Rationality Quotes November 2009

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

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be voted up/down separately.  (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments.  If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
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  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
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It has always appalled me that really bright scientists almost all work in the most competitive fields, the ones in which they are making the least difference. In other words, if they were hit by a truck, the same discovery would be made by somebody else about 10 minutes later.

--Aubrey de Grey

It's not really surprising, though, is it? Brilliant people want to have other brilliant people as their colleagues.

(In fact, one mathematician of my acquaintance said that he once dabbled in circuit design, but when his first paper in the field was received as a major achievement, he left it immediately, concluding that if he could make such a large contribution so easily, the field must be unworthy of him.)

My intuition marked this comment's intent as more humorous than serious- is my calibration off?

"Ironic sincerity"?

Edited to amplify: I have never seen the term previous to this thread. Google doesn't turn up much beyond the quoted quip. Is ironic sincerity when you pretend to pretend not to believe what you're saying and then everyone pretends to pretend you didn't believe it so that no-one need be put to the trouble of thinking about it and deciding whether it actually made sense or not? Or not?

I have never seen the term previous to this thread.

It is two terms. Just 'sincerity' that happens to also be ironic. Or perhaps irony that just so happens to be expressed through sincere. It's like saying something 'tongue in cheek' but when the point you are making is something you clearly really mean it even though you know it may be surprising to the audience at first glance.

It means that it was a true statement, but that reading the statement still tickles the "irony" feeling in your brain.

I think part of the reason that this is so is that some people sympathize with this mathematician's motives. An analogy:

"He donated $1,000 to charity, instead of donating his entire discretionary income."

"How utterly selfish of him."

It's true that it's selfish, but it's a lot less selfish than what most people do, so it feels ironic and sarcastic that we are calling him selfish.

I don't see how this reveals his motive at all. He could easily be a person motivated to make the best contributions to science as he can, for entirely altruistic reasons. His reasoning was that he could make better contributions elsewhere, and it's entirely plausible for him to have left the field for ultimately altruistic, purely non-selfish reasons.

And what is it about selfishness exactly that is so bad?

If making a major contribution seemed so easy, and would be harder in some other field, it sure would suggest that his comparative advantage in the easy field is much greater; would not that suggest that he ought to devote his efforts there, since other people have proven relatively capable in the harder fields?

"And what is it about selfishness exactly that is so bad?"

It's fine and dandy in me, but I tend to discourage it in other people. I find that I get what I want faster that way.

Now give me some cash.

"the quality of being selfish, the condition of habitually putting one's own interests before those of others" - wiktionary

I can imagine a super giant mega list of situations where that would be bad, even if selfishness is often a good thing. There's a reason 'selfishness' has negative connotations.

I can imagine a super giant mega list of situations where love is a bad thing, too. Like when people kill themselves or others. That doesn't mean its default connotations should be negative.

The reason "selfishness" has negative connotations are at least partly due to Western culture (with Christian antecedents in "man is fundamentally evil" and "seek not pleasure in this life"). They're not objectively valid.

Point taken, I just think that it's normally not good. I also think that maybe, for instance, libertarians and liberals have different conceptions of selfishness that lead the former to go 'yay, selfishness!' and the latter to go 'boo, selfishness!'. Are they talking about the same thing? Are we talking about the same thing? In my personal experience, selfishness has always been demanding half of the pie when fairness is one-third, leading to conflict and bad experiences that could have been avoided. We might just have different conceptions of selfishness.

He may have, for his own reasons, not been happy with the ease with which he achieved something great. His selfishness at this point is not for the fact that he may still be able to contribute to the field and yet he chooses not to but for the fact that he will be happier if he had to work harder on something before achieving greatness. That is his value system. I think his choice is justifiable.

Sure, but it's also reasonable for him to think that contributing something that was much harder would be that much more of a contribution to his goal (whatever those selfish or non-selfish goals are), after all, something hard for him would be much harder or impossible for someone less capable.

It's not really surprising, though, is it?

No, just appalling.

Maybe was just a one-hit wonder who ran out of ideas. :P

This is interesting. Which mathematician? Which paper? Could you at least say what field or what advance?

