Rationality Quotes January 2010

A monthly thread for posting rationality-related quotes you've seen recently (or had stored in your quotesfile for ages).

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be voted up/down separately.  (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments.  If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
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"Most haystacks do not even have a needle."

-- Lorenzo

In the wake of such suffering, there is no way to adequately explain the tragedy. Yet the seemingly random nature of the mass deaths has made them even harder for the survivors to understand.

"In a situation like this, it's only natural to want to assign blame," said Dr. Frederick MacDougal of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, who recently lost a third cousin to a degenerative nerve disorder. "But the disturbing thing about this case is that no one factor is at fault. People are dying for such a wide range of reasons--gunshot wounds, black-lung disease, falls down elevator shafts--that we have been unable to isolate any single element as the cause."

"No one simple explanation can encompass the enormous scope of this problem," MacDougal added. "And that's very difficult for most people to process psychologically."

[...]

Meanwhile, as the world continues to grapple with this seemingly unstoppable threat, the deaths--and the sorrow, fear and pain they have wrought--continue.

As Margaret Heller, a volunteer at a clinic in Baltimore put it, "We do everything we can. But for most of the people we try to help, the sad truth is it's only a matter of time."

-- The Onion, Millions and Millions Dead

Related: World Death Rate Holding Steady At 100 Percent

If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first four sharpening the axe. - Abraham Lincoln

This conception of debate as combat is, in fact, probably the main reason why the Social Text editors fell for my parody. Acting not as intellectuals seeking the truth, but as self-appointed generals in the "Science Wars'', they apparently leapt at the chance to get a "real'' scientist on their "side''. Now, ruing their blunder, they must surely feel a kinship with the Trojans.

But the military metaphor is a mistake; the Social Text editors are not my enemies.

- Alan Sokal (hat tip)

This problem affects a question close to Frances Kamm’s work: what she calls the Problem of Distance in Morality (PDM). Kamm says that her intuition consistently finds that moral obligations attach to things that are close to us, but not to thinks that are far away. According to her, if we see a child drowning in a pond and there’s a machine nearby which, for a dollar, will scoop him out, we’re morally obligated to give the machine a dollar. But if the machine is here but the scoop and child are on the other side of the globe, we don’t have to put a dollar in the machine. --Aaron Swartz

"You cannot understand what a person is saying unless you understand who they are arguing with."

-- Don Symons, quoted by Tooby and Cosmides.

2 + 3 = 5, 3 + 2 = 5, 5 - 2 =3, and 5 - 3 = 2 are not four facts, but four different ways of looking at one fact. Furthermore, that fact is not a fact of arithmetic, to be taken on faith and memorized like nonsense syllables. It is a fact of nature, which children can discover for themselves, and rediscover or verify for themselves as many times as they need or want to.

The fact is this:

***** <--> *** **

If you have before you a group of objects--coins or stones, for example---that looks like the group on the left, then you can make it into two groups that look like the ones on the right. Or--and this is what the two-way arrow means---if you have two groups that look like the ones on the right, you can make them into a group that looks like the one on the left.

This is not a fact of arithmetic, but a fact of nature. It did not become true only when human beings invented arithmetic. It has nothing to do with human beings. It is true all over the universe. One doesn't have to know any arithmetic to discover or verify it. An infant playing with blocks or a dog pawing at sticks might do that operation, though probably neither of them would notice that he had done it; for them, the difference between ***** and *** ** would be a difference that didn't make any difference. Arithmetic began (and begins) when human beings began to notice and think about this and other numerical facts of nature.

----John Holt, Learning All the Time

If you’ve never broken the bed, you’re not experimenting enough.

-- Miss HT Psych

Believe me, breaking the bed is a bit more worrying when you're tied to it.

A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

-- Alexander Pope

He must be very ignorant; for he answers every question he is asked.

-- Voltaire

"Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?"

-- attributed to George Carlin

Nobody wants to die. They just want the pain to stop.

-- Tetragrammaton

"If I were wrong, then one would have been enough."

Einstein's reported response to the pamphlet "One Hundred Authors Against Einstein."

Mathematical folklore contains a story about how Acta Quandalia published a paper proving that all partially uniform k-quandles had the Cosell property, and then a few months later published another paper proving that no partially uniform k-quandles had the Cosell property. And in fact, goes the story, both theorems were quite true, which put a sudden end to the investigation of partially uniform k-quandles.

-- Mark Jason Dominus

This sounds like a funny "blooper" story, but could just as well be an entirely normal history of the solution to an important problem. Many important theorems are proved by contradiction, and for all we know, the question of the existence of partially uniform k-quandles could have been a difficult unsolved problem.

There is a similar story -- whether true or not I don't know -- told at Oxford about Cambridge and at Cambridge about Oxford. Someone wrote a thesis on anti-metric spaces, which are like metric spaces, except that the triangle inequality is the other way round. He proved all sorts of interesting facts about them, but at the viva, the external examiner pointed out that there are only two anti-metric spaces: the empty set and the one-point set.

It is recounted that the student passed, but his supervisor was criticised for not having picked up on this earlier.

Likewise there's the story about the Princeton student defending his thesis on the set of real functions that satisfy the Lipschitz condition for every positive constant C, and being asked by an examiner to compute the derivative of such a function...

My point having been, of course, that the k-quandle story is not (necessarily) of this type.

