision over speed.

The key message to teach surgeons, it turned out, was not how to stop germs but how to think like a laboratory scientist. Young physicians from America and elsewhere who went to Germany to study with its surgical luminaries became fervent converts to their thinking and their standards. They returned as apostles not only for the use of antiseptic practice (to kill germs) but also for the much more exacting demands of aseptic practice (to prevent germs), such as wearing sterile gloves, gowns, hats, and masks. Proselytizing through their own students and colleagues, they finally spread the ideas worldwide.

-Atul Gawande

The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.

-- Alberto Brandolini (via David Brin)

7Viliam_Bur6yRefuting frequently appearing bullshit could be made more efficient by having a web page with standard explanations which could be linked from the debate. Posting a link (perhaps with a short summary, which could also be provided on the top of that web page) does not require too much energy. Which would create another problem, of protecting that web page from bullshit created by reversing stupidity, undiscriminating skepticism, or simply affective death spirals about that web page. (Yes, I'm thinking about RationalWiki.) Maybe we could have multiple anti-bullshit websites, which would sometimes explain using their own words, and sometimes merely by linking to another website's explanation they agree with.
6CronoDAS6yhttp://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/ [http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/] is considered a good one on the single issue of creationism vs. evolution.
4fubarobfusco6yYes, it is, and The Counter-Creationism Handbook sits next to Darwin, Dawkins, and Diamond on my shelf. It would be a Good Thing if folks in other bullshit-fighting arenas had the level of scholarship exhibited by Mark Isaak and his collaborators. (Hell, every time I see a "bingo card" ridiculing an Other Side's arguments, I wish its creators had the time and scholarly dedication of the talk.origins folk.)
5ChristianKl6yI think that's a bad description. The kind of people on RationalWiki are very discriminating. When something is said by an Authority they trust they aren't skeptic and when something is said by someone they don't trust they are very "skeptic". I don't think that framing yourself as "anti-bullshit" is helpful. It's makes more sense to frame yourself as being pro-evidence. We already do have multiple websites that do explain issues. I personally like Skeptics Stackexchange [http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/]. If I come about a new claim I often simply go and open a question over there. When it comes to an issue such as vaccination I think Vox has a decent primer: http://www.vox.com/cards/vaccines/what-is-vaccine [http://www.vox.com/cards/vaccines/what-is-vaccine]
4Jiro6yHow does this differ from religious groups refusing to answer questions that dispute things said by their religion, and instead referring you to scripture passages or Christian apologetics? Of course it's different in that you will link to refutations that are good arguments, and the religious person will link to apologetics that are bad arguments, but aside from that, how is it different? After all, you can't very well say that certain tactics are acceptable or unacceptable based on whether the associated arguments are good or bad.
6Viliam_Bur6yDepends on the audience and topic. Also, sometimes the goal is not to convince your opponent, but to convince the bystanders. Imagine that you are on a web forum where someone comes and writes a long comment about "Isn't it horrible that vaccination causes autism, and yet the government wants us to vaccinate our children? I would do anything to protect my child from autism!" and some information probably copied from some other webpage. It's not just you and them; there are also other readers who don't have a clue and may be frightened by the message. (And they will not use google, because... well, humans are stupid.) If nobody opposes the message, it seems like their is a clear consensus among the people who care about the topic. If you opposed them, you are wasting your time. -- But if you post a link to a good explanation, then the people frightened by the message can read the explanation and hear a dissenting voice, while you wouldn't have to spend a lot of time... assumming there is a good anti-bullshit page where you just enter "vaccination, autism" in the search box, and it shows you a well-written page about the topic. Where well-written means a short layman-accessible summary at the top, and then detailed arguments and references below.
1Jiro6yBut by that same reasoning, a fundamentalist Christian could come here, see that someone has written a long comment about, say, evolution, and reply with a link to a prewritten web page listing 100 arguments against evolution. He reasons that if he posts a good explanation, people who are frightened by the idea of fundamentalists being a menace can read the explanation and hear a "dissenting voice",,,. As far as he is concerned, he has followed your recommendations exactly. Is there something you could say which explains why his behavior is unacceptable, but the behavior you describe is acceptable, that does not involve "our anti-anti-vaccination page is well-written and your anti-evolution page is not"? (Alternatively, would you find his behavior acceptable? This seems odd.)
2Viliam_Bur6yA fundamentalist Christian who would post here a link to a page listing arguments against evolution would be more effective than the one who would try to debate, because they would achieve the same (in this situation: zero) effect while spending much less resources. The people who would try to debate them, each of them would waste more of their time by reading the linked page and composing the reply. So, I believe this is a good strategy. Specifically on LW we have an (unwritten?) norm that if you post a link, you should also provide a summary using your own words. Which probably was designed to counter this strategy. But there are website which don't have this norm, e.g. Facebook.
1RichardKennaway6yIt is not specific to LW, but a custom of good practice that personally, I have followed ever since there has been such a thing as a link (and before then, when the equivalent was posting to an email list a cut-and-paste of someone else's words without any words from the person posting). I also practice the custom of ignoring links that come to me without context. I recommend both parts of this practice to everyone.
1RichardKennaway6yHow does answering questions at length in one's own words differ from religious groups answering questions at length in their own words?
1Jiro6yIt doesn't differ. But it doesn't have to, since we consider it acceptable behavior for religious people to come here and answer questions in their own words. We generally don't consider it acceptable behavior for religious people to come here and respond to posts by giving links to apologetic sites. It should not, then, be acceptable behavior for us except maybe in a few specialized cases (such as where the dispute is purely over facts, like for vaccines).
2AndHisHorse6yRefuting frequently appearing bullshit is more than a matter of making the facts available. After all, anti-vaccination folks appear with enough frequency to be a curious news item (which I admit is a horrendous metric, but let's pretend it means something), and I'm sure that a quick Google search would yield enough facts to disabuse them of their notions. The trick is building up enough credibility and charisma - if such a property could be applied to an argument - to make such a site not just correct, but convincing. That's where the order of magnitude comes in.
3Viliam_Bur6yMost people are not strategic enough to use google. Or if they get many contradicting results from google search, they are not smart enough to decide. Also, there is this bias that if an information was brought to you by a person you know, it has much stronger impact. (For most people, good relationships matter more than truth. If someone brings you an information, disbelieving the information is a potential conflict with given person.) You only get an equal opposing force if another person you know opposes the original information. For example, by saying "it's bullshit" and posting a link to refutation.
1Gunnar_Zarncke6yBut you still have to find the proper entry. This just shifts the burden around and in total refutation is probably still much more expensive than creation (esp. as the same BS can be copied but the refutation can't..

It was a gamble: would people really take time out of their busy lives to answer other people’s questions, for nothing more than fake internet points and bragging rights?

It turns out that people will do anything for fake internet points.

Just kidding. At best, the points, and the gamification, and the focused structure of the site did little more than encourage people to keep doing what they were already doing. People came because they wanted to help other people, because they needed to learn something new, or because they wanted to show off the clever way they’d solved a problem.

...

An incredible number of people jumped at the chance to help a stranger

-- Jay Hanlon, Five year retrospective on StackOverflow

On the other hand, a Slashdot comment that's stuck in my mind (and on my hard disks) since I read it years ago:

In one respect the computer industry is exactly like the construction industry: nobody has two minutes to tell you how to do something...but they all have forty-five minutes to tell you why you did it wrong.

When I started working at a tech company, as a lowly new-guy know-nothing, I found that any question starting with "How do I..." or "What's the best way to..." would be ignored; so I had to adopt another strategy. Say I wanted to do X. Research showed me there were (say) about six or seven ways to do X. Which is the best in my situation? I don't know. So I pick an approach at random, though I don't actually use it. Then I wander down to the coffee machine and casually remark, "So, I needed to do X, and I used approach Y." I would then, inevitably, get a half-hour discussion of why that was stupid, and what I should have done was use approach Z, because of this, this, and this. Then I would go off and use approach Z.

In ten years in the tech industry, that strategy has never failed once. I think the key difference is the subtext. In the fir

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In addition to the specific advice, this is an excellent example of rationality because it's about getting the best from people as they are rather than being resentful because they aren't behaving as they would if they were ideally rational.

