Another month has passed and here is a new rationality quotes thread. The usual 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  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
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"If you don't know how to turn off the safety, being unable to fire the gun is the intended result."

-- NotEnoughBears

7cody-bryce
If posting things said on lesswrong or OB or from HPMOR aren't in scope, it seems a little odd things said in HPMOR discussion on a forum run by you that doesn't happen to be those two is.

If posting things said on lesswrong or OB or from HPMOR aren't in scope, it seems a little odd things said in HPMOR discussion on a forum run by you that doesn't happen to be those two is.

The idea of the rule is to not have this thread be an echo chamber for LessWrong and Yudkowsky quotes. As a sister site, Overcoming Bias falls under the same logic (though I think, given that the origin of LessWrong in OvecomingBias constantly becomes more distant in time, I wouldn't mind that rule getting relaxed for OvercomingBias more recent entries.)

But either way, I haven't seen that many lesswrong members participate in "hpmor/reddit" or that many hpmor/reddit members participate in lesswrong, so I think it makes sense to NOT ban hpmor/reddit quotes from this thread...

As a sister site, Overcoming Bias falls under the same logic (though I think, given that the origin of LessWrong in OvecomingBias constantly becomes more distant in time, I wouldn't mind that rule getting relaxed for OvercomingBias more recent entries.)

We succeeded in getting rid of the Overcoming Bias ban for several months a couple of years ago. Unfortunately someone reverted to an old version and since then it's stuck. Traditions are a nuisance to change.

5Vaniver
If I make this post next month, I'll get rid of the ban. Should that also mean Robin Hanson is fair game? [Edit] I realized that waiting was silly since I made this month's. It's not clear to me whether or not Hanson quotes should be fair game, though; with the current policy, quoting gems from the comments (like NotEnoughBears's quote) works but we shouldn't get deluged by Hanson quotes.
4Said Achmiz
I don't think Eliezer runs r/HPMOR/ ...
4wedrifid
I seems like he does. While I've only gone to the site once the time I did (a few days ago) I saw drama about Eliezer censoring something on the subreddit and observing that this is why fan forums are better when not run by the author himself.
7Kawoomba
He's a moderator there, but he's not the top moderator, i.e. he acts at the whim of two moderators with more seniority who could remove him at any time.
1Dorikka
I doubt this.
1Davidmanheim
OK. What evidence would cause you to change your mind?
4Dorikka
Other authors being booted from forums discussing the stories that they wrote (whether primary or fanific).
1Kawoomba
Don't need to be a moderator to participate in a forum. For an example, see user Dorikka.
-1Dorikka
But it would still be evidence, no? grin More seriously, replace "booted" with "having their moderator-ship revoked or something of similar/greater severity" to produce a more accurate comment.
0AndHisHorse
I've seen this quote multiple times, and particularly after reading this post, I find myself needing to add the same clarification, lest the quote be misused. The idea contained applies if and only if there is a designer able to predict your actions with a high degree of certainty. And even then, it's useful advice if and only if you agree with the designer's intent.
-2bouilhet
How is this so? Surely, as a general proposition, ignorance and intention are much more loosely correlated than the quote suggests. What if the statement were altered slightly: "If (after great effort and/or reflection and/or prayer) you (still) don't know..." Does it still make sense to speak of intention? Or if the point is that the failure to solve a simple problem indicates a will to fail, well then the author has more faith in human will than I do--and IMO greatly underestimates the possible ways of not-knowing.

You're misreading the quote. The intention is on the part of the person who designed the gun, not the person who's trying to fire it.

4bouilhet
Thanks for clarifying. The wording seems odd to me, but I get it now.
[-]Pablo470

Far from being the smartest possible biological species, we are probably better thought of as the stupidest possible biological species capable of starting a technological civilization. We filled that niche because we got there first, not because we are in any sense optimally adapted to it.

Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: the Coming Machine Intelligence Revolution, chap. 2

9elharo
Assuming we're the stupidest possible biological species capable of starting a technological civilization seems almost (though not quite) as wrong as asserting we're the smartest such. In both cases we're generalizing from a sample size of one. For instance, I can imagine a technological civilization that was stupid enough to wipe itself out in a nuclear war, which we've so far managed to avoid; or to destroy its environment far worse than we have. I can also imagine a society that might be able to reach 18th or 19th century levels of tech but couldn't handle calculus or differential geometry.
9Desrtopa
Well, considering it took us thousands to hundreds of thousands of years (depending on whether you buy that certain, more chronologically recent adaptations played a significant role) to start developing the rudiments of technological civilization, after evolving all the biological assets of intelligence that we have now, I think it's pretty fair to infer that we're not that far above the minimum bar. A species whose intelligence was far in excess of that necessary to be capable of technological civilization could probably have produced individuals capable of kickstarting the process in every generation once they found themselves in an environment capable of supporting it. By that measure, we as a species proved quite resoundingly lacking.
2A1987dM
The end of the last glacial period might have had something to do with it.
6Desrtopa
Still thousands of years even if we suppose the window was closed before then.
4Rob Bensinger
I agree they're both very wrong, but I don't think the levels of wrongness are as close as you suggest. The former sounds much, much wronger to me. We're much more likely to be close to the dumb end than close to the smart end.
0DanielLC
It's not that we've seen a large number of biological species capable of starting a technological civilization and we're dumbest of them. It's that we've seen a large number of biological species incapable of starting a technological civilization and we're only slightly smarter than any of them. We know we're at the boundary of being able to start a technological civilization because we can do it and we've seen biological species within an epsilon neighborhood that cannot.
5Paul Crowley
Looking forward to reading that. This idea is definitely older than this chapter, though; would be interested to know who first made this observation and when. EDIT: -- Reducing Long-Term Catastrophic Risks from Artificial Intelligence (in the PDF, not the summary)
2Ben Pace
Not sure the quote is right: http://lesswrong.com/lw/fk4/how_minimal_is_our_intelligence/
3Desrtopa
To which I made roughly the same comment then that I did this time.

Unix was not designed to stop its users from doing stupid things, as that would also stop them from doing clever things.

  • Doug Gwyn
3Stabilizer
This design philosophy also seems to explain why the United States seems to have generated some of the most useful innovations in the last century.
-6elharo

“Erudition can produce foliage without bearing fruit.” - Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

2RobertChange
Original for Reference: "Gelehrsamkeit schießt leicht in die Blätter, ohne Frucht zu tragen."
0Paul Crowley
Thank you! Or as Google Translate has it, "Scholarship has slightly into the leaves, without carrying fruit."
1christopheg
Who says fruit is to be prefered to foliage ? I often wonder about something along this line when speaking of education. Are students learning for getting a job (fruit) or for culture (foliage) ? Choosing between one or the other should it be the choice of the student or of the society ? I believe the most common answer is : we study for job and the choice is made by society. But I, for one, cannot so easily dismiss the question. It has too much to do with meaning of life: are people living to work/act or to understand/love. That's obviously not the only way to interpret this quote, the obvious one would probably be a simple statement that knowledge can be flashy but still sterile. Anyway, as most good quotes it is ambiguous, henceforth may lead to fruitful thinking.
[-]Zubon410

He senses in his gut that he did the right thing by showing up. As with all gut feelings, only time will tell whether this is pathetic self-delusion.

Neil Stephenson, Cryptonomicon

2fbreuer
The more immediate question is, however: Does his positive gut reaction enable him to engage more openly with the situation, thus deriving greater value from it than he might have done otherwise?
0Kaj_Sotala

My experience as a marriage counselor taught me that for a discussion of a disagreement to be productive, the parties have to have a shared understanding of what is being debated. If a husband thinks a marital debate is about leaving the toliet seat up or not, and the wife thinks it is about why her husband never listens to, appreciates or loves her the way he should, expect fireworks and frustration. If you are in an argument that you think is about government debt and it’s going nowhere, it may be because the person you are debating isn’t really arguing about the current level of government debt. Rather, they are arguing about the size of government.

If you get into a debate that is ostensibly about the level of government debt, try the following tactic (or try it on yourself in your own mind): If your opponent says that government debt is too high and we therefore need to cut public spending, ask whether s/he has EVER favored under ANY economic conditions a nice, fat increase in public spending. If you are debating someone who says that government debt is no big deal and that we should be increasing public spending, ask if s/he has EVER favored under ANY economics conditions a b

... (read more)
[-]Jiro210

I don't think the conclusion follows.

It's entirely consistent to believe that the level of something is too high and has been too high for a long time, yet to not oppose it in principle.

The correct question to detect if that's really their objection is not "have they ever thought that the level is too low"--the correct question is "would they ever under any circumstances think that the level is too low". Of course, you're not going to get as many "no" answers with that as with your original formulation.

0RolfAndreassen
It may be consistent, but is it common? Especially in political debates?

“As I looked out into the night sky, across all those infinite stars, it made me realize how insignificant they are."

Peter Cook

Not, perhaps, a rationality quote per se, but a delightful subversion of a harmful commonplace.

