Rationality Quotes - June 2009

by pjeby1 min read14th Jun 2009175 comments

12

Rationality Quotes
Personal Blog

(Since there didn't seem to be one for this month, and I just ran across a nice quote.)

A monthly thread for posting any interesting rationality-related quotes you've seen recently on the Internet, or had stored in your quotesfile for ages.

  • Please post all quotes separately (so that they can be voted up (or down) separately) unless they are strongly related/ordered.
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB - if we do this, there should be a separate thread for it.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
175 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:32 AM
New Comment
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

"Sometimes men come by the name of genius in the same way that certain insects come by the name of centipede; not because they have a hundred feet, but because most people cannot count above fourteen."

-- Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

related: The Level Above Mine

2RobinZ10ySeeking a citation, I found the following: ...on this horribly-formatted website [http://www.todayinsci.com/L/Lichtenberg_Georg/LichtenbergGeorg-Quotations.htm]. Google Books verifies. (P.S. Note that the original is in German.)
2Unnamed10yMy source was this Roger Kimball article [http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/G--C--Lichtenberg--a--ldquo-spy-on-humanity-rdquo--1963] . I just found the book that Kimball references on Google Books [http://books.google.com/books?id=u2B_EyihrIwC] and it doesn't seem to contain any version of that quote, so for now I'd guess that your version is more accurate. Ideally we'd want to find the original German version.
2FAWS10yThe German version a quick google search [http://www.google.com/search?hl=de&q=Lichtenberg+Genie+name+Tausendf%C3%BC%C3%9Fler+14+z%C3%A4hlen] finds in a few places on the web, all unsourced, is very close to the first version, except that Tausendfüß(l)er literally means millipede, centipede would be Hundertfüß(l)er.
0RobinZ10yI found a site which purports to offer Notebook F [http://www.zeno.org/Literatur/M/Lichtenberg,+Georg+Christoph/Aufzeichnungen+und+Aphorismen/%5BAus+den+»Sudelbüchern«%5D/%5BAus+»Sudelbuch«+F%5D] , from which the quote is supposed to be taken - the text there reads: which appears to conform with the Mautner & Hatfield text. It could be that Moritz Carrière is to fault. In his Aesthetik [http://books.google.com/books?id=hucuAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA533&dq=Tausendfüßler+lichtenberg&hl=en&ei=Y9xqTJj2GYGC8gbLtOGPAg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCUQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Tausendfüßler%20lichtenberg&f=false] , he quotes Lichtenberg as claiming people cannot count to sixteen.
0RobinZ10yThe Lichtenberg reader (1959) also contains the same essay and is available at my local library - I'm not invested enough in the issue to try to track it down, though.

"People are mostly sane enough, of course, in the affairs of common life: the getting of food, shelter, and so on. But the moment they attempt any depth or generality of thought, they go mad almost infallibly. The vast majority, of course, adopt the local religious madness, as naturally as they adopt the local dress. But the more powerful minds will, equally infallibly, fall into the worship of some intelligent and dangerous lunatic, such as Plato, or Augustine, or Comte, or Hegel, or Marx."
-- David Stove, What Is Wrong With Our Thoughts

"Voting in a democracy makes you feel powerful, much as playing the lottery makes you feel rich." -- Mencius Moldbug

4John_Maxwell12yIs it really true that playing the lottery makes you feel rich? Can someone who has played the lottery corroborate on this?
1MichaelBishop12yOr that voting makes you feel powerful? I mean, maybe a little... not close to as much as performing well at work or in sport or in bed. My initial comment was not intended to argue that his quote was dumb because I didn't think it was worth fighting that fight against the numerous people that apparently think it is a good quote. But I can't pretend I like it.
-7MichaelBishop12y

"Muad'Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It's shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult. Muad'Dib knew that every experience carries its lesson."

-- Frank Herbert, Dune

"What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite."

Bertrand Russell, "Free Thought and Official Propaganda", in "Sceptical Essays".

"I have now reigned about 50 years in victory or peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They amount to fourteen."
-- Abd Er-Rahman III of Spain, 960 AD.

