Rationality Quotes Thread February 2016

by elharo1 min read2nd Feb 201697 comments


Rationality Quotes
Personal Blog

Another month, another rationality quotes thread. The rules are:

  • Provide sufficient information (URL, title, date, page number, etc.) to enable a reader to find the place where you read the quote, or its original source if available. Do not quote with only a name.
  • Post all quotes separately, so that they can be upvoted or downvoted 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  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson. If you'd like to revive an old quote from one of those sources, please do so here.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
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The truth comes as conqueror only because we have lost the art of receiving it as guest.

Rabindranath Tagore in The Fourfold Way of India (1924)

3WalterL5yThat's a great quote!
1SnowSage44444yShit, that's good. How do I upvote you?
0Viliam4yFirst you have to get enough karma by posting comments that will be upvoted by others.

“It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously,” Daniel Kahneman noted, “but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.”

Superforcasting, p. 85

0DanArmak4yI'm not sure what this is saying. Should we assume people are overconfident? Always, or only when they claim high confidence? Should we just ignore people's confidence claims entirely?
0Brillyant5yI love this quote. But this... ...strikes me as a highly confident declaration for which the quoted is simultaneously urging me to be skeptical. I'd imagine the book lays out his case as to why I ought listen to his counsel. I'd be interested to dig into this.
0Armok_GoB5yThe solution here might be that it does mainly tell you they have constructed a coherent story in their mind, but that having constructed a coherent story in their mind is still usefull evidence for being true depending on what else you know abaut the person, and thus worth telling. If the tone of the book was differnt, it might say:
0ChristianKl5yI think it's probably false if you treat it as the claim that every person who's highly confident that an event happens has constructed a coherent story in his mind. On the other hand that reading doesn't seem to be the intended message.
0Brillyant5yIt says "mainly". That's vague-ish. I assumed greater than 50%; probably something like 75% of the time or more.
0Zubon5yThere is some small number of people whom I trust when they say they very confident. They can explain the reasons why they came to a belief and the counterarguments. Most other highly confident statements I look upon with suspicion, and I might even take the confidence as evidence against the claim. Many very confident people seem unaware of counterarguments, are entirely dismissive of them, or wear as a badge of pride that they have explicitly refused to consider them. There are others whose intuition I will trust with high confidence on certain topics, significantly because they are aware that they are exercising intuition. They may not know how they know something, but at least they know they don't know how they know it, which tends to get them to the right confidence level.

"The remedy lies, indeed, partly in charity, but more largely in correct intellectual habits, in a predominant, ever-present disposition to see things as they are, and to judge them in the full light of an unbiased weighing of evidence applied to all possible constructions, accompanied by a withholding of judgment when the evidence is insufficient to justify conclusions.

I believe that one of the greatest moral reforms that lies immediately before us consists in the general introduction into social and civic life of that habit of mental procedure which... (read more)

2Mass_Driver5yDoes anyone know what happened to TC Chamberlin's proposal? In other words, shortly after 1897, did he in fact manage to spread better intellectual habits to other people? Why or why not?
0[anonymous]5yBeautiful. I like that doesn't berate irrationality.

It is knowledge, in general, which is pursued solely by man, and which is pursued for the sake of knowledge itself, because its acquisition is truly delightful, and is unlike the pleasures desirable from other pursuits [...] For the good cannot be brought forth, and evil cannot be avoided, except by knowledge.

Abu Rayhan al-Birūni

For superforecasters, beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be guarded. It would be facile to reduce superforecasting to a bumper-sticker slogan, but if I had to, that would be it.

Philip E. Tetlock in Superforecasting

Context: Brady is talking about a safari he took and the life the animals he saw were leading.

Brady: It really was very base, everything was about eating and not dying, pretty amazing.

Grey: Yeah, that is exactly what nature is, that's why we left.

-- Hello internet (link, animated)

Might be more anti-naturalist than strictly rationalist, but I think it still qualifies.

2Lumifer5yI think he's mistaken in believing we left :-/
3Silver_Swift5yWell, we're working on it, ok ;) We obviously haven't left nature behind entirely (whatever that would mean), but we have at least escaped the situation Brady describes, where we are spending most of our time and energy searching for our next meal while preventing ourselves from becoming the next meal for something else. The life for the average human in first world countries is definitely no longer only about eating and not dying.
3[anonymous]5yExcuse me, my life is only about eating and not dying. ;)

If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so. Words and thoughts don’t change anything. Language and reality are kept strictly apart—reality is tough, unyielding stuff, and it doesn’t care what you think or feel or say about it. Or it shouldn’t. You deal with it, and you get on with your life.

