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When confronting something which may be either a windmill or an evil giant, what question should you be asking?

There are some who ask, "If we do nothing, and that is an evil giant, can we afford to be wrong?" These people consider themselves to be brave and vigilant.

Some ask "If we attack it wrongly, can we afford to pay to replace a windmill?" These people consider themselves cautious and pragmatic.

Still others ask, "With the cost of being wrong so high in either case, shouldn't we always definitively answer the 'windmill vs. giant' question before we act?" And those people consider themselves objective and wise.

But only a tiny few will ask, "Isn't the fact that we're giving equal consideration to the existence of evil giants and windmills a warning sign of insanity in ourselves?"

It's hard to find out what these people consider themselves, because they never get invited to parties.

-- PartiallyClips, "Windmill"

But only a tiny few will ask, "Isn't the fact that we're giving equal consideration to the existence of evil giants and windmills a warning sign of insanity in ourselves?"

And then there's the fact that we are giving much more consideration to the existence of evil giants than to the existence of good giants.

Nancy Lebovitz came across this [] too.
Well, I guess that's information about how many people click links and upvote the comments that contained them based on the quality of the linked content.
Not to argue that transcribing the text of the comic isn't valuable (I do actually appreciate it), but it's also information about how many people go back and vote on comments from posts imported from OB.
And about how much more readers quotes threads seem to get compared with everything else.
I thought the correct response should be "Is the thing in fact a giant or a windmill?" Rather than considering which way our maps should be biased, what's the actual territory? I do tech support, and often get responses like "I think so," and I usually respond with "Let's find out."
Giant/windmill differentiation is not a zero-cost operation.
In the "evil giant vs windmill" question, the prior probability of it being an evil giant is vanishingly close to zero, and the prior probability of it being a windmill is pretty much one minus the chance that it's an evil giant. Spending effort discovering the actual territory when every map ever shows it's a windmill sounds like a waste of effort.
What about a chunk of probability for the case of where it's neither giant nor windmill?
Very few things barring the evil giant have the ability to imitate a windmill. I did leave some wiggle room with because I wished to allow for the chance it may be a bloody great mimic [] .

A missile silo disguised as a windmill? A helicopter in an unfortunate position? An odd and inefficient form of rotating radar antenna? A shuttle in launch position? (if one squints, they might think it's a broken windmill with the vanes having fallen off or something)

These are all just off the top of my head. Remember, if we're talking about someone who tends to, when they see a windmill, be unsure whether it's a windmill or an evil giant, there's probably a reasonable chance that they tend to get confused by other objects too, right? :)

You are right! Even I, firmly settled in the fourth camp, was tricked by the false dichotomy of windmill and evil giant.
To be fair, there's also the possibility that someone disguised a windmill as an evil giant. ;)
A good giant?

Sure, but I wouldn't give a "good giant" really any more probability than an "evil giant". Both fall into the "completely negligible" hole. :)

Though, as we all know, if we do find one, the correct action to take is to climb up so that one can stand on its shoulders. :)

I thought we were listing anything at least as plausible as the evil giant hypothesis. I have no information as the morality distribution of giants in general so I use maximum entropy and assign 'evil giant' and 'good giant' equal probability.

Given complexity of value, 'evil giant' and 'good giant' should not be weighted equally; if we have no specific information about the morality distribution of giants, then as with any optimization process, 'good' is a much, much smaller target than 'evil' (if we're including apparently-human-hostile indifference).

Unless we believe them to be evolutionarily close to humans, or to have evolved under some selection pressures similar to those that produced morality, etc., in which we can do a bit better than a complexity prior for moral motivations.

(For more on this, check out my new blog, Overcoming Giants.)

Well, if by giants we mean "things that seem to resemble humans only are particularly big", then we should expect some sort of shared evolutionary history, so....
Which can be fun to do with a windmill, also.
Since when do windmills have shoulders? :)
Or, possibly, a great big fan! In fact with some (unlikely) designs it would be impossible to tell whether it was a fan or a windmill without knowledge of what is on the other end of the connected power lines.
Do you consider yourself "objective and wise"?
I'd consider myself puzzled. Unidientified object, is it a threat, a potential asset, some kind of Black Swan? Might need to do something even without positive identification. Will probably need to do something to get a better read on the thing.
That is truly incredible, I regret only that I have but one upvote to give.
Best quote I've seen in a long time!

It is not really a quote, but a good quip from an otherwise lame recent internet discussion:

Matt: Ok, for all of the people responding above who admit to not having a soul, I think this means that it is morally ok for me to do anything I want to you, just as it is morally ok for me to turn off my computer at the end of the day. Some of us do have souls, though.

Igor: Matt - I agree that people who need a belief in souls to understand the difference between killing a person and turning off a computer should just continue to believe in souls.

This is, of course, pretty much the right answer to anyone who asserts that without God, they could just kill anyone they wanted.


Luck is statistics taken personally.

Penn Jellete

Upvoted. Also, Jillette.
Damn! I googled for spelling and everything =)

On the plus side, bad things happening to you does not mean you are a bad person. On the minus side, bad things will happen to you even if you are a good person. In the end you are just another victim of the motivationless malice of directed acyclic causal graphs.

-Nobilis RPG 3rd edition

...that was written by a Less Wrong reader. Or if not, someone who independently reinvented things to well past the point where I want to talk to them. Do you know the author?

The author of most of the Nobilis work is Jenna K. Moran. I'm unsure if this remark is independent of LW or not. The Third Edition (where that quote is from) was published this year, so it is possible that LW influenced it.