5satt6yI can't be sure, because I first read that comment so long ago, but I think I took it as an inspiration to be better than the co-workers at the coffee machine. It's repellent to imagine myself as a person who'd spend 45 minutes on a Yer Doin It Rong lecture but wouldn't spend 2 minutes to explain how to do something properly in the first place.
4Sarunas6yThis is known as Cunningham's Law [https://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Cunningham%27s_Law]. Another example [http://bash.org/?152037].The explanation (non-competitive vs. competitive mindsets, the latter of which is more motivating to act) seems quite convincing. In addition, could there also be an analogy to loss aversion (a tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains)? Would people feel more urgency to correct what they see as wrong (and thus challenging what they see as correct) rather than explain what is right ("less wrong" vs. "more right", if we are not trying to avoid puns)?
4TheMajor6yA reply because an upvote doesn't begin to cover it. I might start using this!
5ike6yWell, did they test popularity of sites without fake internet points vs popularity of sites with, controlling for relevant factors? I skimmed through the post, and there wasn't much actual data on what people do and why, just assertions.
4Azathoth1236yI thought the point of the points was to weed out the people whose "help" you don't want.
2ike6yThat would account for reputation, not badges. (No one says "Hey, I got two answer from people with the same rep, but one has twice as many badges, so I'll go with that one.") On the actual question, I've seen meta-posts on Stack Exchange complaining that they qualified for a badge and didn't get it, so the stuff does matter somewhat.
3cody-bryce6yConvincing people to offer others programming help on the internet isn't a special accomplishment of SO. From usenet to modern mailing lists to forums to IRC, there are tons and tons of thriving venues for it. The gamification might have helped SO's popularity some, but taking time out of their busy lives to answer others' questions was alive and well. SO is a dangerous trash heap. It doesn't encourage helping people make good programs; it answers extremely literal questions. Speed of post is important. Style of post is important. Blatantly wrong answers are upvoted by people who don't know what they're looking at when they are early, indicating that vote count isn't telling ever. Doing anything but answering a question completely literally is treated with extreme hostility. These sorts of things have gotten worse with time. The community relations are bizarre. Active members of the community buy into cheap salesman lines by the owners that are meant to favor the owners. The idea that the community can direct itself is thrown around as if it wasn't blatantly untrue. Yes, an incredible people jump at the chance to help strangers. SO didn't invent that, they're just one of the more popular current hosts to these people. It's distasteful to act like it started by wondering if such people exist.
1Lumifer6ySo? That's fine. "Helping people make good programs" is awfully fuzzy and is likely to start by major holy wars breaking out. SO is useful, at least for me, because it offers fast concise answers to very specific and literal questions I have on a regular basis. I can't say anything about the internal politics of SO since I don't play there.
0[anonymous]6ySo? That's fine. "Helping people make good programs" is awfully fuzzy and is likely to start by major holy wars breaking out. SO is useful, at least for me, because it offers fast concise answers to very specific and literal questions I have on a regular basis. I can't say anything about the internal politics of SO since I don't play there.
0[anonymous]6ySo? That's fine. "Helping people make good programs" is awfully fuzzy and is likely to start by major holy wars breaking out. SO is useful, at least for me, because it offers fast concise answers to very specific and literal questions I have on a regular basis. I can't say anything about the internal politics of SO since I don't play there.

But if that were the case, then moral philosophers - who reason about ethical principles all day long - should be more virtuous than other people. Are they? The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel tried to find out. He used surveys and more surreptitious methods to measure how often moral philosophers give to charity, vote, call their mothers, donate blood, donate organs, clean up after themselves at philosophy conferences, and respond to emails purportedly from students. And in none of these ways are moral philosophers better than other philosophers or professors in other fields.

Schwitzgebel even scrounged up the missing-book lists from dozens of libraries and found that academic books on ethics, which are presumably mostly borrowed by ethicists, are more likely to be stolen or just never returned than books in other areas of philosophy. In other words, expertise in moral reasoning does not seem to improve moral behavior, and it might even make it worse (perhaps by making the rider more skilled at post hoc justification). Schwitzgebel still has yet to find a single measure on which moral philosophers behave better than other philosophers.

  • Jonathon Haidt, discussing the idea that ethi
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6dspeyer6yThere's probably a selection effect at work. Would a highly moral person with a capable and flexible mind become a full-time moral philosopher? Take their sustenance from society's philanthropy budget? Or would they take the talmudists' advice and learn a trade so they can support themselves, and study moral philosophy in their free time? Or perhaps Givewell's advice and learn the most lucrative art they can and give most of it to charity? Or study whichever field allows them to make the biggest difference in peoples' lives? (Probably medicine, engineering or diplomacy.) Granted, such a person might think they could make such a large contribution to the field of moral philosophy that it would be comparable in impact to other research fields. This seems unlikely. The same reasoning would keep highly moral people out of other sorts of philosophy, but people who don't have an interest in moral philosophy per se might not notice the point. It's hard to avoid if you specifically study it.
3[anonymous]6yThis could happen, but I think it's mostly dwarfed by the far larger selection effect that people who are not financially privileged mostly don't attempt to become humanities academics these days -- and for good reason.
1dspeyer6yAre you saying that financially privileged people tend to be less moral?
2[anonymous]6yWhile that case has been made in a few isolated studies, I was more generally referring to the fact that people who don't come from money will usually choose careers that make them money, and humanities academia doesn't.
4Nornagest6yWasn't sure about that, so I tracked down some research [http://astro.temple.edu/~kgoyette/major.pdf] (Goyette & Mullen 2006). Turns out you're right: conditioned on getting into college in the first place, higher socioeconomic status (as proxied by parents' educational achievement) is correlated with going into arts and sciences over vocational fields (engineering, education, business). The paper also finds a nonsignificant trend toward choosing arts and humanities over math and science, within the arts and science category. (Within the vocational majors, though, engineering is the highest-SES category. Business and education are both significantly lower. I don't know which of those would be most lucrative on average but I suspect it'd be engineering.)
1[anonymous]6yI think there are several trade-offs there: engineering looks like the highest expected value to us, because we (on LessWrong, mostly) had pre-university educations focused on math, science, and technology. People from lower SES... did not, so fewer of them will survive the weed-out courses taught in "we damn well hope you learned this in AP class" style. And then there's the acclimation to discipline and acclimation to obsessive work-habits (necessary for engineering school) that come from professional parentage... and so on. And then of course, many low-SES people probably want to go into teaching as a helping profession, but that's not a very quantitative explanation and I'm probably just making it up. On the other hand, engineering colleges tend to have abnormally large quantities of international students and immigrants blatantly focused on careerism. So yeah.
1dspeyer6yHow does that fact impact the morality of moral philosophers as measured?
2Viliam_Bur6yUnlikely that they would make such contribution? Yes. Unlikely that they think they would make such contribution? Maybe no. But I guess they probably don't even think this way, i.e. don't try to maximize their impact. More likely it is something like: "My contribution to society exceeds my salary, so I am a net benefit to the society". Which is actually possible. Yeah, some people, especially the effective altruists, would consider such thinking an evidence against their competence as a moral philosopher.
2CCC6yIf someone's studying moral philosophy in their free time, then wouldn't they be taking academic books on ethics out of the library?
5Torello6y"In 1971, John Rawls coined the term "reflective equilibrium" to denote "a state of balance or coherence among a set of beliefs arrived at by a process of deliberative mutual adjustment among general principles and particular judgments". In practical terms, reflective equilibrium is about how we identify and resolve logical inconsistencies in our prevailing moral compass. Examples such as the rejection of slavery and of innumerable "isms" (sexism, ageism, etc.) are quite clear: the arguments that worked best were those highlighting the hypocrisy of maintaining acceptance of existing attitudes in the face of already-established contrasting attitudes in matters that were indisputably analogous." -Aubrey de Grey, The Overdue Demise Of Monogamy [http://edge.org/response-detail/10141] This passage argues that reasoning does impact ethical behavior. Steven Pinker and Peter Singer make similar arguments, which I find convincing.
2[anonymous]6yI find it quite arguable whether or not "reflective equilibrium" is a real thing that actually happens in our cognition, or a little game played by philosophy academics. Actual cognitive dissonance caused by holding mutually contradicting ideas in simultaneous salience is well-evidenced, but that's not exactly an equilibrium across all ideas we hold, merely across the ones we're holding in short-term verbal memory at the time.
2Ben Pace6yI actually put up another quote arguing for it, by Joshua Greene, making an analogy between successsful moral argument and the invention of new technology; even though a person rarely invents a whole new piece of technology, our world is defined by technological advance. Similarly, even though it is rare for a moral norm to change as a result of abstract argument, our social norms have change dramatically since times gone by. Nonetheless, the quote works with empirical evidence, the ultimate arbiter of reality. It looks like, whilst moral argument can change our thoughts (and behaviour) on ethical issues, a lot of the time it doesn't. Like technology, the big changes transform our world, but for the most part we're just playing angry birds.
3RichardKennaway6yI think it more likely they're better at coming up with rationales to ignore their instinctive feelings.
2Jiro6yI think that someone can believe that their instinctive feelings are an approximation to what is ethical, then try to formalize it, then conclude that they have identified areas where the approximation is in error. So their ethics code could be highly based on their instinctive feelings without following them 100% of the time.
1VAuroch6yThat seems unlikely. People's instinctive feelings are generally pretty selfish. (Small sample size, obviously. I think 2 other people where I've spoken with enough about this kind of thing to judge.)
2RichardKennaway6yNone of your sample were people with children, then? And there's also the question of what is "instinctive" versus whatever the opposite is. What is this distinction and how do you tell?
1VAuroch6yNo, but I don't see why children should have an effect; favoring your children over strangers is no less selfish than favoring yourself over strangers, and both are strong instincts. By instinctive I just mean system 1; the judgments made before you take time to think through what you should do.
3RichardKennaway6yI had intended to draw attention to the phenomenon of favouring one's children over oneself. It appears I was right about the test demographic. And "no less selfish"? At what point would you consider the widening circle to be "less selfish"? To favour your village over others, your country over others, humanity over animals; are these are all no less selfish? Is nothing unselfish but a life of exaninition and unceasing service to everyone and everything but oneself? System 1 is susceptible to training -- that is what training is. We may be born with the neurological mechanism, but not its entire content. "Instinct" more usually means (quoting Wikipedia) "performed without being based upon prior experience". A human without prior experience is a baby.
1VAuroch6yStandard definitions of system 1 describe it as 'instinctive', but if you need a separate definition of instinctive responses, 'untrained system 1 responses' works. That depends. Any of those things can be unselfish, if you're doing it because you think it's a good thing to do independent of whether it's an outcome/action you like, and the wider the circle the more likely that's the motivation. If it's based on 'I like these people and want them to be happy, therefore I will take this action' that's still selfish. Lest this sound like I'm saying anything that isn't done for abstract reasons is selfish, I'd contrast it with things done for reasons of compassion. The lines there can get blurry when the people you're feeling compassion for are in your ingroup, but things like the place-quarters-here-for-adorable-sad-children variety of charity are clearly trying to induce compassionate motivation (and it works). From conversations I have had with my own parents (not as comprehensive or in-depth, but heartfelt), it seemed pretty clear that the parenting instinct is much more 'these kids are mine and I will take care of them come hell or high water' than a compassionate reflex.
3NancyLebovitz6yHypothesis: At least some of the people who are interested in ethics are concerned because they have a problem behaving ethically.