I don't think you need to do anything as sophisticated as computing the derivative to prove that the only such functions are constant functions. Consider any distinct x_1, x_2. d(x_1, x_2) is nonzero by the definition of metric spaces. If d(f(x_1), f(x_2)) were nonzero, there would be a K small enough for the condition to be violated; therefore it must be zero for all x_1, x_2.

The humor of asking the student to compute the derivative is that one imagines the student confidently starting to answer the question, until a dawning horror rises on the student's face as the implications of the answer become evident.

I... don't mathematicians usually have more than one interesting example of a mathematical object before they decide to study it?

Generally yes. But not always. Sometimes there's only a single such object. For example, there's a largest sporadic simple group. It is a very interesting object. But there's only one of it.

To use a slightly less silly example, up to isomorphism there's only one ordered complete archimedean field. We call it R and we care a lot about it.

Also, sometimes you lack enough data to know if there are other examples of what you care about. But yes, you should generally try to figure out if a non-trivial example exists before you start studying it.

Not when the question is whether any examples exist!

OK, but it takes two minutes to prove that an anti-metric space with more than one point can't exist. If x != y, then d(x, y) + d(y, x) > d(x, x).

Unless you allow negative distances, in which case an anti-metric space is just a mirror image of a metric space.

Non-Euclidean geometries? IIRC the questions of "what can you still/now prove with this one postulate removed" were studied for centuries before hyperbolic or elliptic geometries were really understood.

Or maybe I'm misremembering. That always did seem odd to me. I guess hyperbolic geometries can't be isometrically embedded in R^3, which makes them hard to intuitively comprehend. But the educated classes have known the Earth was a sphere for millennia; surely somebody noticed that this was an example of an otherwise well-behaved geometry where straight lines always intersect.

The fact that they didn't notice that Earth is an example of a non-Euclidean geometry is especially ironic when you consider the etymology of "geometry".

[...] Probability theory can tell us how our hypothesis fares relative to the alternatives that we have specified; it does not have the creative imagination to invent new hypotheses for us.

-- E.T. Jaynes, Probability Theory

Do you remember where exactly in the book this quote is?

Page 136 (in Chapter 5 - "Queer Uses for Probability Theory"), in the first full paragraph.

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

-- Carl Sagan

People will torture their children with battery acid from time to time anyway -- and who among us hasn't wanted to kill and eat an albino? I sincerely hope that my "new atheist" colleagues are not so naive as to imagine that actual belief in magic might be the issue here. After all, it would be absurd to criticize witchcraft as unscientific, as this would ignore the primordial division between mythos and logos. Let me see if I have this straight: Belief in demons, the evil eye, and the medicinal value of a cannibal feast are perversions of the real witchcraft - -which is drenched with meaning, intrinsically wholesome, integral to our humanity, and here to stay. Do I have that right?

Sam Harris's reply to Karen Armstrong

Armstrong's reply is nothing but chiding Harris for being rude, and waffle. Returning to the "niceness" discussion, it strikes me that if Harris had made the same points with a straight face and without sarcasm, Armstrong would have been left with nothing but waffle.

He absolutely gave her something to use against him by being sarcastic in a public forum, but I think he made a rational decision that an interesting dialogue in which he could be called snide would catch much more attention than the dull one in which he makes a polite, logically airtight case and receives a shorter reply full of nothing much.

Edit: Oh, I was going to add: and I now know a lot more about Armstrong than I would otherwise, namely, that her argumentative approach is deceitful and based on manipulating her audience's moral feelings.

I'm not sure Armstrong's reply is so bad as all that-- it's legitimate to point out that there's a difference between doing science and using the reputation of science as an excuse to commit atrocities, as in Communism and Nazism.

Armstrong's reply was not up when I first read the article. I am glad you brought that to my attention.

I am stunned at her reply. She completely missed the point that Harris was making (not surprising, I have known some pretty smart people who were caught flat-footed by the philosophical tool of object replacement). That she did not catch the comparison of witchcraft in Africa as a form of religious practice is... well, stunning.

Yes, Karen, what we need to do with Theologists such as William Lane Craig, who whole-heartedly defends the genocidal acts of his God in the old testament, is to have their theology enriched by rationalizing of those atrocities rather than have them understand why they do not stand up to a rational criticism.

I have known some pretty smart people who were caught flat-footed by the philosophical tool of object replacement

Can you elaborate? What is the tool of "object replacement"?

It is essentially what Harris did in the article. He replaced the noun objects of Armstrong's point with other, analogous/isomorphic objects to illustrate that the point being made did not have the merit that Armstrong thought it did.

I'll see about looking up the term as it applies to Propositional Logic. It's a more widely recognized term (at least here).

Yeah, but waffle is all Armstrong ever writes when she puts her theologian hat on, and it doesn't seem to bother her fans in the slightest. Using sarcasm allowed Harris to point out the ridiculousness in her article without giving the impression that it was sane enough to deserve a respectful reply.

To "point out" means to induce others to see what you see. Do you think that Harris's approach reliably induces people who don't already agree with him to see the ridiculousness that he sees? I suspect that he accomplishes little more than signaling his tribal loyalties, while exacerbating antipathy towards his tribe by non-tribe-members.

To "point out" means to induce others to see what you see. Do you think that Harris's approach reliably induces people who don't already agree with him to see the ridiculousness that he sees?