3ChrisHibbert12yA recent story on PodCastle [http://podcastle.org/2009/05/06/pc051-the-cambist-and-lord-iron/] gives the same message, albeit embedded in a short fantasy story with good economics.
0gwern10yI thought that was a fantastic story; I even had the patience to sit through the whole podcast. It can be downloaded at http://www.freesfonline.de/content/Abraham1.pdf [http://www.freesfonline.de/content/Abraham1.pdf] or read at http://issuu.com/spectra/docs/cambistandlordiron [http://issuu.com/spectra/docs/cambistandlordiron]
0davidr12yI'm not sure it's accurate to say of Spain, more like of Al-Andalus [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Andalus]..
0[anonymous]12yIm not sure it's accurate to say of Spain, more like of Al-Andalus [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Andalus]..

"What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." Christopher Hitchens

4Will_Newsome10yMere assertion is evidence, as is mere counter-assertion, and they should both be written down in the notebook of rationality.

"Science is what we understand well enough to explain to a computer. Art is everything else we do. ... Science advances whenever an Art becomes a Science. And the state of the Art advances too because people always leap into new territory once they have understood more about the old."

-- Donald Knuth

9gwern12yMarvin Minsky, "Why Programming Is a Good Medium for Expressing Poorly-Understood and Sloppily-Formulated Ideas" [http://mitpress.mit.edu/sicp/full-text/book/book-Z-H-7.html]
4komponisto12yRelated: -- Milton Babbitt (from "Contemporary Music Composition and Music Theory as Contemporary Intellectual History", 1972)

"One can measure the importance of a scientific work by the number of earlier publications rendered superfluous by it."

-- David Hilbert

"The seeker after the truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them, but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration, and not to the sayings of a human being whose nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency. Thus the duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency."

-- Alhazen (Abū 'Alī al-Hasan ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haitham)

2Eliezer Yudkowsky12y...voted up for the beauty with which the interpretation of this particular quote, depends on knowing the time in which it was written.
7hrishimittal12yIt reminds me very much of this quote attributed to Gautam Buddha: "Believe nothing merely because you have been told it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be kind, conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings -- that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide."

Once again, we are saddled with a Stone Age moral psychology that is appropriate to life in small, homogeneous communities in which all members share roughly the same moral outlook. Our minds trick us into thinking that we are absolutely right and that they are absolutely wrong because, once upon a time, this was a useful way to think. It is no more, though it remains natural as ever. We love our respective moral senses. They are as much a part of us as anything. But if we are to live together in the world we have created for ourselves, so unlike the one in which our ancestors evolved, we must know when to trust our moral senses and when to ignore them.

--Joshua Greene

"Your superior intellects are no match for our puny weapons!"

(Variously attributed. TV Tropes says the Simpsons.)

Also variously interpreted. I take it as a caution against forgetting to actually win with one's towering genius.

2AllanCrossman12yTreehouse of Horror 2 [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treehouse_of_Horror_II], Lisa's Nightmare.

Practically anything can go faster than Disc light, which is lazy and tame, unlike ordinary light. The only thing known to go faster than ordinary light is monarchy, according to the philosopher Ly Tin Wheedle. He reasoned like this: you can't have more than one king, and tradition demands that there is no gap between kings, so when a king dies the succession must therefore pass to the heir instantaneously. Presumably, he said, there must be some elementary particles—kingons, or possibly queons—that do this job, but of course succession sometimes fails if, in mid-flight, they strike an anti-particle, or republicon. His ambitious plans to use his discovery to send messages, involving the careful torturing of a small king in order to modulate the signal, were never fully expounded because, at that point, the bar closed.

-- Terry Pratchett, Mort, on mind-projection fallacy intuitions (and/or on Jack Sarfatti's theories of superluminal signaling)

"Imagine a world where everything changes to match the state of your mind, where evidence never pushes back against your theories, where your every thought is correct simply because you think it so. Can there be any better definition of hell for a man of learning? "

-- Bradeline, Fall From Heaven

3CannibalSmith12yThat world is called dreams, and we visit it every night.
1billswift12yYou might find C.S.Lewis's "The Great Divorce" interesting, at least the part where dead scientists choose to remain in Hell, rather than go to Heaven where God will give them all the answers.
1Roko12ySounds like a lot of people would like to live in this world quite a lot. Imagine how happy the creationists would be! Hell, most people want that world.
2Nanani12y...until they saw the result and realized -why- it is hell. Assuming they didn't all explode from each other's wishes of mutual annhilation.