Heh, I clicked the link to see when she took over Nobilis from Rebecca Borgstrom, only to find that she took over more than that from her. Edit: Also, serious memetic hazard warning with regard to her fiction blog, which is linked from the article.
Or just someone else who read Pearl, no?
Hasn't using DAGs to talk about causality long been a staple of the philosophy and computer science of causation? The logical positivist philosopher Hans Reichenbach used directed acyclic graphs to depict causal relationships between events in his book The Direction of Time (1956). (See, e.g., p. 37.) A little searching online also turned up this 1977 article [] in Proc Annu Symp Comput Appl Med Care. From p. 72: That article came out around the time of Pearl's first papers [], and it doesn't cite him. Had his ideas already reached that level of saturation? ETA: I've looked a little more closely at the 1977 paper, which is entitled "Problems in the Design of Knowledge Bases for Medical Consultation". It appears to completely lack the idea of performing surgery on the DAGs, though I may have missed something. Here is a longer quote from the paper (p. 72): So, when it comes to demystifying causation, there is still a long distance from merely using DAGs to using DAGs in the particularly insightful way that Pearl does.

Hi, you might want to consider this paper:

This paper is remarkable not only because it correctly formalizes causation in linear models using DAGs, but also that it gives a method for connecting causal and observational quantities in a way that's still in use today. (The method itself was proposed in 1923, I believe). Edit: apparently in 1920-21, with earliest known reference apparently dating back to 1918.

Using DAGs for causality certainly predates Pearl. Identifying "randomization on X" with "dividing by P(x | pa(x))" might be implicit in fairly old papers also. Again, this idea predates Pearl.

There's always more to the story than one insightful book.

Good find, thanks. The handwritten equations are especially nice. Ilya, it looks you're the perfect person to write an introductory LW post about causal graphs. We don't have any good intro to the topic showing why it is important and non-obvious (e.g. the smoking/tar/cancer example). I'm willing to read drafts, but given your credentials I think it's not necessary :-)
5Eliezer Yudkowsky11y
The point is that it's not commonly internalized to the point where someone will correctly use DAG as a synonym for "universe".
Synonym? Not just 'capable of being used to perfectly represent', but an actual literal synonym? That's a remarkable claim. I'm not saying I outright don't believe it but it is something I would want to see explained in detail first. Would reading Pearl (competently) be sufficient to make someone use the term DAG correctly in that sense?
All that I see in the quote is that the DAG is taken to determine what happens to you in some unanalyzed sense. You often hear similar statements saying that the cold equations of physics determine your fate, but the speaker is not necessarily thinking of "equations of physics" as synonymous with "universe".
Seriously, she seems pretty awesome. link to Johns Hopkins profile []
The memes are getting out there! (Hopefully.)

No, hopefully they were re-discovered. We can improve our publicity skills, but we can't make ideas easier to independantly re-invent.

Really? If meme Z is the result of meme X and Y colliding, then it seems like spreading X and Y makes it easier to independently re-invent Z.
Yes - by 'independently' I mean 'unaffected by any publicity work we might do'.
I think them surviving as spreading memes is pretty good, if the information is transmitted without important errors creeping in. Though yes, reinventability is good (and implies the successful spread of prerequisite memes).
Oh yeah, both are good, but like good evidential decision theorists we should hope for re-invention.
This site is not the only center of rationality. =) []
Or it's just someone familiar with recent work on causality...

But, there's another problem, and that is the fact that statistical and probabilistic thinking is a real damper on "intellectual" conversation. By this, I mean that there are many individuals who wish to make inferences about the world based on data which they observe, or offer up general typologies to frame a subsequent analysis. These individuals tend to be intelligent and have college degrees. Their discussion ranges over topics such as politics, culture and philosophy. But, introduction of questions about the moments about the distribution, or skepticism as to the representativeness of their sample, and so on, tends to have a chilling affect on the regular flow of discussion. While the average human being engages mostly in gossip and interpersonal conversation of some sort, the self-consciously intellectual interject a bit of data and abstraction (usually in the form of jargon or pithy quotations) into the mix. But the raison d'etre of the intellectual discussion is basically signaling and cuing; in other words, social display. No one really cares about the details and attempting to generate a rigorous model is really beside the point. Trying to push the N much beyond 2 or 3 (what you would see in a college essay format) will only elicit eye-rolling and irritation.

-- Razib Khan

I think Donald Robert Perry said it more succinctly:

“If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think they'll hate you.”

Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult;
whoever rebukes a wicked man incurs abuse.
Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you;
rebuke a wise man and he will love you.
Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still;
teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning.

Proverbs 9:7-9

Provided your rebuke is sound.
Ouch. There is too much truth to this. Dangerous stuff.
I registered here just to upvote this. As someone who attends a University where this sort of thing is RAMPANT, thanks you for the post.
It would also be fair to say that being intellectual can often be a dampener of conversation. I say this to emphasize that the problem isn't statistics or probabilistic thinking - but rather forcing rigour in general, particularly when in the form of challenging what other people say.
I usually use the word "intellectual" to refer to someone who talks about ideas, not necessarily in an intelligent way.
If being statistical and probabilistic settles oft-discussed intellectual debates so thoroughly as dampen further discussion, that's a great thing! The goal is to get correct answers and move on to the unanswered, unsettled questions that are preventing progress; the goal is to NOT allow a debate to go any longer than necessary, especially--as Nisan mentioned--if the debate is not sane/intelligent.