Since the people he has to convince are religious believers, I think his approach is about as reliable as the 'nice' approach, which is to say it's almost completely worthless. However, it has other benefits that the nice approach doesn't have.

Unless I'm reading you wrong, those "other benefits" amount to no more than signaling tribal loyalties, at least in practical terms.

ETA: . . . and if that kind of behavior helps a tribe to grow, it does so for non-truth-tracking reasons, producing a tribe full of people who are there just because they like the company.

The benefit is to help other non-believers (and perhaps a few believers) realize that Armstrong's article (and defense of religion in general) doesn't fit into the category of "Respectable beliefs I disagree with", it fits into the category of "Intellectually dishonest nonsense that should be scorned and ridiculed".

It's a benefit closely related to breaking the taboo that protects religious beliefs and raising the sanity waterline.

The benefit is to help other non-believers (and perhaps a few believers) realize that Armstrong's article (and defense of religion in general) doesn't fit into the category of "Respectable beliefs I disagree with", it fits into the category of "Intellectually dishonest nonsense that should be scorned and ridiculed".

If the benefit of scorn and ridicule is just to inform others about what to scorn and ridicule, then I don't see the point. Scorn and ridicule aren't terminal values.

It's a benefit closely related to breaking the taboo that protects religious beliefs and raising the sanity waterline.

That would be true if the ability to deride were a reliable signal of sanity. But derision is cheap; it's a tool that is equally available to the insane.

One of the things that keep religion alive in western society in the 21st century is the dogma, widespread even among atheists, that even if religious beliefs are false they're sane enough to deserve respect. In other words, most non-believers treat mainstream religious beliefs as if they were like the belief that the Washington Redskins are going to win the 2010 Superbowl rather than like the belief that Tom Cruise is the son of Xenu, Lord of the Galactic Confederacy.

The first step towards a society in which ridiculous beliefs are acknowledged to be ridiculous, is to stop acting as if these beliefs aren't ridiculous. The point of ridicule is first to make those who hold ridiculous beliefs feel ashamed or at least uncomfortable, and second to help make rationalists feel the appropriate emotion when dealing with such extremes of irrationality. The end goal is a society in which people have the same attitude towards religious beliefs than they do towards belief in alien abductions.

Humans are social animals. Inducing shame and discomfort might be useful if the believer is isolated away from other believers and cannot rely on them for emotional support. If not, he or she will likely relieve their shame by seeking the company of fellow believers, reinforcing the affiliation with the believing group.

Or they'll give up their belief to avoid looking like a nut. I know several Christian fundamentalists who've done just that. Unfortunately, since 'moderate' or 'liberal' religion is still respected, they just became Christians of a different type instead of atheists.

How exactly do you expect to make humanity acknowledge the ridiculousness of religion if you yourself continue to act as if it was a respectable position?

Does your experience accord with my (implied) retrodiction that the fundamentalists who gave up their extreme beliefs could not easily retreat to a more comfortable social milieu?

Well, I was thinking of some of my fellow students, back in college. IIRC their families were mostly fundies (and lived in the same city) so, not really.

Anyway, could you answer my question? It wasn't rhetorical.

Families are a special case -- one doesn't get to choose them, and one might not particularly like them.

I neither act as if religious belief were a respectable position nor expect to make humanity acknowledge the ridiculousness of religion.

I'm dubious of militant atheism, as it seems counter-productive. Promoting atheism is closely related to promoting science. Aggressively promoting science and proclaiming it to be in direct conflict with religion will polarize society as religious groups will in turn attack science. On the other hand, if you just quietly taught science to everyone and not mention anything about a conflict, religious people would just compartmentalize their beliefs so that they didn't interfere with the things science teaches. You'd basically get people who were technically religious, but close to none of the negative sides.

This has pretty much already happened in my country (Finland). The majority still belongs to a religious domination, but religion is considered a private thing and actually arguing in favor of something "because of the Bible" will get you strange looks and likely branded as a fanatic. Yes, there is still a Christian political party in parliament, but they're a minor player, fielding 7 representatives out of 200. There has traditionally been practically no public debate about any sort of conflict between science and religion, though that's possibly changing as parts of the populace have began to express a fear of Islam. Judging from past evidence, that is probably just going to make any clash of cultures worse. That article is also a good example of the results you'll get when the debate gets polarized, as it shows people who might otherwise have been moderates become extremists.

And yes, we should regardless still continue to provide some critique of religion and the fallacies involved, to shift the social consensus even further into the "religion is just a private way you look at the world, not something you can base real-world decisions on" camp. But one can do that without being overly aggressive.

religion is considered a private thing and actually arguing in favor of something "because of the Bible" will get you strange looks and likely branded as a fanatic.

Pardon my drooling - I live in the United States. The inmates run much of the asylum here.

Do you know the history of how Finland acheived this compartmentalization of religion? Are there lessons in the path you followed that we can learn from? We can't directly follow your current-day practices because our would-be theocrats are still quite rabid, and hold significant power. I agree that head-on confrontation doesn't work. What did work?

Sociology isn't my strongest field (though not my weakest either) and I haven't studied this issue in detail, so I can't provide any very conclusive answers. Still, there's one thing that many people suspect to be at least partially responsible. Curiously enough, this is the existence of a state church. Two to be exact, one Lutheran and one Orthodox.