2[anonymous]
What do you mean by "harmful commonplace"?
5simplicio
The standard version is that in looking at the stars we realize our own insignificance. Apart from the sheer non-sequitur from "of comparatively small dimensions" to "insignificant" (to whom?!), such tropes may serve as a sort of moral anaesthetic: "Taking the Hubble View, does it really, fundamentally matter if I steal money from my investors?" The general problem is that of making leaps from empty empirical facts to (almost certainly mistaken or self-serving) moral conclusions.
2[anonymous]
I notice I am confused, and I do get a sense of insignificance/wonderment when looking at the night sky. Are there actually people who use the size of the universe to justify moral nihilism?
5Creutzer
I don't think it's usually employed to justify moral nihilism so much as to tell people to shut up and not take human problems so seriously - when in fact human problems are all that matters. It strikes me as a secular cognate of the way religion frequently calls for "humility".
0simplicio
Maybe the specific example I cite is a bit farfetched, but the general principle of "ex naturalistic fallacy quodlibet" is sound.

Truth would quickly cease to be stranger than fiction, once we got as used to it.

H.L. Mencken

6Randy_M
Used to truth? or used to fiction?
8Vaniver
Truth.
2cody-bryce
Correct.

"Here are the ten major principles of rapid skill acquisition:

  1. Choose a lovable project.
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time.
  3. Define your target performance level.
  4. Deconstruct the skill into subskills.
  5. Obtain critical tools.
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice.
  7. Make dedicated time for practice.
  8. Create fast feedback loops.
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts.
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed."

The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast! by Josh Kaufman.

-1bentarm
Have you read the book? My suspicion is that over 90% of it's worth is in an additional rule, which isn't one of these: "commit to practising something for 20 hours before starting to apply these principles". My guess - 20 hours of dedicated practice is just way longer than people tend to think it is, and you'd be surprised how much you learn in 20 hours without making an effort to do any of the rest of the 10 things.
0James_Miller
Yes I did read the book.

We shall not grow wiser before we learn that much that we have done was very foolish.

-- F. A. Hayek

And perhaps not after that, either.

There are those among us - among you, too, I observe - who glorify the wonders of the natural world with a kind of glassy-eyed fanaticism and urge a return to that purer, more innocent state. This testifies to nothing other than the fact that those who recommend the satisfactions of living in harmony with nature have never had to do it. Nature is evil. Nature is conflict, violence, betrayal; worms that crawl through the skin and breed in the gut; thorns that poison; snakes that fight in writhing, heaving masses until all lie dead from one another's poison. From nature we learned to tear the flesh off the bone and suck out the blood - and to enjoy it. Do you want to return to that state? I do not.
...
I have known Nature. I have known Civilization. Civilization is better.

-- Donna Ball (writing as Donna Boyd), The Passion

8PhilGoetz
This is factually false. I know the subculture of Americans who are most-passionate about going back to nature, and they do it. The unrealism in their attitude derives not from ignorance of nature, but from being able to go back to nature while under the protection of American law and mores, so that they don't have to band together in tribes for pretection, compete with other tribes for land, and do the whole tribal bickering and conformity thing. It's all about population density. Primitive life is pretty great if you have low population density--one person per square mile is about right in much of North America. But the population always grows until you have conflict. Spending 9 hours a day 5 days a week sitting in a cubicle staring at a monitor and typing in numbers is horrible in its own ways, which the author prefers to accomodate and ignore. (There are no poisonous thorns in North America. And when you see two snakes in "writhing, heaving masses", they're probably mating.)

This is factually false.

What exactly was claimed to be a fact and how do you know it's false?

Primitive life is pretty great if you have low population density

Um. Really? What do you call primitive life, then? Does it include contemporary medicine, for example?

5PhilGoetz
"This testifies to nothing other than the fact that those who recommend the satisfactions of living in harmony with nature have never had to do it." That "fact" is false, and sets up a straw man in the place of the views and preferences of people who know what they're talking about.
4gwern
In what sense is traveling with modern equipment, vaccinated and raised in an industrial society, all of which depends crucially on a vast technological economy and society, 'living in harmony with nature'? They aren't living in harmony with nature because their brief highly sanitized encounters are structured and make use of countless highly unnatural products & tools, and so that is not a strawman.
9CronoDAS
Me, I'll take air conditioning, indoor plumbing, mosquito control, and antibiotics any day...
6Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
I 100% agree with this. As a kid, I used to daydream about going and living by myself in the wilderness, partly because sitting in a classroom all day was so awful. (The other aspect is that I didn't like people much when I was 10). I've compromised by finding a job where I don't have to sit down and type numbers into a computer...at least, not much. Also I like people a lot more now.
4[anonymous]
I have a sneaking suspicion that's not what the OP meant by "Nature."
3MixedNuts
That sounds like fun, from a LaVeyan-ish perspective. Fighting and killing are more exciting than singing Kumbaya. Does she just not like raw meat?

Because the consequences of losing are so terrible, people tend to avoid serious fighting if they can. Being hunted - a far more likely state - is decidedly un-fun.

4DanielLC
Being hunted is just as likely as hunting. It's just that being hunted is much worse than hunting is good. Also, being in the state of trying to avoid being hunted is also un-fun.
0MixedNuts
It's definitely terrible and to be avoided if at all possible, but it is kind of fun. We can and do get back a small part of that feeling with roller coasters and action movies and fighting sports.

Do you have data for prevalence in this respect?

As a martial artist and as someone whose been in fear of getting the crap knocked out of them in the past this just doesn't line up with my experience. There's a degree of focus that goes on in fights that largely excluded feelings of excitement, it's not like being on a rollercoaster. At least not for me. Fighting feels more like floating if it can be said to be like anything,I just get incredibly tuned in and a lot stronger than usual.

Admittedly I don't think everyone experiences it like that, some people probably do enjoy it.

3PhilGoetz
In the middle ages it was more respectable to talk about how much you enjoyed killing people, and some people did, though I can't remember any references.
0AndHisHorse
I would suspect that sparring in a martial arts context - the product of years of training and practicing specific, restrained moves, in which the objective is not to harm the opponent but to demonstrate superior technique - is rather different, emotionally, from a life-or-death struggle or even a fight between two combatants working off instinct and experience, neither of whom have been conditioned to associate that particular kind of fighting with a safe, controlled environment. That said, I agree with you that there's a matter of individual variation. The people who receive the strongest adrenaline high from fighting, however, are probably not the ones asked to return to the martial arts academy.
4Richard_Kennaway
"Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Winston Churchill (from his years as a war correspondent).
4CronoDAS
It's actually from the prologue of a romance novel, and the narrator is a werewolf.

I'll be more enthusiastic about encouraging thinking outside the box when there's evidence of any thinking going on inside it.

  • Terry Pratchett, alt.fan.pratchett, quoted here

Sometimes the most remarkable things seem commonplace. I mean, when you think about it, jet travel is pretty freaking remarkable. You get in a plane, it defies the gravity of an entire planet by exploiting a loophole with air pressure, and it flies across distances that would take months or years to cross by any means of travel that has been significant for more than a century or three. You hurtle above the earth at enough speed to kill you instantly should you bump into something, and you can only breathe because someone built you a really good tin can that has seams tight enough to hold in a decent amount of air. Hundreds of millions of man-hours of work and struggle and research, blood, sweat, tears, and lives have gone into the history of air travel, and it has totally revolutionized the face of our planet and societies.

But get on any flight in the country, and I absolutely promise you that you will find someone who, in the face of all that incredible achievement, will be willing to complain about the drinks.

The drinks, people.

--Harry Dresden, Summer Knight, Jim Butcher

Here's the thing about air-travel-related complaints.

Air travel is really unpleasant. Oh sure, it's technologically impressive, but the actual experience is terrible: sitting in a cramped space for hours on end, being in close proximity to so many other people; the pressure changes and the noise; the long, tiring process of arriving for your flight, which often takes longer than the actual flight and is quite stressful; the humiliating and absurd security procedures, which these days look more and more like ways for the government to gratuitously exercise its power...

So we've got this really impressive means of travel, which our society seems to have conspired to make as unpleasant as humanly possible. Ok, maybe it's all excusable and inevitable, just for the sheer amazingness of "ooh, we're FLYING through the AIR and so FAST!" etc. But then, after we pay the airline such impressive amounts of money for this amazing-but-unpleasant convenience, they don't deign to even serve us good drinks?

And what do the drinks have to do with how technologically impressive flight is, anyway? Are the people responsible for the drinks also the people who build, maintain, and fly the planes... (read more)

You're using this remarkable set of interacting or interdependent components of interlinked hypertext documents in a global system of interconnected computer networks powered by a flow of electric charge to whine about a rationality quote! How quaint.

