Rationality Quotes Thread October 2015

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

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be upvoted or downvoted separately. (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments. If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson. If you'd like to revive an old quote from one of those sources, please do so here.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
  • Provide sufficient information (URL, title, date, page number, etc.) to enable a reader to find the place where you read the quote, or its original source if available. Do not quote with only a name.
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The history of the shuttle is a typical example of a generic problem that occurs frequently in the development of science and technology, the problem of premature choice. Premature choice means betting all your money on one horse before you have found out whether she is lame. Politicians and administrators responsible for large project are often obsessed with avoiding waste. To avoid waste they find it reasonable to choose one design as soon as possible and shut down the support of alternatives. ... The evolution of science and technology is a Darwinian process of the survival of the fittest. In science and technology, as in biological evolution, waste is the secret of efficiency. Without waste you cannot find out which horse is the fittest. This is a hard lesson for politicians and administrators to learn.

Freeman Dyson, From Eros to Gaia

Odd that Freeman Dyson thinks politicians and administrators are particularly difficult to persuade here. This is the whole point of why capitalism works better than having clever people run a command economy. You can be clever enough to notice you need roads and infrastructure, but no one is clever enough to predict what technologies will run the future (truly, this principle applies to almost every reasonably complex thing, not just technology -- the finance angle in particular is the standard phrasing, hence me bringing up capitalism).

Odd that Freeman Dyson thinks politicians and administrators are particularly difficult to persuade here. This is the whole point of why capitalism works better than having clever people run a command economy.

How many American politicians and administrators do you think were actually 'persuaded' into believing that capitalism works, in the sense that you mean to use the word? It's probably more like they were born into it.

You can be clever enough to notice you need roads and infrastructure, but no one is clever enough to predict what technologies will run the future (truly, this principle applies to almost every reasonably complex thing, not just technology -- the finance angle in particular is the standard phrasing, hence me bringing up capitalism).

What the Shuttle and public infrastructure have in common is that they're projects suited to the public sector, (the Shuttle was, at least, in the 1970s-80s), as opposed to the private sector. The Shuttle was so risky and costly in the late 70s that only a national government could consider trying it. This is one niche for the public sector in a mixed economy that is largely capitalist: projects that require lots of capital and incur lots of risk. But even if it's ultimately a public project and not a product or service in a market, we can incorporate some of the benefits of market competition with the suggestions that Dyson offers. The point is that if we allow competition, then we don't need to be as clever to predict what technologies will run the future, and it seems silly that the politicians and administrators would praise capitalism and limit their projects in this way.

But it shouldn't seem that silly to us, because we know that the capitalist dogma never told them that they should apply competitive principles in public projects, and because they're tasked with doing what other people want even though they don't in their heart of hearts want to do what other people want.

[T]he kind of mirage that came from modern data-dredging capabilities: if you watch trillions of things, you will often see one-in-a-million coincidences.

-- Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End

'Twas grief enough to think mankind

All hollow servile insincere -

But worse to trust to my own mind

And find the same corruption there

  • Emily Bronte

The world of to-day attaches a large importance to mental independence, or thinking for oneself; yet the manner in which these things are cultivated is very partial. In some matters we are, perhaps too independent (for we need to think socially as well as to act socially); but in other matters we are not independent enough; we are hardly independent at all. For we always interpret mental independence as being independence of old things. But if the mind is to stand in a real loneliness and liberty, and judge mere time and mere circumstances, and all the wasting things of this world, if the mind is really a strong and emancipated judge of things unbribed and unbrowbeaten, it must assert its superiority, not merely to old things, but to new things.

It must forsee the old age of things still in a strenuous infancy. It must stand by the tombstone of the babe unborn. It must treat the twentieth century as it treats the twelfth, as something which by its own nature has already had an end. A free man must not only be free from the past; a free man must be free from the future. He must be ready to face the rising and increasing thing, and to judge it by immortal tests. It is a very poor mark of courage, in comparison, that we are ready to strike at ancient wrongs. Our courage shall be tested by whether we are ready to strike at youthful and full-blooded wrongs; wrongs that have all their life before them, wrongs that are as sanguine as the sunrise, and as fresh as the flowers.

