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  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB - if we do this, there should be a separate thread for it.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
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"A witty saying proves nothing." -- Voltaire

I've always found that useful to keep in mind when reading threads like this.

I think this should go at the top of all monthly Rationality Quotes posts as an epigraph.

-1Lumifer9y
Or an epitaph.

"As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life - so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls."

-- M. Cartmill

No one has ever announced that because determinism is true thermostats do not control temperature.

Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, qtd. in Daniel Dennett, Elbow Room

2AllanCrossman13y
But what thermostats don't control is... what the thermostat is set to.
1RichardKennaway13y
Another control system does that. The chain tops out somewhere, of course.
1Eliezer Yudkowsky13y
Allan didn't say otherwise.
6Tyrrell_McAllister13y
Richard didn't say otherwise.

Eliezer didn't say... oh sod it.

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

Whitehead, Alfred North (1861 - 1947), An Introduction to Mathematics.

Consequentialism: The belief that doing the right thing makes the world a better place.

-- DanielLC

1James_K13y
Suitably pithy, but that really should be the other way around shouldn't it? NB: I recognise the difference between quoting and approving of the quote.
5Technologos13y
My understanding is that the quote is meant to invert the way we normally think of consequentialism (that making the world a better place is doing the right thing). The quote simply puts the logic in causal order, such that we can naturally say "I am doing the right thing if (and only if?) it makes the world a better place."
0Nominull13y
Well, you need an implicit "and doing the wrong thing does not" before it becomes logically equivalent to consequentialism.

Better our hypotheses die for our errors than ourselves.

-- Karl Popper

Alice came to a fork in the road. "Which road do I take?" she asked. "Where do you want to go?" responded the Cheshire cat. "I don't know," Alice answered. "Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter." ~Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I forget if I've posted this before, but:

"I've noticed that the press tends to be quite accurate, except when they're writing on a subject I know something about." -- Keith F. Lynch

2sark11y
Not sure about others, but my first reaction was that we should not trust the press as much, but then I realized that isn't the whole story. So this is for the sake of making it explicit: It could be that when the news comes to talk about something you are an expert in, you were simply nitpicking, using your superior knowledge in a particular domain to show off. How do we tell? Perhaps there are other ways, but I would focus on relevance. Does my extra knowledge of the subject really affect the conclusions of this op-ed?

Freedom is understood in contrast to its various opposites. I can be free as opposed to being presently coerced. I can be free as opposed to being under some other person's general control. I can be free as opposed to being subject to delusions or insanity. I can be free as opposed to being ruled by the state in denial of ordinary personal liberties. I can be free as opposed to being in jail or prison. I can be free as opposed to living under unusually heavy personal obligations. I can be free as opposed to being burdened by bias or prejudice. I can even be free (or free spirited) as opposed to being governed by ordinary social conventions. The question that needs to be asked, and which hardly ever is asked, is whether I can be free as opposed to being causally determined. Given that some kind of causal determinism is presupposed in the very concept of human action, it would be odd if this were so. Why does anyone think that it is?