Come back with your shield - or on it.

Our kind might not be able to cooperate, but the Spartans certainly could. The Spartans were masters of hoplite phalanx warfare where often every individual would have been better off running away but collectively everyone was better off if none ran away than if all did. The above quote is what Plutarch says Spartan mothers would tell their sons before battle. (Because shields were heavy if you were going to run away you would drop it, and coming back on your shield meant you were dead.) Spreading memes to overcome collective action problems is civilization level rational.

4RolfAndreassen6yWell... most of what we "know" about the Spartans was written down by their enemies, and may be inaccurate. It is not at all clear that any actual Spartan ever said the words you attribute to them; it may be Plutarch making things up to illustrate how he thought a city ought to work. Which doesn't necessarily make it bad rationality, but does mean it is fictional evidence, not historical.
3VAuroch6yWe have significant amounts written by the Ancient Greek equivalent of a Sparta otaku, Thucydides. He lived there for a significant period (IIRC, he was in exile from Athens at the time) and was firsthand familiar.
1Gunnar_Zarncke6yAn example of the orderly battle of the hellens from Xenophons Anabasis [http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1170/1170-h/1170-h.htm#link2H_4_0006] where the enemy has ten-fold numeric superiority: ... ...
1RolfAndreassen6y...according to Xenophon, at any rate. I don't see what that has to do with the alleged Spartan quote.
1Gunnar_Zarncke6yThe hellenes mentioned in the quote were likely spartans.
2RolfAndreassen6ySome of the commanders were Spartans, yes; and it does seem likely that the mercenaries segregated themselves at least somewhat by city of origin, so the Spartan commanders probably had Spartan troops. But the tactics described are standard Hellenic ones; there is nothing about them that is special to Sparta, as far as I can see.
2Gunnar_Zarncke6yI'm neither istoriean nor expert on acient warfare. My quote was intended to substantiate the claim My given quote indeed doesn't distinguish between Spartans and Athens... but that isn't needed as it appears that all hellenes were able to much better cooperate than their enemies. And from my reading of Anabasis this is substantiated. And my given quote is no bad one at that.
3lmm6yThe reason it's relevant is that some of us consider the Athenians to be "our kind", or at least the closest thing at the time.
3KnaveOfAllTrades6yPlaudits for actually explaining and justifying your rationality quote. May others follow your example!
1[anonymous]6y"Our kind cannot cooperate" is a common meme for which I've seen comparatively little evidence. Mailing lists are not the real world, and while most people might start flame wars over the tiniest bullshit on mailing lists, their real-world behavior is largely cooperative and prosocial.
1RichardKennaway6yWould those be the same people you characterised by these words?
0[anonymous]6yThe comment you're quoting is sarcastic.
-1Torello6yI find it ironic that you use a military example to illustrate how we can achieve collective action at the civilization level. Isn't the fact the Spartans were willing to "come back with their shields - or on it" the epitome of our kind not being able to cooperate? I always interpreted "our kind" as the whole of humanity, so for me one sub-set of humanity banding together to destroy another subset (or die trying) isn't a good example of civilization-level cooperation, or the kind of meme that would be useful to spread.
7Azathoth1236yDid you read the linked article [http://lesswrong.com/lw/3h/why_our_kind_cant_cooperate/]? In it Eliezer is contrasting rationalist and religious institutions. You may also want to read this [http://lesswrong.com/lw/5f/bayesians_vs_barbarians/] to get an idea for the problem James Miller is trying to address. Here is a relevant quote: And that's assuming the rationalists don't simply surrender without a fight on the grounds that "war is a zero sum game".
3Torello6yI didn't read the linked article--it certainly seems to frame the issue as rationalists vs. barbarians, not humanity vs. the environment (and the flaws of humanity), so thanks for pointing that out. I do think fundamentalists/extremists/terrorists have an asymmetrical advantage in the short term in that it's always easier to cause damage/disorder than improvement/order. This quote above [http://lesswrong.com/lw/koe/rationality_quotes_august_2014/b6ns] seems to be a particular example of this phenomenon. However, I have to agree with Jiro's comment. Extremists may be able to destroy things and kill people, but I wouldn't say they've been able to conquer anything. To me, "conquer" implies taking control of a country, making its economy work for you, dominating the native population, building a palace, etc. Modern extremists commit suicide and then their mastermind hides silently for a decade until helicopters fly in and soldiers kill him.
3Jiro6yWhen referring to actual barbarians, the description of the barbarians seems to lie by omission--even if all the things described above are mostly true, the barbarians have wrecked their economy because central planning doesn't work no matter how many orders they give, burning people at the stake is bad for investment, their belief in an afterlife is associated with other beliefs that prevent them from making or even efficiently using scientific advances, and their inability to have sane discussion means they can't make tactical decisions or really plan anything well at all. (Etc.) That sort of thing is pretty much the reason that the West hasn't been conquered by Muslim fundamentalists yet: Also, barbarism doesn't arise at random. Some social structures are more conducive to barbarism than others and they may have inherent flaws which reduce the efficiency of conquest even as their encouragement of barbarism increases it.
7Azathoth1236yNot all barbarians do that. The communists did that, but they also considered themselves rationalists and were considered such by many people at the time. Muslim fundamentalists generally don't. Depends on whose being burned and why. Having the highest per capita rate of capital punishment doesn't seem to have hurt Singapore's ability to get investment. I don't think so. It might hurt their ability to make scientific advancements, but they're perfectly capable of using them once someone else makes them. 'Rationalist' societies can also have inherent flaws, like say problems solving the collective action problems associated with wars.
4Viliam_Bur6yThis feels to me like a just world fallacy, or perhaps choosing the most convenient world. Yes, if the barbarians are completely stupid, they are probably not so much of a danger these days. If they are completely anti-science, we probably have better guns. Now imagine somewhat smarter barbarians, who by themselves are unable to do sophisticated science, but have no problem kidnapping a few scientists and telling them to produce a lot of weapons for them, otherwise their families will be burned at stake. (Even if their religion prevents them from doing science, they may compartmentalize and believe it is okay to use the devil's tools against the devil himself.) Suddenly, the barbarians have good guns, too. Maybe the reason why the West hasn't been conquered by Muslim fundamentalists yet is that Muslims don't have an equivalent of Genghis Khan. Someone who would have the courage to conquer the nearest territory, kill horribly everyone who opposed them, let live those who didn't (and make this fact publicly known), take some men and weapons from the conquered territory and use them to attack the next territory immediately, et cetera, spreading like a wildfire. First attacking some smaller but civilized countries to get better weapons for attacking the next ones. With multiple leaders, so that dropping a bomb won't stop the war. (Maybe one Osama hiding in secret, giving commands to dozen wannabe Genghis Khans who don't mind getting to paradise too soon.)
3SilentCal6yJiro's fallacy is not in saying that the world is or has been just in this respect, but rather in implicitly saying it must be. I don't think it's a coincidence that liberal/secular/enlightenment nations are the most powerful today, but that fact doesn't negate the point of the barbarian hypothetical. I seriously doubt the viability of your Genghis Khan plan for modern fundamentalist Islam, seeing as that same M.O. was tried recently except starting with one of the world's top industrial and scientific powers. But that's a fact about our world, and the point of the barbarian example is more universal than that.
1Jiro6yIf the country of rationalists is attacked by a country of barbarians who are perfectly optimized for conquest, the rationalists will get conquered. But there's no way to get from here to there except by Omega coming down and constructing exactly the race of barbarians necessary for the hypothetical to work. And if you're going to say that, there's no point in referring to them as barbarians and describing their actions in terms like "believes in an afterlife" and "obeys orders" that bring to mind real-life human cultures; you may as well say that Omega is just manipulating each individual barbarian like a player micromanaging a video game and causing him to act in exactly the way necessary for the conquest to work best. Except of course that if you say "rationalists could be conquered by a set of drones micromanaged by Omega", without pretending that you're discussing a real-world situation, most people (assuming they know what you're talking about) would reply "so what?"
3Wes_W6yThis is not inconsistent with the claim that, if the country of rationalists is attacked by a country of barbarians who are imperfectly optimized for conquest, the rationalists might get conquered, with the risk depending on how optimized the barbarians are. And, for that matter, the rationalist nation probably isn't theoretically optimal either... On balance, believing true things is an advantage, but there are other kinds of advantages which don't automatically favor the rationalist side. Sheer numbers, for example.
