Rationality Quotes - September 2009

by thomblake1 min read1st Sep 2009105 comments

4

Rationality Quotes
Personal Blog

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

  • Please post all quotes separately (so that they can be voted up/down separately) unless they are strongly related/ordered.
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB - there is a separate thread for it.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
"A witty saying proves nothing." -- Voltaire
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During the discussion of Pranknet on Slashdot about a month ago, I saw this comment. It reminded me of our discussions about Newcomb's problem and superrationality.

I also disagree that our society is based on mutual trust. Volumes and volumes of laws backed up by lawyers, police, and jails show otherwise.

That's called selection/observation bias. You're looking at only one side of the coin.

I've lived in countries where there's a lot less trust than here. The notion of returning an opened product to a store and getting a full refund is based on trust (yes, there's a profit incentive, and some people do screw the retailers [and the retailers their customers -- SB], but the system works overall). In some countries I've been to, this would be unfeasible: Almost everyone will try to exploit such a retailer.

When a storm knocks out the electricity and the traffic lights stop working, I've always seen everyone obeying the rules. I doubt it's because they're worried about cops. It's about trust that the other drivers will do likewise. Simply unworkable in other places I've lived in.

I've had neighbors whom I don't know receive UPS/FedEx packages for me. Again, trust. I don't think they'

... (read more)
2John_Maxwell12yPerpetually angry dude makes the opposite case [http://richardkulisz.blogspot.com/2009/01/low-trust-in-crazyland.html]. Never get an argument with that guy, by the way.
2CronoDAS12yYeah, looking over his blog, he never has arguments, only shouting matches. Considering his rampaging contempt for everyone who is not himself, I wonder why he even bothers to publish anything at all.
2taw12yUS is higher than most of non-Northern Europe when it comes to trust. http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/lif_tru_peo-lifestyle-trust-people [http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/lif_tru_peo-lifestyle-trust-people] The first theory is diversity, but trust here doesn't seem to correspond to diversity at all - Norway and Austria are homogenous and on opposite ends. Canada and Belgium are diverse and on opposite ends. As for other theories, socialist countries are also on both top (Scandinavia) and bottom (Austria, France). Catholic countries seem to be lower than Protestant countries, but Ireland is pretty high, and it might just be Scandinavia making this impression. So I'm not really sure what trust correlates much with.
2Douglas_Knight12yWhich countries on that list do you call not socialist? English-speaking ones? Switzerland? Where can we get objective information about whether people are trusting or trust-worthy, rather than what they say? The Japanese claim to be less trusting than Americans, but they are trustworthy with wallets, if not with umbrellas and bicycles. and the angry dude argues that Americans should not trust institutions which is completely different from whether they do trust people, which is the topic of the survey and the slashdot entry.
0taw12yUS, Japan, and Switzerland seem less socialist than Scandinavia, Austria, and France by standard measures, right? Questionnaire is a proxy measure, but it's better proxy than some random blog rant. Here are some obvious things that might reasonably correlate with trust, but don't seem to: * http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_tax_revenue_as_percentage_of_GDP [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_tax_revenue_as_percentage_of_GDP] * http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality]

I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and just because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

-Helen Keller

Reality is not optional.

Thomas Sowell

No artist tolerates reality.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

2Kaj_Sotala12y
2[anonymous]12yAnne Lamott

"You can safely say that you have made God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." -- Reverend Robert Cromey

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.

-Bertrand Russell

2dclayh12yA cursory Google search doesn't reveal the date of this quote. Do you know if it was before or after Yeats's version of 1919? (Wikipedia claims that Yeats was inspired by Shelley...)
4Douglas_Knight12y1933 [http://books.google.com/books?id=RfM7LfsvFkIC&pg=PA28]
4dclayh12yAh, thank you. So it is quite likely that he had read the Yeats [http://www.potw.org/archive/potw351.html], then.
2thomblake12yFor all I know, it could be misattributed. From a random quotable file.
1arundelo7yAccording to Wikiquote [http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Mortals_and_Others], the original (from the essay collection Mortals and Others) is:

It is better to have an approximate answer to the right question than an exact answer to the wrong question.