"I sent the club a wire stating, PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON'T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT ME AS A MEMBER."

Groucho Marx

I don't think his measure of difference is comprehensive:

  • The higher chance of finding smart collaborators increases chances of increased productivity
  • A larger chance of making very significant improvement (a highly competitive field is probably much closer to a field-wide, world changing epiphany - while in a less competitive field, much time must be wasted laying down the groundwork)
  • A longer productive life-span (much likelier to find smart assistants/students to teach at maximum ability all life long)
  • A higher utility to society - the field is likely competitive because of large public attention, which in turns signals large groups of people funding research, in turn showing that smaller improvements are considered much more valuable than in other fields
  • A wider selection of interesting work. It's much more likely that relatively minor or mundante results/problems in the competitive field are going to be immediately useful/used

I don't remember exactly, but I think it was from a conference where he was speaking with Eliezer on a panel or Q&A, so that might be it.

"When will we realize that the fact that we can become accustomed to anything, however disgusting at first, makes it necessary to examine carefully everything we have become accustomed to?"

--George Bernard Shaw, A Treatise on Parents and Children (1910)

Today, safe flight inside clouds is possible using gyroscopic instruments that report the airplane’s orientation without being misled by centrifugal effects. But the pilot’s spatial intuition is still active, and often contradicts the instruments. Pilots are explicitly, emphatically trained to trust the instruments and ignore intuition—precisely the opposite of the Star Wars advice—and those who fail to do so often perish.

-- Gary Drescher "Good and Real"

(I really like this quote as a counterweight to the ubiquitous cliche-advise to follow you intuition. Often, your intuition may be fooled. And, it cannot be repeated often enough, Good and Real is a must-read for LW-minded folks)

And, it cannot be repeated often enough, Good and Real is a must-read for LW-minded folks

By the way, what's so special about it? I got it off Amazon a while ago and read it up to around page 100, but none of the content up to that seemed too special. This might be because I'd already internalized many of those points off OB/LW, of course, but still.

Large chunks of the remaining book seem to mostly be about physics and ethics. I'm hesitant to spend time reading any popular physics, as I don't know the actual math behind it and am likely to just get a distorted image. Formal ethical systems are mainly just rationalizations for existing intuitions, so that doesn't seem too interesting, either. Where are the good bits?

The book is similar to Eliezer's posts in content, but with different examples and a focus more towards refuting non-materialism. If there's something you don't understand from reading LW, it's probably explained differently in Good and Real. The different arguments and examples may or may not be more enlightening.

You should probably buy Good and Real if any of the following are true:

  • You dislike Eliezer's attitude or writing style.

  • You are often distracted by other things while reading on your computer.

  • You prefer the structured organization of a book to the Wiki-link effect of blog posts.

  • You like to show how smart you are by having shelves of books with important-sounding titles.

OK, that last one might have been a joke.

I read it twice, and I'd summarize it as: for a longtime OB/LW reader, the only interesting parts are the treatment of Quantum Mechanics and the Newcomb's Dilemma chapters*. Those, incidentally, are past page 100.

* I assume that the person taking the advice is like me and has not understood very much of the 'timeless decision theory' stuff that's been flying around for months, which Drescher takes seriously (he's a user here after all), and which seem to be similar to or better to what he advocates.

Fair comment. The books is not perfect - I think it gets a bit tedious in the examples. Maybe my recommendation was a bit too strong.

Nevertheless, I do think it's special in the way it promotes the naturalistic worldview, and how it applies this all across the board - from consciousness to the sense of time to quantum physics to ethics. There's indeed quite some overlap with topics discussed here, but it's nice to read it in a book with all the themes connected. Those are the 'good bits' for me.

Talking about books, it'd be great if there were some LW Books Top-10 for 2009.

It helps to stop worrying about what you are and concentrate on what you do. If you think of a poet as a person with some special qualifications that come by nature (or divine favor), you are likely to make one of two mistakes about yourself. If you think you've got what it takes, you may fail to learn what you need to know in order to use whatever qualities you may have. On the other hand, if you think you do not have what it takes, you may give up too easily, thinking it is useless to try. A poet is someone - you, me, anyone - who writes poems. That question out of the way, now we can learn to write poems better.

