Rationality quotes: September 2010

by Morendil1 min read1st Sep 2010157 comments


Rationality Quotes
Personal Blog

This is our monthly thread for collecting these little gems and pearls of wisdom, rationality-related quotes you've seen recently, or had stored in your quotesfile for ages, and which might be handy to link to in one of our discussions.

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be voted up/down separately.  (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments.  If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
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Comic Quote Minus 37

-- Ryan Armand

Also a favourite.

6Rain10yI cried when I first saw this. Reading the rest of the storyline ruined it for me. rot13: Gur punenpgre jvgu gur onfronyy ong vf n pncevpvbhf tbq pncnoyr bs qbvat jungrire fur jnagf gb gur havirefr, hc gb naq vapyhqvat qrfgeblvat znwbe pvgvrf jvgu snagnfgvpny perngherf, fgnegvat jnef jvgu nyvra fcrpvrf, perngvat na nsgreyvsr jvgu rgreany gbegher, naq qverpgyl pnhfvat gur qrngu bs rirel uhzna ba rnegu.
0TobyBartels10yThat's not the end of the story, however. (This is also why the omniscience clause is important in the theodicy argument.)
5aleksiL10yThat was beautiful. And funny. I don't think I've ever laughed and cried simultaneously before. Not at the same thing anyway. Just... wow.
5Eliezer Yudkowsky10yI printed that out and put it on my bedroom wall at one point.
1Will_Newsome10yThere must be ways to make the risk of uFAI similarly salient. Are there psychological tricks that help to consistently process far mode dangers in near mode instead? All of a sudden I wish I'd paid more attention to Hanson's near/far posts. Oh well, there's tons of time.
2jsalvatier10yThat brought a tear to my eye.
1Psychohistorian10yIt is unfortunate I cannot upvote this multiple times. Truly beautiful.
0gwern10yAs a long standing Minus fan (I have a print [http://www.kiwisbybeat.com/minus39.html] on my wall), I've always wondered whether that was a FLCL [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FLCL] reference.

When people ask me what philosophy is, I say philosophy is what you do when you don't know what the right questions are yet. Once you get the questions right, then you go answer them, and that's typically not philosophy, that's one science or another. Anywhere in life where you find that people aren't quite sure what the right questions to ask are, what they're doing, then, is philosophy.

-- Daniel Dennett

Robot: "With all your modern science, are you any closer to understanding the mystery of how a robot walks or talks?"
Farnsworth: "Yes you idiot! The circuit diagram is right in the inside of your case."
Robot: "I choose to believe what I was programmed to believe!"

-- Futurama, The Honking

Writing program code is a good way of debugging your thinking.

-- Bill Venables

That seems like the extreme case of "you don't really understand something until you can explain it to somebody else", which I'm sure somebody other than me must have said a long time ago.


'116. You think you know when you can learn, are more sure when you can write, even more when you can teach, but certain when you can program.'

"Epigrams in Programming", by Alan J. Perlis; ACM's SIGPLAN publication, September, 1982

3Nominull10yOf course, machine learning algorithms render this obsolete. You don't have to understand something to program it, just have a vague understanding of how that understanding might come about.
8gwern10yArguably, that's still understanding. 'Now I know that natural language parsing is in this family of parametric functions which my ML algorithm can handle, with the coefficients given by minimizing the divergence from a bazillion word corpus...&etc.'
6SilasBarta10yIf that could work, that would be equivalent to having a Level 3 [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1yq/understanding_your_understanding/] understanding of how to regenerate the required knowledge -- hardly a shortcut!
0DanielLC10yNo, you have to have a certain understanding of how that understanding might come about.

Yes! I'm happy that at least one person clicks on that.

The software industry is currently held back by a conception of programming-as-manual-labor, consisting of semi-mechanically turning a specification document into executable code. In fact it's much closer to "the art of improving your understanding of some business domain by expressing the details of that domain in a formal notation". The resulting program isn't quite a by-product of that activity - it's important, though not nearly as important as distilling the domain understanding.

Programming is the art of figuring out what you want so precisely that you can tell even a machine how to do it.

6SilasBarta10yYes, I agree. The real test of AI is not the automation of "formal specification -> working code" -- if the client could formalize it to that level, they could write the code themselves. Rather, the real test is whether an AI could talk to an extroverted MBA, figure out what they want, and then produce the working code. But so far, only humans programmers can do that.

And by the same token, we'll know we've nailed AI not when we have written a program that can have that conversation... but when we have written down an account of how we are able to have that conversation, to such a level of detail that there's nothing left to explain.

Writing a program which solves the Towers of Hanoi is not too hard. Proving, given a formalization of the ToH, various properties of a program that solves it, isn't too hard. But looking at a bunch of wooden disks slotted on pegs and coming up with an interpretation of that situation which corresponds to the abstract scheme we know as "Towers of Hanoi"... That's where the fun is.