G.K. Chesterton, http://platitudesundone.blogspot.com/2015/09/the-world-of-to-day-attaches-large.html

If your only tool is deconstruction the whole world looks like narrative.

Sketch of Person

I guess I never stopped to question whether my deconstruction adn narrative making was neccersary or not.

As usual, if you reverse the dependent and independent variables, the resulting headline is 100% intuitive.

Joel Grus

Your tactics are self-centered. You have forgotten that you are not the only player on the board, that inherent talent speaks for no more than experience, and that others around you seek to expand their authority and constrain yours. Your error is fundamental to the human psyche: you have allowed yourself to believe that others are mechanisms, static and solvable, whereas you are an agent.

Purity Cartone, in The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson, p. 180

Nobody wants to hear that you will try your best. It is the wrong thing to say. It is like saying "I probably won't hit you with a shovel." Suddenly everyone is afraid you will do the opposite.

--Lemony Snicket, All the Wrong Questions

The Hollywood version of that is quite popular, sounds less rational though.

Losers always whine about their best, winners go home and f* the prom queen. --Sean Connery, The Rock

The definition of rationality is "winning", is it not?

X-D

"I’ve found that’s all you have to do to get ahead in life, be non-idiotic and live a long time. It’s harder to be non-idiotic than most people think." - Charlie Munger

"When you are looking for something beautiful and satisfying, it's much harder to find the ugly truth." Penn Jillette, in his book "Oh, God, No" , talking about showing how magic tricks are done.

the great tragedy of Science–the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact

— T. H. Huxley, "Biogenesis and Abiogenesis"

(I thought someone might've posted this under Rationality Quotes before, but Google just finds paraphrases in other threads.)

“All the things I have done in my life that I am proud of are all things on the threshold of which I felt immense fear.” - Washington here

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be 'cured' against one's will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

C.S. Lewis, "God in the Dock"

The application to Coherent Extrapolated Volition is left as an exercise.

An important part of the quote, it seems, is "may be" the most oppressive. Only if the goodness of these "omnipotent moral busybodies" is actually so different from our own that we suffer under it is there an issue; a goodness well-executed would perhaps never even be called a tyranny at all.

But, from the inside, how to you tell the difference between doing actual good for others or being an omnipotent moral busybody?

But, from the inside, how to you tell the difference between doing actual good for others or being an omnipotent moral busybody?

"She's the sort of woman who lives for others - you can tell the others by their hunted expression."

Having a good factual model of a person would be necessary, and perhaps sufficient, for making that judgment favourably. When moving beyond making people more equal and free in their means, the model should be significantly better than their self-model. After that, the analyst would probably value the thus observed people caring about self-determination in the territory (so no deceiving them to think they're self-determining), and act accordingly.

If people declare that analysing people well enough to know their moral values is itself being a busybody, it becomes harder. First I would note that using the internet without unusual data protection already means a (possibly begrudging) acceptance of such busybodies, up to a point. But in a more inconvenient world, consent or prevention of acute danger are as far as I would be willing to go in just a comment.

Having a good factual model of a person would be necessary, and perhaps sufficient, for making that judgment favourably.

For a single person, yes, but it takes a significant investment of time to build an accurate, factual model of a single person. It becomes impractical to do so when making decisions that affect even a mere hundred people.

How would you recommend scaling this up for large groups?

Sociology and psychology. Determine patterns in human desires and behaviour, and determine universal rules. Either that, or scale up your resources and get yourself an fAI.

This is a difficult problem, which very few people (if any) have ever solved properly. It's (probably) not insoluble, but it's also not easy...

Good luck.

Willingness to be critiqued? Self-examination and scrupulous quantities of doubt? This seems kind of like the wrong question, actually. "Actual good" is a fuzzy concept, if it even exists at all; a benevolent tyrant cares whether or not they are fulfilling their values (which, presumably, includes "provide others with things I think are good"). The question I would ask is how you tell the difference between actually achieving the manifestation of your values and only making a big show of it; presumably it's the latter that causes the problem (or at least the problem that you care about).

Then again, this comes from a moral non-realist who doesn't see a contradiction in having a moral clause saying it's good to enforce your morality on others to some extent, so your framework's results may vary.

Willingness to be critiqued? Self-examination and scrupulous quantities of doubt?

Both of these will help. A lot.