Judson Jerome, The Poet's Handbook, Chap. 1 ("From Sighs and Groans to Art")

The lesson I draw from this is that doing stuff is a better means of figuring out if I've got what it takes. Because surely, ultimately you want to focus your efforts on what you in fact can do?

Just a few centuries ago, the smartest humans alive were dead wrong about damn near everything. They were wrong about gods. Wrong about astronomy. Wrong about disease. Wrong about heredity. Wrong about physics. Wrong about racism, sexism, nationalism, governance, and many other moral issues. Wrong about geology. Wrong about cosmology. Wrong about chemistry. Wrong about evolution. Wrong about nearly every subject imaginable.

-- Luke Muehlhauser

I don't buy a lot of that, at least if we're referring to the 18th century.

  • The founders of America knew damn well that there were no such things as gods, at least not ones that actively intervened in any way we could detect.

  • They were wrong about some details of astronomy, but they had most of the basic outlines right (Lagrange's works describe the celestial mechanics of the solar system in quite some detail).

  • The theories of classical mechanics were known and well understood. Quantum mechanics and relativity weren't, of course, but I am hesitant to refer to this as people being wrong, as there were very few observations available to them which required these to be explained (the perihelion advance of Mercury, for instance, wasn't discovered until 1859).

  • The 18th century view of cosmology was essentially ours, except that it lacked knowledge about how it was organized on a larger scale (galaxies within clusters within superclusters and all that) due to the lack of sufficiently powerful telescopes, and many supposed the universe to be infinite instead of beginning with the Big Bang.

  • The structure of democratic government invented during this period works pretty darn well, by comparison with everything that came before. There have, for instance, been no wars in Western Europe for sixty years, something that has never happened before.

  • Lavoisier and Lomonosov's theories of chemistry were, in fact, largely correct. The periodic table wasn't known, but there was no widely used wrong system of grouping the elements.

  • The full theory of evolution was not known (people still believed in spontaneous generation, for instance), but the idea that groups of similar species arose from a common ancestor by descent with modification was widely known and accepted.

The proper extrapolation from this is not "everything you know is wrong", but "there are lots of things you don't know, and lots of non-technical things you 'know' are wrong."

There have, for instance, been no wars in Western Europe for sixty years, something that has never happened before.

That has almost nothing to do with democracy, and everything to do with the new world order after WW2. Half of Europe was inside the Soviet Union. The other half was mostly being used as an American front against the Soviets and didn't dare to have internal wars. Later, EU precursor organizations cemented the Western European alliances among the more important countries.

Of course all this hasn't stopped the Western European countries from having wars outside Europe, and there have been plenty of those in the last 60 years.

Today, European politics are such that multinational business & industry organizations, and private international alliances, are vastly more powerful than any hypothetical nationalistic power. So we can't have an internal European war. This is unrelated to democracy, and would work just as well in any other well integrated pan-European system.

"The other half was mostly being used as an American front against the Soviets and didn't dare to have internal wars."

Really? Suppose the German invasion of 1941 was more successful, the Soviet Union was heavily weakened, and the demarcation line between the two was on the Vistula instead of the Elbe. Which European countries would have fought each other?

"Of course all this hasn't stopped the Western European countries from having wars outside Europe, and there have been plenty of those in the last 60 years."

Between two Western European powers? Which ones?

"Today, European politics are such that multinational business & industry organizations, and private international alliances, are vastly more powerful than any hypothetical nationalistic power."

Evidence? Spain, Italy, France, the UK, and Germany have gross revenues of more than $1T each, more than three times those of the largest corporations.

Suppose the German invasion of 1941 was more successful, the Soviet Union was heavily weakened, and the demarcation line between the two was on the Vistula instead of the Elbe. Which European countries would have fought each other?

In such a scenario I don't think they'd have fought much because US hegemony would be even stronger than in real history. The US would push the USSR much harder in proxy wars if it thought they could lead up to an economic/military collapse of the USSR or its satellites, and all the European countries would participate more in these proxy wars. Also, decolonization of Asia and Africa might have proceeded more slowly in such a scenario, or not at all in places.