1Jiro6yHow imperfectly optimized, though? Imperfectly optimized like Omega controlling each barbarian but occasionally rolling the barbarian's morale check, which fails on a 1 on a D100? Or imperfectly optimized like real life barbarians?
2V_V6yWhat about the Bolsheviks? Or the WW2-era Japanese?
2SilentCal6yTry the following obviously-unrealistic yet not-obviously-uninteresting hypothetical: There are two approximately equal-strength warring tribes of barbarians, Tribe A and Tribe B. One day Omega sprinkles magic rationality dust on Tribe A, turning all of its members into rationalists. Tribe B is on the move towards their camp and will arrive in a few days. This is not enough time for Tribe A to achieve any useful scientific or economic advances, nor to accumulate a significant population advantage from non-stake-burning. Can you see, in that hypothetical, how Eliezer's points in the linked posts are important? Or another approach: the quote about the rationalists losing says "Barbarians have advantages A, B, and C over rationalists." Your response is "But rationalists have larger advantages X, Y, and Z over barbarians, so who cares?" Eliezer's response is "screw that, if barbarians have any advantages over rationalists, the "rationalists" aren't rational enough". My hypothetical's purpose is to try to control for X, Y, and Z so we have to think about A, B, and C.
1Jiro6yAdvantages are usually advantages under a specific set of circumstances. If you "control" for X, Y, and Z by postulating a set of circumstances where they have no effect, then of course A, B, and C are better. The rationalists have a set of ideals that works better in a large range of circumstances and in more realistic circumstances. They will not, of course, work better in a situation which is contrived so that they lose, and that's fairly uninteresting--it's impossible to have ideals that work under absolutely all circumstances. Think of being rationalist like wearing a seatbelt. Asking what if the rationalists' advances over the barbarians just happen not to apply is like asking what if not having a seatbelt would let you be thrown out of the car onto something soft but wearing a seatbelt gets you killed. I would not conclude that there is something wrong with seatbelts just because there are specific unlikely situations where wearing one might get you killed and not wearing one lets you survive.
3SilentCal6y"It's impossible to have ideals that work under absolutely all circumstances." This is the essentially the proposition Eliezer wrote those posts to refute. A seat belt is a dumb tool which is extremely beneficial in real-world situations, but we can easily contrive unrealistic cases where it causes harm. The point of those posts is that rationality is 'smart'; it's like a seat belt that can analyze your trajectory and disengage itself iff you would come to less harm that way, so that even in the contrived case it doesn't hurt to wear one.
0Jiro6yI don't read it that way (at least not the long quote, taken from the second article). The way I read it, he is trying to discredit what he thinks is fake rationalism, and is giving barbarians as an example of a major failure which proves that this rationalism is fake. (Pay attention to the use of scare quotes.) I believe my response--that everything fails in unrealistic situations and what he is describing is an unrealistic situation--is on point.
0SilentCal6yThe intention is to discredit a 'fake rationalism' and illustrate 'real rationalism' in its place. I think you're right that if we're talking about the USA fighting a conventional war against the visigoths, the barbarians' advantages aren't even a rounding error. But there are other types of conflicts where that may not be the case. Some possible examples include warfare in other eras or settings, economic competition, democratic politics, and social movements. Or even if it's not a conflict--maybe we'd like to be able to have traditional rationalist virtues like empirically testing beliefs, and also be a group that cooperates on prisoners' dilemmas? Barbarians are a dramatization to elevate these problems to an existential level, but the ultimate point is that rationalists shouldn't have this kind of disadvantage even if they do have offsetting advantages that make them stronger than any group they're likely to come into direct conflict with.
0Jiro6yWhy shouldn't they? If the "should" means "I would be happier if", maybe, but it's not a law of the universe that rationalists must always have an advantage in all situations. (If nothing else, what if the enemy just hates rationalists? I can even think of real-life enemies who do.)
1SilentCal6yRationalists shouldn't have those disadvantages, because there are a bunch of ways to mitigate them, which the post goes on to enumerate. Part of Eliezer's project is to enshrine a definition of 'rational' such that a decision that predictably puts you at a disadvantage is not rational. Are you arguing that Eliezer-rationality is a poor fit for the word's historic usage and you'd rather cultivate a different kind of rationality that doesn't allow the kind of unpleasant anti-barbarian measures described in the post? One that forbids them, not conditionally on barbarians not being a major threat, but absolutely?
0Jiro6yIf the definition was actually what you describe, then whether barbarians demonstrate that that kind of rationality "predictably puts you at a disadvantage" would partly depend on how likely you were to be attacked by barbarians of those types. (Because low probability events contribute less to your expected utility.) In other words, if that's what he meant, then optimized barbarians don't count as an example. He'd have to either use realistic barbarians, or argue that his optimized barbarians are realistic enough that they make substantial contributions to the expected utility. (Does "I assume he meant something different because if he meant that, his example is useless" count as steelmanning?)
0SilentCal6yHe's writing about what the rationalists should do conditional on facing that kind of barbarian. The point of the post is not that rationalist communities should all implement military drafts, but rather that they should be capable of such measures if circumstances require them.
0Jiro6yThat makes a bit more sense but it still has flaws. The first flaw that comes to mind is that the rationalists may have precommitted to support human rights and that the harm that this precommitment causes to the rationalists in the optimized-barbarian scenario is more than balanced by the benefit it causes by making the rationalists unwilling to violate human rights in other scenarios where the rationalists think they are being attacked by sufficiently optimized barbarians, but are not. Whether this precommitment is rational depends on the probability of the optimized-barbarian scenario, and the fact that it is undeniably harmful conditional on the optimized-barbarian scenario doesn't mean it's not rational. (Edit: It is possible to phrase this in a non-precommitment way: "I know that I am running on corrupted hardware and a threat that seems to be optimized barbarians probably isn't. The expected utility is calculated from P(false belief in optimized barbarians) benefit from not drafting everyone - P(true belief in optimized barbarians) loss from being killed by barbarians. The conclusion is the same: just because the decision is bad for you in the case where the barbarians really are optimized doesn't make the choice irrational.)
1SilentCal6yRight, but it's a consequentialist argument, not a deontological one. "This measure is more likely to harm than to help" is a good argument; "On the outside view this measure is more likely to harm than to help, and we should go with the outside view even though the inside view seems really really convincing" can be a good argument; but you should never say "This measure would help, but we can't take it because it's 'irrational'".
0Jiro6yIn a sense, just saying "you shouldn't be the kind of 'rational' that leads you to be killed by optimized barbarians" is already a consequential argument. Yes, you should, if you have precommitted to not take that measure and you are then unlucky enough to be in the situation where the measure would help. Precommitment means that you can't change your mind at the last minute and say "now that I know the measure would help, I'll do it after all". The example I give above is not the best illustration because you are precommitting because you can't distinguish between the two scenarios, but imagine a variation: You always can identify optimized barbarians, but if you precommit to not drafting people when the optimized barbarians come, your government will be trusted more in branches of the world where the optimized barbarians don't come. Again, the measure of worlds with optimized barbarians is small. In that case, you should precommit, and then if the optimized barbarians come, you say "drafting people would help, but I can't break a precommitment". If you have made the precommitment by self-modifying so as to be unwilling to take the measure, the unwillingness looks like a failure of rationality ("If only you weren't unwilling, you'd survive, but since you are, you'll die!"), when it really isn't.
0SilentCal6yPrecommitment is also a potentially good reason. I'm not sure what we disagree about anymore. Is your objection to the Barbarians post that you fear it will be used to justify actually implementing unsavory measures like those it describes for use against barbarians?