4Theist10yOne can't proceed from the informal to the formal by formal means. Yet. (Apologies to Alan Perlis etc)
5ShardPhoenix10yWhile that's basically true, a significant part of any large program consists of dealing with "accidental complexity" that isn't really part of the "business logic". Of course in many cases that only makes the programming even less mechanical.

Yes, and explaining it to a computer (i.e. writing working code) is the hardest version of this test, because it's the closest thing to a blank slate -- you can't rely on anything being "understood" like you would with a person, in which case you can just start from the NePOCU (nearest point of common understanding, learn to live with the acronym).

We have not solved all your problems. Each answer only led to new questions. We are still confused - but perhaps we are confused on a higher level, and about more important things.

-- seen on a hotel bulletin board

I was sure I'd heard that before, so I had to try to track it down. I found this.

6Snowyowl10yThis describes the outcome of pretty much every argument I've ever had. Well, except the ones whose outcome was "each party agrees that their opponent is an idiot".

...while apparently unaware that they may very well be both right.

Someone once quoted Shakespeare to the philosopher W. V. O. Quine: "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." To which Quine is said to have responded: "Possibly, but my concern is that there not be more things in my philosophy than are in heaven and earth."

Reported by Chet Raymo

1simplicio10yThe perfect reply to that, my least favourite line of Shakespeare.

I've linked to a quote from Daniel Ellsberg at Overcoming Bias, but it seemed relevant enough here to excerpt the bits that caught my eye:

First, you'll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn't, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn't even guess


you will forget there ever was a time when you didn't have it, and you'll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don't....and that all those other people are fools


you'll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information [...] But that takes a while to learn. In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn't have these clearances. Because you'll be thinking as you listen to them: 'What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice... (read more)

"Test Your God.... Test[s] cannot harm a God of Truth, but will destroy fakes. Fake gods refuse test[s]."

~ Dr. Gene Ray

6ata10yNever thought I'd see a quote from Gene Ray [http://www.timecube.com/] in Rationality Quotes, but I guess it's befitting of the Wisest Human!
0khafra10yWith Roger Schlafly [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2nz/less_wrong_open_thread_september_2010/2jsc?c=1] popping up as the voice of reason in the open thread, this month's got me asking some serious questions.

There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.

-G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

3katydee10yThis comment is blank.
2Jayson_Virissimo10ySuch as...?

Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

1simplicio10yYup. Although insofar as opinions may be objectively right, we would be wise not to fetishize originality too much.

Comic Quote Minus 13

-- Ryan Armand

Sometimes I see something that just seems to hit the bullseye deeply in the centre, and sticks there, quivering.

Like all dreamers, I confused disenchantment with truth. (Jean-Paul Sartre)

It is often said that experiments should be made without preconceived ideas. This is impossible.

--Henri Poincare, Science and Hypothesis.

-2adsenanim10yThis brings to mind the idea of correlation vs. casualty. There is the idea that the mind will recognize the combination of multiple sensations as correlation and from that it will develop conceptional reality. The process of going from correlation to that of causality is one of the process' of science. Conception, which includes science, is part of the learning process, which should be held as one of the most basic principles of not only human, but of evolutionary process'. Experimentation requires no preconception,it is part of the evolutionary process' and it happens regardless of the cognitive state. Preconception is impossible without experimentation.

House: There's never any proof. Five different doctors come up with five different diagnoses based on the same evidence.

Cuddy: You don't have any evidence. And nobody knows anything, huh? How is it you always think you're right?

House: I don't. I just find it hard to operate on the opposite assumption.

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent, but if we can come to terms with the indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

— Stanley Kubrick

A habit of basing convictions upon evidence, and of giving to them only that degree of certainty which the evidence warrants, would, if it became general, cure most of the ills from which the world is suffering. (Bertrand Russell)

Did Russell ever provide an argument in favor of this assertion? I am interested in hearing it.