"The lottery is a tax on those incapable of basic math."

-- Ambrose Bierce

4John_Maxwell12yI'll bet that a survey of lottery players would reveal that more than 50% know they lose money on average by playing the lottery. If not, a survey of people at slot machines would be even more likely to produce this result. Gambling is about thrill.
4jimmy12yIf you still get thrill out of slot machines, it just means that you don't get it at a deeper level. Almost everyone understands that they will get old and die (and that dying is bad), but relatively few see aging as the most important disease to fight.
2loqi12yI don't think that follows. Do you have a general theory of the causes of thrills in human brains?
1jimmy12yUnless one of your terminal goals is to watch your money supply fluctuate in a downward sloping direction, this thrill isn't helping you. If the algorithm that determines when to be 'thrilled' was any good then "playing slot machines" would not trigger it. The thrill is due to a cheap heuristic going wrong. I mean this in the same way that I mean it when I say "If getting a big piece of meat makes you happier than a $10k check, then your happiness system doesn't get it" I know many people that can do the basic math, but still get enjoyment out of gambling (where the expected return is negative). The 'thrill' thing works at a subconscious level so it's not easy to "just fix it". I personally don't get that sort of thrill from gambling, but don't think I can actually take credit for communicating with my subconscious and fixing it. I think it's just a case of higher loss aversion.
1loqi12yCorrect. However, if "experiencing thrills" is one of my terminal goals, then that thrill is helping me. No, it just means my happiness system isn't mediated by expected utility calculations. If your implication is that it "should" be, then you're committing a grievous is/ought error. You're assuming that "thrills" and "happiness" serve specific, narrow purposes (presumably the ones evolution "intended" them for). I don't share your assumption.
1jimmy12yYes, that's trivially true. Just because I'm using a "should" doesn't make it an error. I mean it in the same way that your car "should" transport you from one place to another. Yes, I can describe it as it "is", but that don't mean it ain't broke. Do you really have a problem with that? If so, when do you think it's acceptable to use the word "should"? It sounds like you're saying that they didn't "serve a purpose" that caused them to be selected for, but I think you mean to say that you just don't care. There are abstract things that I want (which aligns fairly closely with what would have helped me reproduce as a caveman), and there are lower level feedback mechanisms that were selected because they helped people achieve (almost) these goals. To the extent that they don't enforce the 'right' behavior, I'd prefer to change that instead of having to choose between cheap thrills and abstract goals.
0loqi12yThen how is a thrill-seeker not "getting it"? Or are you claiming thrill-seekers don't exist? That's you. Your original comment wasn't phrased in the first person, however: That statement is false. Plenty of people don't care whether or not their sources of happiness "correctly" contribute to their reproductive success.
0jimmy12yPeople have circuits built in that causes them to feel 'thrilled' in certain circumstances. These circuits still fire in some situations that don't help serve the "purpose" that natural selection "designed them for". I was calling the circuits "a deeper level of 'you'", and you seem to want to call it "not me, just part of my body". This sure sounds like an issue with semantics to me. You don't have any problems with paying money to run in circles, but I do. You want to use different words to describe this than I used. Is there really anything of substance here?
2loqi12yNo, that's not my point of contention. Your use of the phrase "you just don't get it" implies missing knowledge, a lack of understanding. If you really just meant "your sense of happiness isn't serving its evolutionary purpose", why use such roundabout terminology? Would you also claim that people who use birth control and still enjoy sex "just don't get it at a deeper level"? No, actually I do have problems with this, and find no thrill in gambling. The difference is that I'm not applying my preferences to others as a way to see them as defective versions of myself, and I'm not selectively employing an evolutionary justification for the subset of my preferences that have clear genetic benefits.
0Z_M_Davis12yEven if we understand thrill-seeking to be legitimate, the lottery players could still be said to be making a mistake if there are better ways to fulfill their thrill-seeking desires. Cf. "New Improved Lottery [http://lesswrong.com/lw/hm/new_improved_lottery/]"
3komponisto12yThat may be. And yet it's still a tax on those (perhaps a minority) who don't understand the math.
3AllanCrossman12y"We have both a lottery and a justice system. We punish the guilty, and reward the randomly chosen people." -- The League Against Tedium
1falko12yI used this opinion in the years before I learned about utility functions.