-- David Hill

3[anonymous]13y
You've made essentially this argument yourself, and I've been wondering: How is causal determinism "presupposed in the concept of human action"? Can't I do things without the results being guaranteed?
9Tiiba13y
"Can't I do things without the results being guaranteed?" Yes; it's called ignorance. It's not called freedom.
0PhilGoetz13y
You're not providing evidence. You're just presupposing what he's asking for evidence of.
0[anonymous]13y
Upvoted for giving a definite answer. But just to make sure I've been clear, I meant to refer to whether the results are guaranteed in the absolute sense (causal determinism) regardless of whether they are guaranteed to match my expectations.
2Tiiba13y
If you mean quantum fluctuations, that's also something you're ignorant of. It doesn't make you free, though. It's just randomness. Freedom is the freedom to say that 2+2=4. Or that 2+2=goldfish, if that's what floats your boat. The important thing is that your words are determined by your goals. Basically, free will is will that happens to be free. If the freedom you seek is freedom to change your GOALS (like bad habits), well, I guess we are restricted to a degree. I like to think of such goals as not really mine, but those of a beast that lives in my body. I am free.
0[anonymous]13y
The quote was about freedom. My question was about causal determinism, and it wasn't about the relationship between causal determinism and freedom.
2Tiiba13y
I reread your first post, and I think that you might have understood the word "action" too literally. Determinism is not presupposed in ANY human action, but to plan your next move, you need some idea of what its effect will be. And to do that, you need rules. That's causality.
4Eliezer Yudkowsky13y
You can do things without the results being guaranteed. But you cannot do anything, be responsible for any action, without causality.
2[anonymous]13y
RobinZ has pointed out [http://lesswrong.com/lw/152/rationality_quotes_august_2009/10qq] that there's a difference between causality and causal determinism.
-2PhilGoetz13y
You're losing sight of the original question. People who believe in free will don't deny causality.
2RobinZ13y
I personally recommend A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will by Robert Kane to anyone interested in that kind of question - it's short, and except when dealing with Kane's own theory (which it only does for the last few chapters), quite fair-minded. But to address your remark: one problem with declaring indeterminism in human decision-making is how it interacts with cases where the decision is obvious. Suppose you were visiting a town you only ever traveled to once a decade, and in that town you went to a restaurant serving the greatest (let's say) minestrone soup in the world. You haven't eaten minestrone soup at all for a year, you love the stuff, it's the cheapest thing on the menu, and you're leaving tomorrow so you know you gotta get you some of this. If you are causally determined to order the minestrone soup, are you acting of your own free will when you do? If you are not, then are you acting of your own free will if you don't? (I steal this example from my "Action and Responsibility" class a year or two ago, but it's a good one.)
0[anonymous]13y
Beats me. I guess it depends on what you mean by free will. (There are so many different meanings that I don't like to use the phrase.) It also doesn't answer my question at all. If you explained how the fact that it's possible to order soup proves that events are perfectly predictable in theory, that would answer my question.
1RobinZ13y
Well, how did you mean your question? I mean, the answer is obviously, "of course you can act without guaranteed results, that's every action anyone has ever taken ever." Except that it's an utterly inane result which the people in the free will community (mostly) don't care about, and this entire debate is in the free will community, and needs to be understood in the context of compatibilism and incompatibilism. See, there are numerous philosophers (and non-philosophers) whose model of free choice is "choice which could go either way, even under the exact same circumstances" - and they interpret it logically, that you could load the save file from before the decision and see them switch. If that's the nature of a free decision, then you run into the problem of the soup, here - apparently, you're only free to order the soup if you've got some measurable chance of not ordering the soup, despite that you'd have to be crazy or stupid to not order the soup. Which is counterintuitive, because nobody's holding a gun to your head - it looks like an exemplar of a free decision unless you're committed to that sort of philosophy.
0[anonymous]13y
Well, if it's true that "causal determinism is presupposed in the very concept of human action," then it should stay true when I'm talking about causal determinism and human action alone--and I should be able to ask for an explanation. In other words, how does the fact that people do order soup show that if you load the save file, you're guaranteed the same result? I know it's used as a step in proofs about "free will," but I'm asking about the step, not the proofs. Another proof rebutting some of the people who don't like the first proof isn't an answer.
1RobinZ13y
Wait, are you asking the empirical question, "do human decision-making processes operate in a deterministic fashion"? As far as I can tell, the answer is approximately "yes" (at least at scales typical of ordering food at a restaurant without influence from nondeterministic random-number generators), the aforementioned can-go-either-way philosophers are committed to the opposite answer (or to believing that we're just automata), and the people you really should be asking are the cognitive scientists and neuroscientists. Of which I am neither.
0[anonymous]13y
I'll try another rephrasing: I have been told that "causal determinism is presupposed in the very concept of human action." I look at the concept of human action and see no presupposition about causal determinism. So I ask, "Where in the concept is this presupposition? I can't find it."
1RobinZ13y
...my, I am an idiot. No, it certainly doesn't look presupposed - I imagine someone is misunderstanding (Edit: or equivocating) the term "causal determinism". Causality is presupposed, but not determinism.
0Jeremy13y
I was also frustrated by Hill's vagueness on what seemed to be an important point (perhaps he elaborates later?). In any case, I can tell you what I think Hill was thinking when he wrote that, though I'm not exceptionally confident about it. The concept of human action--of making plans and following through with them--seems to be based on the assumption that the world is fundamentally predictable. We make decisions as if the future can to some extent be determined by a knowledge of the present, paired with a set of well-defined rules. The natural objection to this would be that human action only presupposes some ability to predict the future, but not the perfect ability that might be possible if causal determinism is true. However, one could argue that it is far more natural to assume that the future is completely predictable, at least hypothetically, based on the fact that even our limited knowledge of the laws of nature seems to give us a good deal of predictive power. After all, there are many things we cannot yet do, but this would seem to be poor evidence that they are logically impossible. So in my mind, Hill wasn't trying to make a definitive case for causal determinism, only observing that it is the far more natural conclusion to draw, based on the planning-oriented way human beings interact with the world.
0[anonymous]13y
You're misreading the quote, I think. Hill isn't talking about the planned results of one's action being "guaranteed" or determined, but rather simply stating that action itself is impossible without some form of causality. In the quote Hill seems to be assuming that any form of causality would be in some way deterministic, which makes sense to me. Whether or not you agree with it is another question. EDIT: Another way to think about it is that the determinism Hill is referring to doesn't have to do with whether certain results are guaranteed (as you seem to be thinking of), but rather simply with the fact that a result is guaranteed. That is, some form of causal determinism (A causes B causes C) must be assumed in order for the whole idea of "action" to make any sense, according to Hill. I know I've stated my point at least twice now in slightly different ways, but I struggled (more than) a bit in trying to sensibly formulate an answer to your question.
-2PhilGoetz13y
I'm surprised that's gotten so many upvotes. It's just a very long way of saying "Why do people disagree with me?" without providing any reasons to agree. The sudden switch to talking about causal determinism is a non-sequitur. Causal determinism is presupposed in the concept of human action? Um, no. Belief in free will is not the same as denial of causality.
[-][anonymous]13y 18

Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don't drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor's yard every time it pisses on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper. So I keep trying to gently bring my mind back to what is really there to be seen, maybe to be seen and noted with a kind of reverence. Because if I don't learn to do this, I think I'll keep getting things wrong.

-Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

0[anonymous]13y
(*bringing)

I almost believe we are ghosts, all of us. It's not just what we inherit from our fathers and mothers that walks again in us - it's all sorts of dead old ideas and dead beliefs and things like that. They don't exactly live in us, but there they sit all the same and we can't get rid of them. All I have to do is pick up a newspaper, and I see ghosts lurking between the lines. I think there are ghosts everywhere you turn in this country - as many as there are grains of sand - and then there we all are, so abysmally afraid of the light.

-- Ibsen, 1881

4gwern13y
--Lewis Mumford [http://www.idst.vt.edu/modernworld/d/city.html], quoted in The Clock of the Long Now
4gwern13y
--Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm] (1852)

Albert grunted. "Do you know what happens to lads who ask too many questions?"
Mort thought for a moment.
"No," he said eventually, "what?"
There was silence.
Then Albert straightened up and said, "Damned if I know. Probably they get answers, and serve 'em right."

-Terry Pratchett, Mort

[Mathematical methods of inference] literally have no content; long division can calculate miles per gallon, or it can calculate income per capita. The statistical tools of experimental psychology were borrowed from agronomy, where they were invented to gauge the effects of different fertilizers on crop yields. The tools work just fine in psychology, even though, as one psychological statistician wrote, "we do not deal in manure, at least not knowingly."

-- Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works

There’s no sense in being precise when you don’t even know what you’re talking about.

John Von Neumann

4Douglas_Knight13y
That seems like the perfect condemnation for his book on quantum mechanics. This is also the guy who said "Young man, in mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them." Wikipedia says that what the young man didn't understand is the method of characteristics, which sounds like it should be understood, from what little I know about it. Do you have a source or context for this quote?
0anonym13y
No, I've come across it many times but never seen a source. Wikiquote includes it but without a source.

There is no opinion so absurd that some philosopher will not express it.

-- Marcus Tullius Cicero

[ while in general I value philosophy, there is also much nonsense and, especially, little progress ]

[-][anonymous]13y 12
   It's great to be able to stop
   When you've planned a thing that's wrong,
   And be able to do something else instead

-- Fred M. Rogers, "What Do You Do?"

2Psy-Kosh13y
Which he recited right in front of a senate committee in the process of trying to get more funding for PBS, I think it was.

Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.