0Christian_Szegedy10yWhy? Do you agree with him? :)
1Jayson_Virissimo10yI am very uncertain about the truth of the proposition, so I would like to hear arguments in favor of or against it to develop a more informed opinion.
4AlanCrowe10yI see lots of ways for Russell's proposal to fail in practice. Whose evidence? If he is suggesting confining yourself to evidence that you have gathered in person, he is proposing an unreasonably tight confinement that will certainly make the world worse. For example running your own double-blind trial of a drug requires that you trust your collaborators, so most of medicine is off limits to those who want evidence that they have seen with their own eyes. Granting trust in your close associates doesn't get you very far. You are still going to have to read the B.M.J. and trust "evidence" from people that you have never met and against whom you have no prospect of redress. Right from the start we must read Russell as asking us to get into the habit of basing convictions upon third-party evidence. How then are we to grant only that degree of certainty which the evidence warrants? It is not our evidence. We didn't gather it in person. Clearly it is not just evidence that it at issue but also trust. Who do we trust and why? I started with a legal perspective; what kind of custody chain conveys remote events to us? Turning to an accounting text book, the key words are relevance and reliability. There is a terrible tension between them. Two examples. One argument in favour of the 2nd Amendment of the US constitution is that governments go bad and massacre their own citizens. One can read the history of the twentieth century as the story of governments disarming their citizens and then ruling badly; unconstrained, since they need no longer fear revolt. Is this a good argument? It is a coarse grained argument, based on rare events of huge importance. Rare events mired in their own detail and circumstance. There is a strong temptation to look finer grained aspects of the issue. The use of fire arms in ordinary criminal murders is common enough and random enough to permit the deployment of the statistical tools of social science. Many prefer to discuss the issue in terms
0Christian_Szegedy10yI just find it a bit circular that you want evidences for the assertion saying that assertions need evidences.
5simplicio10yRussell is not just saying that beliefs should be proportional to evidence (if anyone on LW disagrees with THAT, I'll be shocked); he's saying that if that were done, it would eliminate most of the world's problems. If he had said 'many' instead of 'most,' it would be a great quote. Unfortunately there is a huge class of problems that, although they may eventually be solved by rational methods, are not solved just by being rational. Turning everyone rational overnight doesn't automatically cure death, for example. Nor does it remedy the partiality of human utility functions, or cure psychopaths of their psychopathy... et cetera.
4Christian_Szegedy10yYou should not take the statement too literally: Look it in a historical context. Probably the biggest problems at Russel's time were wars caused by nationalism and unfair resource allocation due to bad (idealistic/traditionalist) policies.. Average life expectancy was around 40-50 years. I don't think anyone considered e.g. a mortality a problem that can or should be solved. (Neither does over 95% of the people today). Population was much smaller. Earth was also in a much more pristine state than today. Times have changed. We have more technical issues today, since we can address more issues with technology, plus we are on a general trajectory today, which is ecologically unsustainable if we don't manage to invent and use the right technologies quickly. I think this is the fundamental mistake traditional ecological movements are making: There is no turning back. We either manage to progress rapidly enough to counteract what we broke (and will inevitably break) or our civilization collapses. There is no stopping or turning back, we have already bet our future. Being reasonable would have worked 100 years ago, today we must be very smart as well.
3Psychohistorian10yThat is not what circular means. If I say, "All claims need supporting evidence," then I am being inconsistent if I cannot provide evidence for that claim. Circular would be, "All claims require evidence. We know this, because without evidence, you cannot make a proper claim."
2ata10yThe original quote made a much stronger claim than merely "assertions need evidence".
0kodos9610yWhat part of it are you uncertain about? Do you just think that it's overstating things to think that rationality alone can "cure most of the ills from which the world is suffering"? Or are you actually questioning the wisdom of rationality?
8Jayson_Virissimo10yI might just be suffering from availability bias since I was reading about the French Revolution right before I read the quote, but I was thinking that so much of what we do that is non-rational (not based on explicit reasoning or weighing of evidence) could be adapted to our social environment through memetic evolution. If this was the case, dropping norms of behavior or social institutions simply because we don't have sufficient rational justification for them might prove disastrous. Does this sound crazy or am I making sense?
2AlanCrowe10yEdmund Burke [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Burke] added lustre to an already high reputation with his Reflections on the Revolution in France [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reflections_on_the_Revolution_in_France] published in 1790, in which he predicted that the revolution would lead to terrible disorder and, in time, a military coup. The general principles that he relied on for his successful prediction are close to what you suggest. Indeed your question "Does this sound crazy or am I making sense?" jars somewhat. Your position, Burkean Conservatism, is highly controversial, but the controversy is all the fiercer because Burkean Conservatism is acknowledged to be a respectable position on matters of great importance.
1SilasBarta10yBurkean conservatism seems to be different in critical ways from Phil Goetz's "Reason as memetic immune system disorder", in ways I can't quite articulate yet. Or at least, this is another case of, "Well, [Burke], it would have been a lot more convincing if you said it that way!" and another case of me getting angry because of how bad people are at explaining themselves. Also, I don't think Burke would have liked the view of dominant memes as viruses we've learned immunity from (even after adjusting for the negative connotations of "virus", and Burke not being alive while the term was in common use in English).
2RobinZ10yNo, that makes sense - PhilGoetz wrote a post on the theme [http://lesswrong.com/lw/18b/reason_as_memetic_immune_disorder/] some time back.
3Jayson_Virissimo10yThanks for the link.
1fiddlemath10yIt makes a certain sense. On the other hand, a sufficiently powerful rationalist should have some sense of what works well in our social environment, and thus shouldn't be reflexively ignored.
0Jayson_Virissimo10yTrue, which is why I am very uncertain about the quote or my first thoughts about it. Also, I had a vague picture in my mind of an entire society going through the valley of bad rationality [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Valley_of_bad_rationality] at the same time. Needless to say, that would be a very scary (and thankfully very improbable) possible future.