7Jiro
Well, there's the scenario where one person does both the engineering and the drinks, but only has a limited amount of effort in his job to exert, and he chooses to devote all of that effort to engineering the plane and only a tiny portion of it to ensuring the quality of the drinks. That scenario is obviously absurd. But if you slightly modify that, person->company and effort->money, that's pretty much what's going on. The company has a limited amount of money to spend, and spending most of it on engineering and almost nothing on drinks has similar dynamics to a single worker who's choosing to spend all his time on engineering and almost nothing on drinks. Even if the company internally contains several workers and the engineer and the drink maintainer are different people.
4fractalman
back to the original quote for a bit...Dresden actually complains quite a bit. But after dealing with flaming monkey poo (literally), a white court vampire as a friend, using a cleaning spell to deal with some giant scorpions, and who knows how many dead bodies (some of which were animated)....drinks seem really, really shallow to him. Not to mention he's trying hard not to think too much about how, if he lets his magic the least bit off the leash, it will crash the plane. (something about complicated technology seems to override the rule "cannot accomplish what you don't believe in accomplishing") Moving back to real life, someone is willing to complain about the drinks while someone else is being mugged. Furthermore, If the person's REAL complaint is about the unpleasant security measures, cramped seats, and air pressure changes, complaining about the drinks, even if the complaint gets the drinks to improve, will not really optimize much.
9Said Achmiz
Well, my real complaint is about both/all of those things. It is possible to have multiple complaints, you know; and also it is possible to improve more than one thing, ever. But this generalizes. Someone is willing to complain about being mugged while someone else is being violently assaulted. Someone is willing to complain about being violently assaulted while someone else is imprisoned and tortured. And so on... There's no law that says we have to find The Worst Problem, devote all our resources to fixing it, and totally ignore every other problem that humanity has while The Worst Problem persists. Such a policy would lead to a rather horrifying world. As always, a relevant xkcd.
5Jiro
Something similar has been seriously argued here for donations to charity: you should donate all your money to the single charity that would do the most good (unless you're a millionaire who can donate so much money that the charity will reduce the size of the problem to below the size of another problem). http://lesswrong.com/lw/elo/a_mathematical_explanation_of_why_charity/ http://lesswrong.com/lw/gtm/when_should_you_give_to_multiple_charities/ http://lesswrong.com/lw/aid/heuristics_and_biases_in_charity/ Some of the comments have good arguments against this, however.
1Said Achmiz
Quite so, and I agree with this argument in the charity case; I just don't think it generalizes to a strategy for dealing with Problems In General.

That honestly seems like some kind of fallacy, although I can't name it. I mean, sure, take joy in the merely real, that's a good outlook to have; but it's highly analogous to saying something like "Average quality of life has gone up dramatically over the past few centuries, especially for people in major first world countries. You get 50-90 years of extremely good life - eat generally what you want, think and say anything you want, public education; life is incredibly great. But talk to some people, I absolutely promise you that you will find someone who, in the face of all that incredible achievement, will be willing to complain about [starving kid in Africa|environmental pollution|dying peacefully of old age|generally any way in which the world is suboptimal]."

That kind of outlook not only doesn't support any kind of progress, or even just utility maximization, it actively paints the very idea of making things even better as presumptuous and evil. It does not serve for something to be merely awe-inspiring; I want more. I want to not just watch a space shuttle launch (which is pretty cool on its own), but also have a drink that tastes better than any other in the world... (read more)

8James_K
Nonetheless it is important to have a firm grasp on the progress we have already attained. It's easy to go from "we haven't made any real progress" to "real progress is impossible". And so we should acknowledge the achievements we have made to date, while always striving to build on them.
6Kaj_Sotala
You're right that it would indeed be a mistake to say "things are already great, let's stop here". But then, "things are really awful, so let's get better" doesn't sound quite right either. The attitude I would lean towards, and which I think is compatible with the quote, is "things are already pretty awesome, how could we make them even more awesome?".
5DSherron
The ideal attitude for humans with our peculiar mental architecture probably is one of "everything is amazing, also lets make it better" just because of how happiness ties into productivity. But that would be the correct attitude regardless of the actual state of the world. There is no such thing as an "awesome" world state, just a "more awesome" relation between two such states. Our current state is beyond the wildest dreams of some humans, and hell incarnate in comparison to what humanity could achieve. It is a type error to say "this state is awesome;" you have to say "more awesome" or "less awesome" compared to something else. Also, such behavior is not compatible with the quote. The quote advocates ignoring real suboptimal sections of the world and instead basking how much better the world is than it used to be. How are you supposed to make the drinks better if you're not even allowed to admit they're not perfect? I could, with minor caveats, get behind "things are great lets make them better" but that's not what the quote said. The quote advocates pretending that we've already achieved perfection.
3Kaj_Sotala
Sure. But "things are pretty awesome" is faster to say than "our current world is more awesome than most of the worlds that have existed in history". That's a valid interpretation of the quote, but not the only one. The way I read it, specifically the way it focused on the drinks and the word "complain", it wasn't so much saying that we should pretend that we've already achieve perfection but rather to keep in mind what's worth feeling upset over and what isn't. In other words, don't waste your time complaining about drinks to anyone who could hear, but instead focus your energies on something that you can actually change and which actually matters.
3NancyLebovitz
I don't think the comparison is to complaining about very bad things happening elsewhere, it's more like "we've got it so much easier than our forebears, why do people still complain about misspellings on the internet? They should be grateful they have an internet." One fallacy is that the person who says sort of thing fails to realize that complaining about complaining is still complaining.
6TheOtherDave
Though people have complained about stuff that isn't perfect now even when the imperfect stuff was less imperfect than things had previously been pretty much as far back as we have records, so complaining about that isn't necessarily an instance of the thing being complained about. Said less obscurely: if we assign the label kvetching to complaining about things even in the face of continual improvement, complaining about kvetching is not necessarily kvetching, since kvetching has continued unabated for generations.
3dspeyer
I'm not saying we should settle for anything. Certainly not. But to forget the awesomeness that already exists is a mistake with consequences. When looking at the big picture, it's important to realize that our current tradjectory is upwards. When planning for something like space travel, it's important to remember that air travel sounded just as crazy a hundred years ago. And when thinking about thinking, it's worth remembering that this same effect will hit whatever awesome thing we think of next.
2DSherron
Sure, I agree with that. But you see, that's not what the quote said. It actually not even related to what the quote said, except in very tenuous manners. The quote condemned people complaining about drinks on an airplane; that was the whole point of mentioning the technology at all. I take issue with the quote as stated, not with every somewhat similar-sounding idea.
-4Eugine_Nier
Another consequence is to see the that all this talk of a post-scarcity society is nonsense.
7Desrtopa
Why? We may quickly come to take major developments for granted, but that doesn't mean that future developments can't, for example, restructure society so that nobody needs to work. People might quickly come to think of it as normal, but that doesn't mean things would still be basically the same as they were before.
-4Eugine_Nier
What do you mean by "nobody needs to work"? The standard meaning is that nobody needs to work to provide everyone with a "decent" standard of living. The problem is that popular conceptions of what constitutes a "decent" standard of living change as the average standard itself changes.
4Desrtopa
I mean that everyone will have access to an abundance of resources without needing to perform any labor. In terms of material goods and resources, it's possible for technological advances to reach a point where any human labor is more or less irrelevant in terms of total productivity.
7Viliam_Bur
Unless we have computers that can organize the work of other computers, there will still be some human work necessary. I mean, we can have a machine that mines coal, and then the humans don't have to mine coal. But then we need humans to operate this machine, repair this machine, invent a better machine, and perhaps do some research about what we can do after we run out of the coal to mine. The day this meta-labor is not necessary is pretty much the day of Singularity. There is also something strange about this process. It eliminates the cognitively trivial work first, which increases the entry cost to the job market. I mean, in the past a person could start with some trivial work, such as moving things from place A to place B. You could have a retarded person do that and contribute to the society meaningfully. These kinds of jobs will be gone first; and some of the highly-qualified jobs will be necessary until the Singularity. I can imagine a world where everyone works, and I can try to imagine a post-Singularity utopia where nobody needs to work. The difficult part is the interval between that -- for example a situation where 95% of people would not have to work at all, and the remaining 5% would have to spend decades learning hard just to be able to do something meaningful in their jobs, because all the simpler tasks have already been automatized. At the same time, the 95% would most likely guard the working 5% enviously, making sure they don't have any significant reward for their sacrifices, because that would be against our egalitarian instincts.
5Richard_Kennaway
Are we at the beginning of that period now, in the developed world? Is that why we have an underclass of people living their lives on welfare -- there simply isn't enough work needed, of the sort that they are capable of, that can't be done more cheaply with machines?

I am not qualified to answer this, but it seems to me like this. I am also not saying that this is the only or the greatest problem. Just that it already exists.

Let's start with a naive question: How is it possible that so many people are unemployed and yet there are so many things that should be done but no one (or not nearly enough people) is doing them?

This is typically answered by: Not everything that is useful is also profitable. Some things are not done because it is not possible (or not easy enough for an average person, with all the natural lack of strategy) to make money doing them. All those unemployed people are trying to get some more money; of course they will not choose activities they can't make money from.