"Actual good" is a fuzzy concept

True. One could go with "that which causes the greatest happiness", but one shouldn't be putting mood-controlling chemicals in the water. One could go with "that which best protects human life", but one shouldn't put humanity into a (very safe) zoo where nothing dangerous or interesting can ever happen to them.

This is therefore a major problem for someone actually trying to be a benevolent leader - how to go about it?

The question I would ask is how you tell the difference between actually achieving the manifestation of your values and only making a big show of it

I'd suggest having some metric by which your values can be measured, and measuring it on a regular basis. For example, if you think that a benevolent leader would do best by reducing crime, then you can measure that by tracking crime statistics.

If someone clearly wants you to stop bothering them, then stop bothering them.

"Quit bothering me, officer, I'm super busy here."

I don't think that helps AndHisHorse figure out the point.

You may not be able to make a horse drink, but you can still lead it to water rather than merely point out it's thirsty. Teaching is a thing that people do with demonstrated beneficial results across a wide range of topics. Why would this be an exception?

I think you overestimate the extent to which many LW users comment to help others understand things, as opposed to (say) gain social status at their expense.

Be careful when defining the winner as someone other than the one currently sitting on a mound of utility.

Most lesswrong users at least profess to want to be above social status games, so calling people out on it increases expected comment quality and personal social status/karma, at least a little.

Most lesswrong users at least profess to want to be above social status games

Unfortunately, professing something does not make it true any more than putting a sign saying "Cold" on a refrigerator that isn't plugged in will make it cold.

rather than merely point out it's thirsty.

I'm not pointing out it's thirsty, I'm pointing out there is no water where it thinks to drink.

In the analogy, water represents the point of the quote (possibly as applied to CEV). You're saying there is no point. I don't understand what you're trying to say in a way that is meaningful, but I won't bother asking because 'you can't do my thinking for me'.

Edit: fiiiine, what do you mean?

As best I understood it, the point was that one's belief in one's own goodness is a source of drive - and if that goodness is false, the drive is misaimed, and the greater drive makes for greater ill consequences.

I think we agree that belief in one's own goodness has the capability to go quite wrong, in such cases as the quote describes more wrong than an all-other-things-being-equal belief in one's own evil. Where we seem to disagree is on the inevitability of this failure mode - I acknowledge that the failure mode exists and we should be cautious about it (although that may not have come across), whereas you seem to be implying that the failure mode is so prevalent that it would be better not to try to be a good overlord at all.

Am I understanding your position correctly?

Partially. Yes, I would assert that the failure mode you're talking about is prevalent (and point to a LOT of history to support that assertion; no one is evil is his own story). However the main point in the quote we're talking about isn't quite that, I think. Instead, consider such concepts as "autonomy", "individuality", and "diversity".

How does Lewis, a conservative Christian, defend God or himself against this charge?

God gave humans free will. Yes, He commands people to act morally, but He doesn't compel people to do so.

He doesn't compel people to do so.

The threat of severe punishment if one goes against the commands seems pretty similar to compulsion to me. If I commanded you to do something on pain of being thrown in an eternal pit of snakes, you could reasonably say I was forcing you to do it.

I would also be interested to know how C.S. Lewis separated righteous divine intervention from omnipotent busybodiness if anyone has the knowledge and a few minutes to save me from the terrible trials of actually looking up this myself!

Not only is it "pretty similar to compulsion"; it's the exact sort of compulsion that we complain of in human tyrants. The problem with Hitler or Stalin or whoever isn't that they somehow make their citizens literally unable to choose for themselves; it's that they hit them with terrible punishments when they choose the "wrong" way.

The kind of tyranny God allegedly refrains from exercising is precisely the kind that no human tyrant has ever had the option of exercising.

(Though that might change, and plenty of people have worried about the possibility -- see e.g. Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World. For that matter, IIRC the paragraph quoted above is in the context of Lewis worrying about human tyrannies with the ability to mess with their subjects' minds.)

I think Lewis's actual response would not be the one VoiceOfRa gives; rather, I think he would say that God doesn't really send people to hell, he merely permits them to send themselves there, and that the awfulness of hell is not a matter of devils with pitchforks or lakes of molten sulphur but of the inhabitants of hell -- who have selected themselves by their refusal to align themselves with God who is the source of all goodness -- living out the freedom-from-God on which they have insisted.