The art of ignoring is one of the accomplishments of every well-bred girl, so carefully instilled that at last she can even ignore her own thoughts and her own knowledge.

-- H.G. Wells, Ann Veronica

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death.... Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man. (Bertrand Russell)

8Emile10yI don't think that's true. In fact, it sound close to "Well, if those people don't agree with me, it must be because they are afraid of my thoughts!", which is a convenient excuse to ignore other people's opinions, with an implicit ad hominem ("They must be disagreeing with me for irrational reasons!"). If you don't agree with me, you're probably just afraid of my ideas.
4JohnDavidBustard10yI think the reason you can tell that people are afraid is because they start getting angry at what you have said. The more the discussion occurs the angrier they get. If you're not afraid, the expected response would be interest (why do you think that?) or boredom. Many discussions become angry, so I suggest most discussions are frightening and by extension the thought that caused the discussion in the first place could well be scary all by itself.
4DSimon10yThis ignores a third potential reason for people to get angry: They've rationally assessed your idea X but still disagree with it strongly, and also think that if your idea were more widely adopted it would cause lots of disutility. Expressing anger is unlikely to change your mind, but it may help to prevent a third party from taking idea X seriously.
2JohnDavidBustard10yI think this is a pretty good reason to be afraid. While you may be slightly psychopathic and are expressing anger for purely manipulative reasons, I would suggest that it is more plausible to say that you are afraid that other people will adopt that view.
4JenniferRM10yAnother theory for why someone might get angry at me when I "express an idea" is that I might think that I'm simply expressing an idea but they could interpret my expressions primarily as an insult. For example, John, if I suggested that you were "slightly psychopathic" if people get angry at you when you try to express ideas, then I think it would be legitimate for you to get angry with me for insulting you like that. I might use this anger as further evidence of your psychopathy, but that would be kinda silly :-P Really, if this is what was happening, I think it would involve more failure on my part (failing to communicate without insulting you) than on yours (failing to silently accept my insults while attending to the reasoning hidden behind them).
4JohnDavidBustard10yI think this post starts to get to the heart of why ideas are frightening. At first glance it seems strange to have evolved any mental system that attributes such weight to something (intellectual discussion) that has no immediate survival consequences. However studies have shown that status (community judgments of different members value) and legitimacy (whether a person has committed an appropriate or socially taboo action) do carry with them significant effects on survival, and in severe cases can last across generations (making them worse than say, being eaten by an animal). This is because status determines who has influence (and may determine if one gets to eat or not), and legitimacy determines whether one is attacked (in a communities eyes, punished) with people being so willing to enforce these ideas that they are willing to suffer in order to maintain them. In this sense the quote is entirely correct, thought is the most terrifying thing because thought carries with it changes in status and legitimacy rules. The examples in the quote demonstrate the power of thought, highlighting the kind of traditional social defenses thought can destroy. An insult, is the very name we give to incidents of this fear, the more directly we concentrate on the person speaking the more obvious the association, but fundamentally when thought is most powerful it alters our status and legitimacy values, and so, regardless of how obliquely we make statements, they are always going to be frightening, and thus experienced as an insult.
5JenniferRM10yThat was a beautiful reply :-D To push a little more (and much more gently this time) I suspect that you are homing in on a familiar critique of politics [http://lesswrong.com/lw/gw/politics_is_the_mindkiller/] rather than ideas themselves (which can sometimes be profitably separated from politics). I personally have a very hard time remembering situations where ideas themselves seemed to lead to emotional reactions, rather than having ideas expressed in front of an audience, with competitive processes layered in as an inherent part of what's going on. Like, I love having conversations on road trips, because its private and safe and there is room for 90 minutes of undistracted cooperative communication. In my experience, those kind of conversations don't cause people to freak out very much at all, even when the ideas are themselves very "fraught". -Jerry Seinfeld [http://thinkexist.com/quotation/according_to_most_studies-people-s_number_one/9010.html] I suspect that beyond a certain point, sanity can only be raised by groups of people who are aware of (and have the skills to manage?) issues like glossophobia [https://www.thieme-connect.com/ejournals/abstract/ssl/doi/10.1055/s-2005-871206] . There is a big difference between contexts where people try to induce crazy emotions in someone they are debating (which I was sort of doing by example, in the grandparent [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2o3/rationality_quotes_september_2010/2k9z?c=1] and for which I apologize) versus contexts where people are explicitly trying to bring an epistemically "nurturing [http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a911383967]" environment into being :-)
1JohnDavidBustard10yI’m glad you like it : ) I suppose the question is, to what extent can ideas be separated from social dynamics, such as status and legitimacy, and therefore not carry with them the risk of causing anger and fear. Well ideas can certainly create positive as well as negative responses. For example, more accurate understanding and the communication of practically useful approaches are often intrinsically enjoyable. As is the communication of experience that might help determine the correct course of action or help avoid problems (i.e. personal stories, news). Provided these don’t threaten our status and legitimacy rules they remain positive and rewarding. They can also serve to validate our choices and serve to bolster our self esteem, or even to reduce the importance of those who threaten our values (satire). These can be viewed as improving our feelings that we have status (value) and legitimacy (goodness), i.e. the opposite of the fear causing uses I mentioned above. However, ideas can also influence these factors more indirectly. For example, in the entertainment industry the term ‘social currency’ is sometimes used. This is used to describe the value that people place on communicating ideas as a means for establishing relationships (mutually nurturing through making each other feel good) and raising status (being relatively more important because you convey the pleasure of entertainment). A process mirrored here through the karma points. As such it can carry fears associated with threatening those in an alpha position or a conflict in the rules that underlie the status, for example as expressed in the phrase “you’re just saying that to be popular”. Academics and other creative roles have the added pressure that the continuous generation of ideas is the basis for their livelihood. This is likely to lead to ideas being a major factor in their self esteem, adding an extra intensity to the fears and pleasures associated with having them (perhaps explaining why B
1cousin_it10yAnother related LW post: The Nature of Offense [http://lesswrong.com/lw/13s/the_nature_of_offense/].
0JohnDavidBustard10yThank you, it's such a pleasure to find so many interesting discussions of these ideas.
0[anonymous]10yThis is lovely. It is not quite my watchword -- I would be a very different person if it were, and I'm not sure I'm prepared for that -- but I can at least look through the window, so to speak, and see the view.