From a forum signature:

The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." --Psalm 14:1

It is a fool's prerogative to utter truths that no one else will speak. --Neil Gaiman, Sandman 3:3:6

Also Neil Gaiman.
Even my theist girlfriend laughed out loud at that one :-)
I'd suggest, however, that one who is wise had better be at least better than a fool at discerning truths, or the one who is wise isn't all that wise. In other words, of a fool is better than a wise person at finding truths no one else can find, then there's a serious problem with our notions of foolishness and wisdom.
No idea if it's what Neil Gaiman meant, but the quote can be "rescued" by reading it like this: That is, the fool is as good at discerning truths as the wise man, but not as good at knowing when it's advantageous to say them or not.
I read the Gaiman quote as referring to "fool" in the sense of court jester, which seems to have more to do with status than intelligence although there are implications of both. Looked at that way, Psy-Kosh's objection doesn't seem to apply; it might indicate something wrong with our status criteria, but of course we already knew that. The psalm, on the other hand, probably is talking mainly about intelligence. But the ambiguity still makes for a nice contrast.
Fair enough, if one means fool in that sense.
The equanimity of foolishness and wisdom is a long establish idea. The intention is to encourage better updating.

People commonly use the word "procrastination" to describe what they do on the Internet. It seems to me too mild to describe what's happening as merely not-doing-work. We don't call it procrastination when someone gets drunk instead of working.

-- Paul Graham

People commonly use the word "procrastination" to describe what they do on the Internet. It seems to me too mild to describe what's happening as merely not-doing-work. We don't call it procrastination when someone gets drunk instead of working.

What exactly would Paul Graham call reading Paul Graham essays online when I should be working?

Perhaps the answer to that question lies in one or more of the following Paul Graham essays:

Disconnecting Distraction

Good and Bad Procrastination

P.S.: Bwahahahaha!

I'm thinking either "lazy" or "irresponsible".
The question of which is kind of still there, though. Procrastination is lazy, but getting drunk at work is irresponsible.
It depends what your work is. If you're doing data entry then surfing the net is lazy. If you're driving a train and surfing the net on your phone then that's irresponsible.

Okay, that quote has me upvoting and closing my LessWrong browser.

And this just reminded me to check the time and realise i was 40 minutes late for logging into work (cough) LessWrong as memetic hazard!
PG has added specific hacks to HN to help people who don't want it to become a memetic hazard. Is it possible we should do the same to LW?
I find HN to be a stream of excessively tasty brain candy. What particular hacks are you thinking of? Is there a list?

MBlume may be referring to the "noprocrast" feature:

the latest version of Hacker News has a feature to let you limit your use of the site. There are three new fields in your profile, noprocrast, maxvisit, and minaway. (You can edit your profile by clicking on your username.) Noprocrast is turned off by default. If you turn it on by setting it to "yes," you'll only be allowed to visit the site for maxvisit minutes at a time, with gaps of minaway minutes in between. The defaults are 20 and 180, which would let you view the site for 20 minutes at a time, and then not allow you back in for 3 hours. You can override noprocrast if you want, in which case your visit clock starts over at zero.

Best wishes, the Less Wrong Reference Desk.

Other possible features would include disabling links and replying in some way - for certain times of the day, or requiring the user to type a long string to access them each time.
When it comes to learning on the internet (including, as wedrifid mentions, reading Graham's essays, but excluding e.g. porn and celebrity gossip), I'd say It's a lot less harmful and risky than being drunk, and probably helpful in a lot of ways. It's certainly not making huge strides toward accomplishing your life's goals, but it seems like a stretch to compare it to getting drunk.

I think PG's analogy referred to addictiveness, not harmfulness.

Is it bad if you're addicted to good things?
If it's getting in the way of other stuff you want/need to do, then yes. Otherwise probably no.
No, but in this case the addiction makes you worse off because surfing the net is worse than doing productive work.
What if I'm surfing the net for tips on how to increase my own productivity?

Should we then call the original replicator molecules 'living'? Who cares? I might say to you 'Darwin was the greatest man who has ever lived', and you might say 'No, Newton was', but I hope we would not prolong the argument. The point is that no conclusion of substance would be affected whichever way our argument was resolved. The facts of the lives and achievements of Newton and Darwin remain totally unchanged whether we label them 'great' or not. Similarly, the story of the replicator molecules probably happened something like the way I am telling it, regardless of whether we choose to call them 'living'. Human suffering has been caused because too many of us cannot grasp that words are only tools for our use, and that the mere presence in the dictionary of a word like 'living' does not mean it necessarily has to refer to something definite in the real world. Whether we call the early replicators living or not, they were the ancestors of life; they were our founding fathers.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene.

(cf. Disguised Queries.)

My friend, Tony, does prop work in Hollywood. Before he was big and famous, he would sell jewelry and such at Ren Faires and the like. One day I'm there, shooting the shit with him, when a guy comes up and looks at some of the crystals that Tony is selling. he finally zeroes in on one and gets all gaga over the bit of quartz. He informs Tony that he's never seen such a strong power crystal. Tony tells him it a piece of quartz. The buyer maintains it is an amazing power crystal and demands to know the price. Tony looks him over for a second, then says "If it's just a piece of quartz, it's $15. If it's a power crystal, it's $150. Which is is?" The buyer actually looked a bit sheepish as he said quietly "quartz", gave Tony his money and wandered off. I wonder if he thought he got the better of Tony.