It's a wonderful thing to be clever, and you should never think otherwise, and you should never stop being that way. But what you learn, as you get older, is that there are a few million other people in the world all trying to be clever at the same time, and whatever you do with your life will certainly be lost - swallowed up in the ocean - unless you are doing it with like-minded people who will remember your contributions and carry them forward. That is why the world is divided into tribes.

-- Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

I neglected to record from which character the quote came.

3gwern12ypg 293, according to my ebook; the speaker seems to be Miss Matheson instructing the protagonist and her chums (while they are still in the Vicky schools).

It's easy to put down the shallow concerns of life, but in a way they are what life is about. Deeper concerns that don't connect in any way to economic wealth, social status, physical pleasure, etc., are not really deep but pointless. The shallow concerns all pertain to the lowest common denominator of human life because they really are the basic fabric of everyone's life. They're concerns that everyone shares and that everyone can easily understand.

—Ben Kovitz, Shallowness

Knowing that one may be subject to bias is one thing; being able to correct it is another.

Jon Elster

In the King-on-the-Mountain style of conversation, one person (the King) makes a provocative statement, and requires that others refute it or admit to being wrong. The King is the judge of whether any attempted refutation is successful. [...] The King's behavior comes down to "you can't stop me". By the rules of his game, no one can make him back down. He treats conversation as a negotiation with his opponent. If his opponent wants him to back down, it's his opponent's responsibility to make him back down, not his responsibility to do something to help his opponent. He himself feels no responsibility to learn or understand or cultivate his mind.

—Ben Kovitz, King on the Mountain

"Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons." - Michael Shermer

"What's troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics - the ease with which we are distracted by the petty and the trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem."

  • Barack Obama

Mathematics is the only good metaphysics.

Lord Kelvin

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of our exploring shall be to return where we started and know the place for the first time.

-- T.S. Eliot

2Tyrrell_McAllister12yDon't know why this was downvoted. The second clause is essentially Egan's Law [http://lesswrong.com/lw/qz/living_in_many_worlds/]: It all adds up to normality.

“If a nation expects to be both ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be” -- Thomas Jefferson

"A few intellectually rigorous killjoys argued that any explanation to which humans could relate was probably anthropomorphic nonsense, but nobody invited them onto talk shows."

--Greg Egan, "Quarantine".

"I don't, I've come to believe, have to agree with you to like you, or respect you."

--Anthony Bourdain.

Never forget that your opponents are not evil mutants. They are the heroes of their own stories, and if you can't fathom why they do what they do, or why they believe what they believe, that's your failing not theirs.

5Z_M_Davis12yInterestingly though, by accepting this symmetry between you and your enemy, you potentially thereby break it. If you can understand why they believe what they believe, but they don't understand why you believe what you do, then you can justifiably consider yourself in a superior epistemic position.
4Vladimir_Nesov12yMaybe they also think they understand you. You can't get intelligence from simple asymmetry.
2Psychohistorian12yRemoving the second and either the third or fourth clauses would make this a much stronger quote, i.e.
2smoofra12yYea, but then it wouldn't be a quote anymore!
1Eliezer Yudkowsky12yLast paragraph is an OBLW quote, no? Those don't go here...
1smoofra12yI don't think it's an exact quote of anything on OB or LW. If it is then my subconscious has a much better memory than I do. I was just attempting to relate the Bourdain quote to OBLW terminology.
[-][anonymous]12y 8

del

"Although the first solution is the one usually given, I prefer this second one because it reduces the need to think, replacing it by the automatic calculus. Thinking is hard, so only use it where essential."

--Dennis Lindley, Understanding Uncertainty

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man." - George Bernard Shaw

"Fierce battles are fought within the confines of our goal systems. Inside the closed walls the essence of right and wrong is at stake as the rebels engage the guards of the evolutionary past. After the violent confrontations, the old kings rejoice their triumph or get beheaded to become but ghosts of their former glory. And again and again our inner book of morals gets revised... — Nevertheless, whatever the outcome is, it is, by definition, good."
-- Mika

3wuwei12yI like some of the imagery but I wouldn't say whatever the outcome is, it is by definition good. To continue with the analogy, sometimes our inner book of morals really says one thing while a momentary upset prevents what is written in that book from successfully governing.
1JamesCole12yI doubt those kings can be killed. I think victory against them comes more from inserting layers of suppression between them and action, to modulate and reduce their power. You might be able to think of those layers as governmental machinery.
1ChrisDavoren12yNot sure why this was downvoted - I think it's fairly well evidenced that the kings have an infinite number of clones, if they aren't actually "unkillable". The governmental machinery analogy appeals to me as well - on the face of it, one might see this as some benevolent force of mediation and control. In reality, however, the human mind seems to function with all the bureaucratic inefficiency and politicking one would expect of an actual government.