Between two Western European powers? Which ones?

Sorry, I realize now my phrasing was misleading here. I meant that European countries have fought outside Europe against non-European ones.

Evidence? Spain, Italy, France, the UK, and Germany have gross revenues of more than $1T each, more than three times those of the largest corporations.

Yes, but the combined resources of the biggest (say) 1000 companies are far far greater than those of governments, simply because there are so many more corporations. This is true both inside a country and summed across Europe. And most corporations by far would lobby very strongly against war inside Europe.

"The US would push the USSR much harder in proxy wars if it thought they could lead up to an economic/military collapse of the USSR or its satellites, and all the European countries would participate more in these proxy wars."

Agreed, but there's still peace in Europe in this scenario.

"Yes, but the combined resources of the biggest (say) 1000 companies are far far greater than those of governments, simply because there are so many more corporations."

"Corporations" do not act coherently like a national government does. There is no "United Corporate Alliance" or any such thing.

"This is true both inside a country and summed across Europe. And most corporations by far would lobby very strongly against war inside Europe."

Some would, but some would probably push for it (military contracting can be enormously profitable). There were certainly plenty of companies that pushed for a US war in Iraq.

From Schindler's List:

SCHINDLER: There's no way I could have known this before, but there was always something missing. In every business I tried, I see now it wasn't me that was failing, it was this thing, this missing thing. Even if I'd known what it was, there's nothing I could have done about it, because you can't create this sort of thing. And it makes all the difference in the world between success and failure. [He waits for her to guess what the thing is. His looks says, It's so simple, how can you not know?] EMILIE: Luck? SCHINDLER: War.

Incidentally, why do you use quotes instead of quote-markup with '>'? It's a bit harder to read.

Agreed, but there's still peace in Europe in this scenario.

Yes, because of US hegemony.

"Corporations" do not act coherently like a national government does. There is no "United Corporate Alliance" or any such thing.

There would be if 90% of all corporations had a common cause that was a life or death matter for them! At the very least all the corporations would be pushing in the same direction, and even without a formal alliance the result would be much the same.

Some would, but some would probably push for it (military contracting can be enormously profitable). There were certainly plenty of companies that pushed for a US war in Iraq.

Companies benefit from war - if they expect to be on the (economically) winning side, and if war isn't going to occur on their home turf. If US companies really honestly believed there was a 50-50 chance of Iraq winning the war and conquering New York, none of them would have supported a war.

In Europe, too many big companies are multinational. All of them stand a lot to lose from an internal war. Also, in a war they would have to bet on winner(s) right at the start - because if they want a military contract with Germany, then Germany's going to demand they stop selling weapons to France.

In WW1 the big economical winners were US companies because they sold everything but actual weapons to the Alliance countries for many years without being directly involved in the war.

In Europe, too many big companies are multinational. All of them stand a lot to lose from an internal war... In WW1 the big economical winners were US companies because they sold everything but actual weapons to the Alliance countries for many years without being directly involved in the war.

Yes, in WWI, the european multinationals did badly. But people saw that coming and said that they would never allow a war! How do you know you've quantified it right this time? What would you have predicted in 1914? How do you quantify it? Governments controlled a much smaller percentage of GDP back then. Also, I occasionally hear claims like: globalization only recovered to prewar levels in 1990 (or was it later?)

Yes, in WWI, the european multinationals did badly. But people saw that coming and said that they would never allow a war! How do you know you've quantified it right this time?

I'm not saying there'll never be war. I'm saying this is one of the biggest factors that maintain today's stable state of internal European peace. Of course it's possible for affairs to leave this state, but there will need to be a (visible) change pushing in that direction.

In 1914 there were very visible and long-standing forces pushing for war. It was at best an open question which opposing political force would win, and I would certainly predicted war, as did most other observers. The nearly-autocratic ruler of the biggest Continental European country (Germany) had been saying for years he was going to go to war. He had full political and military support for this at home, and based all his foreign policy and diplomacy on this. He constantly made or tried to make alliances with pretty much every single country in the world other than France with the explicitly stated goal of going to war together; not just in Europe, but including e.g. offering alliance to Mexico against the US to keep the US out of a European war. And remember Germany had recently (1870-1) fought France and won.