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

-- Peter Drucker

5gwern10yDupe: http://lesswrong.com/lw/g1/rationality_quotes_may_2009/cws?c=1 [http://lesswrong.com/lw/g1/rationality_quotes_may_2009/cws?c=1]
4ata10yI disagree. I don't see why doing that which shouldn't be done at all inefficiently wouldn't be even more useless. Edit: Ah, I see that was already discussed in the May 2009 thread.
9lionhearted10yI'm not sure of the exact context, but Drucker is primarily a writer on management and business. He wrote a really high number of books outlining management principles, he's considered one of the fathers of the discipline of management. So to his audience, he's saying "Don't get excited how efficient your card-puncher-tallying system is, when your real goal is high quality output." I think he's reminding people to not get caught up in doing a process well if the process doesn't produce real results.

I'm looking for a Darwin quote I used to have, but lost. It was something about how whenever he encoutered a fact that seemed wrong to him, he immediately noted it down, as such facts are both important and easy to forget.

It's harder to find than you think. It's not on the master list of rationality quotes or any of the top 10 google results for "darwin quotes". And the problem with 19th century thinkers is that their vocabulary is too big, and so Google is crippled against them.

(Edit: good job. I had tried "fact", but not limiting the source. And some other words I attempted - "note", "write", "remember", "forget" - are not there.)

Anyone who upvotes this comment is committing to upvote the person who finds the quote.

I had, also, during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.

-From his Autobiography, 1902.

A wonderful quote indeed. Found by guessing that it was biographical or autobiographical (it seemed a little too personal for a scientific treatise) and searching for the word "fact" in the online text of the (very readable) autobiography.

8RobinZ10yIf I could give an additional upvote for your elaboration of methodology, I would.

If there were a party of those who are not sure they are right, I'd belong to it.

--Albert Camus

2homunq10yPolitics is the pursuit of ends (whether they be some ethical goal or simply power itself). Camus's attitude, though appropriate to the seeking of truth, is not appropriate to politics. In other words, there is a party of those who are not sure they are right, and don't want to make common cause with anybody who is sure they're right. It's the people who don't get involved in politics.

Ignoring the trees to see the forest doesn't mean that one is more important than the other - it just gives a different perspective.

-- Michael Sipser, Introduction to the Theory of Computation (2nd ed., page 257)

Distrust any historical anecdote good enough to have survived on its literary merit.

-- David Friedman

The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.

--T.H. White, The Once and Future King

Be not astonished at new ideas; for it is well known to you that a thing does not therefore cease to be true because it is not accepted by many.