-- Richard Feynman The Character of Physical Law

"The account of perception that’s starting to emerge is what we might call the “brain’s best guess” theory of perception: perception is the brain’s best guess about what is happening in the outside world. The mind integrates scattered, weak, rudimentary signals from a variety of sensory channels, information from past experiences, and hard-wired processes, and produces a sensory experience full of brain-provided color, sound, texture, and meaning. ... Perception is inference."[emphasis added]

- Atul Gawande

"It’s hard to argue with a counter-example."

-- Roger Brockett

4soreff13y
A co-worker of mine regularly responds to counterexamples of software designs, examples which show where the design breaks, with "Show me an example from a real user case". :-(

There are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.

-- Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm (1646-1716): Although the whole of this life were said to be nothing but a dream and the physical world nothing but a phantasm, I should call this dream or phantasm real enough, if, using reason well, we were never deceived by it.

In J. R. Newman (ed.), The World of Mathematics, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.

I sure wished I knew what the hell I was talking about, but I'd picked up enough terms and felt the importance attached to them, so that I could use them properly without knowing what they meant. But they felt right, so very right...

-- Roger Zelazny, as Corwin ("Nine Princes in Amber").

1kpreid13y
Which book is this? I might read it for the context.
1Vladimir_Nesov13y
"Nine Princes in Amber"

Your job as a scientist is to figure out how you’re fooling yourself.

Saul Perlmutter

Even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point.

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground

(Self-promotion: this is the epigraph to the novella I'm working on, which is not really about rationality but is about what we're pleased to call "human nature", and which you may read the beginning of here if so inclined.)

0gwern13y
Reading through that, I itch to give feedback (even if just the spelling alone). What's the best way to do that?
0Simulacra13y
Read the first chapter of your novella. Were it not for the delineation I probably would still be reading and hiding from sleep. Work tomorrow, I expect I'll come back to it after.
-2agolubev13y
exactly. and that's a man simply trying to gain his point. The bottleneck for the ideas on this blog finding reality are in f*d up economic incentives and feedback loops. I think it's asenine of us to stick to our ball to the wall INTJ-ness in light of the current economic and political events. it may not be that bad, but it's light years away from the optimum.

Feedback phenomena and human intuition are uncomfortable bedfellows. When people dislike where an equilibrium argument takes them, it is therefore unsurprising that they invent simpler arguments that lead to more palatable conclusions. However, the first principle of rational thought is never to allow your preferences to influence your beliefs.

Ken Binmore

"If you’ve never missed a flight, you’re spending too much time in airports."

-- Umesh Vazirani (as quoted by Scott Aaronson)

1dclayh13y
Huh. Do you know the original source for that quote? Because I came across it (with no attribution given) in Steven Landsburg's book Fair Play, and while it's not so original a thought that it couldn't have been thought of independently, someone stealing seems more likely.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect.

-Mark Twain

The trouble was that he was talking in philosophy, but they were listening in gibberish.

-- Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

-Buddha

2anonym13y
On the same theme: -- Buddha, Tattvasamgraha

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it. ~Andre Gide

"Most men are so thoroughly subjective that nothing really interests them but themselves. They always think of their own case as soon as any remark is made, and their whole attention is engrossed and absorbed by the merest chance reference to anything which affects them personally, be it never so remote: with the result that they have no power left for forming an objective view of things, should the conversation take that turn; neither can they admit any validity in arguments which tell against their interest or their vanity."

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

True, it would be some kind of bland comfort if no one had any cause for which they would be willing to kill. It would be an unimaginable horror, though, if no one had a cause for which they were willing to die.

-- Tailsteak

9Nominull13y
Being willing to die for a cause is being willing to kill for a cause, with the caveat that your devotion is so lukewarm that you limit yourself to killing at most one person. A true superhero would die or kill to save the world, as the situation dictated.

“To rationalize their lies, people -- and the governments, churches, or terrorist cells they compose -- are apt to regard their private interests and desires as just.”

--Wendy Kaminer (A woman social activist)

0orthonormal13y
You need to attribute quotes (and, as per the rules above, you can't quote yourself).
1ajayjetti13y
yeah, just totally missed it...edited now

The study of mathematics cannot be replaced by any other activity that will train and develop man’s purely logical faculties to the same level of rationality.

Cletus O. Oakley

The problem with engineers is that they tend to cheat in order to get results.

The problem with mathematicians is that they tend to work on toy problems in order to get results.