Monroe Fieldbinder sees psychologist to bounce ideas off him. One of Fieldbinder's ideas is that the phenomenon of modern party-dance is incompatible with self-consciousness, makes for staggeringly unpleasant situations (obvious resource: Amherst/Mt. Holyoke mixer '68) for the all self-conscious person. Modern party-dance is simply writhing to suggestive music. It is ridiculous, silly to watch and excruciatingly embarrassing to perform. It is ridiculous, and yet absolutely everyone does it, so that it is the person who does not want to do the ridiculo

... (read more)
0CannibalSmith12yBy the way, obligatory YouTube link [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SItPGEsjLQ] .
-1CronoDAS12yNo it isn't!
5CannibalSmith12yFixed.
4CronoDAS12yWell, I "dance" when sober, and I enjoy it! It's a socially acceptable way to be close to, and touch, attractive members of the appropriate sex. Furthermore, the physical arousal caused by vigorous exercise tends to promote sexual arousal as well. Not to mention that watching people writhe to suggestive music [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Striptease] is also extremely popular. Then again, from a certain point of view, almost every kind of sexual activity is extremely ridiculous. I mean, you put the what in the where? That's disgusting! Who would want to do something like that?
1Roko12yYeah, yuck! Um actually, maybe I might be persuaded if the lady asks really nicely...

"Train yourself to get suspicious every time you see simplicity. Any claim that the root of a problem is simple should be treated the same as a claim that the root of a problem is Bigfoot. Simplicity and Bigfoot are found in the real world with about the same frequency." -- David Wong

0CronoDAS12yI keep thinking of Robin Hanson as that guy.

"No matter how the next forty-seven thousand years turn out, whether they are ages of liberty or tyranny, happiness or misery, by the time two hundred thousand million years are passed, the civilization that rules the sevagram will occupy basically the same area of the local galactic supercluster, and achieve roughly the same height of enlightenment and technical advancement. You are wasting my time with trifles."
-- John C. Wright, Null-A Continuum

1MichaelGR12yI suspect that the people who voted this down might have misunderstood what is interesting about it (or at least, why I like this one): It's a warning not to let things turn out this way.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky12yI suspect that people are not distinguishing between the concept of endorsing a statement as a judgment and endorsing its interestingness as a quote. Either that, or myself and the downvoter just find different things interesting, I guess.
[-][anonymous]12y 4

On an advertisement for a fitness product: "WHAT'S STRONGER? YOU, or YOUR EXCUSES?"

Loyalty mods don't whisper propaganda in your skull. They don't bombard you with images of the object of devotion while stimulating the pleasure centres of your brain, or cripple you with pain and nausea if you stray from correct thought. They don't cloud your mind with blissful euphoria, or feverish zealotry; nor do they trick you into accepting some flawed but elegant piece of casuistry. No brainwashing, no conditioning, no persuasion. A loyalty mod isn't an agent of change; it's the end product, a fait accompli. Not a cause for belief, but belief itself, belief made flesh - or rather, flesh made into belief.

--Greg Egan, "Quarantine".

"Student: How can one realize his Self-nature? I know so little about the subject.

Yasutani: First of all, you must be convinced you can do so. The conviction creates determination, and the determination zeal.

But if you lack conviction, if you think 'maybe I can get it, maybe I can't', or even worse, 'This is beyond me!' - you won't awaken no matter how much you do zazen."

pg 126, The Three Pillars of Zen, ISBN 8070-5979-7

When I came across this quote, I was struck by its relevance to one of Eliezer's beisutsukai posts about finding the success... (read more)

"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them" - Mr Gradgrind, Hard Times (Dickens)

An anti-rationalist quote. Dickens believes there is more to life than rationality. Does his satire upon us here have any basis in reality?