Little children don’t know that. Magical thinking: that’s what Freud called it. Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children. The separation of word and thing are the essential facts on which our adult lives are founded.

... (read more)

No matter how brilliant our scientist is, or how intricately he himself understands his discovery, if he fails to convey it to the scientific community in such a way that they have ready access to it and can understand it, unfortunately that community will not benefit from what he has discovered. The moral of this story is that the means by which knowledge is conveyed are every bit as important as that knowledge itself.

Barry Smith in Applied Ontology

Though evolution, as such, did encounter resistance, particularly from some religious groups, it was by no means the greatest of the difficulties the Darwinians faced. That difficulty stemmed from an idea that was more nearly Darwin’s own. All the well-known pre-Darwinian evolutionary theories—those of Lamarck, Chambers, Spencer, and the German Naturphilosophen—had taken evolution to be a goal-directed process.

The “idea” of man and of the contemporary flora and fauna was thought to have been present from the first creation of life, perhaps in the mind of

... (read more)
0Glen5yThis is an interesting historical note, but I am having a hard time seeing why it is a rationality quote. Perhaps as a record of people acting irrationally? Would you mind explaining a bit?
3ChristianKl5yThere a public misconception about Darwin having been primarily opposed for advocating evolution when that wasn't his biggest problem. Today there are some people who think of themselves as Darwinists but who follow teleological notions of evolution and say things like: "The goal of life is to procreate." The controversial thing that Darwin said was that there's no goal.

In my experience on this planet, anything that is both important and corruptible (without detection) is already corrupted.

Scott Adams

Does this fit with your experience? As a cynical economist, I'm pleasantly surprised at how non-corrupt grading is at U.S. colleges.

7Bryan-san5yDoes that include the grade inflation at major universities [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grade_inflation] or the universities with specific classes that have their difficultly increased and grading deflated so that they fail out students at a more regular rate? (I know some universities do the second type on the introductory science courses while others do it at 3rd year courses.) Or were you referring to something else like bribes?
2username25yNo. At least, not here in England. I do a lot of hiring for posts that are well paid with a lot of scope for "professional independence". There is scope for these being sinecures, at least in the short or medium term. I have never once been offered a bribe or any hint of anything like corruption. I have never once been asked for a bribe by any public official. I have never once been offered one or anything like one when acting as a voluntary public official. I would be genuinely shocked if those ever happened. I do not believe my experience is unusual in this country. I believe there are other places where this would be unusual.
2CCC5yI feel I should point out that corrupt grading is easily detectable - one can often see it by looking at a corruptly graded paper, or by interviewing a candidate who got a high grade and finding that he does not know the subject. And thus, it is not covered by the Adams quote. Moreover, universities have a strong incentive to not be corrupt in their grading - if they let people slip through without learning the work, employers will start to notice and discount qualifications from that institution, and then prospective students will hear of this and go to other institutions instead, and then the entire institution will collapse. (It's not immediate, or perfect, and quick action at the start of the process can save the institution, but it is a consideration).
5Zubon5yThe fact that few employers request transcripts and fewer distinguish between "barely passing" and "summa cum laude" (maybe apart from recent graduates?) seems like pretty strong evidence about caring about grading corruption. You really need to corrupt your school's degree award process (like a diploma mill) before anyone will care about it. Also, as Old_Gold suggests, if you count grade inflation as corruption of grading, empirically this incentive wasn't strong enough. We also note that across-the-board corruption of this type undermines incentives. If someone comes up with a better signal, the entire institution of universities would collapse, but most people have seemed to accept rampant grade inflation with a shrug rather than mostly ignoring degrees. It may eventually collapse, but on a time scale where it seems difficult to believe "this was due to grade inflation starting 50 years ago."
0CCC5yYes, that's true. The incentive works on grading corruption at the level of "this guy should have scored 10%, how did he pass?". It has no effect on grading corruption on the level of "this guy should have barely passed, how did he get a distinction?"
3Old_Gold5yExcept who sees a paper except the grader and the student who wrote it? Empirically this incentive wasn't strong enough.
6Lumifer5yYou do have a recognizable style, y'know...
4CCC5yExternal examiners?
0James_Miller5yVery rare for undergrads.
4[anonymous]5yIn the UK it is standard - my institution has blind marking, double marking and scrutiny by external examiners for all undergraduate exams. Blind marking: we only have a candidate number and not a student's name. Second marking: someone else evaluates the marks (grades) I give - in some cases independently; external examiner: someone from another institution checks that the marking criteria is being followed. Blind marking could be circumvented in various ways, but doing so would be risky as the exams will be seen by others. Second marking and external examining are a huge time burden but achieve some degree of quality control, especially important as students don't get to see their exam papers again (perhaps the biggest surprise to staff and students who come here from the US and are used to post-exam argumentation as a form of "quality control").
0James_Miller5yThis screams "corruption". Knowing that students will be looking at how you grade their paper, and will be comparing how you grade them with how you grade others provides professors with some incentives to be honest and careful in grading.
2[anonymous]5yI'm surprised students put up with it, but they don't know anything different. They hear about US students who argue every single grade but I don't think they realise such students actually exist. However I'm really happy to be away from my first (US) academic post where I constantly faced pressure from an athletic department to "relax" on grades or overlook "minor problems" from athlete-students. Post exam argumentation from individual students is easy enough to deal with reasonably and honestly, institutional forces are another beast entirely.
2Good_Burning_Plastic5yThat sounds like a hell of an understatement to me.
2CCC5yIt does somewhat understate the situation, yes.
0elharo5yI suspect the answer is that grading at U.S. colleges just isn't that important.
0James_Miller5yIt is for many students at good colleges if they want to, say, get a job at an investment bank or a place at a top law school.
3Zubon5yGranted. The top hires from the top. This leads to two questions: * Do we see corruption in those grades? If that is where it matters, that is where we would expect to see it. Say, does admittance into and top grades at Harvard Law depend mostly on academics or is class rank better predicted by other factors, from social class to blatant bribery you mention above? * Once you are below the tournament economy [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tournament_theory], do we see any corruption? I work for a state government. "Do you have a relevant degree?" is the question, not how good your university was or what your class rank was. Barring extremes (obvious diploma mill, top tier graduate from top tier university), grading just isn't that important.
5James_Miller5yAt good schools nearly everyone graduates in four years, but at lower level schools lots of students don't finish at all or take more than 4 years in part because they fail (or never finish the work) in classes. Given the importance of getting a degree, and the cost of taking more than 4 years to do so, grading is also important for students "at the bottom" of the college world.
4Zubon5yGood point, thank you. I was focusing on the top half of the distribution, when there is also a cutoff in the bottom half.