0Jiro6yIf there is precommitment, it may be true that doing X would benefit you, you refuse to do X, and your refusal to do X is rational. Eliezer said that if doing X would benefit you and you refuse to do X, that is not really rational. Furthermore, whether X is rational depends on what the probability of the scenario was before it happened--even if the scenario is happening now. Eliezer as interpreted by you believes that if the scenario is happening now, the past probability of the scenario doesn't affect whether X is rational (That's why he could use optimized barbarians as an example in the first place, despite its low probability.) Also, I happen to think that many cases of people "irrationally" acting on principle can be modelled as a type of precommitment. Precommitment is just how we formalize "I'm going to shop at the store with the lower price, even if I have to spend more on gas to get there" or "we should allow free speech/free press/etc. and I don't care how many terrorists that helps".
0SilentCal6yTDT/UDT and the outside view are how we formalize precommitment.
-3Jiro6yIt seems like the fastest way to get modded down is to disagree with Eliezer.
-4Jiro6yAssuming that "predictably puts you at a disadvantage" means "there is at least one situation X such that I can predict that if X occurs, I would be at a disadvantage", then I don't agree with this definition. (For instance, if Biblical literalism is true, pretty much every rationalist would be at a disadvantage. Does that mean that every definition of "rational" is bad?)
0SilentCal6yIt's pretty well established here that a phrase like 'predictably puts you at a disadvantage' is a probabilistic term; essentially it means 'has a negative impact on your expected uitility.' By the definition you assumed I was using, it would be true to say that buying a lottery ticket predictably increases your wealth. That is not a reasonable way to use words. (Also, you've been disagreeing with Eliezer this whole thread, and only that last post has downvotes)
0Lumifer6yIf you accept the local definition of rationality as winning (and not, say, as "thinking logically and deeply") then, well, losing means you weren't sufficiently rational :-/
0Azathoth1236yI'm not sure. The liberal world seems to have gotten "softer" since then. Compare the general reaction in the US to the death toll in Iraq (maybe one or two US soldiers a day) with the death toll in WWII.
1[anonymous]6y"Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his group ISIS have been behaving exactly like this. They are quite young, but don't appear quite able to take on a Western military yet. And yet, by definition, a group who are better at rationality win more often. We ought to expect that rational civilizations can beat irrational ones, because rationality is systematized cross-domain winning.
1Viliam_Bur6yWell, there is this "valley of bad rationality" where being more rational about part of the problem but not yet more rational about other part can make people less winning. Sometimes I feel are we are there at a society level. We have smart individuals, we have science, we fly to the moon, etc. However, superstition and blind hate can be an efficient tool for coordinating a group to fight against another group. We don't use this tool much (because it doesn't fit well with rationality and science), but we don't have an equally strong replacement. Also, only a few people in our civilization do the rationality and science. So even if there is a rationality-based defense, most of our society is too stupid to use it efficiently. On the scale from "barbarians" to "bayesians", most of our society is somewhere in the middle: not barbaric enough, but still far from rational.
1Jiro6yA group that is better at rationality will win more often, but winning more often is not the same thing as "winning in a superset of the situations in which the irrational win".
0Jiro6yBy the same reasoning which says that fundamentalists could do better with more efficient methods of conquest, they could do better with more efficient methods of making peace, too. They won't do as well as with conquest, but they'll do better than they are doing now. Yet they don't. Barbarism is not optimized for conquest. It's optimized for supporting a set of social structures. Those social structures make them more dangerous as conquerers than the average society, but they're still not optimized for conquest; there are things which would make conquest more efficient which they would not do. (To use just one example, for a country to embark on conquest and use the men from the conquered country to continue conquering more countries, they'd have to grant equal rights to conquered people who agreed to work with them. Rome did that except in a few rare but famous cases. So did the Mongols. But Muslim fundamentalists can't give non-Muslims or rival Muslims equal rights without no longer being Muslim fundamentalists.)
3Azathoth1236yNot necessarily. Muslims, in particular, have a history of using slave [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mamluk] soldiers [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janissary] to good effect. You do realize it's possible to convert to fundamentalist Islam?
2Nornagest6yI seem to recall, and a glance over the Wikipedia articles suggests, that the Mamluk and Janissary systems involved raising (enslaved) boys into a military environment from a fairly young age. These boys might come from subjugated territories, but they'd in effect have been part of the dominant culture for much of their lives: it's not a system that could be used to quickly convert conquered territories into additional manpower. That said, it hasn't been unusual for empires, modern and otherwise, to make substantial use of auxiliary forces drawn from client states. The Roman military [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_auxiliaries] probably relied on them as much as they did on the legions, or more in the late empire.
1Azathoth1236yThe late Roman Empire wasn't exactly successful at conquering anything, or even at keeping the Empire from falling apart.
1Jiro6yYes, but requiring that soldiers do so makes the process of conquest less optimized, since it's easier for obvious reasons to get soldiers without this requirement than with it. (The same goes for using slaves.)
1Vaniver6yYou seem to be focusing solely on cost; the difference between benefit and cost is what matters, and the benefits of a fighting force with shared values (particularly shared religious ones) are many and obvious.
1Jiro6yBy that reasoning, it's the Romans and the Mongols who are un-optimized for conquest.
1Azathoth1236yThe Mongols had the advantage of recruiting from a pool of steppe nomads with similar values. The Roman Republic conquered the Mediterranean basin with an army consisting of Italians that were required to adopt Roman values before joining. Later the Roman legion adopted the looser system you described. Subsequently Roman legions would spend nearly as much effort fighting other Roman legions in civil wars as fighting Rome's enemies.
3James_Miller6yAnother reason: many members of our military do have the courage of the Spartans. U.S. soldiers don't put on suicide vests to kill children, but they do fall on grenades and hold hopeless positions under fire so their friends can escape death.
2Lumifer6yFor a counterpoint, look at the speed and magnitude of the original spread of Islam in the VII-VIII centuries. Also there is Iran.
2Jiro6yI don't think the spread of Islam many centuries ago counts. Fanaticism isn't as much of a disadvantage when fighting medieval socieities as it is when fighting modern ones.
1Lumifer6yWhy is that so?
2Jiro6yTo summarize: Fanaticism keeps the culture from escaping the dark ages. If everyone is in the dark ages anyway, not being able to escape the dark ages isn't much of a disadvantage.
3Lumifer6yThat looks to me like one of those sentences which sound pretty but don't actually mean much. In your comment upthread you listed things which make a barbarian society "uncompetitive". They apply to medieval societies as well. Essentially, you would expect the non-fanatic society to be richer, have better technology, and be governed more effectively. That holds in any epoch (as long as we don't get too far into stone age :-/). When Islam erupted out of the Arabian Peninsula, the "fanatics" easily took over huge -- amazingly huge -- territories. And it wasn't just pillage-and-burn, they conquered the lands and established their own rule.
2Jiro6yWhy would I expect this when the society exists hundreds of years ago? The point is that back then, everyone lacked many of the things that fanaticism would cause a society to lack. The fanatics are not at such a disadvantage under such circumstances. The loss in efficiency from it taking weeks to communicate between distant parts of your empire is going to make the loss in efficiency from having a theocracy look like noise. The disadvantage of not getting investors in your country won't matter when there's no international investment anyway. The disadvantage of having little in the way of science and engineering won't matter if there's hardly any science yet and engineering is at the state of building bridges instead of launching satellites.
0Lumifer6yReally? Consider trade -- a major factor in the society's wealth and survival for the last several thousands of years. The fanatic barbarians wouldn't trade, would they? You don't think technology mattered before the Industrial Revolution? Oh, but it did. From bronze weapons to early firearms, an army with a technological edge had a big advantage. Governance didn't matter in ancient and medieval societies? Do you actually believe that?
-1Jiro6yTechnology mattered before the Industrial Revolution. The kind of technology that fanatics are bad at did not matter before the Industrial Revolution, however, because nobody had it, fanatic or not.
2James_Miller6yI see competition among different groups of people, with those able to overcome their collective action problems gaining power and resources.
1Torello6yI see what you mean, but in a military conflict it sees that any gain in power or resources is the result of another group losing power or resources (a zero-sum game). I guess that trade/commerce might be a positive-sum example where competition is still involved but on the whole there is societal benefit.