I quoted this in another comment, but I think it deserves to be in here as well. It used to be in the rec.backcountry FAQ.

"You have before you the disassembled parts of a high-powered hunting rifle, and the instructions written in Swahili. In five minutes an angry Bengal tiger will walk into the room."

-- Eugene Miya

6orthonormal12yWithout context, I'm afraid I don't understand what this is supposed to signify regarding rationality.
7RichardKennaway12yYes, it's a bit of a koan, and somewhat tangential. It's about the ineluctability of reality, saying that while you must win, you may not win, even if you do everything right. Even the ultimate in rationality is not a get out of jail free card, neither in the backcountry nor anywhere else. Maybe you can read Swahili. Maybe you are so familiar with hunting rifles you could assemble it blindfolded. Great -- today you get to win. Or maybe the tiger comes by RIGHT NOW. You lose. "You have before you the Alcor prospectus. In fifty years your body will wear out and die."
0anon89510yThat clarifies it for me. Possibly related: Beyond the Reach of God [http://lesswrong.com/lw/uk/beyond_the_reach_of_god/].
0[anonymous]10yThat clarifies it for me. Possibly related: Beyond the Reach of God [http://lesswrong.com/lw/uk/beyond_the_reach_of_god/].
0Roko12yI think that the barrell of a hunting rifle would make a pretty good blunt object to break the big pussycat's head with
3CronoDAS11yI leave the room. ;)
5bogus11yIt is pitch dark. You're likely to be eaten by a grue.
2RichardKennaway11yrrrrOWWR! CHOMP!
2Desrtopa10yI resolve to have left the room by the time five minutes are up.

"We have tried to do this in a hypothesis-independent manner because there is nothing more dangerous in life than a good hypothesis."

--Kári Stefánsson, deCODE Genetics

Two very similar quotes:

"It would not be a bad definition of math to call it the study of terms that have precise meanings." - Paul Graham

"Mathematics is the study of precisely defined objects." - Norman Gottlieb

For an idea to have survived so long across so many cycles is indicative of its relative fitness. Noise, at least some noise, was filtered out. Mathematically, progress means that some new information is better than past information, not that the average of new information will supplant past information, which means that it is optimal for someone, when in doubt, to systematically reject the new idea, information, or method. Clearly and shockingly, always. -Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness p.52

"I hold that moral intuitions are nothing but learned prejudices. Historic examples from slavery to the divine right of kings to tortured confessions of witchcraft or Judaism to the subjugation of women to genocide all point to the fallibility of these 'moral intuitions'. There is absolutely no sense to the claim that its conclusions are to be adopted before those of a reasoned argument." - Alonzo Fyfe

1conchis12yI'm not sure you can get anywhere without relying on intuitions at all. Some intuitions might hold more weight than others, but ultimately it's intuitions all the way down.

It is theory that decides what can be observed.

Albert Einstein

It really is a nice theory. The only defect I think it has is probably common to all philosophical theories. It’s wrong.

Saul Kripke

A mathematician is a person who can find analogies between theorems; a better mathematician is one who can see analogies between proofs and the best mathematician can notice analogies between theories. One can imagine that the ultimate mathematician is one who can see analogies between analogies.

Stefan Banach

I divide my officers into four classes; the clever, the lazy, the industrious, and the stupid. Most often two of these qualities come together. The officers who are clever and industrious are fitted for the highest staff appointments. Those who are stupid and lazy make up around 90% of every army in the world, and they can be used for routine work. The man who is clever and lazy however is for the very highest command; he has the temperament and nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious is a menace and must be removed immediately!

Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord

1Eliezer Yudkowsky12yDuplicate.

"Everything that happens happens as it should, and if you observe carefully, you will find this to be so. " - Marcus Aurelius

6Scott Alexander12yI counter with: -- Herodotus
3davidr12yMy interpretation is Aurelius' quote was an earlier verision of "it all adds up to normality"
2Tyrrell_McAllister12yWhat is the source of this quote? Googling it turns up only this thread. I searched for the word "historian" in the works of Herodotus available at Gutenberg.org, but with no luck.
2MichaelBishop12yIs he advocating writing ideologically biased history?
1conchis12yI would assume it's more a "those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it" kind of thing.