Most people are members of the Lutheran one (79,7% of the population in 2009, down from 85% in 2000 and from 90% in about 1980). They'll attend a week-long Confirmation camp around age 14, get a church marriage and have their children baptized, have a church funeral when they die. But the church is a very mild, non-radical one. Most of the kids I knew had their Confirmation because tradition says you get gifts afterwards and hey, a week spent camping! The lessons on theology you have to endure are an acceptable price to pay for that.

A prevailing theory is that this acts as a sort of an inoculation against more radical strands of religion. Religion is that traditional thing you grew up with, with neat rituals that bring some comfort and you'll likely believe in at least some of what they say, but that's about it. It's been mostly relegated to the position of "those nice people who provide nice traditional rituals for a few special occasions in everyone's life". And once you're used to the thought of that being the church's function, any church or religion that gets more involved in the daily lives of its followers will seem radical and fanatic in comparison.

ETA: The fact that the church is funded by taxes probably also helps, as it makes the church more independent from the common populace. They don't need to actively collect money from people. If they needed to, the fundraising events would probably reach out to more people and make them feel more committed to the church.

ETA2: Of course, this doesn't explain how the Lutheran church became so secularized. I don't know the answer to that myself either. A plausible hypothesis might be that as a state church, it's had a need to do what the rulers told it to, which has forced it to be more secular than churches that don't need to answer to anyone. That doesn't help much for the situation in the United States, of course.

Many thanks!

A prevailing theory is that this acts as a sort of an inoculation against more radical strands of religion.

Yes, I've read analysis along those lines before as well.

The fact that the church is funded by taxes probably also helps, as it makes the church more independent from the common populace. They don't need to actively collect money from people.

Good point. And they don't need to carefully tune themselves to actually attract the population either. They are insulated from "market discipline".

That doesn't help much for the situation in the United States, of course.

Agnostics and atheists united to weaken church/state separation by funding lukewarm, preferably bureacratic state religion(s). Hmm, do I have the energy to set up a web site...

One comment and one odd suggestion:

It's been mostly relegated to the position of "those nice people who provide nice traditional rituals for a few special occasions in everyone's life".

But, but...aren't they also supposed to maintain special cuisines for religious festival days too? Once the fangs are gone, I thought that that was one of the central purposes of a nominal religion... :-)

Two to be exact, one Lutheran and one Orthodox.

Perhaps the best solution to Islam is to add a third...

But, but...aren't they also supposed to maintain special cuisines for religious festival days too? Once the fangs are gone, I thought that that was one of the central purposes of a nominal religion... :-)

I found an interesting article which contains a summary of what people in the Nordic countries think are the most important functions of the church:

This makes the Nordic position even more of a paradox. Most uncommitted or marginal Norwegian Lutherans knowingly pay to maintain an organization they do not attend terribly often and to support spokesmen for beliefs they do not hold. The explanation can be discerned from the fascinating material in the Religious and Moral Pluralism (RAMP) study. Respondents were asked to rank the importance of various church activities. There was a surprising degree of agreement between the four countries. The activities rated highest in all four countries were funerals, baptisms and weddings. Next, and surprisingly close, came the preservation of old church buildings and the celebration of Advent and Christmas. Those all came above the mid-way level. Below and in declining order of importance came 'church music and singing of the choir', the celebration of Easter, 'well-known hymns', and 'ringing in of the Sabbath'. The two least important occurrences were 'regular Sunday services' and 'holy communion'! The most important things the church could do were to give a religious gloss to significant personal and community events and to maintain the national heritage by preserving historic church buildings. Marking the Sabbath, regular worship services and what (even for Protestants) should be the most important part of church life, holy communion, were ranked lowest.

Another question asked people to rank ten activities on which the church could spend its resources. The most popular was social work with the old and sick. Second came upkeep of cemeteries. Third was 'keeping churches open for private prayers'. Fourth was international aid and emergency relief. Fifth was the preservation of church buildings. Arranging activities for children and young people was sixth, then came 'arranging services in the national language abroad'. Eighth was aid to Christians abroad, ninth was holding services every Sunday in all parishes, and last in the list was international missionary work. With the exception of keeping churches open for private prayers, there is a very clear ordering here: what have traditionally been regarded as the principle activities of the church — trying to spread the Christian message and regularly worshipping the Lord — were the last two items in order of preference and secular community activities came at the top.

Interestingly, the article also concludes that simply having a state church isn't enough, if the population is too heterogeneous:

The difficulty of interpretation is to know what things would have been like otherwise. Viewed from the USA, it may seem obvious that state support kills religion; from Britain a different interpretation suggests itself. In the Nordic countries and Britain 'demand' for the ideological core of religion is weak. However, the established status of the Lutheran Churches and their tax base allows them to provide social and liturgical services to the population at large. The homogeneity of the societies allows the national churches to be truly national while the multi-national character of the UK prevents its churches playing such a role.

Many thanks!

The activities rated highest in all four countries were funerals, baptisms and weddings.

Sounds like the state churches should look for a way to inject themselves into graduation ceremonies... Tricky balancing act, keeping them banal and toothless, but not fading into oblivion...

Interestingly, the article also concludes that simply having a state church isn't enough, if the population is too heterogeneous

Ouch! So innoculation via state religion has the same heterogeneity problem that personalized medicine has...