is consciousness more like the weather, or is it more like multiplication?

Scott Aaronson

More context:

a perfect simulation of the weather doesn’t make it rain—at least, not in our world. On the other hand, a perfect simulation of multiplying two numbers does multiply the numbers: there’s no difference at all between multiplication and a “simulation of multiplication.” Likewise, a perfect simulation of a good argument is a good argument, a perfect simulation of a sidesplitting joke is a sidesplitting joke, etc.

Maybe the hardware substrate is relevant after all. But [...] I think the burden is firmly on those of us who suspect so, to explain what about the hardware matters and why. Post-Turing, no one gets to treat consciousness’s dependence on particular hardware as “obvious”—especially if they never even explain what it is about that hardware that makes a difference.

We try things. Occasionally they even work.

Parson Gotti

2Bugmaster6yAlso this entire comic: http://www.erfworld.com/book-1-archive/?px=%2F124.jpg [http://www.erfworld.com/book-1-archive/?px=%2F124.jpg]
3lalaithion6y" 'striving for the impossible' doesn't mean 'toiling in vain'. It means growth, it means improvement in the directions of your ideas, not futility."
1lmm6yLink is broken
1Iydak6yLooks like they decided to swap over to a new site not two weeks after I posted it. Should be fixed now.
1lmm6yNope, still broken
1Iydak6yMy link, or Bugmaster's?
1lmm6yBugmaster's

Sometimes the biggest disasters aren't noticed at all -- no one's around to write horror stories.

Vernor Vinge, A Fire Upon the Deep

A good argument is like a piece of technology. Few of us will ever invent a new piece of technology, and on any given day it’s unlikely that we’ll adopt one. Nevertheless, the world we inhabit is defined by technological change. Likewise, I believe that the world we inhabit is a product of good moral arguments. It’s hard to catch someone in the midst of reasoned moral persuasion, and harder still to observe the genesis of a good argument. But I believe that without our capacity for moral reasoning, the world would be a very different place.

-Joshua Greene, “Moral Tribes”, Endnotes

Most of the time what we do is what we do most of the time.

-Daniel Willingham, Why Don't Students Like School. The point is that, quite often the reason we're doing something is that that's what we're used to doing in that situation.

Note: He attributes the quote to some other psychologists.

Most of the time he asked questions. His questions were very good, and if you tried to answer them intelligently, you found yourself saying excellent things that you did not know you knew, and that you had not, in fact, known before. He had "educed" them from you by his question. His classes were literally "education" - they brought things out of you, they made your mind produce its own explicit ideas.

Thomas Merton, about professor Mark Van Doren

This seems like an elegant and funny take on Ben Franklin's wisdom.

Walter Sobchak: "Am I wrong?"

The Dude: "No you're not wrong."

Walter Sobchak: "Am I wrong?"

The Dude: "You're not wrong Walter. You're just an asshole."

-The Big Lebowski, Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1998

After describing

blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.

David Foster Wallace continues

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as

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4soreff6yThere is a very large amount of stuff that one is automatically certain of that is correct, though trivial, data like "liquid water is wet". I'm not sure how one would even practically quantify an analysis of what fraction of the statements one is certain of are or are not true. Even if one could efficiently test them, how would one list them (in the current state of science - tracing a full human neural network (and then converting its beliefs into a list of testable statements) is beyond our current capabilities).
1rule_and_line6yI'm curious about this "liquid water is wet" statement. Obviously I agree, but for the sake of argument, could you taboo "is" and tell me the statement again? I'm trying to understand how your algorithm feels from the inside. If you're curious how to quantify fractions of statements, you might enjoy this puzzle I heard once. Suppose you're an ecological researcher and you need to know the number of fish in a large lake. How would you get a handle on that number?
3soreff6yOne of the parts of "liquid water is wet" is that a droplet of it will spread out on many common surfaces - salt, paper, cotton, etc. Yes, it is a bit tricky to unpack what is meant by"wet" - perhaps some other properties, like not withstanding shear are also folded in - but I don't think that it is just a tautology, with "wet" being defined as the set of properties that liquid water has. Re the catch/count/mark/release/recapture/count puzzle - the degree to which that is feasible depends on how well one can do (reasonably) unbiased sampling. I'm skeptical that that will work well with the set of testable statements that one is automatically certain of.

Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.

Albert Einstein

I don't suppose you have a source for the quote? (at this point, my default is to disbelieve any attribution of a quote unknown to me to Einstein)

4jazmt6yaccording to this website ( http://ravallirepublic.com/news/opinion/viewpoint/article_876e97ba-1aff-11e2-9a10-0019bb2963f4.html [http://ravallirepublic.com/news/opinion/viewpoint/article_876e97ba-1aff-11e2-9a10-0019bb2963f4.html] ) it is part of 'aphorisms for leo baeck' (which I think is printed in 'ideas and opinions' but I don't have access to the book right now to check)
1Qwake6yThank you for finding the source (I read it in a book and was to lazy to fact check it).
1somervta6yThanks! I didn't fine it with my minute of googling, good to know it's legit.
1arundelo6yYep, it shows up in Google Books's copy of Ideas and Opinions [http://books.google.com/books?id=fjR0zUxu5rQC&lpg=PP1&dq=ideas%20and%20opinions&pg=PT39#v=onepage&q=equanimity&f=false] .

The power is not in the choice of metaphor, it is in the ability to shift among metaphors. Teaching people this other metaphor [...] but not leaving them with the flexibility to move freely in and out is not having enabled them at all.