"A person is best defined by the nature of his evil."
-- Piers Anthony, "On a Pale Horse"

So, if we can't derive 'ought' from 'is' - then we have no reason to keep 'ought' around at all. We have no reason not to discard it and toss it in the same bin with God, devils, souls, [non-deterministic] free will, and other mythical entities that more primitive cultures once accepted.

-- Alonzo Fyfe

Words that are used to describe psychological phenomena are almost all informal layman's terms that have negative scientific meaning: they imply the existence of things that don't exist, like "intelligence" or "aggressiveness" or "altruism." Or "conditioning" or "habits" or "aptitudes" or -- see the literature.

-- William T. Powers

I have suspected that history, real history, is more modest and that its essential dates may be, for a long time, secret. A Chinese prose writer has observed that the unicorn, because of its own anomaly, will pass unnoticed. Our eyes see what they are accustomed to seeing.

--Jorge Luis Borges

There's no point in asking for things we can't have; we can only look for the best way to fight with the things we do have, for our entire life.

-- Hiruma Yoichi, Eyeshield 21

"Here it is difficult as it were to keep our heads up, - to see that we must stick to the subjects of our every-day thinking, and not go astray and imagine that we have to describe extreme subtleties, which in turn we are after all quite unable to describe with the means at our disposal. We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider's web with our fingers."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 106

The Paradoxical Commandments

I didn't want to ruin the pretty formatting by posting it here, so go follow the link.

"Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." - Mao Zedong

What you get by studying control systems as input-output systems is exactly what you have in the social sciences—a confusing and often inconsistent array of findings, only weakly reproducible and little more than verbal models to account for them, models with virtually no predictive or explanatory power.

-- Dr. Richard Marken, Teaching Dogma In Psychology (PDF)

Statistical findings are worse than useless. They give the illusion of knowledge. Even when they're true for a population, they're false when applied to any given person. To rely on statistics as a way of understanding how people work is to take up superstition in the name of science.

-- William T. Powers

0loqi12yTell that to a marketing agency.
2pjeby12yActually, marketers are well aware that statistics don't tell them HOW people work; they only tell them what gets the most response. Knowing that a "Johnson box" imrpoves results on mailing A to list B only suggests that it might work with mailing C to list D; it does not tell you how or why it worked, nor does it give you any real way to explain the result when it doesn't work. Most marketing is useful folklore; good theories in marketing are very few and far between. Even the best teachers of marketing rarely rise to strong theories; the ones that do are mostly either borrowing their models from NLP and hypnosis, or reinventing them. The quote is not about whether statistics might tell you something useful about people in general, it's about understanding HOW a specific individual is doing what they're doing. A statistical model can suggest paths to investigate, but it can't tell you what's actually going on in a specific case. IOW, it's an epic FAIL for a mechanic to "rely on statistics as a way of understanding how" your car works (or doesn't) instead of actually observing what a specific car is (or is not) doing.
2MichaelBishop12yA good mechanic will often use the following reason: 90% of cars with symptom x problem Y, so that is what I will check first.
1RichardKennaway12yThen, he will discover whether Y is actually the problem (ETA: for this particular car), and if not, discard that hypothesis and look for something else. This essential step is missing from all papers in psychology reporting statistical results. The fault is even worse when those results are reported in terms such as (to take a recent example) "willpower is a scarce resource".
1loqi12yI can't square with I'd say "useful folklore" is by definition better than useless.
0pjeby12yThe original quote was a scientist talking about finding deep theories of how people work. You can statistically validate such a theory, but the statistics themselves do not tell you anything about how something works. More specific example: the recent link about how expressing your goals leads to them failing in a certain number of cases. This is a nice statistic to quote, but it doesn't really say why, despite the attached theorizing about social energies and so forth. In my comment on that post, I mentioned several mechanisms I've observed for how a public commitment can lead to failure, and NONE of them were the social mechanism posited in the original article. (Which isn't to say I haven't also seen that mechanism at work.) The point is that without a good idea of what to look for, vaguely obtained statistics are not very useful. You can potentially validate a good model with statistics, but by their very nature, statistics are a measurement of what you don't know. If X% of people fail when they make a public commitment, what does that tell us about the other 100-X%? What about those same people under different circumstances? Such statistics say nothing about HOW the failure or success actually occurs, which is the one thing we most want to know in the scientific/epistemic context - a true model of behavior. In contrast, marketing, pickup, and self-help are instrumental fields, where not having a "true" model is not necessarily a problem. But the quote is from a scientist, talking about scientific usefulness.