The first step towards a society in which ridiculous beliefs are acknowledged to be ridiculous, is to stop acting as if these beliefs aren't ridiculous. The point of ridicule is first to make those who hold ridiculous beliefs feel ashamed or at least uncomfortable, and second to help make rationalists feel the appropriate emotion when dealing with such extremes of irrationality.

Perhaps it seems tautologous that ridicule is the best way to deal with the ridiculous. So I'm tabooing the word "ridiculous". What do you mean by it?

Does it just mean "crazy" in the sense in which Eliezer uses it? Then, for what reason do you believe that ridicule (e.g., sarcasm and contemptuous scorn) is the best way to achieve your end goal?

If I read "crazy" where you wrote "ridiculous", then your claim is that the first step towards a society in which crazy beliefs are acknowledged to be crazy is to heap scorn and contempt on them. But this is far from obvious. How do you make this argument without relying on the verbal similarity between the words "ridiculous" and "ridicule"?

Does it just mean "crazy" in the sense in which Eliezer uses it?

Pretty much.

If I read "crazy" where you wrote "ridiculous", then your claim is that the first step towards a society in which crazy beliefs are acknowledged to be crazy is to heap scorn and contempt on them.

Well, not in all situations, and it doesn't necessarily have to be scorn and contempt, it could also be incredulity ("You believe WHAT?!"), for example. The point is to shock people out of their usual way of thinking, and that sometimes requires a bit of finesse. But a lot of the time scorn and contempt is necessary, yes.

But this is far from obvious. How do you make this argument without relying on the verbal similarity between the words "ridiculous" and "ridicule"?

The idea is that faith and self-deception are bad, while truth and rationality are good. So we reward good behavior and punish bad behavior.

How did the gay movement make so much progress in so little time? Was it by engaging in gentle, respectful debate with their opponents? Of course not. They just pointed out the obvious repeatedly: Those people are intolerant bigots. It was obvious, and yet somehow it hadn't really entered public consciousness, even among those who had the kind of morality that should have lead them to support gay rights. Now that it has, most of those whom we now call homophobes haven't suddenly become enlightened, but they've been forced to dilute their language if not their beliefs if they want to be part of the public sphere.

There's more than that to the gay movement's accomplishments, but heaping scorn and contempt on their opponents is definitely a big part of it. If it worked that movement, why not for this one?

The idea is that faith and self-deception are bad, while truth and rationality are good. So we reward good behavior and punish bad behavior.

There's an implicit premise here that the punishment works to discourage the bad behavior. Your argument for this premise is to make an analogy with the gay-rights movement:

How did the gay movement make so much progress in so little time? Was it by engaging in gentle, respectful debate with their opponents? Of course not. They just pointed out the obvious repeatedly: Those people are intolerant bigots.

That is not my sense of how the gay-rights movement succeeded at all. As I see it, they did it by gaining the sympathy of enough of the right people. This, in turn, they did by making their humanity evident. And this they did by having high-status, sympathetic representatives.

Now, once your group is already high-status, you can use scorn to squelch opposition. If you're high-status, people will want to affiliate with you, and they'll read your scorn as a signal that they can affiliate with you by helping to squelch your opposition.

Personally, I'd say that that trick is a dishonest manipulation, because it's not truth-tracking. It depends only on having high status, not on being right. But, more pragmatically, it only works if you already have the high status. Otherwise, it backfires. People read your scorn as a signal to affiliate with your opponents.

Before homosexuals had sufficiently high status, any scorn they showed hampered their progress. But I grant that they eventually gained enough status so that the scorn trick could work. Sam Harris does not appear to me to have reached that level.

That is not my sense of how the gay-rights movement succeeded at all. As I see it, they did it by gaining the sympathy of enough of the right people. This, in turn, they did by making their humanity evident. And this they did by having high-status, sympathetic representatives.

Now, once your group is already high-status, you can use scorn to squelch opposition. If you're high-status, people will want to affiliate with you, and they'll read your scorn as a signal that they can affiliate with you by helping to squelch your opposition.

This may be true, but I don't think the gay movement waited to start expressing their scorn for homophobia until after they were high status. Are you saying that before the gay movement was high status, most of its representatives acted like homophobia was simply an opinion with which they disagreed, but which they respected nonetheless?

My impression is that portraying homophobia as something contemptible played an important part in obtaining this high status. Hell, just coming up with the word 'homophobia' (which was brilliant) helped a lot, and that was done a few decades ago.

Anyway, there's another reason why treating religious beliefs like they're crazy is a good thing: Religious beliefs are, indeed, crazy. I don't see how this fact can ever be acknowledged by the rest of humanity if no one actually acts like it's true, even those who accept it!

Are you saying that before the gay movement was high status, most of its representatives acted like homophobia was simply an opinion with which they disagreed, but which they respected nonetheless?

No, I am saying that whatever displays of scorn they made didn't help them gain the sympathy of non-homosexuals, and probably hurt them.

Religious beliefs are, indeed, crazy. I don't see how this fact can ever be acknowledged by the rest of humanity if no one actually acts like it's true, even those who accept it!

I agree that we should act as though religious beliefs are crazy (in Eliezer's sense of the word). The question is, what does it mean to act that way? That is, what is the most productive response to crazy beliefs? I expect that it's not generally contempt.

No, I am saying that whatever displays of scorn they made didn't help them gain the sympathy of non-homosexuals, and probably hurt them.

It may not have gotten them sympathy, but I think labeling the opposing view as bigotry and a phobia could easily have gotten them a higher status, even in the early days of the movement.