Even without analyzing the pro-war sentiment in many other countries, it was reasonable to conclude there would be a big war. Wars were pretty much constant - a war in continental Europe once every 20-30 years for centuries. The only difficulty was predicting such a big and long war as WW1 turned out to be, and that only happened because no side managed to win quickly - and the Germans came extremely close to defeating France completely in the first assault of 1914, within a single tactical decision's worth. (Ref: Guns of August, also The Proud Tower, both by Barbara Tuchman.)

The idea that multinationals would prevent war was mostly Woodrow Wilson's vision at the time, and I think even he saw it as an ideal for the future; he recognized that it wasn't achieved yet. Most pro-peace people placed their hopes on the International Socialist movement preventing a war by general strikes in belligerent countries and soldiers refusing to fight. This failed miserably because the Socialists didn't dare anything of the kind; even in countries where they were fairly strong politically (a very recent turn of events at the time), as in France, they declared support of the warring government in the end. A pity.

Why include the quote from Schindler's List? Are we supposed to take it as evidence for what causes wars?

OK, then, do you consider Schindler's List or any other Hollywood film evidence that the war was profitable for industrialists in Germany?

That's a funny thing to say on the quotes thread. Tom McCabe is deploying rhetoric, but this whole thread is about sharing rhetoric (or maybe directly using it).

In my humble opinion, quoting Hollywood movies detracts from any conversation about historical facts or about causal relationships even if the conversation starts with a rationality quote.

Moreover, none of the opinions I have seen as to the purpose of Rationality Quotes entails a rhetorical free-for-all. An example of an opinion that I recall is that a quote is an attempt to communicate some aspect of the art of human rationality in much fewer words than would be required by the standard expository rationalist style. The quote from the Hollywood movie does not have that property because the quoter could have written instead, "it is well documented that many German industrialists profited greatly from the war," which of course is fewer words than the quote from the movie and which of course is standard expository style (no rhetoric).

I have nothing personal against the quoter (Tom) and I believe and I hope that I would have voiced the same objection if anyone here had used that particular rhetorical tactic.

An example of an opinion that I recall is that a quote is an attempt to communicate some aspect of the art of human rationality in much fewer words than would be required by the standard expository rationalist style.

Yeah, they say that, but I don't believe them. At least, I don't believe any version of that that doesn't also cover Tom's quote.

It's supposed to be an example of how war can be profitable for industry (as indeed it was for many in Germany during WWII).

OK, then, do you consider Schindler's List or any other Hollywood film evidence that the war was profitable for industrialists in Germany?

I always thought that Hollywood films were held to high standards for mass appeal and sometime for aesthetics, but not for historical veracity.

I quoted the film merely for rhetorical purposes. The fact that many German industrialists got rich off WWII is very thoroughly documented.

I quoted the film merely for rhetorical purposes.

Well, I for one wish you would refrain from such a heavy-handed rhetorical tactic.

Everyone has a natural human tendency to consider what they see in movies as "documentary evidence". I wish you'd try to help us overcome that cognitive bias, not encourage us to persist in it.

Especially in "based on a real story" pseudo documentary films.

Between two Western European powers? Which ones?

The British and the French fought multiple times in the 1800s, and also in the early 1900s. One would expect further fights...

What stopped de Gaulle from thinking about being a second Napoleon, if not US hegemony?

Spain, Italy, France, the UK, and Germany have gross revenues of more than $1T each, more than three times those of the largest corporations.

Said revenues are controlled by political processes, which are staffed by people that can be influenced or outright bought for trivial sums - a few thousands or millions. The returns to investing in lobbying are well known and can be astronomical.

"The British and the French fought multiple times in the 1800s, and also in the early 1900s. One would expect further fights..."

Citation? Britain and France haven't fought since Napoleon's defeat in 1815.

"What stopped de Gaulle from thinking about being a second Napoleon, if not US hegemony?"

The fact that the French population would never stomach it, given that they had just gotten out from under four years of brutal German occupation with American and British support?