Waste not your Hour, nor in the vain pursuit Of This and That endeavour and dispute; Better be jocund with the fruitful Grape Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.

Omar Khayyam http://classics.mit.edu/Khayyam/rubaiyat.html Verse LIV

0Lumifer5yTranslation: it's better to be drunk. Not sure this qualifies as a rationality quote.
2WalterL5yI think paraphrasings of "do what makes you happy" are fair as rationality quotes. What else are you gonna do?
3Glen5yEven if "do what makes you happy" were the best rationality advice, the big problem is figuring out what actually makes you happy, how to achieve it, and how to maintain/improve it. Getting drunk is pretty bad advice for a rationality standpoint, because it's sacrificing long term gain for short term pleasure, which is basically the opposite of what you should do. The man drinking at a bar all day is happier right now than the one working extra hours or studying, but in a few years, their happiness will probably be reversed as the latter's investment pays off and the former is still just drinking (only with more health problems).
3WalterL5yInvestment dude is just working so he can buy booze, yeah? If booze in this metaphor is pleasure anyway. He's saved up a bunch of stuff, but its not like he gets bonus points when he croaks for how much is in his bank account. Ultimately, the most efficient life only does as much of what you have to as necessary to do what you want to, yeah? Anything beyond that is a fail.
0soreff5y"its not like he gets bonus points when he croaks for how much is in his bank account." is a valuable quote in its own right
0Lumifer5yFirst, I'm not sure that straight all-out short-term hedonism qualifies as rationality. Second, we're talking about alcohol and there are... many side-effects to "making you happy" :-/
0_rpd5yI feel like there should be some constraint on harming group happiness while you "do what makes you happy."
2WalterL5yIt seems like "should" is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. If you had to turn that word into a sentence or two to let me understand what you mean, what would it be?
0_rpd5yI would say that actions that make a particular person happy can have consequences that decrease the collective happiness of some group. I might use a tyrant or an addict as examples. In answering the question "What else are you gonna do?" I'd propose at least "As long as you harm no group happiness, do what makes you happy," the Wiccan Rede "An' ye harm none, do what thou wilt" probably being too strict (rules out being Batman, for example).
-1ChristianKl5yFocus on doing meaningful work.
0RichardKennaway5yOrthodox Islamic apologists rescue Khayyam by interpreting "wine" as spiritual intoxication. (How well this really fits is another matter. And the Song of Solomon is about Christ's love for His Church.) But one can as easily interpret the verse in a rationalist way. Channelling Fitzgerald for a moment... The sot knows nothing but the tavern's wine Rumi and Shams but ecstacy divine The Way of Eli is not here nor there But in the pursuit of a Fun [http://lesswrong.com/lw/xy/the_fun_theory_sequence/] sublime! Great literature has as many versions as there are readers.
2Lumifer5yThat's true of most everything if you squint in just the right way :-) In any case, great literature relies on context and a multilayered web of meanings -- it doesn't work well as an isolated quote stuck into the middle of PUA discussions...