-- John Tukey

5conchis12yFWIW, the exact quote (from pp.13-14 of this article [http://scholar.google.com/scholar?cluster=4674829685155210783&hl=en]) is: Your paraphrase is snappier though (as well as being less ambiguous; it's hard to tell in the original whether Tukey intends the adjectives "vague" and "precise" to apply to the questions or the answers).

Wisdom is not only to be acquired, but also to be utilized.

-Marcus Tullius Cicero

To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them; this skill is most needed in times of stress and darkness.

-Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

I would roughly divide philosophies into two categories, "crazy" and "sensible". Of the two, I definitely prefer the former. Sensible philosophies are noted for their sobriety, propriety, rationality, analytic skill and other things. One definite advantage they have is that they are usually quite sensible. Crazy philosophies are characterized by their madness, spontaneity, sense of humor, total freedom from the most basic conventions of thought, amorality, beauty, divinity, naturalness, poesy, absolute honesty, freedom from inhibitions

... (read more)

"What's that saying?" he said, smiling crookedly. "When you've eliminated the impossible, whatever it is that remains--- "

"--- however improbable, must be the truth. Yes, the problem is, the man who wrote that believed in faeries, and that he could photograph them."

  • S. M. Stirling, The Peshawar Lancers
7Douglas_Knight12yBetter than fairies he couldn't photograph.
0sketerpot12ySadly, there are other ways to make the fairies unfalsifiable. ("They must be hiding today! Maybe tomorrow!")

Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.

-Benjamin Franklin

0sketerpot12yThe real confusion begins when you make lighthouse-churches, and people start defending the religious doctrines by saying that faith-based buildings are the only possible source of warning-lights to sailors, and hey, just look at all that beautifully cylindrical architecture, so it must be a great and necessary thing to believe in [insert wacky stuff here]. Rationalizations for silly things one came to believe as a child are always ugly, because everything gets all jumbled up in people's heads, and they don't want to straighten it out, because that would be a thought crime. [Sorry, was that venting a little? I get so sick of this argument, but I can't bring myself to humor people who say it.]

You won't gain knowledge by drinking ink.

-Arab proverb

2Rain12yMaybe it needs further explanation? Ink being the object with which books are created, and knowledge put down for others to use, you must be careful to avoid using that object directly and believing you have gained knowledge from it. The blog post itself isn't the great insight, nor is the Reddit software it's running on, or the comment system, or the upvoting and downvoting. Insight can only come from the mind, and understanding the words and how they all link together into the idea being presented. The idea isn't in the text; it's an abstraction of the human mind. Perhaps better summarized as, "Don't just read: think."
4Rain12yAlternatively, "Put down the RSS feed and go learn something."
-2John_Maxwell12yI don't see the connection. The point of the original quote is that the medium is independent of the info it carries. You're quote says the opposite: one particular medium (RSS) is incapable of carrying info.
1Neil12yPuts me in mind of this passage ~ Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dawn
0Vladimir_Nesov12yBetter still when this kind of deep reflection doesn't turn out to be mindless trance or faithful chanting.

"It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into." (Jonathan Swift )

A person's greatest virtue is his ability to correct his mistakes and continually make a new person of himself.

-Wang Yang-Ming

We see things as we are, not as they are.

-Leo Rosten

0gwern12yThat may not be the right attribution; I see in Google Books attributions to Immanuel Kant, the Talmud, Adias Ninn, Halsey P. Taylor, and Preston James. I suspect one of the non-Rosten attributions is correct - the earliest Rosten hit from 1978 has the first use of the sentence in quotes.

We at the Church of Google believe the search engine Google is the closest humankind has ever come to directly experiencing an actual God (as typically defined). We believe there is much more evidence in favour of Google's divinity than there is for the divinity of other more traditional gods.

We reject supernatural gods on the notion they are not scientifically provable. Thus, Googlists believe Google should rightfully be given the title of "God", as She exhibits a great many of the characteristics traditionally associated with such Deities in a

... (read more)
4SilasBarta12yHeh, it's funny that you first put it in the LW/OB quotes section, because that's actually kind of similar to an out-of-context quote [http://lesswrong.com/lw/13b/dreams_with_damaged_priors/1137] I excerpted from Eliezer Yudkowsky here.