"Said revenues are controlled by political processes, which are staffed by people that can be influenced or outright bought for trivial sums - a few thousands or millions."

Ross Perot lost, and Bloomberg never even tried.

"The returns to investing in lobbying are well known and can be astronomical."

Citation?

Citation? Britain and France haven't fought since Napoleon's defeat in 1815.

The Napoleonic wars were at least 4 wars; then there was the Merina Conquest of Madagascar and the Hundred Days. 6 wars in 15 years is pretty impressive. And it's not like France was peaceful after that, there was all sorts of wars all over the place, yes, even in Europe. And then Germany and Russia have kept the 2 busy all through the 1900s. We don't know that their enmity and warring are truly over, any more than we know whether great power conflicts are truly over.

The fact that the French population would never stomach it, given that they had just gotten out from under four years of brutal German occupation with American and British support?

And no country occupied has ever wished for revenge? Italy and Germany were right there, and American and Britain wouldn't've seriously objected to France invading (in this hypothetical nuke-less Communist-less world) - they weren't in any position to stomach stopping France. The American & British support didn't mean a whole lot to de Gaulle and his force de frappe.

Citation?

Waggish answer: What, the past couple years of American politics haven't made it painfully obvious how valuable lobbying can be?

Serious answer: if the returns weren't high, then why do some companies invest so much in lobbying instead of putting the money into Treasuries?

More serious answer: The Mickey Mouse Protection Act

Most serious answer: http://www.google.com/search?q=return+on+lobbying+investment and specifically http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/11/AR2009041102035.html :

"In a remarkable illustration of the power of lobbying in Washington, a study released last week found that a single tax break in 2004 earned companies $220 for every dollar they spent on the issue -- a 22,000 percent rate of return on their investment. "

"The Napoleonic wars were at least 4 wars; then there was the Merina Conquest of Madagascar and the Hundred Days. 6 wars in 15 years is pretty impressive. And it's not like France was peaceful after that, there was all sorts of wars all over the place, yes, even in Europe. And then Germany and Russia have kept the 2 busy all through the 1900s."

This is a blatant dodge of my original claim, which was specifically about Britain and France. No one who had ever cracked a history book would ever claim that there were no wars in Europe during the 20th century.

"And no country occupied has ever wished for revenge?"

Germany was destroyed, the government was completely dissolved (and largely imprisoned), all the cities were bombed into rubble, and more than ten percent of the population was killed (including, I believe, a majority of the men of military age). You couldn't get a more thorough revenge if you obliterated Berlin with a 50 megaton H-bomb.

"The American & British support didn't mean a whole lot to de Gaulle and his third way."

Historically, after the war, we know that the French didn't want another war against Germany. Why would it be different this time?

"Serious answer: if the returns weren't high, then why do some companies invest so much in lobbying instead of putting the money into Treasuries?"

Because there are points on the real line between "3%" and "22,000%".

"In a remarkable illustration of the power of lobbying in Washington, a study released last week found that a single tax break in 2004 earned companies $220 for every dollar they spent on the issue -- a 22,000 percent rate of return on their investment. "

OK, that's a legitimate citation, but it ignores the non-monetary costs of lobbying, which far exceed the monetary ones. A company may hire a lobbyist and pay him $100,000, but if both the company and the lobbyist don't have connections with people high up in Washington, they won't get anywhere. And it's much more difficult to acquire those connections than to acquire $100K.

"A few" means at least 3. You would never say "a few" when you meant "two". So the quote refers to the 17th century at the latest.

I routinely use "a couple" and "a few" to indicate vague quantities. A few is bigger than a couple, but they overlap. I know that not everyone does this (my S.O., in particular, thinks I'm wrong) but I also know that I'm not nearly alone in this habit.

Yes, certainly, there are circumstances in which "a couple" means exactly two. If I'm talking about some friends, and refer to them as "a couple" rather than "a couple of people", you'd be justified to think I meant exactly two people with some relationship. But if I say "I'm going to read a couple more pages", I think you'd be making a mistake to be upset as long as it was between 1.5 and 4 pages. When I say "a few" it might range from 1.7 to 5 or 6 depending on whether we're talking about potatoes or french fries.