But this is not a complete answer. First, there are many non-profitable activities, and yet many people are doing them. So perhaps the causality is not (merely) "can make money -> does the work", but (also, significantly) "does many things -> makes money on average". (Or using the signalling hypothesis: Middle-class people are more likely to do non-protitable activities, because it signals they make enough money to live decently so they do... (read more)

5A1987dM
See this and the links therein.
-3Eugine_Nier
What do you mean by "abundance"?
1Desrtopa
More than they could possibly use up for any practical, non-signalling related purposes.
-4Eugine_Nier
You may want to reread the original quote.
5A1987dM
Drinks do also have practical, non signalling related purposes. But yeah, a society where one of the main things you'd have to miss out if you didn't work is decent drinks on a plane would definitely count as post-scarcity by my standards.
-2Eugine_Nier
So would you say the developed world is currently a post-scatcity society?
8TimS
Your question implies you think that the main complaints in the developed world involve decent drinks on planes and similarly non-dire concerns. Not sure I agree with that implication.
-4Eugine_Nier
Pick a dire concern from the developed world today, now how would you explain to an average westerner ~200 years why that concern is dire.
7Jiro
"I'm concerned about nuclear war. It's like the wars you know, but it's a lot more deadly and whole areas can be left uninhabitable for centuries." "I'm concerned about dying of cancer. Cancer is a disease that many people eventually get once we have reduced the rate of dying from other things." "I'm concerned about the NSA reading my email. You don't have email 200 years ago, but surely you understand how bad it is for the government to spy on people. Imagine that every time you wrote someone a letter, the government hired a scribe to copy it and filed it so they could read it whenever they wanted."
-6Eugine_Nier
6TimS
I don't understand your question. I'm not sure I even understand the relevance of your question to the topic of post-scarcity and what post-scarcity might be like. It seems pretty easy to explain current serious problems to people from the far past or far future (I'm not sure which you mean). Drinks on airplanes is just not a serious problem - it might be hard to explain not serious problems to people from very different cultural contexts.
-3Eugine_Nier
My point is that if one were to ask someone ~100-200 years ago to imagine a post-scarcity society they'd imagine something that resembles our current society, yet we don't think of ourselves as post-scarcity. Similarly, I doubt the societies of ~100-200 years in the future will think of themselves as post-scarcity, even if they'd seem that way to us at first glance.
4Jiro
If I asked someone from 100-200 years ago to imagine a post-scarcity society, I'd expect them to say something like "you can have as much of ___ as you want". Furthermore, I think they'd clearly understand the difference between "have more of it than we get now" and "have as much as we want", whether it's lifespan, food and shelter, or anything else. I don't see why someone from that time period would think a "post-scarcity" society means a society that merely has less scarcity. "Someone from the past would say our level of something is far beyond what they would have hoped for" doesn't equate to "someone from the past would say that our level of something is post-scarcity". Presuming they speak English and the meaning of the term "post-scarcity" can be explained to them, I don't see why they would confuse the two.
3TheOtherDave
I would expect a typical member of my society, given the prompt "A post-scarcity society is one where you can have as much of _ as you want" and instructions to fill in the blank, to offer things like "food", "housing," "consumer goods", "entertainment," "leisure", "Internet access," "health care", etc. Some of those I would not expect a typical member of my society's 1813 ancestors to offer. I would not expect a typical member of my society to offer things like "emotional nurturing," "challenge," "work that needs to be done," "friendship," "love", "knowledge," "years of life", "knowledge"... but I would not be greatly surprised by those answers from any given individual. If I woke up from a coma N years from now and those answers were typical, I would conclude that society had changed significantly. I would be surprised by answers like "suffering," "the color blue", "emptiness", "corporeal existence," "qualia", "mortality." If I woke up from a coma N years from now and those answers were typical, I would conclude that society had become something unrecognizable.
6Jiro
There's a difference between "more than I thought I could get" and "as much as I want", though. Eugene seems to think that someone from the past would call our society post-scarcity because it provides more of some things than he hopes he would get, rather than as much as he could possibly want. I think that given the definition of a post-scarcity society as one where you can get as much of something as you want, someone from the past would not consider our society to be a post-scarcity society, since it's very clear that some things--even things that he himself wants--are in limited supply.
-5Eugine_Nier
2wedrifid
The "corporeal existence" one actually fits well with what future people may consider a scarce luxury.
0TheOtherDave
Sure, I can imagine a future for which that's true. Ditto suffering, mortality, and qualia. The others are a bit beyond my imagination, but I suspect if I sat down and worked at it for a while I could come up with something.
0wedrifid
The difference is that those wishes have to be contrived and would be considered insane (or confused) by local standards. Corporeal existence is something that that people with current human values are likely to consider a luxury in plausible transhuman circumstances.
1TheOtherDave
Hm. I can imagine a future in which the default mode of existence for most people is incorporeal (say, as uploads), and being downloaded into a physical body is a luxury. I can imagine a future in which the default mode of existence for most people lacks subjective experience (again, say, as uploads which mostly run "on autopilot," somewhat like a trance state, perhaps because computing subjective experience is expensive relative to computing other behavior), and being run with subjective experience is a luxury. (I don't presume p-zombiehood here; I expect there to be demonstrable differences between these states.) Neither of those strike me as requiring insanity or confusion. Whether the corresponding scenarios are contrived or plausible I'm not prepared to argue; they don't seem differentially one or the other to me, but I'll accept other judgments. (If your grounds for believing them differentially contrived are articulable, I'm interested; you might convince me.) Suffering and mortality, I'll grant you, require me to essentially posit fashion, which can equally well (or poorly) justify anything.
-3Eugine_Nier
Some of those answers would be far more common in certain past eras.
4TheOtherDave
In what eras would you expect a typical respondent to have provided which of those answers?
-3Eugine_Nier
Well, "love" would have been more common during the late 60's-early 70's to state one obvious example.
0TheOtherDave
Just to be clear: do you expect that a typical respondent during the late 60's-early 70's, given the prompt "A post-scarcity society is one where you can have as much of _ as you want" and instructions to fill in the blank, would reply "love"?
1TheOtherDave
I suspect that in 1813 there were people who worried about whether they would find themselves without enough food, shelter, medicine, or defense from hostile outsiders. If I described to them the level of food, shelter, medicine, and defense that their counterparts in 2013 had available, I expect they would go "Wow! That's amazing! Why, with that much abundance, I would never worry again!" If I then explained to them how often their counterparts in 2013 worried about whether they find themselves without enough food, shelter, medicine, or defense from hostile outsiders, I would expect several reactions. One is incredulity. Another is some variant of "well, I guess some people are never satisfied." A third is "Huh. Yeah, I guess 'enough abundance' is something we approach only asymptotically." If I explained to them the other stuff their counterparts in 2013 worried about , and how anxious they sometimes became about such things, I'd expect a similar range of reactions. For my own part, I think " 'Enough abundance' is something we approach only asymptotically." is a pretty accurate summary. So, sure. As we progress from "even wealthy people routinely suffer from insufficient food, shelter, medicine, and defense" to "even middle-class people routinely suffer from IFSMaD" to "poor people routinely suffer from IFSMaD" to "people suffer from IFSMaD only in exceptional circumstances" to "nobody I've ever met has ever heard of anyone who has ever suffered from IFSMaD", we will undoubtedly identify other sources of suffering and we will worry about those. Whether we are at that point in a "post-scarcity" environment or not is largely a semantic question.
1Caspian
Getting back to post-scarcity for people who choose not to work, and what resources they would miss out on, a big concern would be not having a home. Clearly this is much more of a concern than drinks on flights. The main reason it is not considered a dire concern is that people's ability to choose not to work is not considered that vital.
-8Eugine_Nier
0A1987dM
Not quite, but almost. (Are you alleging that the unemployed on welfare can afford intercontinental flights, though not ones with good drinks? [EDIT: But yeah, for an unemployed person there seldom are practical, non-signalling reasons to need intercontinental flights. I could probably come up with better examples if I were less sleep-deprived.])
4elharo
The last time I was unemployed I took an intercontinental flight from NYC to SFO for a job interview. I'd classify that as a practical, non-signalling reason. :-)
2CAE_Jones
Hypothesis: you had savings for such a situation, or got aid from someone else. ? (I would also classify it as practical, non-signalling, given the current information. :) )

I'm certainly cynical, but I see the point complaining about the drinks.

Not all airplane tickets are selled the same price. But basically everybody in the plane get the same share of progress, science, technology and man labour and sweat.

Henceforth how to account for the princing difference ?

The drinks, people.

The Milky-Way galaxy is mind-bogglingly big.

Eh," you say, "100,000 light years in diameter, give or take a few."

Listen, pal: just because you can measure something in light years doesn't mean you truly understand how big it really is.

By the time you carve our galaxy up into units you have actual, personal experience with, you'll have to start using numbers that you won't live long enough to count to.

That's okay. The galaxy doesn't care. In fact, not caring is one of the things it does best.

That, and being really, really, really big.

--Howard Taylor

Our PLANET is mind-numbingly big. If you don’t believe me go to the grand canyon and look down. Did I say go to the grand canyon? Make that HIKE to the grand canyon from yellowstone national park. Still not convinced? ROW across the ocean to china. Bonus points if you can hit Japan without a gps.

So in a twisted sort of sense, the milky-way galaxy is less mind-bogglingly big, because our [or at least my] built-in distance-comprehension hardware shorts out so quickly when attempting to deal with the milky way galaxy we don't really even notice it and so we switch to rigorous numbers which do not have this short-circuiting problem.