-- Spinoza

6James_Miller10yBut not being accepted by many provides some evidence against a thing being true.
7RobinZ10yAnd being thought of by someone is evidence of the thing being true. And all these evidences are screened off by correct analysis of the thought itself.
6Drahflow10yBut some thoughts are both so complex and so irrelevant that a correct analysis of the thought would cost more than an infrequent error about thoughts of this class (costs of necessary meta-analysis included).
3wedrifid10yMost of what we do here, for example.

How do you get new ideas? That you do by analogy, mostly, and in working with analogy you often make very great errors. It's a great game to try to look at the past, at an unscientific era, look at something there, and say have we got the same thing now, and where is it?

-- Richard Feynman, The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, page 114

Let’s consider what an economist would do if he wanted to study horses. [...] What would he do? He’d go to his study and think, ‘What would I do if I were a horse?’ And he’d come up with the conclusion that he’d maximize his utility.

-- Ronald Coase, quoting Ely Devons

The longer, less soundbite-y quote is also interesting:

Now what’s wrong with this situation? What’s wrong with economists acting in this sort of way? I’ll tell you a tale about an English economist, Ely Devons. I was at a conference and he said, “Let’s consider what an economist would

... (read more)

This one is rather long, but I think makes a point worth considering for anyone writing to instruct the public.

One who hopes to effect any good by his writings, must be so pure in his life, that what he proposes for instruction or imitation must be a transcript of his own heart. But general improvement is so little to be anticipated, that almost any attempt which may be made by an individual in his zeal to do good, seems to be lost labour. Those whose character has attained to the greatest perfectness, are at all times the persons most willing and anxiou

... (read more)
2RobinZ10yThis seems to rather have a similar effect, to my mind. Put this notice after the quote, perhaps?
0RichardKennaway10yAgreed and so edited.

Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.

-- Mark Twain

1Drahflow10yLoyality to petrified opinion has already kept chains from being closed and souls from being trapped.

The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.

Marcus Aurelius

Finally, a third from Russell that I admire chiefly for its unflinching courage. And love him or hate him, you've got to admit - the guy had a way with words:

"That man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspir... (read more)

6Apprentice10yI think I'll repurpose a recent quote here: Personally, this is not the first time I've heard about the Serious Philosophical Issues posed by the death of the solar system, and my attitude has always been that I'm willing to grapple with those issues for as many centuries as it takes. I find worries about the heat death of the universe almost as comically premature. Ping me about heat death in a million years - if it still looks like a problem at that point, then I'm willing to consider it an issue. "But you probably won't be alive in a million years!" Well, then there's even less reason for me to worry about this. Edit: I don't disagree that Russell knew how to turn a phrase - I find the sentence Kazuo quoted especially appealing, the words "a universe in ruins" are evocative. (And thanks for digging up the link, KT.)
3arch110yApprentice, You appear to be of like mind with - ironically, Russell himself (I'm not a Russell fanatic, really I'm not: - though I clearly find him a vein worth mining deeply on this particular topic:-). From 'Why I Am Not A Christian,' a 1927 talk to the National Secular Society in London (on a day on which I suppose his stomach was feeling better): " I am told that that sort of view [of the earth eventually becoming cold, dead and lifeless] is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that, they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries about much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out -- at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation -- it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things." I pledge NO MORE Russell quotes for the remainder of the day. Pacific Time.
3Kazuo_Thow10yEh... "inevitably" is one of those words that takes a very high degree of confidence to use correctly - a degree of confidence we really don't have with current cosmology, if the simulation hypothesis is true. (By the way, here's [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2jj/rationality_quotes_august_2010/2cx0?c=1] the quote from last month's thread which Apprentice was repurposing.)
2arch110yKazuo, I agree; given our current knowledge that quote is open to criticism on several points of fact (most obviously its focus on the solar system rather than whatever passes for the universe these days). That's why I said I admire it mainly for its courage and style.

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

-- Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor

I was about to reply that apparently Marcus Aurelius had never put his hand on a burning stove, but then I remembered that he had probably been taught about Mucius Scaevola about a million times.

Huh, I'd never heard of that. Great story. Thanks for sharing -


"I am Gaius Mucius, a citizen of Rome. I came here as an enemy to kill my enemy, and I am as ready to die as I am to kill. We Romans act bravely and, when adversity strikes, we suffer bravely." He also declared that he was one of three hundred other Romans willing to give their own life to kill Porsenna.(Ab Urbe Condita, II.12) Porsenna, fearful and angry, ordered Mucius to be cast into the flames. Mucius stoically accepted this punishment, preempting Porsenna by thrusting his hand into that same fire and giving no sign of pain. Impressed by the youth's courage, Porsenna freed Mucius.