-- genesplicer on Something Awful Forums, via

I wonder if the default price was more like $10.

Wow, anchoring! That one didn't even occur to me!

Note to self: do not buy stuff from Nancy Lebovitz.

Better yet, don't go gaga. And use anchoring to your advantage - before haggling, talk about something you got for free.

Story kind of bothers me. Yeah, you can get someone to pretend not to believe something by offering a fiscal reward, but that doesn't prove anything.

If I were a geologist and correctly identified the crystal as the rare and valuable mineral unobtainite which I had been desperately seeking samples of, but Tony stubbornly insisted it was quartz - and if Tony then told me it was $150 if it was unobtainite but $15 if it was quartz - I'd call it quartz too if it meant I could get my sample for cheaper. So what?

I think the interesting part of the story is that it caused the power crystal dude to shut up about power crystals when he'd previously evinced interest in telling everyone about them. I don't think you could get the same effect for $135 from a lot of, say, missionaries.

Part of me wants to say that it was foolish of Tony to take so much less money than he could have gotten simply for getting the guy to profess that it was a piece of quartz rather than a power crystal, but I'm not sure I would feel comfortable exploiting a guy's delusions to that degree either.

I thank Tony for not taking the immediately self-benefiting path of profit and instead doing his small part to raise the sanity waterline.

Was the buyer sane enough to realise that it probably wasn't a power crystal, or just sane enough to realise that if he pretended it wasn't a power crystal he'd save $135?

Is that amount of raising-the-sanity waterline worth $135 to Tony?

I would guess it's guilt-avoidance at work here.

(EDIT: your thanks to Tony are still valid though!)

And with that in mind, how would it have affected the sanity waterline if Tony had donated that $135 to an institution that's pursuing the improvement of human rationality?

Look, sometimes you've just got to do things because they're awesome.

But would you feel comfortable with that maxim encoded in an AI's utility function?

For a sufficiently rigorous definition of "awesome", why not?

If its a terminal value then CEV should converge to it.
I think he would have been better off taking the money and donating it to a good charity.
There's no guarantee the guy would have bought it at all for $150. The impression I get is that this was ultimately a case of belief in belief, Tony knew he couldn't get much more than $15 and just wanted to win the argument.
I doubt he would have bought it for $150, but after making a big deal of its properties as a power crystal, he'd be limited in his leverage to haggle it down; he'd probably have taken it for three times the asking price if not ten.
And then the guy walks away trying to prevent himself from bursting out with laughter at the fact that he just managed to get an incredibly good deal on a strong power crystal that Tony, who had clearly not been educated in such things, mistakenly believed was simple quartz.
Meh. Tony ruined that guy's role-playing fun at a Ren Faire. People pretend to believe all kinds of silly stuff at a Ren Faire. Last year my husband and I went to Ren Faire dressed as monks, pushing our daughter, dressed as a baby dragon, around in a stroller. (We got lots of comments about vows of celibacy.) We bought our daughter a little flower-shaped hair pin when we were there, after asking what would look best on a dragon. What Tony did would have been like the salesperson saying "That's not a dragon."

Complex problems have simple, easy to understand wrong answers.

— Grossman's Law

Is there a law that states that all simple problems have complex, hard to understand answers? Moravec's paradox sort of covers it but it seems that principle should have its own label.

Part of the potential of things is how they break.

Vi Hart, How To Snakes

Vi Hart is so dang awesome.

"But these two snakes can't talk because this one speaks in parseltongue and that one speaks in Python"

Damn, why didn't I discover those before ...

"Man, it seems like everyone has a triangle these days..."
Holy crap she is, how have I never seen these videos until now?

I recently posted these in another thread, but I think they're worth putting here to stand on their own:

"Magic is just a way of saying 'I don't know.'"

Terry Pratchett, "Nation"

The essence of magic is to do away with underlying mechanisms. ... What makes the elephant disappear is the movement of the wand and the intent of the magician, directly. If there were any intervening processes, it would not be magic but just engineering. As soon as you know how the magician made the elephant disappear, the magic disappears and -- if you started by believing in magic -- the disappointment sets in.

William T. Powers (CSGNET mailing list, April 2005)

Does that mean one can answer "Do you believe in magic?" with "No, but I believe in the existence of opaque proprietary APIs"?

API's made by the superintelligent creators of this universe? Personally, no.
Worse: APIs grown by evolution. Evolution makes the worst BASIC spaghetti coder you ever heard of look like Don Knuth by comparison.
Actually, what I had in mind was Microsoft - though their products don't pass the "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" test. Opacity and incomprehensibility (the spell checker did what?) is within their grasp...

True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer.

— David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

A fable:

In Persia many centuries ago, the Sufi mullah or holy man Nasruddin was arrested after preaching in the great square in front of the Shah's palace. The local clerics had objected to Mullah Nasruddin's unorthodox teachings, and had demanded his arrest and execution as a heretic. Dragged by palace guards to the Shah's throne room, he was sentenced immediately to death.

As he was being taken away, however, Nasruddin cried out to the Shah: "O great Shah, if you spare me, I promise that within a year I will teach your favourite horse to sing!"

The Shah knew that Sufis often told the most outrageous fables, which sounded blasphemous to many Muslims but which were nevertheless intended as lessons to those who would learn. Thus he had been tempted to be merciful, anyway, despite the demands of his own religious advisors. Now, admiring the audacity of the old man, and being a gambler at heart, he accepted his proposal.