Honestly though, I have no idea where to find the information we need to settle this disagreement.

I agree that we should act as though religious beliefs are crazy (in Eliezer's sense of the word). The question is, what does it mean to act that way?

What I mean is that our reaction to someone who says, "I believe that Jesus is the son of God" should be similar to our reaction to someone who says, "I believe aliens are trying to kidnap me".

The reaction can be incredulity, or amusement, or contempt, or something else, anything that doesn't communicate the impression that you think it's perfectly (or mostly) OK to be deluded in such a fashion.

Honestly though, I have no idea where to find the information we need to settle this disagreement.

That's an important question, but one for which I have no answer.

I agree that we should act as though religious beliefs are crazy (in Eliezer's sense of the word). The question is, what does it mean to act that way?

What I mean is that our reaction to someone who says, "I believe that Jesus is the son of God" should be similar to our reaction to someone who says, "I believe aliens are trying to kidnap me".

Okay, just so long as we agree that "what it means to act as though a belief is crazy" isn't something that you ought to define however you like. (As though you were to argue "It's ridiculous. Therefore, by definition, I should ridicule it.") The proper way to act is not something you can determine just by analyzing what "crazy" means, or just by establishing that it's not okay to have crazy beliefs. The proper way to act is determined by what will in fact change the world into a state more like it ought to be.

If you're right about the history of the acceptance of homosexuality, then that is some evidence in favor of your position.

the verbal similarity between the words "ridiculous" and "ridicule"?

It's not just verbal similarity - one is derived from the other. It indeed seems merely definitional that the ridiculous ought to be ridiculed, though not necessarily that it is 'the best' way of dealing with it.

Arguments from etymology are not normative.

There's some equivocation here. "Ridiculous" can mean, as the etymology would suggest, "that which should be ridiculed", or it can mean "not sensible". In the latter case, the ridiculous should not necessarily be ridiculed.

What's wrong with identifying with sports teams

A very funny video comparing identifying with a team to assuming you were there in your favorite movies.

My two worst business experiences have been with ostentatiously 'spiritual' people. It's not that they're insincere in their beliefs, it's just a lot easier for them to deceive themselves that the selfish things they do have justifications in them somewhere.

-- PeteWarden

If you're doing business with a religious son-of-a-bitch, get it in writing. His word isn't worth shit. Not with the good lord telling him how to fuck you on the deal.

-- William S Burroughs, Words of Advice for Young People

I have a brother-in-law who used to manage a Christian rock band. He told me that Christian organizations were the worst about paying for performances, because they assumed that the musicians were in it for service to God, not for the money.

But it could also be that the Christian organizations just had less money.

I argue that people are primarily driven by envy as opposed to greed, so they are mindful of their relative, as opposed to absolute, position, and this leads to doing what others are doing as a mechanism of minimizing risk. --Eric Falkenstein

"It is therefore highly illogical to speak of 'verifying' (3.8 [the Bernoulli urn equation]) by performing experiments with the urn; that would be like trying to verify a boy's love for his dog by performing experiments on the dog." - E.T. Jaynes, Probability Theory

"Do not ask permission to understand. Do not wait for the word of authority. Seize reason in your own hand. With your own teeth savor the fruit."

-"The Way of Analysis", Robert S. Strichartz

You're always in a box. Being aware of the box can help you tremendously. It's when you think that you've left the box that's dangerous, because you're still in the box, but now you don't know it.

-- Nazgulnarsil

"I once spent a whole day in thought, but it was not so valuable as a moment in study. I once stood on my tiptoes to look out into the distance, but it was not so effective as climbing up to a high place for a broader vista. Climbing to a height and waving your arm does not cause the arm's length to increase, but your wave can be seen farther away. Shouting downwind does not increase the tenseness of the sound, but it is heard more distinctly. A man who borrows a horse and carriage does not improve his feet, but he can extend his travels 1,000 li [~500km] A man who borrows a boat and paddles does not gain any new ability in water, but he can cut across rivers and seas. The gentleman by birth is not different from other men; he is just good at "borrowing" the use of external things."

-- Xunzi, An Exhortation to Learning (勸學) 4, translated by John Knoblock in "Xunzi: A Translation and study of the Complete Works"

When someone tells you that anything is possible, tell them to dribble a football.

-- Anon

In the UK to dribble a football means to keep it close to your feet as you move along the pitch - is that the meaning you refer to here? If so I can't make sense of the quote, because it's perfectly possible.

Heh. Make that, "tell them to basketball-dribble an American football."

People in the rest of the world dribble footballs all the time.

Funny, when I was a kid I sometimes used to try to basketball-dribble a US football for fun. Never got it down very well.

He almost certainly meant an American football, and dribbling as in basketball, which is done by bouncing it off the ground repeatedly.

No effect is ever the effect of a single cause, but only a combination of causes.

-- Herbert Samuel

Matter flows from place to place

And momentarily comes together to be you

Some people find that thought disturbing

I find the reality thrilling

—Richard Dawkins quoted in Our Place in the Cosmos

"The most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted."

-- Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

Don't go around saying the world owes you a living; the world owes you nothing; it was here first. —Mark Twain

"With my eyes I can see you. With your eyes I can see myself."

K. Bradford Brown

A theory, however elegant and economical, must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.