I don't believe in the supernetural. There can be knowledge for which we do not possess the Google keywords, but to speak of knowledge that cannot be Googled even in principle is nonsense.

9Psy-Kosh12yWhat of Göögle's theorem?
1thomblake12yAnd here I was trying to fit in a joke about the Fitch-Church knowability paradox.
0Psy-Kosh12yNot familiar with that. *Goes to look that up, worshiping at the Fitch Church of Google* And there you have your joke. :)
3UnholySmoke12y...said Achilles to his friend Mr Tortoise.
0Daniel_Burfoot12yRoger Federer knows a hell of a lot about how to play tennis; I can't imagine any meaningful way of indexing and searching that knowledge.
0wedrifid12yAnd as long as you acknowledge that this is a limitation of your own imagination (and abilities) and not that of the universe it is not nonsensical.

Follow the man who seeks the truth; run from the man who has found it.

-- Vaclav Havel

The right answer is seldom as important as the right question.

Kip Thorne

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency, a great soul has simply nothing to do.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

1anonym12yIf I only had a dollar for every time somebody misquoted that wonderful quote to me as "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"...
-1thomblake12yNot a misquote, just slightly out of context. And I'm fairly sure Emerson would apply 'foolish' to most sorts of consistency.
2anonym12yIt omits a crucial part of the quote that results in a completely different meaning. Leaving out an adjective that it is integral to the meaning is different than omitting some minor context.
0thomblake12yThat's why I pointed out that leaving out 'foolish' probably doesn't change Emerson's intent at all. Worrying about consistency at all is what he found troublesome - he counseled against trying to be consistent in general, and I take 'foolish' to be more superlative than anything.
0anonym12yYou may be right that it doesn't change the meaning much, in which case it's still a misquote, but a minor one (such as using a synonym of a word instead of the actual word: correct sense, wrong words). What it definitely is not is "just slightly out of context", since that means the utterance is missing context and as a result appears to mean something other than what was intended, which is precisely what you're arguing has not happened.
0thomblake12yI disagree on both points. It is not a misquote since it is entirely the words Emerson actually wrote, as he wrote them. It is out of context since there are words nearby ("context") that were not included.
1anonym12yI guess we understand the phrase "out of context" differently then and have to disagree. I would never use it for leaving out a single adjective, and haven't heard it used that way. I have only heard it used when entire clauses or sentences are omitted. I note that wikipedia seems to agree with my interpretation. From Fallacy of Quoting Out of Context [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy_of_quoting_out_of_context] (emphasis mine): ...

It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how Nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about Nature.

Niels Bohr

2anonym12yAlbert Einstein

When the time comes, there is no moment for reasoning. And if you have not done your inquiring beforehand, there is most often shame. Reading books and listening to people's talk are for the purpose of prior resolution.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

The word “philosopher” has its origins in the Greek, where its root is a “lover of wisdom.” There is no assurance that a lover of wisdom has any, just as an anglophile is not assured to have an Englishman locked in the basement.

John D. Norton

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence -- Carl Sagan

(I know this quote is very much a cliche -- but, as a realized a long time after seeing it, it is not only a nice heuristic, but it also emphasizes the bayesian, probabilistic view of knowledge over the popperian one.)

Economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that are more valuable. A useful metaphor for production in an economy comes from the kitchen. To create valuable final products, we mix inexpensive ingredients together according to a recipe. The cooking one can do is limited by the supply of ingredients, and most cooking in the economy produces undesirable side effects. If economic growth could be achieved only by doing more and more of the same kind of cooking, we would eventually run out of raw materials and suffer from un... (read more)

[-][anonymous]12y 2

Great thinkers build their edifices with subtle consistency. We do our intellectual forebears an enormous disservice when we dismember their visions and scan their systems in order to extract a few disembodied “gems”—thoughts or claims still accepted as true. These disarticulated pieces then become the entire legacy of our ancestors, and we lose the beauty and coherence of older systems that might enlighten us by their unfamiliarity—and their consequent challenge—in our fallible (and complacent) modern world.