The next morning, Nasruddin was in the royal stable, singing hymns to the Shah's horse, a magnificent white stallion. The animal, however, was more interested in his oats and hay, and ignored him. The grooms and stablehands all shook their heads and laughe

... (read more)
Huh, and here I had assumed Niven and Pournelle made that up since it wasn't in Herodotus like they claimed.
Where was it in Niven and Pournelle? I first saw it in The Cross Time Engineer [].
In "the gripping hand" it is used as an example for a crazy eddy plan, that could actually work.
It was in The Mote in God's Eye.

We are built to be effective animals, not happy ones.

-Robert Wright, The Moral Animal

Most people would rather die than think; many do.

– Bertrand Russell

Not a big fan of this. Seems like you could replace the word "think" with many different adjectives, and it would sound good or bad depending on whether I think the adjective agrees with what I consider my virtue. For instance, replace "think" with "exercise", and I would like if I'm a regular exerciser, but if I'm not I'd wonder why I would want to waste my life exercising.
The cognitive faculties are what makes humans distinct from other species, not any particular proclivity for exercise or any other such feats. A person refusing to think is like a fish refusing to swim. Furthermore, we often benefit from these faculties even when pursuing interests that seem completely unrelated. Many of the best athletes are also decent thinkers. They have to be able to optimize their training regime, control their diets, cross the road, etc.
0Paul Crowley11y
Wikiquote [] has this as:
Yeah, that must be the original; they even mention my version as a variant. I wonder how I found this quote originally.

using the word “science” in the same way you’d use the word “alakazam” doesn’t count as being smarter

-Kris Straub, Chainsawsuit artist commentary

Hofstadter's Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.

– Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Doesn't that spiral out to infinity?

It can just asymptotically approach the right value. It's probably more metaphorical, though.

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account the limit of infinite applications of Hofstadter's Law.

Even further:

Hofstadter's Law+: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account the limit of infinite applications of Hofstadter's Law+.

[-][anonymous]11y 13

For all ordinal numbers n, define Hodstadter's n-law as "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's m-law for all m < n."

For all natural numbers n, define L_n as the nth variation of Hofstadter's Law that has been or will be posted in this thread. Theorem: As n approaches infinity, L_n converges to "Everything ever takes an infinite amount of time."

Actually it takes longer than that.

I've got a truly marvelous proof of this theorem, but it would take forever to write it all out.
Hofstadter's Shiny Law: It always takes longer than you expect, especially when you get distracted discussing variants of Hofstadter's Shiny Law.
...which then forces things to take an infinite amount of time once you get to n=omega_1, so thankfully things stop there. EDIT April 13: Oops, you can't actually "reach" omega_1 like this; I was not thinking properly. Omega_1 flat out does not embed in R. So... yeah.
Yes. Hofstadter is like that.

The correct question to ask about functions is not „What is a rule?” or „What is an association?” but „What does one have to know about a function in order to know all about it?” The answer to the last question is easy – for each number x one needs to know the number f(x) (…)

– M. Spivak: Calculus

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

~ Story, used most famously in David Foster Wallace's Commencement Address at Kenyon College

The most important relic of early humans is the modern mind.

-Steven Pinker

Fluff Principle: on a user-voted news site, the links that are easiest to judge will take over unless you take specific measures to prevent it.

Paul Graham "What I've learned from Hacker News"

Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.

-- Richard Feynman

(I don't think he originally meant this in the context of overcoming cognitive bias, but it seems to apply well to that too.)

I think it was originally meant in the context of joy in the merely real.

On perseverance:

It's a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don't quit when you're tired, you quit when the gorilla is tired.

-- Robert Strauss

(Although the reference I found doesn't say which Robert Strauss it was)

I think it goes well with the article Make an Extraordinary Effort.

I kind of feel like a scenario is not a great starting point for talking about perseverance when it's likely to result in your immediately getting your arms ripped off.

There are times when it's important to persevere, and times when it's important to know what not to try in the first place.

And there are times when you don't get to choose whether or not you wrestle the gorilla.

Virtually everything in science is ultimately circular, so the main thing is just to make the circles as big as possible.

Richard D. Janda and Brian D. Joseph, 2003, The Handbook of Historical Linguistics, p. 111.

“In life as in poker, the occasional coup does not necessarily demonstrate skill and superlative performance is not the ability to eliminate chance, but the capacity to deliver good outcomes over and over again. That is how we know Warren Buffett is a skilled investor and Johnny Chan a skilled poker player.” — John Kay, Financial Times

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~ Aristotle

To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to know. And yet those with the courage to tread this path to real discovery are not only offered practically no guidance on how to do so, they are actively discouraged and have to set abut it in secret, pretending meanwhile to be diligently engaged in the frantic diversions and to conform with the deadening personal opinions which are continually being thrust upon them.

--George Spencer Brown in The Laws of Form, 1969.

The north went on forever. Tyrion Lannister knew the maps as well as anyone, but a fortnight on the wild track that passed for the kingsroad up here had brought home the lesson that the map was one thing and the land quite another.

--George R. R. Martin A Game of Thrones

This one's for you, Clippy:

The specialist makes no small mistakes while moving toward the grand fallacy.

—Marshall McLuhan

A tadpole doesn’t know
It’s gonna grow bigger.
It just swims,
and figures limbs
are for frogs.

People don’t know
the power they hold.
They just sing hymns,
and figure saving
is for god.

  • Andrea Gibson, Tadpoles (source)

Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.