8MixedNuts
It seems comprehensibly big. It would take between three and four years to walk around the Earth, walking for a sustainable number of hours at a reasonable pace every day, if you could walk around it in a straight line.
0DanielLC
Walk on the surface of a sphere, in a straight line?
2pragmatist
A straight line in elliptic geometry, presumably.
3DanielLC
That's called a "geodesic". I'm not sure why they don't just call it a "line", but they don't.
-2fractalman
[joke mode] congratulations, you just walked into the ocean. [/joke mode] Now, about looking down at the grand canyon floor from the glass platform to engage your visual cortex?
7dspeyer
I think that shorting out effect is what is meant by "mind-bogglingly". People have walked from yellowstone to the grand canyon. I couldn't do it myself, but I can read their accounts and understand them. Earth is big, but our minds are amazed, not boggled. It's with the galaxy that we just start thinking "system error".
2Kawoomba
An easy way to bridge such distances is to construct a lot of intermediate steps. Take the Milky Way, containing 100 to 400 billion stars (let's take 250 billion). The problem of grasping 250 billion stars going off from just our sun is not too dissimilar from imagining someone with 250 billion dollars, going off from just 1. Lots of intermediate steps: So and so many dollars for a current generation smart phone, so and so many smart phones for, say, a villa, so and so many villas to buy, say, Microsoft. Of course different examples work differently well, but you get the picture, I suppose. Incidentally, the number of US citizens is higher than the number of stars in the Milky Way in thousands, so if you find yourself a good way of visualizing the former, you can transfer that understanding to the latter, then just unpack the "thousand". Nothing interesting, not even the size of our Hubble volume, is more than a couple dozen orders of magnitude away, which makes it -- in my opinion -- quite accessible even to our widdle bwains.
4solipsist
So, there are more than 100 billion US citizens?
3Kawoomba
Thanks for noting, corrected.
0solipsist
You're welcome.
5Kawoomba
To clarify: The point is that a few orders of magnitude can be visualized / grasped just by adding another step to the ladder, chopping off only as large a step as you can take at a time. Then even a whole lotta orders of magnitude just become a short sequence of steps, going off of concepts you find more familiar. I often start with 10^3 as "number of students in my high school", I have a distinct image of some school photo in the school yard where everyone was on there. After that e.g. the number of images (each showing one yard-full of students) in a photo album. Number of photo albums that could fit in an Ikea shelf. Number of Ikea shelves in a library. Etcetera, though that alone should get you to 10^10 or so. Suddenly the steep mountain slope has a stairway, and doesn't seem quite so daunting anymore.
2A1987dM
Imagining grains of sand can get you to bigger numbers faster.
1Desrtopa
A couple dozen orders of magnitude of nearly anything will tend to stretch beyond human borders of intuitive comprehension in either direction.
0Richard_Kennaway
A couple dozen orders of magnitude = 1 mole (roughly). The relationship between a single molecule and a handful of the macroscopic substance.
2bogdanb
Yes, I can handle numbers in terms of orders of magnitude. But I challenge you to picture yourself the size of a molecule, sitting "on the floor", looking towards your real body, and visualize what you would see without doing any calculations.
1Richard_Kennaway
I'm not sure what the thought experiment is. For me to be shrunk to the size of a molecule, all of the molecules I am made of would have to be shrunk, as would the light waves I see by, leaving my perception of my body unchanged. I don't think this is the scenario you mean, but I don't know in what way to change this to make it the one you mean.
1bogdanb
I just meant in a semi-magical, non-physical way, only for visualising scale. Like a computer simulation of the world that scales up everything other than you twenty orders of magnitude, then uses some hacked-in rendering convention that lets you “see” without trouble from stuff like wavelengths. Or if you want something more physical-like, imagine looking from “floor level” at a human statue 10 million light-years (relative to our c) in size, of correct proportions and colors (but no universe-crushing gravity), in a non-relativistic universe (to get around light-speed issues). Do you think you could tell the difference between that and a 10000 light-years one without seeing them side by side nor using instruments?
2Richard_Kennaway
Then I'd see something like the ball-and-stick models that chemists build. We already know the shapes of molecules, and the photographs made of them in the last few years look just like that.
0bogdanb
OK, sorry. It appears I’ve rolled a critical failure in communication :-) I wasn’t referring to the small scale structure, just the ability to comprehend scale. Something like the way that when you’re at the foot of the mountain, the brain doesn’t really capture the difference between a 1km-tall and a 8-km tall one. Or how the distinction between a 10-story building and a 100-story one isn’t really manifest in the mind unless they’re side by side. Now take that and multiply both scales by enough orders of magnitude to span molecule-to-human scales. Let me try a better example. Take this image. Without using symbolic math (i.e. actually figuring orders of magnitude and doing arithmetic with them), what can your brain do that simultaneously includes numbers of the scales “the width of one of the galaxy’s arms”, “the diameter of one of the stars” and “the height of a person on one of the planets”? I mean, I don’t have to resort to math to know that ten people in a normal car would be crowded, or that a bucket of nails are hard to fit in a typical person’s pockets. I can have an intuitive comprehension (albeit inaccurate) of how much work might be needed to dig a small ditch. But I have no intuitive feel for similar problems posed at astronomical scales other than “intuition overflow, use math”. E.g., I’ve no chance of estimating the number of people needed to crowd just the solar system, let alone the galaxy, within a couple of orders of magnitude, unless I actually do at least a few back-of-the-envelope calculations.
1Richard_Kennaway
I think our intuitions work differently. I've walked up a 1 km hill. 8 km is Everest. I've only seen mountains that big in pictures. 10 storeys is the height of some of the more substantial buildings (other than skyscrapers) in central London. 100 is a skyscraper. I'm not sure there are any buildings that tall in London. From general knowledge I'm guessing 1000 to 10000 ly for the thickness of an arm and 100,000 miles for the diameter of a star. Then it's just counting zeroes. 1 ly is 10^13 km, which is 10^13 miles. So that's 8 zeroes from the star to the arm, and 8 zeroes from a person to a star: 100,000 miles = 100,000 km, and a person is 2 m, which is equal to 1 m. ("If anyone asks, I did not tell you it was ok to do math like this.") Ok, I'm figuring orders of magnitude and doing arithmetic with them, but that is intuitive to me. For numbers of zeroes up to 15, a while back I posted some handy visualisations which I can't find, so here they are again. Take the solid copper earth conductor from some mains cable, which is around 1mm^2 cross-section, and cut a little piece just 1mm long. Roll it between your fingertips. That's a cubic millimetre. In your other hand pick up a 1 litre bottle of milk. You're looking at a million. One million of those copper fragments will fill the bottle. (They will weigh 10 kg, and if you do any weight training, you'll know what a 10 kg weight feels like.) One billion of them is enough to fill the space between the top of a largish dining table and the floor (3/4m high, top surface 1m by 4/3 m). One trillion will fill a few lanes of an Olympic swimming pool (50m long, 10m wide, 2m deep). Get another factor of 1000 by using coarse sand (0.1mm grain size) instead of diced copper wire, and that's 10^15. As I say, there isn't a boundary to me between intuition and calculation. As in, 10^24 just is, to me, about a mole, the relationship between one molecule and a handful of stuff. It's also a lower bound on the number of operations
1bogdanb
Yes, it’s possible our intuitions simply function differently. I do the same kinds of calculations, more or less intuitively. I can juggle zeros too if I need to. But my point is that for most human-scale things I don’t need to do that. Maybe it’s just learned behavior, I’m sure an astrophysicist has better intuitions in his area of expertise. The fact that intuition triggers even in situations that are not often encountered seems to indicate there’s more to it than that, though.
0Desrtopa
Of course, a molecule is rather notoriously outside the scale of our ability to visualize; it's small enough that our hardwired understanding of how materials are supposed to behave simply cease to apply.
2Richard_Kennaway
Would a photograph of one help?
[-]Zubon280

Xander: Yep, vampires are real. A lot of 'em live in Sunnydale. Willow 'll fill you in.

Willow: I know it's hard to accept at first.

Oz: Actually, it explains a lot.

One of the stronger examples of Bayesian updating in fiction, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 2, episode 13

3roystgnr
Hmm... this isn't exactly a Bayesian update, though. Bayesian update: you have prior probabilities for theories A, B, C, D; you get new evidence for D, and you use Bayes' rule to decide how to move posterior probability to D. Oz: you have prior probabilities for theories A, B, and C; you hear a new theory D that you hadn't previously considered, and you recalculate the influence of previous evidence to see how much credence you should give D. This quote isn't a pure example of the distinction between "getting new evidence" and "considering a new theory", since obviously "my friends believe in D" is also new evidence, but there seems to be more of the latter than the former going on. It's weird that we don't seem to have a term describing what kind of update the "considering a new theory" process is. It's not something that would ever be done by an ideal Bayesian agent with infinite computing resources, but it's unavoidable for us finite types.

Oz: you have prior probabilities for theories A, B, and C; you hear a new theory D that you hadn't previously considered, and you recalculate the influence of previous evidence to see how much credence you should give D.

This seems slightly off both in terms of what (the writer intends us to infer) is going on in Oz's head, and what ought to be going on. First, it seems that Oz may have considered vampires or other supernatural explanations, but dismissed them using the absurdity heuristic, or perhaps what we can call the "Masquerade heuristic" - that's where people who live in a fictional world full of actual vampires and demons and whatnot nevertheless heurise as though they lived in ours. (Aside: Is 'heurise' a reasonable verbing of "use heuristics?") Upon hearing that his friends take the theory seriously (plus perhaps whatever context caused them to make these remarks) he reconsiders without the absurdity penalty.

Second, what should be going on is that Oz has theories A, B, C with probabilities adding up to 1-epsilon, where epsilon is the summed probability of "All those explanations which I haven't had time to explicitly consider as theories".... (read more)

3bentarm
Does Oz already know that he's a werewolf at this point? That would seem to bring "vampires exist" into the realm of plausible hypotheses.

"You're like an infant!" Tosco sneered. "Still humming at night about your poor lost momma and the terrible thing men do to their cos? Grow up and face the real world."

"I have," Carlo replied. "I faced it, and now I'm going to change it."

Greg Egan, The Eternal Flame, ch. 38

-10PhilGoetz
[-][anonymous]270

“The wonder and horror of epidemiology, is that it’s not enough to just measure one thing very accurately. To get the right answer, you may have to measure a great many things very accurately.”

-- Jerry Avorn, quoted here.