-- John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

"I'd rather do what I want to do than what would give me the most happiness, even if I knew for a fact exactly what actions would lead to the latter."

Keith Lynch, rec.arts.sf.fandom, hhbk90$hu5$3@reader1.panix.com

There is a perception among the people who are in charge of this monkey that if you just turn the rankings over to a computer, the computer will figure those things out. The reality is that it can't. It is very difficult to objectively measure anything if you don't know what it is you are measuring.

~ Bill James

He thought he knew that there was no point in heading any further in that direction, and, as Socrates never tired of pointing out, thinking that you know when you don't is the main cause of philosophical paralysis.

-- Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

-- Mark Twain

Clearly Dennett has his sources all mixed up.

Just out of curiosity, who is being discussed, and what direction did he discount?

The absence of alternatives clarifies your mind marvelously. —Kissinger

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. —Nietzsche

"Psychologists tell us everyone automatically gravitates toward that which is pleasurable and pulls away from that which is painful. For many people, thinking is painful." - Leil Lowndes, How to Talk to Anyone

(Given the context, perhaps a bit of a Dark Arts view.)

"[T]he rule is irrational; for it involves the assumption that wherever A's scribes made a mistake they produced an impossible reading.
Three minutes' thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and 3 minutes is a long time."

--A.E Housman, Juvenal (1905), xi

 "Could man be drunk forever
 With liquor, love, or fights,
 Lief should I rouse at morning
 And lief lie down of nights.

But men at whiles are sober
And think by fits and starts,
And if they think, they fasten
Their hands upon their hearts."

--A.E. Housman, Last Poems 10

Mattalast: I learned the truth about this world.

Hamyutz: Yeah? How does that make you feel?

Mattalast: It's just as I thought. The world is pointless and irrational.

Hamyutz: That's great! Your prediction was right on the money.

-The Book of Bantorra, Episode 12

"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference." - Richard Dawkins

The only meaning of life worth caring about is one that can withstand our best efforts to examine it.

-- Daniel Dennett

Interestingly, my memory of the quote was corrupted, until I retrieved it to post here; I thought he'd said "harshest efforts"; perhaps owing to contamination from the quote "That which can be destroyed by the truth should be".

"My powerful brain has come up with a topic for my paper."

"Great."

"I'll write about the debate over Tyrannosaurs. Were they fearsome predators or disgusting scavengers?"

"Which side will you defend?"

"Oh, I believe they were fearsome predators, definitely."

"How come?"

"They're so much cooler that way."

Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes (via Pharyngula)

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

-- G.K. Chesterton, quoted in Jonah Lehrer's How we decide

(In the section which discusses psychopaths and notes that the "rational" part of their brains appears to be undamaged: the human brain relies on the circuitry of emotion to form moral decisions, or at any rate that's what's broken in psychopaths.)

"Wars do not end when they are won, but when those who want to fight to the death find their wish has been granted." - Spengler

Though the earthworm has neither the advantage of claws and teeth nor the strength of muscles and bones, it can eat dust and dirt above ground and drink from the waters of the Yellow Springs below, because its mind is fixed on a constant end. The crab has eight legs and two claws; still if there is no hole made by an eel or snake, it will have no safe place to live, because its mind moves in every direction at once.

For these reasons, if there is no dark obscurity in purpose*, there will be no reputation for brilliance; if there is no hidden secretiveness in the performance of duties, there will be no awe-inspiring majesty in achievements. If you attempt to travel both forks of a road, you will arrive nowhere, and if you attempt to serve two masters, you will please neither.

-- Xunzi, An Exhortation to Learning (勸學) 1.6, translated by John Knoblock in "Xunzi: A Translation and study of the Complete Works"

*Knoblock gives "If there is no ardor and enthusiasm in purpose" as an alternative, personally I would translate it as "if there is no one who deeply wills it" and similarly the next passage as "if there is no one who singlemindedly labors for it" (Knoblock doesn't give any alternative there).

The world is neither fair nor unfair

The idea is just a way for us to understand

But the world is neither fair nor unfair

So one survives

The others die

And you always want a reason why

-- The Cure, "Where The Birds Always Sing"

It is not enough to have this globe or a certain time,
I will have thousands of globes and all time.

--- Walt Whitman, "Song of Joys"

Go as far as you can see; when you get there you'll be able to see farther.

-- Thomas Carlyle

Throughout relativity, both in its original, classical form and in the attempts to create a quantum form of it, clocks play a vital role, yet nobody really asks what they are. A distinguished relativist once told me that a clock is "a device that the National Bureau of Standards confirms keeps time to a good accuracy". I felt that, as a theorist, he should be telling them, not the other way around.

-- Julian Barbour, The End of Time

We are stardust. We are billion year old carbon.

- Joni Mitchell

Beautiful (in the song) and true, but it doesn't sound very poetic on its own, and the following line is beautiful and false.

In the next line, only the word "back" is false.

"One word, Ma'am," he said, coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. "One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things--trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Supose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."

Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, in C.S. Lewis "The Silver Chair".

If choices are not clearly connected to their benefits, people usually interact in ways that make outcomes unpredictable.

--- Mike Caro

All men, at some moment in their lives, feel themselves to be alone. And they are. To live is to be separated from what we were in order to approach what we are going to be in the mysterious future. Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Man is the only being who knows he is alone, and the only one who seeks out another. His nature -- if that word can be used in reference to man, who has "invented" himself by saying "No" to nature -- consists in his longing to realize himself in another. Man is nostalgia and a search for communion. Therefore, when he is aware of himself he is aware of his lack of another, that is, of his solitude.