The problem with program verifiers is that they tend to cheat on toy programs in order to get results.

the UNIX fortune-cookie program; original source unknown

In sane moments we regard only the facts, the case that is. Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe.

-- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

When even fourth grade starts looking good Which you hated And first grade's looking good too Overrated And you boys long for some little girl that you dated Do you long for her or for the way you were?

A verse from Jonathan Richman's song, "Summer Feeling," on memory.

3Nanani13y
This quote is so utterly alien to me that I must ask why it was selected.
[-][anonymous]13y 2

[T]he dogmatist within is always worse than the enemy without.

-- Stephen Jay Gould

It cannot be that axioms established by argumentation should avail for the discovery of new works, since the subtlety of nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of argument. But axioms duly and orderly formed from particulars easily discover the way to new particulars, and thus render sciences active.

Francis Bacon

"It only stands to reason that where there's sacrifice, there's someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there's service, there is someone being served. The man > who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master."

~ Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

[ I'm actually not too fond of objectivism, but this quote is spot-on ]

1Nominull13y
You say "slave morality" like it's a bad thing.
2djcb13y
Could you please explain? There is no mentioning of slave morality at all; it's about people trying to subjugate others with words like 'sacrifice'. Even If you see a relation to Nietzsche's master/slave-morality, the quote clearly is not in support of that at all.

"God ha' mercy! What cannot be racked from words in five centuries? One could wring, methinks, a flood from a damp clout!"

Shakespeare in the 20th century, as imagined by Isaac Asimov in "The Immortal Bard".

"Now we've got a truth to die for!" "No. Men should die for lies. But the truth is too precious to die for."

-- Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

Your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality.

--Eliezer (http://lesswrong.com/lw/if/your_strength_as_a_rationalist/)

1Cyan13y
From the OP: do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB.
3ajayjetti13y
got it

Whenever, then, anything in nature seems to us ridiculous, absurd or evil, it is because we have but a partial knowledge of things, and are in the main ignorant of order and coherence of nature as a whole, and because we want everything to be arranged according to dictates of our own reason; although in fact, what our reason pronounces bad is not as bad as regards the order and laws of universal nature, but only as regards the order and laws of our own nature taken separately.... As for the terms good and bad, they indicate nothing positive considered in t... (read more)

1ajayjetti13y
Can somebody tell me what is wrong with the above quote? Just curious, because I already see downvotes on it
-2Douglas_Knight13y
You admitted to reading secondary sources.
1ajayjetti13y
What is wrong with that?
0endoself11y
Ha ha, a literally rationalist [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationalism] quote!
0[anonymous]13y
Can somebody tell me what is wrong with the above quote? Just curious, because I already see downvotes on it

"Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something" Thoreau

A saint may fight against a knave. Alternatively, two knaves may fight. A dragon may be slain by St. George, or by another dragon. In the former case you are left with St. George, who deserves a reward for slaying his dragon. In the latter case you are faced with a dragon, which did only what dragons do. He was probably the bigger of the two, and now he is even bigger than that.

-- Mencius Moldbug, teaching us how to argue any point persuasively. (In this example he's talking about the Allies vs Nazi Germany.)

More than ambition, more than ability, it is rules that limit contribution; rules are the lowest common denominator of human behavior. They are a substitute for rational thought.

Hyman G. Rickover

"You can't tell what someone is doing by watching what they're doing."

-- Richard Marken

"Action speaks nothing, without the Motive."

-- anonymous fortune cookie

Mencius said, "Whenever anyone told him that he had made a mistake, Tzu-lu was delighted. Whenever he heard a fine saying, Yü bowed low before the speaker. The Great Shun was even greater. He was ever ready to fall into line with others, giving up his own ways for theirs, and glad to take from others that by which he could do good."

"If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity."

-- Deuteronomy 25:11-12 (New International Version)

8gwern13y
The point of a quote is usually obvious, but this one isn't. The original writers were simply laying down their sexist laws - but why are you quoting it?
2Douglas_Knight13y
I can't speak for Rune, but I think it's interesting because it's awfully specific. It's an example of the conjunction fallacy that someone thought this important enough to be a rule. To my common-law mind, it would be more sensible if it were something like "...even if it's to save her husband." And maybe it did mean that, since conjunctions are a common place for miscommunication.
0Rune13y
Yeah, my interpretation was similar. It is far too specific to simply be used as an exhibit of sexist thinking.