So, to my ears, it could be the 16th century or the mid-18th century, and giving the benefit of the doubt, it's a reasonable statement.

Upvoted because I do the same thing (tell your SO!). You're not alone.

I liked this comment, but as anonym points out far below, the original blog post is really talking about "pre-scientific and scientific ways of investigating and understanding the world." - anonym. So 'just a few centuries ago' might not be very accurate in the context of the post. The author's fault, not yours; but just sayin'.

The 18th century view of cosmology was essentially ours, except that it lacked knowledge about how it was organized on a larger scale (galaxies within clusters within superclusters and all that) due to the lack of sufficiently powerful telescopes, and many supposed the universe to be infinite instead of beginning with the Big Bang.

Well... I find it quite a stretch to call the pre-Shapley–Curtis-debate views of cosmology “essentially ours”. (But http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_cosmology did surprise me. Olber's paradox was first solved by Edgar Allan Poe? I knew he was quite a smart guy, but...)

Linnaeus had a tree of taxonomy, but this claims that the tree of descent was one of the key innovations of Darwin (and of Wallace, who thought it was innovative before he thought of natural selection).

A complete tree of descent (all life from a common ancestor) was Charles Darwin's thinking, but the idea of a tree of descent was not. See, eg. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges-Louis_Leclerc,_Comte_de_Buffon for 18th-century thinking on the subject.

Maybe I shouldn't have called it an innovation: the main point was to dispute that the tree of life was "widely known and accepted."

Wrong about racism, sexism, nationalism, governance, and many other moral issues.

That's an interesting thing to claim - and one I'm pretty sure they wouldn't agree about back then.

But ... "they thought they were right" isn't an argument. Compare how they derived their bottom lines to how we have. Compare their evidence and reasoning to ours, and compare both to the kinds of evidence and reasoning that works (literally does good work) elsewhere, and the answer will probably be straightaway obvious which is the more reliable.

We have no evidence and reasoning about morality that doesn't depend on morality in the first place, is-ought problem which I won't repeat here.

Empirically, everyone derives their morality from society's norm developed in messy historical processes. Why one messy historical process is better than other by any objective standard is not clear.

By some standards we have less suffering than past times, but we're also vastly wealthier. It's not clear at all to me that wealth-adjusted suffering now is lower than historically - modern moral standards say it's fine to let 1.5 million children a year die of diarrhea because they happen to be born in a wrong country. I can imagine some of the past moral systems would be less happy about it than we are.

One: See above.

Two: The very fact that you can say:

modern moral standards say it's fine to let 1.5 million children a year die of diarrhea because they happen to be born in a wrong country.

...and expect me to draw your implied conclusion refutes the very claim itself. What do you think makes me appalled that children are dying of diarrhea, aesthetics? That we haven't yet fixed a problem doesn't prove that it meets our approval - after all, people still die everywhere.

In questions of morality, there's nothing but the (really complicated) bottom line.

That's not even empirically true. At best, morality is the (really complicated) function relating "is" and "ought" - which means errors in the "is" can make vast differences to the consequent "ought".

(For example, in the Americas a couple centuries ago, it was widely believed that black people were not capable of being successful and happy without supervision of white people, and it was consequently meet to own such people in the same way as livestock is owned.)

(For example, in the Americas a couple centuries ago, it was widely believed that black people were not capable of being successful and happy without supervision of white people, and it was consequently meet to own such people in the same way as livestock is owned.)

As much as I keep citing this as an example myself, I don't think we're literally talking about sole prior cause and posterior effect here.

A fair point, to be sure.

Edit: To be precise, to a major extent, the causality is probably in the opposite direction - because treating people the way slaves were treated is wrong, those with a stake in the matter had it widely argued that the chattel slaves were not people in the proper sense of the word.

At best, morality is the (really complicated) function relating "is" and "ought" - which means errors in the "is" can make vast differences to the consequent "ought".

You're right; forgive my imprecision. But I doubt that people from the past could be said to be using the exactly the same function as us, nor even that I'm using the exact same function as you. It would just be too much coincidence.