I wish that I may never think the smiles of the great and powerful a sufficient inducement to turn aside from the straight path of honesty and the convictions of my own mind.

-- David Ricardo

There's more pressure on a vet to get it right. People say "it was god's will" when granny dies, but they get angry when they lose a cow.

  • Terry Pratchett, alt.fan.pratchett again

What? Putting down pets or livestock isn't that uncommon, whereas people go way out of their way (I seem to recall Robin Hanson mentioning a two-digit percentage of the US GDP, though I can't seem to find it) to prolong human lives long after they're no longer worth living.

5David_Gerard
Discworld is set in a time roughly parallel to the late 1700s or early 1800s. Medicine didn't really work, and livestock were significant capital.
[-]elharo230

When you tear out a man's tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you're only telling the world that you fear what he might say.

Tyrion Lannister in George R.R. Martin's A Clash of Kings

Most importantly, you are telling the world that anyone saying the same thing is in a risk of losing their tongue, regardless of correctness of the information.

That makes it cheaper for people to argue against the information than to argue for it.

And that increases that chance that people will finally consider him a liar.

7roystgnr
Not necessarily. It makes it cheaper for people to argue against whatever slim fraction of the information they can put up as a strawman without risking their own tongues. But it's hard to put up a real argument against an opposition that you can't really even quote. Not if that strawman is easily blown away by whatever samizdat eventually conveys the full information. Yvain explains some of the mechanisms better than I could in points 5 through 7 here: http://squid314.livejournal.com/333353.html
4knb
The effectiveness of silencing someone really depends on how common such silencing is for a given regime. For example, if a regime silences all critics (regardless of whether they tell the truth or lie) an individual act of censorship doesn't carry any information about whether the censored info was true or false. On the other hand, tons of claims are made against the US government every day, and no action is taken against almost all of them. If the government suddenly acted to silence one conspiracy theorist, far more attention would be paid to his claims, and the action would likely backfire.
2DanielLC
This leads to an interesting possibility for a misinformation campaign: Let people speculate wildly. Silence the guy who says what you want your enemies to think. Unfortunately, you can only do that so much before it gets noticed.
-12Lethalmud

The conscientious. - It is more comfortable to follow one's conscience than one's reason: for it offers an excuse and alleviation if what we undertake miscarries--which is why there are always so many conscientious people and so few reasonable ones.

-- Nietzsche

[-]Tenoke220

“The future is always ideal: The fridge is stocked, the weather clear, the train runs on schedule and meetings end on time. Today, well, stuff happens.”

  • Hara Estroff Marano on procrastination in Psychology Today as cited here

If (as those of us who make a study of ourselves have been led to do) each man, on hearing a wise maxim immediately looked to see how it properly applied to him, he would find that it was not so much a pithy saying as a whiplash applied to the habitual stupidity of his faculty of judgment. But the counsels of Truth and her precepts are taken to apply to the generality of men, never to oneself; we store them up in our memory not in our manners, which is most stupid and unprofitable.

Michel de Montaigne, Essays, "On habit"

5MixedNuts
Does it actually help? My usual reactions are "Ha, yeah, I totally do that. Silly human foibles eh?", "Screw you, anonymous proverb author, just because you don't mention what makes this a least-bad option doesn't make it worse", or "Yeah, that's the problem. Do you have a solution?".

Does it actually help?

Yes. One option is to use it as a memorable trigger- "Oh, I'm making mistake X, like the proverb"- and then amend behavior. (This is one of the reasons why it's worth trying to word proverbs as memorably as possible- rhyming helps quite a bit. If your actions you want to jigger, then do not fail to set a trigger! Sometimes it works better than others.)

A superior option is, upon seeing the maxim, to contemplate it fully, and plan out now how it could be avoided in some way, and then practice that offline.

In general, though, de Montaigne is highlighting the general thrust of Less Wrong. Knowing the ways in which people in general make mistakes is most useful to you if you use that knowledge to prevent yourself from making that mistake, and a general mistake people make is to not do that!

0Kenny
Or "If it's your actions that you want to jigger, do not fail to set a trigger!".

On any important topic, we tend to have a dim idea of what we hope to be true, and when an author writes the words we want to read, we tend to fall for it, no matter how shoddy the arguments. Needy readers have an asymptote at illiteracy; if a text doesn't say the one thing they need to read, it might as well be in a foreign language. To be open-minded, you have to recognize, and counteract, your own doxastic hungers.

-Dennett's Law of Needy Readers, Daniel Dennett

This law according to Dennett is an extension of Schank's Law:

Because people understand by finding in their memories the closest possible match to what they are hearing and use that match as the basis of comprehension, any new idea will be treated as a variant of something the listener has already thought of or heard. Agreement with a new idea means a listener has already had a similar thought and well appreciates that the speaker has recognized his idea. Disagreement means the opposite. Really new ideas are incomprehensible. The good news is that for some people, failure to comprehend is the beginning of understanding. For most, of course, it is the beginning of dismissal.

-Roger Schank

any new idea will be treated as a variant of something the listener has already thought of or heard.

From a Bayesian point of view, this is as it must be. People have priors and will assess anything new as a diff (of log-odds) from those priors. Even understanding what you are saying, before considering whether to update towards it, is subject to this. You will always be understood as saying whatever interpretation of your words is the least surprising to your audience.

BTW, this is standard in natural language processing (which is what a lot of Schank's AI work was in). When a sentence is ambiguous, choose the least surprising interpretation, the one containing the least information relative to your current knowledge.

The narrower your audience's priors, the more of a struggle it will be for them to hear you; the narrower your priors, the more you will struggle to hear them.

Having shown how Schank's Law is but an instance of Bayesian inference, I trust you will all find it acceptably unsurprising. :)

2RolfAndreassen
This does raise the question of how anyone learns anything in the first place. :)
3TheOtherDave
Don't underestimate the power of variations. When shaping behavior in animals, we start with something the animal does naturally and differentially reward natural variations. Evolution of biological systems also involves differential selection of naturally occurring variations on existing systems. So it's certainly possible to get "something new" out of mere "variants of something [that already existed]". That said, many cognitive systems do also seem capable of insight, which seems to be a completely different kind of process. Dennett and Schank here seem to be dismissing the very possibility of insight, though I assume they are doing so rhetorically.
3RolfAndreassen
What has a baby which does not understand speech "heard before", that it can form variations on? Evolution is fine, but you do need a theory of abiogenesis, or in this case aontogenesis - knowledge-from-nothing-ness, in the vernacular.
7TheOtherDave
Babies are not clean slates; there exist innate behaviors. We can get into a theoretical discussion of where these behaviors came from if you like, but I don't need a theoretical justification to observe that babies do in fact do things they haven't been taught to do.
1RolfAndreassen
Quite so, but this contradicts the original idea that everything is variants on something that has been heard before.
4shminux
I interpret "heard before" to include "programmed in your genetics".
0TheOtherDave
This.
6Vaniver
While I agree with TheOtherDave's point, I'm not sure it's necessary. A baby doesn't understand new sounds the first time it hears them, but may understand them the hundredth time it's heard them- at which point it does have quite a bit of experience, both of hearing those noises in some situations and not hearing those noises in other situations. Then, once they've learned the general skill of acquiring words, they can correctly learn words quickly, sometimes even after hearing a single use- but that's drawing on their previous experience in learning thousands of words.
2Desrtopa
Naturally we go through a period of believing everything we're told when we're kids, and transition to comparing everything we hear to what we've already heard before as we grow up. (This is an inexact approximation, but in my more cynical moments it strikes me as only very slightly inexact.)
0Estarlio
Depends how great the variance is. Sounds better if you say that people benefit from having things they're learning related to familiar topics.
0Viliam_Bur
Perhaps most people learn like this: They already have an idea X. Then they hear a very similar idea Y, so they accept it, although they interpret it as X. But once they agreed that Y is their idea, and they hear it repeatedly, they gradualy become aware of Y as something slightly different from X. Thus they made another inferential step. Perhaps many people are willing to learn only when it does not feel like learning.
-3Eugine_Nier
A less cynical take on this is that people compare what they hear to their previous experience (stored in compressed form) and accept or reject it depending on how well it matches.

There's something here that doesn't make sense... Let's go and poke it with a stick.

The Doctor - Doctor Who

1elharo
Good one, though it would be nice to cite the exact episode. A little googling and I think this is from "Amy's Choice" (Episode 5.7) Also, I'd try to avoid ellipses in a quote unless you are in fact leaving something out. I suspect here you just meant it to reflect the doctor's speech pattern, but it's a bit confusing.

The convention I was taught is that "This... and that" is quoting someone who pauses after 'This', while "This [...] and that" indicates that I elided something. This seems to me both useful and clear.

5wedrifid
"Word... Word" has a different meaning to "Word ... word". The usage in this comment would not confuse many and replacing the ellipsis with a period would change the meaning of the quote. As it happens most sources I can find don't include the ellipsis so the addition would be a mistake. So I agree with you in this instance and agree in general with a slight modification to "adding ellipses to a quote".

Extinguished philosophies lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules.

John McCarthy, adapted a line by T.H. Huxley

I'm fine with this quote as long as the conclusion is not "So let's just do science without any philosophy!"

Because usually that just means doing science with unexamined philosophical assumptions while deluding yourself that you're being objective. This goes badly; e.g., Copenhagen interpretation, neurobabble ("Libet experiment proves you have no free will!").