-- Kent Pitman

7arundelo6yElsewhere in the thread [https://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/ftpdir/scheme-mail/HTML/rrrs-1997/msg00052.html] he says the following. I have corrected some typos and added emphasis.

"Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation." -Richard Feynman

There is a real joy in doing mathematics, in learning ways of thinking that explain and organize and simplify. One can feel this joy discovering new mathematics, rediscovering old mathematics, learning a way of thinking from a person or text, or finding a new way to explain or to view an old mathematical structure.

This inner motivation might lead us to think that we do mathematics solely for its own sake. That’s not true: the social setting is extremely important. We are inspired by other people, we seek appreciation by other people, and we like to help

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Challenge my assumption, not my conclusion, and do it with new evidence, instead of trying to twist the old stuff.

"The Originist", by Orson Scott Card

I believe the first part is frequently good advice. The second half is good, but not quite as good-- there still may be good new angles on old evidence.

"We must not criticize an idiom [...] because it is not yet well known and is, therefore, less strongly connected with our sensory reactions and less plausible than is another, more 'common' idiom. Superficial criticisms of this kind, which have been elevated into an entire 'philosophy', abound in discussions of the mind-body problem. Philosophers who want to introduce and to test new views thus find themselves faced not with arguments, which they could most likely answer, but with an impenetrable stone wall of well-entrenched reactions. This is not

... (read more)

Two mares, each convinced she was standing firmly on The Shores Of Rationality, stared helplessly into The Sea Of Confusion and despaired over their inability to ever rescue the friend helplessly floundering within.

A vivid description of inferential distance from Twilight's Escort Service.

Edit: It's from a comedy that relies on misunderstandings; Twilight chooses the word "escort" to advertise her teleportation abilities. If you don't enjoy awkwardness-based comedies, I recommend you stay away. The actual quote is about explaining a value dif... (read more)

4[anonymous]6yExplain, as I am not clicking on anything associating "Twilight Sparkle" and "Prostitution".
6Leonhart6yHaven't had time to read it; but from the story description, it seems to be a comic affair where Twilight decides to monetise her teleportation skillz, and picks the wrong word to advertise with. Hilarity presumably prevails?
3RichardKennaway6yPretty much. I stopped reading at the point where her first "client" showed up, with supposed "hilarity" about to begin, as I can't stand comedy based on misunderstanding and embarrassment.
1Vaniver6yYep.

In the fields of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.

Louis Pasteur.

"Just as eating against one’s will is injurious to health, so studying without a liking for it spoils the memory, and it retains nothing it takes in." -Da Vinci

6Stabilizer6yWell... -Not Da Vinci
5EGarrett6yCompare Da Vinci's quote to Kubrick's... "Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker.” They both seem quite clearly to be saying that the knowledge they gained studying what they were forced to study was essentially nothing in comparison to what they gained studying what they themselves found interesting. From personal experience, I agree totally with both statements.

'Deep pragmatism' is Joshua Greene's name for 'utilitarianism'.

Today we, some of us, defend the rights of gays and women with great conviction. But before we could do it with feeling, before our feelings felt like “rights,” someone had to do it with thinking. I’m a deep pragmatist, and a liberal, because I believe in this kind of progress and that our work is not yet done.

Joshua Greene, “Moral Tribes"

3Azathoth1236yAnd yet he's talking about 'rights', which are a deontological not a utilitarian concept.
1blacktrance6yConsequentialists can believe in something that can reasonably be called rights.
1Ben Pace6yI'm aware that may be jarring in the quote, but he has argued his case for being able to use the word very well. In fact, he's argued against it, calling it a rationalisation of our moral intuitions, and his point is that, for our moral intuitions to change, someone needs to do some good ethical reasoning first.

Language exists only on the surface of our consciousness. The great human struggles are played out in silence and in the ability to express oneself.

Franz Xavier Kroetz

2rule_and_line6yCould you give this some more context? My reaction was to downvote. The word "only" gives me vibes like "language exerts a trivial or insignificant influence on our consciousness". I don't know any of Kroetz's plays, but given that he is a playwright I feel like I'm getting the wrong vibe.
1Qwake6yMy interpretation of the quote was not that language exerts a trivial influence on our consciousness but that language is an imperfect form of communication.

Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what's right.

-Isaac Asimov

5hairyfigment6yDuplicate [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1pq/rationality_quotes_february_2010/1jqj].

I'm starting a new 30 day challenge: the month of no "should." Instead of tediously working down a list of all the little chores and errands that I "should" be doing, I'll work to listen to what that little voice inside me wants to do. I think it will be interesting.

Matt Cutts

5Azathoth1236yI don't really want to pay the electric bill, or the rent. Oh dear, now I'm sitting in the dark and the landlord is evicting me onto the street.
5fubarobfusco6yI'm pretty sure you've construed the quote entirely backwards — and that Matt's point is that any "I should do X" statement can be rephrased as "part of me wants to do X."
3Azathoth1236yI really don't like that guy and want him dead, and hey we're in the middle of nowhere and nobody knows he's here.
1ChristianKl6yIf you are a psychopath than simply doing what you want to do is bad. Normal civilized humans don't really want to kill other humans.
4Lumifer6yThat REALLY depends on the circumstances.
1[anonymous]6yIsn't that covered by the first two words (especially the second) of the sentence you quoted?
2Lumifer6yNo. Normal civilized humans find themselves in different circumstances. In some of these circumstances they DO want to kill other humans.
1[anonymous]6yWell, certainly not nearby humans who have similar skin coloration and evince membership in the same tribe. Those people, on the other hand, are disgusting, and the lot of them simply have to go.
1lmm6yMaybe you should kill him then? I mean, do you actually want to?
1ChristianKl6yGiven that you can predict the results of your choices is there really no part in you that wants to choose the road that includes paying the electric bill? It about where you put your attention. If you focus on the fact that you want to have electricity in your house and therefore pay the electric bill you feel agent and good. If you focus on the fact that you have an obligation to pay a bill you will feel bad.
2Dorikka6yTextbook case of YMMV due to inferential distance/loss of resolution in verbal/textual communication.
[-][anonymous]6y 0

I've realized that I had started noticing and mitigating trivial inconveniences some time after reading the Yvain's post. Something as simple as leaving the door open or taking cookies from the the wrapper and placing them in a bowl, (or supporting form auto-fill, or placing the button (physical or virtual) you want the user to press right there in front if you are a developer) makes a difference in the "feature" being used (e.g. cookies being eaten).

Up next: figure out a way to use fewer parenthesis (including nested ones (yes, I've heard of commas)).

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Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense.

-Buddha

2wedrifid6yThis is the first time I've been prompted to advocate the merit of this related quote [http://lesswrong.com/lw/hlk/rationality_quotes_june_2013/930q].
2Lumifer6yIsn't that, pretty much, a classic description of confirmation bias?
1Stabilizer6yThat one's a misquote [http://www.fakebuddhaquotes.com/believe-nothing-no-matter-where-you-read-it/]. The original is: Not exactly a rationality quote, is it? Here [http://www.fakebuddhaquotes.com/do-not-believe-in-anything-simply-because-you-have-heard-it/] is another famous misquote of the same passage.
3RichardKennaway6yI think it is, and it has been so regarded on LessWrong several times already, first here [http://lesswrong.com/lw/20y/rationality_quotes_april_2010/].
1TheMajor6yYou mean never really change your mind? Sounds kinda dumb... If the last half had said "own reason or common sense" all would be fine, I think.
2Qwake6yI interpreted it to mean not to believe information simply because you hold the source of the information in high regard. It is very possible to change your mind and keep within your own reason and common sense.

There is, to the [Slytherin adept], only one reality governing everything from quarks to galaxies. Humans have no special place within it. Any idea predicated on the special status of the human — such as justice, fairness, equality, talent — is raw material for a theater of mediated realities that can be created via subtraction of conflicting evidence, polishing and masking.