What is truth?— Inertia; that hypothesis which gives rise to contentment; smallest expenditure of spiritual force, etc...

The easier mode of thought conquers the harder mode;— as dogma: "simplicity is the seal of truth"— I say: to suppose that clarity proves anything about truth is perfect childishness—

Parmenides said, "one cannot think of what is not";—we are at the other extreme, and say "what can be thought of must certainly be a fiction."

-- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (from fragments 537-539)

Intellect distinguishes between the possible and the impossible; reason distinguishes between the sensible and the senseless. Even the possible can be senseless.

-Max Born

[-][anonymous]12y 0

If you give me your attention, I will tell you what I am:

I'm a genuine philanthropist — all other kinds are sham.

Each little fault of temper and each social defect

In my erring fellow-creatures, I endeavour to correct.

To all their little weaknesses I open people's eyes;

And little plans to snub the self-sufficient I devise;

I love my fellow creatures — I do all the good I can —

Yet ev'rybody says I'm such a disagreeable man!

And I can't think why!

To compliments inflated I've a withering reply;

And vanity I always do my best to mortify;

A charitable action I can

... (read more)

when the small projects upon the great, it can only come up with a small answer

--JD krishnamurthy

The biggest myth I’ve encountered in my life is as follows: that the road from practical know-how to theoretical knowledge is reversible—in other words, that theoretical knowledge can lead to practical applications, just as practical applications can lead to theoretical knowledge.

-- Nassim Nicholas Taleb, History Written By The Losers

3roland12yInteresting, but the quote seems untrue for me.
7Eliezer Yudkowsky12yIt sounded blatantly false, so I looked up the paper; and it seems Taleb might be saying that the road is not simply reversible and that one direction is not just the same as the other. I hope. Because, I mean, really, what do you call a nuclear weapon if not a practical application of theoretical knowledge? Fission weapons did not exist in nature before they were envisioned based on abstract knowledge (by Leo Szilard, in his bathtub).
4pjeby12yRight, as he says later: In context, the quote is more about verbal overshadowing and related biases, wherein having a map can blind one to the territory, and the excesses of academic tail-chasing and status-bound disdain for the merely practical. In other words, it's rather a lot of things lumped together, each one of which has been an OB or LW post topic at one time or another. (Which is why I thought it appropriate to link to the whole thing, rather than just giving one out-of-context quote.) Wasn't the effort involved in generating the practical knowledge of how to build a nuclear weapon at least a couple of orders of magnitude greater than the effort involved in coming up with the idea, even if you count all of the physicists in a direct line from Newton to Szilard? Part of Taleb's point is that even if you have a promising theory, you are really only just getting started -- and then only if you don't have a model that blinds you to the real thing. And for a great many things (especially those where fast feedback is possible), you will get better results sooner by building your map from the territory than trying to come up with a theoretical model from scratch. One reason why knowledge doesn't flow equally in both directions is that theory is a more compact, "lossier" form of information that is necessarily included in practice. Another reason is that human brains are better at building intuitive models from experience than from principles. (i.e., better at extracting principles from experience than generating experience from principles.)
1MichaelBishop12ySometimes, but other times the opposite seems true to me.
1Vlad12yIt's not "blatantly false". To get from theory to practice you have to add to the theory various pieces of information about the practical issue. E.g. you might have a general theory of economics, but as a businessman you also have to consider the local details (which are not part of the general theory). The general theory might tell you (in the best case scenario) what information you need to gather (e.g. Newtonian mechanics tells you that in order to solve specific problems you have to know the force and measure position and velocity at a given time), but even so, you still need to gather that information. So the relationship between theory and practice is not reversible: you may have a general theory and yet be unable to solve specific problems (as you lack the specific information - e.g. meteorology), or you may be able to solve specific problems but lack a general theory (e.g. psychology).
0roland12yExactly. And it works the other way round also. If you know that throwing seeds into the ground will yield plants you can gain theoretical knowledge from that. Edit: I think my example was not that good. I'll give another one: if you can fold paper planes that fly you can gain theoretical knowledge for building a real plane. This is what models are for.