2Said Achmiz
Your comment, with which I agree, inspired me to post this quote.
-6PhilGoetz
[-]Zubon190

[As the] percentage of the US population carrying cameras everywhere they go, every waking moment of their lives [has gone from "almost none" to "almost all,"] in the last few years, with very little fanfare, we've conclusively settled the questions of flying saucers, lake monsters, ghosts, and Bigfoot.

xkcd explains that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence .

1ChristianKl
Given the amount of drones that fly around these days the question of UFO is settled. There are plenty of objects that fly around which nobody can accurately identify. Especially when it comes to hobbist drones there are models that really look like flying saucers.
-1Jayson_Virissimo
There is only an absence of evidence if you ignore all the pictures that are purportedly of those objects.

No, it’s absence of evidence if you notice that we have ready access to high-resolution videos of innumerable rare events and elusive animals.

And yet the best footage of UFOs, ghosts, and Bigfoot still consists of some blurry, hazy, shiny, or dark blob smeared somewhere in a couple of frames of a shaky video at the absolute limit of the camera, exactly the same as forty years ago. Which is exactly what you’d expect to see if these were in fact normal things and optical artifacts that are perfectly explainable when they’re actually close enough to see.

-2Eugine_Nier
Except some of this footage does in fact record what's claimed to be flying saucers, lake monsters, ghosts, and Bigfoot. Don't confuse "there is no evidence despite people looking", with "there is no evidence but no one has looked", or worse "I'm so sure there is no evidence I'm not even going to bother checking whether anyone else has found any".
1TimS
You think Randall Monroe is making this mistake?
-4Eugine_Nier
Yes, a combination of this and him suffering from the bias that makes it hard to notice flaws in arguments whose conclusions one agrees with.
8TimS
My impression is that people have expended roughly constant effort searching for Bigfoot from 1960 to now. Based on advances in modern camera technology (especially ubiquitous smartphones), evidence collection is cheaper and easier now than in 1960 (or even 1980). I understood Monroe to be asserting that easier evidence collection and constant levels of effort imply that we should expect higher quality evidence now than in the past (if Bigfoot exists). In fact, the quality of evidence for Bigfoot is substantially similar now and in 1960. That's pretty strong evidence that Bigfoot does not exist.
-8Eugine_Nier

The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.

-- Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism

[-][anonymous]170

All magic is science! You just don't know what you're doing, so you call it magic! And well, it's... Ridiculous.

Princess Bubblegum in Adventure Time.

0DanielLC
Neat, but the vocabulary isn't accurate. Studying magic is science. Using this knowledge to make magic work for you is technology. Wild magic just does its own thing, so it's neither.
1[anonymous]
Well, "magic" is in common speech shorhand for "I have no idea how this works and I don't think anyone else has either." Science in common speech is "someone somewhere smarter than me knows how this works." (barring No One Knows what Sciece doesn't Know). The problem with calling things magic is that it serves as a Semantic Stopsign. And I must paraphrase Sam Huges Ra, a story in which "magic" is a newly discovered branch of physics: Calling magic 'magic' was an incredibly bad decision in the first place.
[-]satt160

People tend to roll their eyes a bit when business school grads like me start saying things about “management is measurement” and so on, but the fact is that a) if you don’t measure something, how are you going to find out whether it’s changed or not? and b) if you don’t want to find out whether something’s changing or not, in what sense can you actually claim to care about it?

Daniel Davies

When we roll our eyes at business school grads, it isn't because we don't believe in measuring anything. It's the same eyeroll that the 10 O'Clock news gets when they report the newest study linking molasses and cancer, which has nothing to do with my lack of belief in studies about cancer.

2ChristianKl
I thought quite a bit about how to measure whether I'm good at Salsa dancing on a particular night. I haven't found a measurement that's adequete. I could use a measurement like: "How close do woman dance with me?" If a woman enjoys dancing with me she's likely to dance closer than if she doesn't. If I'm however measure my dancing skills on that variable I'm likely to dance with some woman in a way that to close for them and makes them uncomfortable. I could use a metric just as counting how often a woman asks for my name. If I'm however using that metric I probably won't be the first to ask for a name to increase the chances that the woman asks on her own. If I'm using a metric such as being asked by woman to dance, I'm less likely to ask on my own. If I would hand a woman a sheet after a dance to rate my dancing, I would probably be seen as strange. The average business school grad probably isn't doing very much Quantified Self on his own life. He doesn't know much about actually measuring what he cares about. Women are not going to enjoy dancing with me more when I try to intellectual control their enjoyment by having a tight feedback loop about some proxy variable that I use to measure their enjoyment. It just doesn't work that way. On the other hand, if I'm empathic, if I'm in a happy mood and get outside of my head I'm more likely to have success in making woman enjoy dancing with me. The idea that being in your head and being focused on specific measurements is the only way to care is just flawed.
0scaphandre
In your life, salsa dancing ability is definitely not the sole metric you wish to be optimizing for. Things you presumably want to optimize might be something like personal happiness, bettering the world or wherever you find meaning. If one truly wanted to drop resources into optimizing salsa ability, I'd imagine filming the dance floor from a few cellphones every week, uploading the video to youtube and paying a few experts on a salsa forum to give the dancers a rating and feedback would give a somewhat valid metric that you could go about tracking, quantifying and optimizing. But I presume that that is not the primary goal of most salsa-goers. I guess that people go to salsa dancing nights because they are fun, good exercise and you get to socialize with a group of guys and girls who want to dance with girls and guys. Can you try tracking happiness? Sure, why not. Have a prompt to record happiness appear at random intervals, or write a journal to note big highs or lows. Then questions like "do things like salsa increase my happiness more than things like video games" or whatever become addressable in a slightly more informed way. I agree with you that your mind should not be on contrived proxy goals while you are salsa dancing. Better to be enjoying the salsa. But I disagree with the implication that because many metrics are tangential to the 'true' goal, careful measurement is flawed. It it still the fun/happiness that you care about, just now you are doing a smarter job of tracking it.
0ChristianKl
Actually I do, Most days I put down a number from the interval 0-100 to rate my happiness. I don't think that the number is informative when it comes to my Salsa dancing despite the fact that I'm someone who did Quantified Self TV interviews in Germany that involve showing me dancing Salsa. The thing I found is that it's important for me to drink water directly after arriving home from Salsa dancing. Otherwise I might lose up to one kg of body weight the next day from the missing water I sweated out. But back to the topic. The fact that I do have some formal measurement shows me very well the limits of those measurements when it comes to making most decisions. If the goal is impressive dancing that wow's spectators that might be a way to go. If your goal is to dance in way that your dance partner enjoys that's not directly related to how it looks on video.
0satt
And there's your measurement! (But then the school I graduated from taught quantum mechanics instead of Taylorism, so I may have an unusually expansive idea of what constitutes a measurement.)
1ChristianKl
Even in quantum mechanics people do have numbers as a result of their measurements. It's not about trusting your intuition and relying on something like empathy.
[-]khafra160

Statistically speaking, if you pick up a seashell and don't hold it to your ear, you can probably hear the ocean.

5nshepperd
Umm, is it me being sleepy, or did he get P(I picked up a seashell) and P(I'm near the ocean) mixed up in the equation? P(near the ocean | evidence) shouldn't be inversely proportional to P(near the ocean). [ETA: Randall fixed it now.]
3wedrifid
Well spotted. Bayes rule is p(A | B) = p(B | A) * p(A) / p(B). This cartoon sees to mixed up p(A) and p(B) just as you note.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky
The cartoon looks right to me...
8Qiaochu_Yuan
It's been fixed. I think it was previously wrong. The comic thread seems to support this conclusion.
4Paul Crowley
Original version of the cartoon

Madmen we are, but not quite on the pattern of those who are shut up in a madhouse. It does not concern any of them to discover what sort of madness afflicts his neighbor, or the previous occupants of his cell; but it matters very much to us. The human mind is less prone to go astray when it gets to know to what extent, and in how many directions, it is itself liable to err, and we can never devote too much time to the study of our aberrations.

Bernard de Fontenelle,1686

Found in book review

It is terrible to see how a single unclear idea, a single formula without meaning, lurking in a young man’s head, will sometimes act like an obstruction.

— Charles Sanders Peirce

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

-- Denis Healey

4christopheg
Remind's me of this one from Terry Pratchett: "All you get if you are good at digging holes it's a bigger shovel."
0DanielLC
Shouldn't that be: "All you get if you are good at digging holes is a bigger shovel."?
0christopheg
Thanks for fixing my broken english. There is actually several quotes expressing the same idea in different Terry Pratchett's book. Everyone of them much better than what I could remember. I dug these two ones: In Wyrd Sisters you have (Granny Weatherwas speaking): “The reward you get for digging holes is a bigger shovel.” And another one from "Carpe Jugulum" that I like even better (also Granny Weatherwax speaking): "The reward for toil had been more toil. If you dug the best ditches, they gave you a bigger shovel."
0CronoDAS
I've also seen this quote attributed to Will Rogers, but it seems to be unconfirmed.
0Zubon
Wikipedia has a couple of citations giving it to Healey, although that is hardly definitive. The First Law of Holes has its own subsection on his Wikipedia page.
2Richard_Kennaway
I don't know if Healey was the first to say it, but he definitely said it. I heard him (on the radio) at the time.
[-]Pablo140

[O]ur moral judgments are less reliable than many would hope, and this has specific implications for methodology in normative ethics. Three sources of evidence indicate that our intuitive ethical judgments are less reliable than we might have hoped: a historical record of accepting morally absurd social practices; a scientic record showing that our intuitive judgments are systematically governed by a host of heuristics, biases, and irrelevant factors; and a philosophical record showing deep, probably unresolvable, inconsistencies in common moral convictions. I argue that this has the following implications for moral theorizing: we should trust intuitions less; we should be especially suspicious of intuitive judgments that t a bias pattern, even when we are intuitively condent that these judgments are not a simple product of the bias; we should be especially suspicious of intuitions that are part of inconsistent sets of deeply held convictions; and we should evaluate views holistically, thinking of entire classes of judgments that they get right or wrong in broad contexts, rather than dismissing positions on the basis of a small number of intuitive counterexamples.