– Mencken, quoted in Pinker: How the Mind Works

Bertrand Russell, in his Autobiography records that his rather fearsome Puritan grandmother:

gave me a Bible with her favorite texts written on the fly-leaf. Among these was "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil." Her emphasis upon this text led me in later life to be not afraid of belonging to small minorities.

It's rather affecting to find the future hammer of the Christians being "confirmed" in this way. It also proves that sound maxims can appear in the least probable places.

-- Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian

"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

Douglas Adams

This quote defines my approach to science and philosophy; a phenomenon can be wondrous on its own merit, it need not be magical or extraordinary to have value.

Is this from a particular book, or something he said randomly?
It's from the first Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book.
Really? What's the context?

Zaphod thinks they're on a mythic quest to find the lost planet Magrathea. They've found a lost planet alright, orbiting twin stars, but Ford still doesn't believe.

As Ford gazed at the spectacle of light before them excitement burnt inside him, but only the excitement of seeing a strange new planet; it was enough for him to see it as it was. It faintly irritated him that Zaphod had to impose some ludicrous fantasy onto the scene to make it work for him. All this Magrathea nonsense seemed juvenile. Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

Of course, in context, they are in fact orbiting the lost planet of Magrathea.
6Eliezer Yudkowsky11y
Well, in true fact, there is no lost planet of Magrathea.
I'm tempted to fuss about large worlds, but I think I shall refrain. ...Apophenia quite rightly points out that I am failing to refrain. Oops.
Well, this line of discussion has probably increased the odds of the existence of the "lost planet of Magrathea" in the local casual structure by a lot.
Still, Ford's position was entirely reasonable ex ante.
How foolish of him to think something like reasonableness would matter in the Hitch-hiker's Guide universe.
Yes, the trouble with rationality is that it may not work very well if you're a fictional character.
Only if you're a character in a fictional world that doesn't itself contain fiction in the same genre that you're in. If it does, you may be able to work out the rules.
Fiction logic dictates that even if you do realize you're fictional, you're almost certain to be wrong about what kind you're in [].
Oh, certainly.
I imagine it is from one of his books but I came across it in the introduction to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Oddly enough the Hitchhiker series is absolutely full of satirical quotes which can be applied to rationality.

Wisdom is easy: just find someone who trusts someone who trusts someone who trusts someone who knows the truth.

– Steven Kaas

I really don't see the point. All I'm getting out of this is: "knowing the truth is hard".
Plus the notion that in the current world when you know the truth with some satisfactory accuracy, most of the time you get to know it not firsthand but via a chain of people. Therefore it might be said that evaulating people's trustworthiness is in the same league of importance as interpreting and analysing data yet untouched by people. Also, to nitpick, if you find a chain of people full of very trustworthy people, knowing the truth could be relatively easy.
What you said makes sense. It doesn't surprise me that I missed that interpretation of the quote, however. The concept of taking evidence from others' stated beliefs is better described by a network, not a single chain. Surely there are also different networks for each domain of claimed-knowledge. I meant '"directly knowing the truth is hard"', as the quote intended. Still, mea culpa.

I will repost a quote that I posted many moons ago on OB, if you don't mind. I don't THINK this breaks the rules too badly, since that post didn't get its fair share of karma. Here's the first time:

"He knew well that fate and chance never come to the aid of those who replace action with pleas and laments. He who walks conquers the road. Let his legs grow tired and weak on the way - he must crawl on his hands and knees, and then surely, he will see in the night a distant light of hot campfires, and u... (read more)

Have you translated the whole story, or just this quote? It sounds interesting, and stacks up next to a SF story about somewhat less-than-friendly-AI as a reason I wish I could read Russian.
Just this quote. But I found a complete translation: [] What's the other story?
Took me a while, but I found it []: "Lena Squatter and the Paragon of Vengeance" by SF author Leonid Kaganov.

Clevinger exclaimed to Yossarian in a voice rising and falling in protest and wonder. "It's a complete reversion to primitive superstition. They're confusing cause and effect. It makes as much sense as knocking on wood or crossing your fingers. They really believe that we wouldn't have to fly that mission tomorrow if someone would only tiptoe up to the map in the middle of the night and move the bomb line over Bologna. Can you imagine? You and I must be the only rational ones left." In the middle of the night Yossarian knocked on wood, crossed his fingers, and tiptoed out of his tent to move the bomb line up over Bologna.

Joseph Heller (Catch-22)

A bit more context for those who haven't read Catch-22 would probably help.
I don't think anything else could be added that deepens the understanding of the quote, besides the fact that moving the bomb line actually works because Corporal Kolodny (who is obviously a corporal named Kolodny) can't distinguish between cause and effect either.

On boldness:

If you're gonna make a mistake, make it a good, loud mistake!

-- Augiedog, Half the Day is Night

(Edit: I should mention that the linked story is MLP fanfic. The MLP fandom may be a memetic hazard; it seems to have taken over my life for the past several days, though I tend to do that with most things, so YMMV. Proceed with caution.)

He who pours out thanks for a favourable verdict runs the risk of seeming to betray not only a bad conscience, but also a poor idea of the judge's office.

Francis Paget, preface to the 2nd ed. of "The Spirit of Discipline", 1906

The book also contains material on accidie (the Introductory Essay and the preface to the seventh edition), which is probably how I came across it.

(Courtesy of my dad)

One must be absolutely modern. No hymns! Hold the ground gained.

Arthur Rimbaud, 1873

"Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."

-Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Doesn't that mean "An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding" should be committed to the flames? I didn't notice much numerical or experimental reasoning in it.
The quote is somewhat experimental, but we'd have to ignore its advice to find out if it was correct.
Well, of course we would! Executing an action based on the truth of a hypothesis while trying to determine whether its true or not would be somewhat odd.
Consider the quote. If it is false, it should be committed to the flames. If it is true, it should, according to itself, be committed to the flames. Therefore, we can commit it to the flames regardless of its truth-value.
I would say that advice from an experienced practitioner in a given field falls into a broad definition of "experimental reasoning", since at some stage they probably tried several approaches and found out the hard way which one worked.
I think "experimental reasoning" is not what we now call scientific experimentation. It's more of what Schrodinger did with his cat; think through the issue with hypotheses and try to logically understand them. It's better than most philosophy, but not quite what we would now call science.
Personally I enjoy illusions - some of them look pretty. I'm keeping them.

"I can't make myself believe something that I don't believe" —Ricky Gervais, in discussing his atheism

Reminds me of the scene in HPMOR where Harry makes Draco a scientist.

[-][anonymous]11y 4

You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.

~ David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Dupe [].

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

A domain-specific interpretation of the same concept: —Douglas McIlroy
A domain-neutral interpretation of the same concept: —William of Ockham
This one really needs to have been applied to itself, "short is good" is way better. (also this was one of EY's quotes in the original rationality quotes set, [] )
Also, "short is good" would narrow this quotes focus considerably.
Perfection is lack of excess.
Maybe it's shorter in French?
Compare: [] So, no.
New here, sorry for the redundancy. I probably should have guessed that such a popular quote had been used.

I don't have a simple answer

But I know that I could answer

-- The Killers in This is Your Life

[-][anonymous]11y 2

Most libertarians would agree that it’s a messed-up state that:

  • Creates a massive crime problem in poor minority neighborhoods with a futile, vicious and every more far-reaching attempt to prevent commerce in popular, highly portable intoxicants that leaves absurd numbers of young men with felony records, making them marginally employable.

  • Fails to provide adequate policing for such neighborhoods.

  • Fails to provide effective education in such neighborhoods after installing itself as the educator of first resort.

  • Uses regulatory power to sharply curtail

... (read more)

You know, in the comic books where super-powered mutants are real, no one seems to question the theory of evolution. Maybe we're going about this all wrong.

-- Surviving The World

I initially parsed that as meaning something like "we're clearly not getting the mechanics of evolution across, since people in the comics [and by extension writers] are happy to treat it as something that can produce superheroes". But in context it actually seems to mean "let's create some superheroes to demonstrate the efficacy of evolution beyond any reasonable doubt". Comic exaggeration, sure, and I'm probably supposed to interpret the word "evolution" very loosely if I want to take the quote at all seriously. But in view of the former, I still can't help but think that there's something fundamentally naive about the latter.
I didn't quote the commentary under the comic for a reason.
Hasn't it been pointed out here before that super-powered mutants are exactly not what we would expect from evolution?
Yes, but the quote is new.

"If you choose to follow a religion where, for example, devout Catholics who are trying to be good people are all going to Hell but child molestors go to Heaven (as long as they were "saved" at some point), that's your choice, but it's fucked up. Maybe a God who operates by those rules does exist. If so, fuck Him." --- Bill Zellar's suicide note, in regards to his parents' religion

I love this passage. If a god as described in the Bible did exist, following him would be akin to following Voldemort: fidelity simply because he was powerful. This isn't precisely a rationality quote, but it does have a bit of the morality-independent-of-religion thing. (The rest of the note is beautiful and eloquent as well.)

I think we should keep some sort op separation between "rationality quotes" and "atheism quotes". You can stretch this to be a rationality quote, but it does require a stretch. Just because a quote argues against the existence of a god doesn't make it particularly rational.

I love this passage. If a god as described in the Bible did exist, following him would be akin to following Voldemort: fidelity simply because he was powerful.

There are other similarities too. e.g. Voldemort's human form died and rose again; his (first) death was foretold in prophesy, involved a betrayal (albeit in the opposite direction), and left his followers anxiously awaiting his return; "And these signs shall follow them that believe; ... they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents..." (Mark 16:17-18); ...

So, who wants to join the First Church of Voldemort?

Make no mistake about it: Computers process numbers - not symbols. We measure our understanding (and control) by the extent to which we can arithmetize an activity.

-- Alan Perlis

Since I discovered them through SICP, I always liked the 'Perlisims' -- many of his Epigrams in Programming are pretty good. There's a hint of Searle/Chinese Room in this particular quote, but he turns it around by implying that in the end, the symbols are numbers (or that's how I read it).

The best education consists in immunizing people against systematic attempts at education.

-- Paul Feyerabend

This one could do with expansion and/or contextualisation. A quick Google only turns up several pages of just the bare quote (including on a National Institue of Health .gov page! []) - what was the original source? Anyone?
Well, I deliberately left out the source because I didn't think it would play well in this Peoria of thought -- it's from his book of essays Farewell to Reason [] . Link to gbooks with some context.
We've had rationality quotes before from C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterson, and Jack Chick among others. I don't think people are going to complain because of generic context issues even if Feyerabend did say some pretty silly stuff.
Can you please explain what you mean by calling LW a "Peoria of thought" and why you believe it is one? It doesn't sound good, and if you've found a problem I'd like to know about it and address it.
Pretty much any forum tends to evolve into a bit of an echo chamber. I don't think there is any general solution to it other than for whole forums to be bubbling into and out of existence.