I think I see the difficulty - my language is phrased in terms of an absolute morality to which all historical systems are approximations of varying accuracy. Do I correctly infer that you reject that concept? If so, I believe it reasonable to assume that the remaining confusion is a matter of phrasing.

Do I correctly infer that you reject that concept?

Yes.

Wrong about racism, sexism, nationalism, governance, and many other moral issues.

And even today, many smart people outside the USA are still wrong about these pressing moral issues!

As are many smart people within the USA, obviously, or were you being sarcastic and trying to suggest that the original quote somehow implies a belief that the USA is immune from those problems?

I think he was being sarcastic and trying to suggest that the original quote failed to take note that everyone thinks they are immune from those problems, including the person who decided the past was 'wrong' about them. I'm also pretty sure cousin_it is Russian, if that's relevant. The USA thing was just a tasteful addition, the way I see it. I laughed. (His use of an exclamation point and a look at the top contributors list on the right also indicate sarcasm.)

Edit: I agree with Nick below. It was just a joke. Which I enjoyed.

When I read the original quote, I noted the conspicuous absence of any kind of positive assertion that the speaker is immune from those problems, and I read it as cautioning us against thinking that we are not similarly wrong about some of those very problems and other important problems that we are blind to.

Did you read it in the context of the atheist blog post Eliezer linked to? I agree that the quote was possibly meant to be cautionary, but I think it was primarily meant to show that believing in things 200 years old is generally not a good idea. Maybe I misunderstood the point of the post, though; the cautionary value is a more useful interpretation for us aspiring rationalists, and 'don't put faith in ancient wisdom' is rather simple advice by comparison. Because of that, context be damned (even if I did interpret it as was meant), I'm going to switch to your interpretation. :)

I hadn't clicked through to read the original, but having just done so, I note that the very next paragraph after the given quote is:

Or so we believe. We think we are better informed than they were. Are we? Is our truth more reliable than their truth?

Which doesn't exactly smack of over-confidence and American arrogance to my ear.

ETA: also, from things he said elsewhere in the essay, it seems likely to me that he had in mind more than "a few centuries" in the essay, despite the words in the quote, since he distinguishes again and again between pre-scientific and scientific ways of investigating and understanding the world.

Oh jeeze, how did I miss that? Thanks for taking the time to enlighten me. About the ETA, I noticed that too, which may be relevant to another discussion I saw nested under the original quotation...

Whoops, instant controversy =) I didn't mean to accuse the original quote of American nationalism; that would be like accusing early Christians of Jewish or Roman nationalism. Every new moral system sees itself as universal. But also every moral system has some geographical origin from where it spreads, by force if necessary. For the moral system that uses the terms "racism" and "sexism", the place of origin is the USA.

So anybody who uses the terms "racism" and "sexism" (and presumably the related words "race" and "sex" when used in the same sense) -- for instance, in arguing against distinguishing on the basis of race or sex or for guaranteeing the equality of rights and liberties regardless of sex, race, nationality ... -- necessarily has one particular moral system, a moral system that originates in the USA, and despite women's suffrage originating in countries other than the USA, somebody who uses the word 'sexism' in the same sentence as 'racism' is almost certainly either from the USA and subject to stereotypical US nationalism or subscribes to the One Unique True Moral System of the USA?

Not sure why this was downvoted. The word 'racism' was coined in pre-WWII Europe, the word 'sexism' was coined in the US during the 1960s. The movements/ moral systems against such things have been widespread, and I'm not sure it makes sense to say they started anywhere besides "Western civilization". Moral systems don't have founding moments anyway, they evolve out of other moral systems and historical conditions. I would say that the term racism probably plays a bigger role in American discourse than elsewhere, if only because the US is more racially diverse than most of the rest of the world.

The extent to which the usage of these terms is indicative of a particular moral system is just a question of high def versus low def. If you look closely you see differences, if you don't, it all looks the same. If your views are in the general vicinity of where cousin-it was aiming you probably see issues involving racism and sexism. If you are far from cousin-it's target you may well not see the differences between moral systems that use the terms racism and sexism. Though don't "reverse racism" and "reverse sexism" count as uses of these terms? The moral system that uses those terms pretty obviously distinct from the moral system that I think cousin_it is referring to.