5Stabilizer6yWhile I find Venkatesh Rao to be insightful, his writing can be quite frustrating. He seems to be allergic towards speaking plainly. Here is a possible re-write of the above quote:
2Qwake6yThe impression I got is more that Slytherin adepts believe that human ideals such as justice, fairness, equality, and talent distort reality because they rely on the assumption that humans hold a special place in the universe which Slytherin adepts believe not to be true.
1hairyfigment6yYes to both this and the grandparent - though in principle, a Slytherin might try to produce an environment where those ideals make sense, out of personal preference.
1hairyfigment6yActually, in addition to the sibling comment, I should point out that "rhetoric" implies people claiming all the time that they're serving justice or what have you. Mostly (as I understand the quote) they just need to hide contrary evidence from view. Provide a distraction, and people will continue to believe their existing ideals determine reality.

But the more central point is that trying to explain or predict [institutional] behavior idealistically, in terms of things called "values" or moral fortitude, is foolish. It's magical thinking. "One party believes in..." Institutions don't have beliefs. They have incentives.

  • Internet commenter
2Lumifer6yI don't know about moral fortitude, but institutions certainly have values. It is precisely their values, combined with the environment around them, that create the incentives. Don't forget that e.g. money and power are values, too.
0hairyfigment6yAs a general statement that seems flatly untrue [http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/10/07/the-gervais-principle-or-the-office-according-to-the-office/] , unless you mean that people in them have (often conflicting) values. Even thinking that for-profit corporations seek to make money for the corporation, rather than for decision-makers, seems like a dangerous mistake.
1Lumifer6yI am sorry, I'm not going to read an extra-long rumination on a TV series I neither watch nor have any interest in. Can you provide the argument in a.. condensed form? Preferably without relying on fictional evidence [http://lesswrong.com/lw/k9/the_logical_fallacy_of_generalization_from/].
-1hairyfigment6yYou should read it, as least as far as the second image - but the argument says you're talking about legal fictions as if they were people. Here's a random piece of real evidence. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airline_mergers_and_acquisitions]
0Lumifer6yAnd what's wrong with that? Organizations and institutions share some characteristics with physical people and do not share others. For example, both organizations and people make decisions. Or, as was mentioned in this thread, respond to incentives. I think that "having values" is one of those things which can be meaningfully said about both organizations and people. If you don't believe so, can you offer your reasoning?
1hairyfigment6yWhat could it mean for organizations to have values in a world of mergers and (profitable) bankruptcies? Unless you're reducing it to the values of the people making decisions, or an internal game that constrains them, I don't have the first clue what you believe.
0Lumifer6yIf you want to point out that organizations are not eternal: they come into being, change, and then disappear -- so do people.
0[anonymous]6yInstitutions certainly have optimization targets, which are what we normally call values. Just because you don't share them doesn't mean they're not there.
-1hairyfigment6yI don't know what you'd call an "optimization target", but if you treat the official written goals as the values of the organization, that will mark you as a useful idiot. You will lose your job whenever it suits the personal interests of the people making decisions. Let's consider political parties in the US sense of the term, since corporate examples might be too easy. A party theoretically 'wants' to get votes. They could achieve this by (for example) swaying new voters or people who previously voted against them to their side. But this might weaken the power of party leaders within the party. And perhaps those leaders hold office in gerrymandered districts, expecting to retire before the scheme falls apart. Or maybe they don't hold elected office at all, and get paid regardless of the long-term demographic forecast for their party. Or maybe they simply fear the consequences to themselves if they happen to offend their local base while swaying voters in future national elections.
[-][anonymous]6y 0

Most of the time what we do is what we do most of the time.

  • Daniel Willingham, Why Don't Students Like School. The point is that, quite often the reason we're doing something is that that's what we're used to doing in that situation.

Note: He attributes the quote to some other psychologists.

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society should not be looking for ways to maintain privacy. It should be looking for ways to make privacy unnecessary. We will never be free until we lose our unnecessary secrets and discover we are better off without them.

Scott Adams

(Please read the link for context before commenting on the quote alone)

8Lumifer6yI disagree with the premise that there are only two reasons to want privacy.
5soreff6yAgreed. If nothing else, in a bargaining process, keeping the maximum/minimum price that one would accept private during the negotiation doesn't fit into either category.
1[anonymous]6yBut if both parties were forbidden from keeping their reservation price secret the problem would be less bad, so it does kind-of fit into the spirit of the second category, though not its letter.
3RichardKennaway6yI agree with your disagreement. For context, here are those two reasons, with which Adams begins his essay. It's only a click away, but I think it deserves to be dragged into the light: That pretty much condemns the rest of the article. If he can't think of protecting oneself from other people's criminal activities, protecting oneself from other people's judgements, protecting one's creative activities from dissipation, protecting one's investigations from being scooped, protecting business secrets, and the basic feeling of GODDAMMIT THIS IS NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS, then what planet is he oh forget it. He's writing this tosh just to get responses like that. Scott Adams is a humorist, not a philosopher. Dilbert was worth reading. Since mining out that seam it's been a downhill journey into clickbait. He even admits to the game at the end:
1CCC6yI think most of these (all with the exception of "protecting one's investigations from being scooped" and possibly "protecting business secrets" or "THIS IS NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS") could fall under "protect you from a dysfunctional world", depending on the definition of "dysfunctional". That is a very broad reason, after all; almost as broad as "to protect you from negative consequences". Of course, that implies that a non-"dysfunctional" world would be some variant of utopia - presumably one where everyone more-or-less accepts Adams' basic viewpoints.
5RichardKennaway6yYes, if you label every reason to keep the world and his dog out of your business "dysfunctional" then the whole thing reduces to tautology. As I say, Adams is not a deep thinker, he just plays one on the net.
3Lumifer6yWell, first it's much better to play a deep thinker on the 'net than do the usual thing and play an idiot on the 'net... Second, it doesn't look like he necessarily commits to everything he throws out in his blog. He plays with ideas, tries them on for size, puts them on a stick and waves them at people, etc. I think that's fine and useful as long as you don't take everything he writes very very seriously.
1Azathoth1236yI'm not sure about that given what happens when someone who's not a deep thinker tries to play one.
2Lumifer6ySo, what happens?
1CCC6yWell, yes. I read his argument as less of an argument in favour of openness and more a sort of a whinge about how people make too much of a big deal about certain things (like homosexuality) which then leads to people keeping those certain things secret. I'm not sure if that's what he intended with his argument, but that's what I got from it.

Any adequate spiritual system has to account for all of reality. Drinking is part of reality, therefore drinking is spiritual.

-a Vedic (Hindu) philosophy society in a pub.

This strikes me as rationality of the "taking joy in the mealy real" sort from the unliklyest of places. Either that, or a good way to rationalise getting drunk.

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5Lumifer6yNope -- therefore any adequate spiritual system has to account for drinking. I don't think it's a problem...
1Stabilizer6yYou nailed it. This is the kind of bullshit logic many religions adopt to get from A to B; where A is something innocuous sounding and B is something that sounds profound. It works because thinking is contaminative. In the above example, there was a simple conflation of the concepts behind the words "spiritual system" and "spiritual." Most people won't pick up on that because the two words sound very similar. Thus, in getting from A to B via a sequence, C,D,E..., all you have to do is slightly change the meanings of the words (or use similar sounding words) in each step of the argument. By the time you reach B, you can could've proved whatever you wanted.
-2skeptical_lurker6yI dunno, thinking about it in terms of "spiritual system" applying in general, and "spiritual" applying to a specific case does not seem like a conflation, in the same way that "set" and "element of set" are distinct. In this case this certainly is true: generalises to: Of course, this might sound more profound when you've been drinking.
0Stabilizer6yNot all things referred to in a spiritual system need be spiritual. For example, a spiritual system could say that drinking is not spiritual -- which is what Islam explicitly says. Indeed, associating the tag "spiritual" or "not spiritual" to different activities is one of the main goals of religions.

Material, adj. Having an actual existence, as distinguished from an imaginary one. Important

  • Ambrose Bierce, The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary, Compiled and Edited by Ernest J. Hopkins, p. 194
0VAuroch6yFail to see the relevance.
0Torello6yI've always considered materialism to be intertwined with rationality.
3Ben Pace6yEr, I always thought we were celebrating good cognitive algorithms here, not individual belief tokens.
1VAuroch6yIt does tend to be a belief that follows from increased rationality, but snarky remarks about it (while amusing) aren't particularly productive towards improving rationality.