Science is interesting, and if you don't agree you can fuck off.

By Richard Dawkins, quoting a former editor of New Scientist (here's at least one source). I don't think this quote contains any deep wisdom as such, but it made me laugh. Actually you could replace the word science with any other noun and it would still make grammatical sense.

That is a consequence of the meaning of the term "grammatical sense", not a property of the particular sentence under discussion.
Good point. What I meant is that this quote could be used to defend anything. "Being irrational is interesting, and if you don't agree you can fuck off."
[-][anonymous]11y 0

Water has memory! And while it’s memory of a long lost drop of onion juice is Infinite It somehow forgets all the poo it’s had in it!

  • Tim Minchin
[-][anonymous]11y 0

In what circumstances shall I say that a tribe has a chief? And the chief must surely have consciousness. Surely we can't have a chief without consciousness!

But can't I imagine that the people around me are automata, lack consciousness, even though they behave in the same way as usual?--If I imagine it now--alone in my room--I see people with fixed looks (as in a trance) going about their business--the idea is perhaps a little uncanny. But just try to keep hold of this idea in the midst of your ordinary intercourse with others, in the street, say! Say to

... (read more)

Procrastination is one of the most common and deadliest of diseases and its toll on success and happiness is heavy.


You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

-Wayne Gretsky

[-][anonymous]11y -1


moral order of the universe

There's no such thing.

The 3 downvotes this had when I entered the thread seem rather harsh, considering it could be rephrased as "think like reality []." The questionable part is that the universe has a moral order, but a charitable reading of the quote will not demand that it means "a moral order independent of human minds."
The moral order is within us.
And we are within the universe! So that all works out nicely.
We're only a small part of it, though. The rest is "the motivationless malice of directed acyclic causal graphs" [].
How do you measure "small"? Us humans had a disproprotionate effect on our immediate surroundings, and that effect is going to continue throughout our lightcone if everything goes according to plan.
I think you're supposed to laugh evilly there. Mwahahahaha
We should all agree to say the same words, without too much concern for what they mean?

...the best lesson our readers can learn is to give up the childish notion that everything that is interesting about nature can be understood... It might be interesting to know how cognition (whatever that is) arose and spread and changed, but we cannot know. Tough luck.

Richard Lewontin

Is this an ironic rationality quote?
The world is allowed to be too much for you to handle. (But you should try anyway.)
That isn't what the quote is saying though. It is claiming that we know for a fact that we cannot ever understand cognition. Ironically, that is itself a hubristic claim of positive knowledge about a topic (what may eventually be possible for humans to know) where we should be more modest about claims.

Strange but true: those who have loved God most have loved men least.

-- Ingersoll

This may be anti-theist, but I'm not convinced that its a rationality quote. I'm also not convinced that its actually true.
I had the same doubt, but on reflection, I still like it. Many religions seem to have as an explicit primary value: love/obey God - THAT is what good behavior is, i.e. normal human values (especially non/different-believers') are secondary. Of course it's not likely that the top-10 God-lovers and man-harmers are exactly the same people, but "the most-quoted things are the least-equivocating" :) [self-quotation]

"Take up the White Man's burden-- The savage wars of peace-- Fill full the mouth of Famine, And bid the sickness cease; And when your goal is nearest (The end for others sought) Watch sloth and heathen folly Bring all your hope to nought." -Rudyard Kipling

How is this related to rationality?
I can see how it's applicable as an exhortation to attempt to solve the hard problems which others find too difficult to deal with, or accept as the natural order of things, and an acknowledgment that the greatest barrier is often the irrationality or apathy of others. But it also treads on mindkiller territory; I didn't vote either way.

A true friend stabs you in the front.

—Oscar Wilde

Can someone wager a guess why this is being downvoted?
It has no obvious connection to rationality.
I suppose it might be a little ambiguous. Here's my interpretation (I'm curious to hear others). The practice of backstabbing usually refers to criticizing someone when they're not present, while feigning friendship. Thus, "frontstabbing" would be to criticize someone openly and honestly, which is often very hard to do. Even, or perhaps especially, among friends. But it seems to be something worth aspiring towards, if one is concerned with rationality and truth.
That seems like a good idea, but I'm pretty sure that Oscar Wilde didn't at all intend the quote to mean that. Rationality quotes is not an excuse for quote mining and proof-texting.
So, what do you think he meant? I tend to judge quotes on their own merit. I thought that was the point. Do people usually look up detailed contextual information about them?
It doesn't take much context to guess at the original meaning- Oscar Wilde was a pretty cynical individual. Given that data point what do you think it means?
I've tried and failed to come up with any reasonable interpretation other than my own. Please frontstab me.

His comment is that humans are terrible, treacherous, disloyal scum. The only difference between the friend and the non-friend is that the friend might tell you when he's harming you whereas the non-friend won't even bother telling you.

Son, you’re a body, son. That quick little scientific-prodigy’s mind she’s so proud of and won’t quit twittering about: son, it’s just neural spasms, those thoughts in your mind are just the sound of your head revving, and head is still just body, Jim. Commit this to memory. Head is body. Jim, brace yourself against my shoulders here for this hard news, at ten: you’re a machine a body an object, Jim, no less than this rutilant Montclair, this coil of hose here or that rake there for the front yard’s gravel or sweet Jesus this nasty fat spider flexing in its web over there up next to the rake-handle, see it?

Infinite Jest, page 159

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