-- Stephen Jay Gould

0RichardKennaway12yDo you have the context for that one? My immediate reaction is to suspect that Gould wants to rehabilitate some discarded old idea, and talks about consistency, beauty and coherence as a way of not talking about evidence and truth. But perhaps I am too suspicious.
0[anonymous]12yI don't have the context for that particular wording, but it's a recurring theme of his essays. He felt that wrong ideas could still be instructive, and he would often write essays explaining ideas that he clearly referred to as incorrect. His point here seems to be that the theory is already wrong, so don't destroy the remaining value by cutting it up to extract the bits you could get from current theory. I don't think you need to worry that he's calling for a return to something you dislike.
[-][anonymous]12y 2

Elpinice was skeptical. She likes evidence. That means a well-made argument. For Greeks, the only evidence that matters is words. They are masters of making the fantastic sound plausible.

-- Gore Vidal, "Creation" (narrator Cyrus Spitama)

You're not to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.

— Malcolm X (By Any Means Necessary)

First the sign describes reality. Then the sign replaces reality. - Last Psychiatrist, on the role of media.

Don’t just do something, stand there.

-- George Shultz.

HT: Gödel’s Lost Letter and P=NP.

Believing presupposes understanding.

-al-Ghazali (theologian)

[-][anonymous]11y 0

'Tis with our Judgments as our Watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.

Pope, Essay on Criticism

[Others] note that my 'avoidance of the standard philosophical terminology for discussing such matters' often creates problems for me; philosophers have a hard time figuring out what I am saying and what I am denying. My refusal to play ball with my colleagues is deliberate, of course, since I view the standard philosophical terminology as worse than useless — a major obstacle to progress since it consists of so many errors. – Daniel Dennett, The Message is: There is no Medium

[-][anonymous]12y 0

Our pride is often increased by what we retrench from our other faults.

-- La Rochefoucauld

[-][anonymous]12y 0

The art of life is a constant readjustment to our surroundings.

-Kakuzo Okakura

A single conversation with a wise man is better than ten years of study.

That had better be a long conversation, a very wise person, and one damned lost field you were studying for ten years.