Part of what the acceptance of Ohm’s Law demanded was a redefinition of both ‘current’ and ‘resistance’; if those terms had continued to mean what they had meant before, Ohm’s Law could not have been right; that is why it was so strenuously opposed as, say, the Joule-Lenz Law was not.

Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

2kpreid4yIs there something not-paywalled which describes what the relevant old definitions were?
3ChristianKl4yI asked at SE : http://hsm.stackexchange.com/questions/5140/what-was-the-historical-definition-of-current-and-resistance/5150#5150 [http://hsm.stackexchange.com/questions/5140/what-was-the-historical-definition-of-current-and-resistance/5150#5150]
3kpreid4yThanks for doing that!
[-][anonymous]5y 1

I will either find a way, or make one. God has given to man no sharper spur to victory than contempt of death.

As quoted by Livy, Ab urbe condita Book XXI, 44, as translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt, in The War with Hannibal (1965). - Wikiquote

6Lumifer5yThat's a weird quote in that it appears to mash together two sentences not near each other in the original. Besides, Livy, of course, would not talk of a God. A glance at a better translation [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0144%3Abook%3D21%3Achapter%3D44] would indicate that Hannibal was talking about the power of desperation:

If the development by the enemy as well as by us of thermonuclear weapons could have been averted, I think we would be in a somewhat safer world today than we are...I do not think we want to argue technical questions here, and I do not think it is very meaningful for me to speculate as to how we would have responded had the technical picture at that time been more as it was later.

However, it is my judgement in these things that when you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you h

... (read more)

It really is a nice theory. The only defect I think it has is probably common to all philosophical theories. It's wrong. You may suspect me of proposing another theory in its place; but I hope not, because I'm sure it's wrong too if it is a theory.

Saul A. Kripke in Naming and Necessity

[-][anonymous]5y 0

The actual developments of society during this period were determined, not by a battle of conflicting ideals, but by the contrast between an existing state of affairs and that one ideal of a possible future society which the socialists alone held up before the public. Very few of the other programs which offered themselves provided genuine alternatives. Most of them were mere compromises or half-way houses between the more extreme types of socialism and the existing order. All that was needed to make almost any socialist proposal appear reasonable to thes

... (read more)
[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

If we consider an actual territory (a) say, Paris, Dresden, Warsaw, and build up a map (b) in which the order of these cities would be represented as Dresden, Paris, Warsaw; to travel by such a map would be misguiding, wasteful of effort. In case of emergencies, it might be seriously harmful. We could say that such a map was 'not true', or that the map had a structure not similar to the territory (...). We should notice that:

A) A map may have a structure similar ot dissimilar to the structure of the territory.