Von Neumann advised Shannon to use the word “entropy” on the grounds that “Nobody knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.”

Gowers quoting H-T Yau quoting Shannon quoting von Neumann

4wnoise10yWell, there's also the issue that they're fundamentally the same thing.
2DanielVarga10yThis is hindsight. In 1948, Shannon and von Neumann were obviously aware of a deep analogy, but nothing more than that. The position you take was made popular by Jaynes only in 1957, nine years later.
0wnoise10yMade popular by, yes. Invented? Not according to Jaynes, who saw it as implicit in the work of Gibbs.

"The things with which we concern ourselves in science appear in myriad forms, and with a multitude of attributes. For example, if we stand on the shore and look at the sea, we see the water, the waves breaking, the foam, the sloshing motion of the water, the sounds, the air, the winds and the clouds, the sun and the blue sky, and light; there is sand and there are rocks of various hardness and permanence, color and texture. There are animals and seaweed, hunger and disease, and the observer on the beach; there may be even happiness and thought. A... (read more)

Stand firm for what you believe in, until and unless logic and experience prove you wrong. Remember, when the emperor looks naked, the emperor is naked. The truth and a lie are not sort of the same thing.

-Daria Morgendorffer (from the TV show Daria)

Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do. (St. Thomas Aquinas)

I find this a very efficient three-step guide to living, provided of course that we interpret "ought to" in a way that is very much not the Angelic Doctor's.

(For the record, he followed up with: The first is taught in the [Nicean] Creed... the second in the Lord's prayer; the third in law. Wish it were so simple.)

There are two ways of holding beliefs in one’s mind. Holding a belief may be experienced ... as plain awareness of a fact, without awareness of reasons to take it to be a fact. So are held most of our ordinary beliefs. ...

Other beliefs I hold because I also believe there is a good reason to hold them. ... we entertain them together with the reasons we have to accept them.

-- Dan Sperber (emphasis mine)

I firmly believe that the whole materia medica as now used could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.

  • Oliver Wendel Holmes (1809 - 1894)

"Hence our truth is the intersection of independent lies."

-- Richard Levins, "The Strategy of Model Building in Population Biology" American Scientist, V. 54, No 4, Dec 1966, pp421-430.

It is part of this paragraph on p. 423:

"Therefore, we attempt to treat the same problem with several alternative models each with different simplifications but with a common biological assumption. Then, if these models, despite their different assumptions, lead to similar results we have what we can call a robust theorem which is relatively free of the details of the model. Hence our truth is the intersection of independent lies."

[-][anonymous]10y 4


3Perplexed10yClosely related: --G. Khan [http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/174247]
2James_K10yG. Khan? That's the first time I've seen a title abbreviated that way. It is a good quote in a "rationality is about winning" sort of way. Such a shame is definition of winning was so negative sum.
5Perplexed10yIs it permissible to assert that rationality is about winning? Hume might argue that "winning" is about ends, whereas "rationality" is about means. -- D. Hume However, it is sometimes argued that the word "rational" can be applied to ends, as well as means. --M. Phipps in "Must Rational Preferences Be Transitive?" [http://www.jstor.org/pss/2219832] It appears that Mr. Khan's expressed preferences are very likely transitive, but it is difficult to see how this could be argued regarding Mr. Bagehot's preferences. Unlike Mr Khan, Mr Bagehot makes his own desires dependent upon the expressed opinions of those around him.
4James_K10yEliezer advocates the "rationality is about winning" position, as timtyler note sin his reply to you. And this is actually a Humean point. The idea is that passion is about what you want i.e. want qualifies as winning and rationality is about getting what you want i.e. how to go about winning. As for Mr Bagehot's preference set, it's true that transitivity is a necessary condition for rationality because an agent with intransitive preferences has no coherent utility function. However, I don't think that's an issue here. Bagehot's preferences are dependant on others, but that doesn't make them intransitive. I fact there's no way to test for intransitivity with fewer than three alternatives to choose from.
4timtyler10yThat's a Yudkowsky theme: http://lesswrong.com/lw/7i/rationality_is_systematized_winning/ [http://lesswrong.com/lw/7i/rationality_is_systematized_winning/] http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Rationalists_should_win [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Rationalists_should_win]
2wedrifid10yYou're right. And the "rationalist win" slogan gets annoying for that reason - a good point but not technically correct. There's something along the lines of 'most likely' or 'maximise' that is missing.
1wedrifid10yWow. I've never comparison to Gengis Khan used as a way to make someone sound fickle. :)
0Will_Sawin10yUntrue. Bagehot desires pleasure, and pleasure is dependent on the opinions of those around him. This is consistent.
1Perplexed10yConstructive? --W. Bagehot [http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/w/walter_bagehot.html] Well, maybe. He advocates doing the supposed impossible, while merely daydreaming about the forbidden.
1timtyler10yThat is where Conan got his idea about "what is best in life" [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PQ6335puOc] from.
5simplicio10yClearly wrong, according to Cohen the Barbarian [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYHFMuvCsr0].
5Perplexed10y--C. T. Barbarian [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082198/quotes]

Things are entirely what they appear to be and behind them... there is nothing. (Jean-Paul Sartre)

0simplicio10yNothing else, or "nothingness?"