I should add that I think that's also a pretty hopeless response, though less obviously hopeless (to me) than the one VoiceOfRa suggests. (But also that it's some time since I read much Lewis and my mental model of him may be less than perfectly accurate; perhaps he could give a better account of his position than I have sketched above.)

The problem with Hitler or Stalin or whoever isn't that they somehow make their citizens literally unable to choose for themselves; it's that they hit them with terrible punishments when they choose the "wrong" way.

Stalin didn't only punish people who choose the wrong way but also because he feared that they might be against him. Hitler did horrible things to jewish people and other groups because of their identity and not because an individual did something wrong.

Sure. And Hitler started a world war, and Stalin suppressed varieties of artistic expression that he didn't like, and both of them did plenty of other awful things. I wasn't purporting to give a complete account of all the awfulness of Hitler or Stalin or any other tyrant. I was commenting on one particular aspect of human tyranny, the one already being compared against divine tyranny in this discussion: their tendency to try to control subjects' behaviour by coercion.

C.S. Lewis gives his actual response in "The Great Divorce", and it is much as you say. In fact, he asserts that people in hell do not ever want to leave it, so God is just giving them what they want.

As you say, this may ultimately not make a lot of sense, but at least he is not saying that God is being tyrannical.

I'm not sure that "The Great Divorce" is intended to tell us Lewis's actual opinions about hell and how one gets and/or stays there. Isn't he at pains, in his interchange with George MacDonald at the end, to insist that it's mere speculation and not intended to be any kind of statement of doctrine?

(It's years since I read it, so I may well be wrong; in particular, I'm not more than 80% confident that what he says there can't be interpreted as "I expect things actually are somewhat like this, but it's important for the reader to understand that I could well be wrong about that".)

Yes, I think that's right, although I think he would be much more certain that God is not a tyrant, and would be proposing this as one possible explanation.

I doubt Lewis would be in favor of pestering people to convert, and it is quite certain that God does not pester anyone.

Lewis spent much of his life writing books that were supposed to help people persuade other people to convert, and it is quite certain that nearly all of the pestering Lewis was familiar with was done in the name of his own God. I find it unlikely that, if an army of Lewis clones were made rulers of England, they would allow gay marriage, prostitution, and polygamy.

The name of the book is God in the Dock because it is about accusations against God--and this is most properly an accusation against the Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim) God. It would be hilariously ironic if Lewis were not using it that way.

Lewis spent much of his life writing books that were supposed to help people persuade other people to convert,

How does that constitute the tyranny which he described?

I find it unlikely that, if an army of Lewis clones were made rulers of England

Speculations on how Lewis might be corrupted by such power are not useful. What would happen if an army of Phil Goetz clones were made rulers of the US?

ETA: One might also compare and contrast the writings of Lewis (who did not become a tyrant), with, say, Mein Kampf (written by someone who did).

Speculations on how Lewis might be corrupted by such power are not useful.

Speculation about "an army of Lewis clones" is not (direct) speculation about Lewis becoming a tyrant, but about Lewis honestly implementing his principles. His principles say that some things we consider good are bad and need to be enforced (unless you actually do think Lewis would permit gay marriage and polygamy if he ran the country).

Speculation about "an army of Lewis clones" is not (direct) speculation about Lewis becoming a tyrant, but about Lewis honestly implementing his principles. His principles say that some things we consider good are bad and need to be enforced

When there we have it. To you, and to Phil Goetz, a moral belief implies an imperative to make everyone conform to it, had one only the power to do so. The implication is so unconscious and axiomatic to you, that when you and he read Lewis saying how he thinks people should live (and he would indeed be against gay marriage, prostitution, and polygamy), you immediately imagine him imposing it on everyone, and pointing to the unwelcome result as a refutation of Lewis. Of course, the result is only unwelcome to you and Phil because you do not agree with Lewis on how people should live. But then, how will an army of Jiro clones rule, or Phil Goetz clones?

The briefest acquaintance with Lewis' writing, including the quote in question, would indicate that this is antithetical to both his written views and his life. He was an Oxford don, who once refused an honour in order not to be drawn into politics. But if you do not see a gap between "this is how people should live" and "people should be compelled to live so" then you will not only fail to make any sense of Lewis, you should on no account be allowed such power over anyone.