B) Two similar structures have similar 'logica

... (read more)
2PhilGoetz4yNote that the major relevant historical disagreement is not over any of these ideas, but over what the true territory is. Most medieval maps (pre-1300) were deliberately warped not to represent their territory as it looked in the physical world, but to show "spiritual truths". Jerusalem would be at the center, each city's size would be proportional to its importance in God's plan, and distances and directions would be warped to make a particular set of points draw the figure of a cross on the map. Similarly, maps of medieval cities would not show the city to scale, but would plant the richest part of the city in the center of the map, occupying a large fraction of the map, regardless of its actual physical location or size. Judging from the theories of perception and reality then in circulation, the people making (or at least the people buying) these maps probably thought they were not distorting, but correcting the distortions of the senses and presenting a view that would actually lead to more correct beliefs.
1Nomad5yI'm vaguely worried by the way 'elementalistic' structure and 'non-elementalistic' structure are separated in part A. It seems to have the connotation (I'm not sure if it was intended or not) that the elementalistic structures are better and the non-elementalistic structures are arbitrary. However, there's a reason why science - especially physics - have increasingly moved over towarda mathematical points of view and the sorts of language you've included under non-elementalistic. They really are better at describing the natural world: e.g. you lose out on key concepts if you insist on completely dividing 'space' and 'time' rather than appreciating the way they interact. This sort of feeds into part (B). He describes languages as being similar or non-similar to the world and our nervous system, but the truth is that once you move beyond the ancestral environment the world is very different to our nervous system. To choose in favour of the languages similar to the nervous system over those similar to the world is ultimately to choose in favour of our own biases.
0Viliam5yIt seemed to me that Korzybski meant it the other way round. Elementalistic thinking is focusing on things separately; having a list of nouns and trying to assign adjectives to each of them independently. Non-elementalistic thinking is focusing on relations between things; because sometimes the meaningful explanation requires some interaction between them. That is, in elementalistic thinking we talk about space separately, and time separately, and we cannot invent the theory of relativity. Also we speak about intellect separately (creating the idea of "Vulcan rationality"), and emotions separately, etc. As long as we have "intellect" and "emotions" as separate concepts, we are able to produce wisdom like "well, intellect is important, but emotions are also very important" (i.e. both the noun "intellect" and the noun "emotion" have the attribute "important"). We are "handicapped by semantic blockages" that prevent us from speaking e.g. about rational and irrational emotions [http://lesswrong.com/lw/hp/feeling_rational/]. I understood it as: our nervous system is capable of understanding the nature when using the language of math and physics (not just literally the equations, but generally the way the scientifically literate people speak), but we lose that capacity when using the inexact language of metaphors, or insisting on using concepts that don't correspond to the real world (such as Newton's absolute time).
0PhilGoetz4yThe notion of the non-elementalistic is important--that was the basis of structuralism--but it reinforces the old view that these operationalizations of our observations were unfortunate but necessary concessions to the limitations of observation, rather than that, e.g., space-time really is the lattice the Universe is laid upon. I doubt there's a real difference between these views mathematically, but I think there is conceptually.
[-][anonymous]5y -1

People think you speak your own pain because you demand recognition and sympathy or you're playing a victim. Rarely do you realise you speak your pain to save someone else from the demons in their own mind. That's what it's like being a survivor.

-Grace Durbin in The Survivor

0[anonymous]5y* Peter Diamondis
[-][anonymous]5y -1

If you are willing to do only what is easy, life will be hard. But if you are willing to do what’s hard, life will be easy

The mentality of victim hood and self pity are the worst things that can happen a person. Whether you’ve got a mentall illness, or an offended social justice warrior, islamphobe or racist labeller, or you’re a chansurfing gynophobe or redpiller, it’s better to look at yourself than see hatred in the world.

6Jiro5yI think that having your eyes gouged out with a hot poker is a worse thing than that that can happen to a person.
3wadavis5yI think being personally responsible for a googleplex^googleplex dust specks arriving in a googleplex^googleplex eyes is a worse thing than that that can happen to a person.
5Jiro5yYes, of course. So at least two things are worse than it.
-1[anonymous]5yI think literalistic interpretations of written text are among the worse things that have happened to humanity. Your comment and the Islamic State to name a few ;)
7Jiro5yThe actual point is that "the mentality of victim hood and self pity are the worst things that can happen" is really overstated.

The actual developments of society during this period were determined, not by a battle of conflicting ideals, but by the contrast between an existing state of affairs and that one ideal of a possible future society which the socialists alone held up before the public. Very few of the other programs which offered themselves provided genuine alternatives. Most of them were mere compromises or half-way houses between the more extreme types of socialism and the existing order. All that was needed to make almost any socialist proposal appear reasonable to thes

... (read more)
3[anonymous]5yAttitudes to the past, present and future seem under-study in political science contrasted with personal anecdote. I'd be interested in teasing out these ideas further. To add to this perspective...to paraphrase what I heard on the radio, since I can't find the original quote: -Syrian in raqa advising activist on how to deal with execution of friend for not attending morning prayer.
[-][anonymous]5y -2

I was early taught to work as well as play, My life has been one long, happy holiday; Full of work and full of play — I dropped the worry on the way — And God was good to me every day.

I do not think that there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.

-Verses written on his eighty-sixth birthday (8 July 1925)

  • Measured in today's dollars, Rockefeller is the richest person in the history of mankind.
[+][anonymous]5y -5
[+][anonymous]5y -5