1[anonymous]12yThis is a lesswrong quote, but I think it belongs in this discussion because it's remarkably apropos: -- Eliezer Yudkowsky
-1PeterS12yWise in comparison. The other quantifiers are hyperbole. The quote applies insofar as the field being studied is already somewhat mapped and investigated. Programming forums are ultimately more useful than tutorials and textbooks, talking to an author more insightful than reading the 200 page thesis, and having access to a community of intelligent synthetics is much more valuable than having access to a library.
6sketerpot12yFind the right books, and it'll probably be far more rewarding than talking to an author, simply because of the information density and better organization that you can get in written form. An hour of reading Hennessy and Patterson's excellent book on CPU design [http://www.amazon.com/Computer-Architecture-Quantitative-Approach-4th/dp/0123704901/ref=dp_ob_title_bk] will teach you a hell of a lot more than six hours of classes. I speak from recent quantitative experience here, which is where I got those specific numbers. The exceptions to this rule are local: particularly hard-to-understand concepts like the Tomasulo algorithm [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomasulo_algorithm] are a lot easier to wrap your head around if you have someone to walk you through them. But for the most part, a well-written textbook can teach you better than a person talking with you. One problem is that most textbooks just aren't written that well. Often they're too concerned with signaling academic status, and they forget to make the book something that people will want to read. Just because an author can go off on a tangent [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BigLippedAlligatorMoment] about graph isomorphisms [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graph_isomorphism] doesn't mean they should. Other times they get bogged down in obscure details up front, killing off people's interest. There are other failure modes [http://www.textbookleague.org/103feyn.htm], too depressing to list here. By the way, I think that one reason why wikis are so easy to learn from is because you can skip past the boring stuff until you need it. This makes reading a wiki more fun, and also leads to tab explosions [http://xkcd.com/214/], keeping you hooked. I figure that this could significantly improve on the traditional textbook model, despite all those nice things I said about it earlier in the post. (In honor of the tab explosion, I've stuck in a bunch of links to pages that might be interesting.)
5Kaj_Sotala12yOnly if he were an exceptionally bad writer. 200 pages contains a lot more information than you can fit into most conversations. Not to mention being more logically structured. Of course, a conversation is more interactive and lets you ask about the things that were left unclear, as well as clear up misunderstandings... but I don't think that anywhere near compensates. What you could argue is that talking to the author is time more efficiently spent, as it gives you a better idea of whether her thesis is worth reading.
-2Nominull12ymost people are exceptionally bad writers
4RolfAndreassen12yHow can that be the case? You apparently have 'exceptions' forming most of the population! More generally, being able to talk to the author after reading the thesis is hugely valuable, because whatever was unclear in the thesis can be cleared up. But talking to the author without reading his work is fairly worthless; you won't know what questions to ask, unless of course you're already knowledgeable in the field.
0rwallace12yBut actually it also applies only insofar as you have already studied the field. Programming forums are great, but we've all seen the guy who shows up to post a tutorial question verbatim and appends "send me the code plz", and we all understand he's just wasting everybody's time. You have to read the textbooks and at least seriously attempt the tutorials yourself before you can ask the right questions on the forum.
1darius12yYou could see that as anthropomorphizing the power of interaction [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interactive_proof_system].
0SilasBarta12yMeh. Maybe if that wise man is Eliezer Yudkowsky. But then, calling Eliezer Yudkowsky a "wise man" is like calling the Sahara Desert a "litterbox". Or Chuck Norris a "tough guy". ETA: Grr! I can't put underscores in people's names anymore without adding italics!
2dclayh12yIs it perhaps time for another round of Eliezer Yudkowsky Facts [http://lesswrong.com/lw/4g/eliezer_yudkowsky_facts/]?
0[anonymous]12y"Eliezer Yudkowsky Facts - September 2009".
0thomblake12yJust backslash escape them - type it like this: Eliezer\_Yudkowsky ETA: this is an amusing example of "do as I say, not as I do". What I actually typed looked like this: Eliezer\\\_Yudkowsky
0SilasBarta12yI think you misunderstand the problem. I know I can override the formatting. It's just that if I did so, it would invalidate my claim that I have software that lets me call up forum screen names with hotkeys, and replaces the spaces with underscores in forums that allow spaces in names. In other words, people would know I was needlessly typing out their whole screen name and adding underscores, and it wasn't just some glitchy software.
0kpreid12yOf who is this a quote?
1PeterS12yI believe it's actually a Chinese proverb.
7billswift12yYou need to be careful of supposed Chinese proverbs; I recently found that the Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times" was actually created in the fifties by Eric Frank Russell.
2ChrisHibbert12yIt has to be "may your grandchildren live in interesting times", or the caster of the curse is as cursed as the recipient. sheesh!
1SilasBarta12yMaybe the problem is that you're focusing too much on whether the proverb is authentic Chinese rather than on whether it accurately captures reality?

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

-H.P. Lovecraft

1Eliezer Yudkowsky12yIt could be true, but how would anyone know?
3thomblake12yWell it may be technically false that the human mind has this inability, but on the other hand the human mind has a remarkable ability to avoid correlating many of its contents. "Belief is not closed under implication!"
-3CronoDAS12yConsistency checking is NP-complete... "Compartmentalization" may be a rationalist sin, but you can't learn anything efficiently if you have to keep checking every fact against every other fact.
0thomblake12yThat's a pretty strong claim. Is there a proof? Or did you just mean that consistency checking is in NP?
3RichardKennaway12yIt's worse than that, consistency checking is undecidable. This is implied by Gödel's second incompleteness theorem.
1CronoDAS12yWell, 3-SAT [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boolean_satisfiability_problem] is NP-complete, anyway. If consistency checking in mere propositional logic is already NP-complete, then it can't be any easier to do consistency checking to real-world arguments that require predicate logic or other, even more complicated systems to express. Godel Escher Bach has a section that talks about this.
0Jack12yOne of my favorite quotes but it is definitely anti-rationalist in its orientation.

In the words of the ancients, one should make his decisions within the space of seven breaths. Lord Takanobu said, "If discrimination is long, it will spoil." Lord Naoshige said, "When matters are done leisurely, seven out of ten will turn out badly. A warrior is a person who does things quickly."

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

[-][anonymous]12y -3

They throw the ball, I hit it. They hit the ball, I catch it.

-Willie Mays