We agree with those whose ideas are at the same degree of confusion as our own.



I prefer the following version, but I don't have the source, so it's from memory:

We call clear those ideas that have the same degree of confusion as our own.

Perfect descriptions of reality are unattainable, unnecessary, and too costly for learning organisms, including humans. But workable descriptions are indispensable. So knowledge systems, like maps, are a complex blend of realism, flexibility, usefulness, and inspiration.

-- David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History

An attitude of nonjudgment, patience, and compassion entices clients to let down their defenses in order to get in touch with emotional charges they have been holding in their bodies. If practitioners try to break through the resistances -- to fight with the guardian -- clients are put in a no-win situation. They then have no choice but to fight back or to shut down the part of themselves that is in charge of protection, in which case the results might be catastrophic. The guardian is betrayed by the very part of the self that needs protection, propagatin

... (read more)

Consciousness is overrated. What we call consciousness now is a very imperfect summary in one part of the brain of what the rest is doing.

-- Marvin Minsky

0[anonymous]10yCan something be "overrated", no matter how bad it is, if we don't have anything better anyway?
[-][anonymous]10y 2

It is usual to distinguish four phases in creation: preparation, incubation, illumination and verification, or working out.... Preparation is largely conscious, and anyhow directed by the conscious. The essential problem has to be stripped of accidentals and brought clearly into view; all relevant knowledge surveyed; possible analogues pondered. It should be kept constantly before the mind during intervals of other work.... Incubation is the work of the subconscious during the waiting time, which may be several years. Illumination, which can happen in a f

... (read more)

By now I have established myself as either a recognized authority possessing admirable diligence or a raving fanboy admitting dubious sanity, or just possibly the two are not mutually exclusive.

Noah Falstein

Billy [Beane] wasn't one to waste a lot of time worrying about whether he was motivated by a desire to succeed or the pursuit of truth. To his way of thinking the question was academic, since the pursuit of truth was, suddenly, the key to success.

Michael Lewis, Moneyball, Chapter Three ("The Enlightenment").

As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won't be able to just turn the machines off, because t... (read more)

Since 1900, perhaps 1800 or even earlier, people have been letting markets make their decisions for them. When the Bolsheviks decided to turn off the markets by bringing the means of production and exchange into common ownership they found that the decisions necessary to keep the system running were so complex that human beings were incapable of making them intelligently.

That is Mises Economic calculation argument against socialism. Perhaps Mises argument is wrong. Free markets and private property offer a system that is roughly incentive compatible. Perhaps the real issue is that we do not know how to design a burearocracy in which the incentives of the bureaucrats are sufficiently aligned with the over-arching goal. Whatever. My main point is that people only make decisions locally and have never been in charge in the sense that quote claims.

1Perplexed10yPerhaps not, but in the past, whenever folks have become too dissatisfied with the non-local decisions being made on their behalf, they have always managed to find some scapegoat to put up against the wall and shoot. And that catharsis, while costly, never quite reached the level of stupidity of a collective suicide. I almost agree with the Unibomber here. I hope we never become so dependent on our technology that we simply can't find our way back.

Those creatures, which by their original make are so constituted, that their desires and their duty always necessarily coincide, can't, I think, be said to have any claim to a reward: whereas those who are surrounded with difficulty and temptation, and who are obliged to deny themselves and submit to great inconveniences that they may maintain their integrity, if notwithstanding this, they do behave uprightly, seem on this account to have an equitable claim to it.

-- Thomas Bayes

(The first type of entity sounds like a properly designed FAI - there is cer... (read more)

If magic is all we've ever known
Then it's easy to miss what really goes on

-Insane Clown Posse, "Miracles." Unfortunately, the rest of the song is garbage (though humorous garbage) and glorifies the exact naive view criticized in these lines.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Be not astonished at new ideas; for it is well known to you that a thing does not therefore cease to be true because it is not accepted by many.

-- Spinoza

[-][anonymous]10y 0

"Sanity is a state in which our component selves love and trust each other, and are prepared to let each other assume control as circumstances demand."

[-][anonymous]10y 0

"Sanity is a state in which our component selves love and trust each other, and are prepared to let each other assume control as circumstances demand."

0linaresj10yEdited. Sorry, browser was not responding properly due to Java security. Better now.