It's true that Lewis separated religious and secular law, but presumably Lewis would want laws against, for instance, murder. It's hard to consistently believe that we should have laws against harmful things, have a skewed idea of what constitutes "harmful things", and not want laws against them.

One possible response is that the harmful things only harm oneself, but Lewis believed that such things harm society, not just oneself. Another possible response is that as a practical matter, it would be a bad idea to ban such things, but that only lasts as long as it's practical--such principles would not lead to the conclusion "we should not ban gay marriage" but rather "we should only ban gay marriage if we can get away with it".

It's hard to consistently believe that we should have laws against harmful things, have a skewed

fnord

idea of what constitutes "harmful things", and not want laws against them.

There it is again. You think it inconsistent to think a thing harmful, and let people do it. Would you ban alcohol?

C.S. Lewis wrote a great deal about how he thought people should live, and why, yet did not lift a finger to compel them. In this, he follows the example of He who Lewis believed the Father of us all. You do not understand this. Well, I do not pretend to write better than Lewis.

BTW, to talk of "banning" gay marriage is tendentious, presupposing that it is and always has been a thing that can only fail of existence by being "banned". What has actually happened in recent years is that there was no such thing recognised by church, state, or anyone, that a demand for social recognition of same-sex unions has developed, and that in various places, secular marriage has been so extended.

You think it inconsistent to think a thing harmful, and let people do it. Would you ban alcohol?

I think it's inconsistent to think a thing harmful, and let people do it anyway, given that

1) you don't consider personal freedom good in itself or you don't think the gain to personal freedom balances out the harm, and 2) it's practical to ban it

I wouldn't ban alcohol, because of points 1 and 2. Note that if by "harmful" you mean "harmful, in the net" #1 is equivalent to saying that alcohol isn't harmful.

I am skeptical that Lewis believed #1. I find it hard to think that Lewis believed that divorce is harmful by itself but has enough good effects to more than balance out the harm.

And refusing to ban things based solely on #2 would mean only conditionally refusing to ban them. If you don't want to ban divorce based on #2 and society changed so that you could ban divorces without nasty side effects, you should then ban it.

Lewis actually said he didn't want to ban divorce, but his rationale could equally apply to banning murder--it's incoherent.

I don't think I understand your argument about #1. Surely there's a difference between thinking

  • that X is harmful on net, but that banning X would also be harmful because personal freedom is good, and that the latter outweighs the former

and thinking

  • that X is not harmful on net.

For instance, suppose someone believes the following things:

  • Drinking alcoholic drinks is generally harmful overall to the people who do it.
  • The fact that consumption of alcohol is widespread in our society is, on balance, harmful to our society.
  • Banning the consumption of alcohol would make the world a worse place, not because the effects of reduced alcohol consumption would overall be bad but because
    • compulsion is bad, even when the thing you're compelling is itself good, and
    • the intrusion into people's lives required for enforcement would also be harmful, and
    • some likely consequences of prohibition (black markets etc.) would also be harmful, and
    • the precedent might lead to more prohibitions that would be harmful on balance in similar ways.

That appears to me to be a coherent position; someone whose position it is will disapprove both of drinking alcohol and of prohibiting it. And it seems to me that there's no particular impossibility in supposing that Lewis held a position like this regarding same-sex sex and divorce, or that he would have held a similar position on same-sex marriage if the question had come up and he'd taken it seriously.

(I don't hold such a position regarding alcohol consumption, same-sex sex, same-sex marriage, or divorce, but I think I do regarding lying for small-scale personal gain and callous indifference to the troubles of one's neighbours.)

"Harmful on net" means "after you balance the harm against the good, it is harmful".

That appears to me to be a coherent position; someone whose position it is will disapprove both of drinking alcohol and of prohibiting it.

The first part of that doesn't work by itself, since Lewis believes in compulsion for, for instance, anti-murder laws.

And the rest of it means that if you became convinced that the side effects of prohibition weren't as bad as you originally believed, you would then support prohibition. The question then becomes "would Lewis think there are really bad side effects to not allowing same-sex marriage". I doubt it.