-- Octavio Paz, The labyrinth of Solitude

Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition.

Or maybe that is just what a lonely man might think so he can feel deep. Like a high status emo.

Or maybe it's what a genius would say after emerging from the "existential labyrinth," the main theme of The Labyrinth of Solitude.

Here is Jostein Gaarder's response to your response:

Only philosophers embark on this perilous expedition to the outermost reaches of language and existence. Some of them fall off, but others cling on desperately and yell at the people nestling deep in the snug softness, stuffing themselves with delicious food and drink. 'Ladies and Gentlemen,' they yell, 'we are floating in space!' But none of the people down there care.

The condition of solitude is not imaginary; though, Octavio Paz, being a poet, sensationalizes it well. It's a condition that has, at the very least, lightly touched every human. And it is a condition that has spun many great people into the deepest kind of angst.

Communication is a major human bottleneck, and Octavio Paz laments this. Our input/output capabilities are severely restricting, considering everything that goes on in our minds. Our methods of communication aren't very effective.

I find Octavio Paz's quote interesting in light of transhumanism.

Or maybe it's what a genius would say after emerging from the "existential labyrinth," the main theme The Labyrinth of Solitude.

"Lonely" -> "senstationalise the experience so I sound deep" -> "gain status as a poet and author" -> "get laid". That ranks well above "cutting" as far as plans go.

I do not respect wallowing in existential angst and definitely don't consider it rational. More importantly I do not allow my brain to reward itself with a sense of smug superiority when it generates such trains of thought for me.

You should not give in to your so-called "needs"! Luxury is the herald of weakness! There aren't even rules for sleeping, you know!

Order of the Stick

Funny quote; what's the connection to rationality? The character in question not being in touch with reality? The recent melatonin thread? Something else?

The stability of the family depends on marriage, which becomes a mere protection for society with no other object but the reproducing of that same society. Hence marriage is by nature profoundly conservative. To attack it is to attack the very bases of society.

-- Octavio Paz, The labyrinth of Solitude

Italicized emphases mine. I really liked that phrase.

I can't give an opinion on the surrounding context of that phrase. However, I really liked the phrase because it is eloquent.

I am having a hard time seeing how the premise of that phrase is bogus; the phrase, on its own, is a description of the process of society reproducing itself through generations. The phrase, on its own, has nothing to say about the device, or "protection," that does this.

It's fascinating that nations can stay around with the same name and substance even though the original founders have long died. Now, isn't "a mere protection for society with no other object but the reproducing of that same society" a good phrase for boxing up that fascination and making it wonderfully palpable?

Of course, the phrase would have to be modified to exist on its own. But for now, I am happy that I have it under my belt.

*E: Reading the phrase again, I can see that there may be cause for objection saying that the "protection" has only a single use. Is this what you find bogus?

Reading the phrase again, I can see that there may be cause for objection saying that the "protection" has only a single use. Is this what you find bogus?

Yes, the 'no other object' part I find most bogus. I would still disagree if the claim was 'the main object' or even 'a significant object' although such relative judgements require more reasoning and background to evaluate than the banal absolute.

Now, isn't "a mere protection for society with no other object but the reproducing of that same society" a good phrase for boxing up that fascination and making it wonderfully palpable?

I find it abhorrent. It has enough 'wonderfully palpability' that many people will hesitate to actually parse the meaning and realise that, trying to describe it without an expletive, what little content it contains lacks factual merit.

Marriage is not merely, primarily or even credibly understood to be a protection for society with the object of reproducing of that same society.

I would much prefer Octavio put his ability to turn phrase into something harmless like, say, and 'Ode to Blue'. If he wants to keep up the airs of intellectual sophistication he can perhaps work some qualia into the mix. That would tie in nicely with the whole poignant solitude, sublime experience of the human condition vibe. Then if he wants to raise the intellectual bar another notch he can include "da ba dee dah be daa" as a refrain.

I concede that the quote was inappropriate.

Marriage is not merely, primarily or even credibly understood to be a protection for society with the object of reproducing of that same society.

This pertains to the part of the quote that I don't care too much about and don't have much of an opinion on.

The thing that I found most valuable in the phrase was this: "reproducing itself through generations," in the discussion of a nation. It's something that I've tried to say before, but it came out very clumsy. So, seeing something similar to what I've been trying to say, written, was great. I'm sure you've had the experience before.

Anyway, now I feel really silly putting that quote up. Please understand that I'm likely much younger than you and am just now getting my feet wet with rationality. Thank you for the discourse and I'll see you around.

Don't feel silly for putting the quote up. It is a quote that has the form of wisdom and brushes past potential insight. In fact, the reason I object is not because it silly to identify with these quotes from Octavio but the reverse. It is the sort of thing that appeals to our intuition and we are naturally pulled into agreeing with when we may otherwise see flaws. It's a trap and, speaking here particularly of the poignant angsty existential quote, one that I carefully train myself to avoid.

CHARLIE BROWN: Isn't there anyone---who knows what Christmas is all about?

LINUS: Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.

Lights please.

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

---A Charlie Brown Christmas

(edited to include more context)

I don't understand why this is a rationality quote. Am I missing some context? (I've never read any Charlie Brown books).