Nick Beckstead, On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future, University of Rutgers, New Brunswick, 2013, p. 19

[-]oooo130

We cooperate to compete, and a high level of fellow feeling makes us better able to unite to destroy outsiders.

--Robert Bigelow

8PhilGoetz
Reminds me of Konrad Lorenz' observation that the strength of love in mammalian species is proportional to their ability to inflict harm on each other.
[-]baiter130

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

English proverb

It should also be noted that if one doesn't start wishing for a horse, the probability of obtaining one decreases furtherly.

I know this is meant to be a call to action instead of contemplation, but sometimes I've heard it quoted intending : "Be and adult, stop whishing for very-difficoult-to-obtain things", and this is a statement I don't agree with.

7Xachariah
* Jayne Cobb, Objects in Space, Firefly
6Kindly
Gurney Halleck in Dune by Frank Herbert
2[anonymous]
The titular anthropomorphic wombat in Digger by Ursula Vernon.
-1DanielLC
If wishes were horses, then My Little Pony would be about wishes. Who wants to watch a cartoon about wishes?
2linkhyrule5
Ahem..
3DanielLC
If wishes were horses, Puella Magi Madoka Magica would be My Little Pony?

At college in 1980, my Government Studies prof also served as Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party of Minnesota (the real one, not the DFL). We clashed over Robert Mugabe, just coming to power in Zimbabwe, he asserting it spelled salvation and I, that it spelled ruin.

I e-mailed him a year or two ago, asking if I could get a retroactive grade increase since my predictions had proven more accurate than his. His explanation was that he truly believed Mugabe was an agrarian reformer whose program of taking land from Whites to give to Blacks would benefit the country; but things just hadn't worked out as hoped.

I didn't bother to send him the famous Heinlein quote about Bad Luck. And I didn't really expect the grade change. But it certainly was satisfying to say "I told you so" 30 years later.

JD

Always drive within your competence, at a speed which is appropriate to the circumstances so that you can stop safely in the distance that you can see to be clear.

  • Roadcraft: The Police Drivers' Handbook

In driving, as in life.

This advice really only applies in contexts where the risks of failure substantially outweigh the rewards of success. This isn't true in many contexts; if they're approximately equally balanced, it makes sense to attempt to work slightly above your level of competence in order to improve your skill, and if the rewards of success substantially outweigh the risks of failure it makes sense to be even more risk-loving.

3Diver_Dan
I think that you may have misunderstood the point that I was trying to make. I am not advocating excessive caution. Rather, I value self-knowledge and knowledge of the environment and the people you interact with in that environment. Obviously, a certain amount of margin of error should be included in any decision making. It has been my experience as a driving instructor that most pupils are entirely too cautious especially on faster roads where going too slowly may cause a following vehicle to attempt an unsafe overtaking manoeuvre

I've been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.

Variously attributed.

It's very easy for a rich person to become poor: just give all you have away. It's very hard for a poor person to become rich: almost all of them try, and very few succeed.

If people found, on reflection, that being poor was better than being rich, then they would give their wealth away. We don't observe this.

Therefore I believe being rich is better, even without the benefit of personal experience.

8Kaj_Sotala
There could be a hedonic treadmill effect: as you get richer, you get more things, but eventually you get used to it and it stops being better than your old life. But you still don't want to give your wealth away, because you have gotten used to having more stuff, and you're not sure that you would get used back to your old way of life the way you get used to your new one.
4Yahooey
My superficial knowledge of Seneca and the stoics doesn't allow me to debate the premise fully. It does tell me that the argument that it is better can be debated. That people prefer to be rich does not make it better. An aside: A rich man that gives away his wealth is not equal to a person that is poor from the start or has lost his riches. The person that gives it away, keeps his connections, earns respect and, generally, is in a position re-earn a fortune.
3DanArmak
It's enough for a strong presumption of it being better, pending evidence to the contrary. Taboo "better": there are preferences as belief, and preferences as revealed in actions. Actions are clearly in favour of being rich. On the side of beliefs, there are certainly religions and ethical theories that say being poor is better. Personally, I strongly disagree with both this and many other beliefs of all such theories that I know about, not to mention religions. There are of course ethical systems that say that while being rich may be good, giving away your wealth to charity is better still. Even plain self-interested consequentialism may tell you that you should give your money, perhaps to fight existential risk or to help develop FAI. I certainly agree that there is a tradeoff to be made; I'm only pointing out that in itself, rich is better than poor. As for the Stoics, I too am not deeply familiar with their philosophy. But it seems to me that any concrete problems generated by wealth, can be rather easily solved in practice by using some of that wealth.
-2Yahooey
There is plenty of evidence that behaviour is not always rational which in my mind shifts the burden of proof.
0DanArmak
It's true that people sometimes behave instrumentally-irrationally in the sense that they don't take the correct steps to reach their goal of happiness. But that fact, alone, is relatively weak evidence: people are a little irrational, not completely wrong about what makes them happy. Your reply can be read very generally ("behavior is not always rational, therefore it's not positively correlated with desired results"). Please specify what you meant more precisely.
0Yahooey
I'm saying that the argument that most people are doing something is not proof that what they are doing is better. In other words, the fact that most rich people choose not to give away all of their fortune is not proof that being rich is better than being poor. Why they choose not to give it all away cannot be inferred from their actions. Personally I would state that this is a false dichotomy and that Rich is better than Poor because it is not-Poor. It isn't necessarily the best state of not-Poor.
1DanArmak
It's evidence that what they are doing is, or leads to, something being better. And in the cases where it isn't, we can point to a specific mechanism that subverts the general rule (e.g.: addiction). You seem to be talking about having a middle amount of money. Whereas I'm saying a simple thing: for any two amounts of money X, Y where X > Y, all else being equal, is is better to have X (more) and not Y (less). And in particular, it's better to have lots of money (rich) than very little (poor).
0Watercressed
What do you mean by not rational? People reporting higher satisfaction when they're rich even though they feel less happiness?
1A1987dM
That's not the case for all the people who have been poor and have been rich (see e.g. certain lottery winners). I guess it largely depend on how one became rich, as well as how one spends the money.

Rich can be worse than poor, knowledge can be worse than ignorance, sickness can be better than health, and death can be better than life. But none of these are the way to bet.

It is also worth considering the relevant causal graph. Wealth --> Happiness allows of such exceptions. But what do they look like in terms of the causal graph Wealth --> Happiness <-- Character? If someone can't handle a sudden accession of money, is it the money or their personal failings that should be blamed? If you see a friend in that situation, do you advise them to get rid of their money or learn to handle it better?

0A1987dM
It depends on how good each option would be if it succeeded, and how likely it would be to succeed.
[-]Pablo100

Einstein’s theory of relativity suggests that there is no fact of the matter as to when “now” is. Any measurement of time is relative to the perspective of an observer. In other words, if you are traveling very fast, the clocks of others are speeding up from your point of view. You will spend a few years in a spaceship but when you return to earth thousands or millions of years will have passed. Yet it seems odd, to say the least, to discount the well-being of people as their velocity increases. Should we pay less attention to the safety of our spacecraft, and thus the welfare of our astronauts, the faster those vehicles go? If, for instance, we sent off a spacecraft at near the velocity of light, the astronauts would return to earth, hardly aged, millions of years hence. Should we—because of positive discounting—not give them enough fuel to make a safe landing? And if you decline to condemn them to death, how are they different from other “residents” in the distant future?

Tyler Cowen, ‘Caring about the Distant Future: Why it Matters and What it Means’, University of Chicago Law Review, vol. 74, no. 1 (Winter, 2007), p. 10

They are different because when we pack the spaceship with fuel, we control with reasonable certainty whether they make a safe landing or not. As for our millions-of-years descendants, it's very hard to make any statement about us effecting them with >51% confidence (except, "we shouldn't exterminate ourselves").

A lot of what looks like time discounting is really uncertainty discounting.

2Pablo
Cowen is explicitly discussing time discounting. As he writes, "Should we—because of positive discounting—not give them enough fuel to make a safe landing?" (emphasis added) There may of course be other reasons for treating these people differently, including uncertainty about the long-term future, but Cowen is not focusing on these reasons here.
0fractalman
It feels like a terrible example for examining the effects of relativity on utility functions regarding time-discounting; the typical human utility function is going to result in something that approximates Utility(fuel)=stepfunction(fuelpurchased-“100% fuel”) at around 99-100% fuel, regardless of time-discounting. It’s a case of [lands succesffully] versus [runs out of fuel 10 seconds too soon and crashes, killing everyone in the rocket.] If you’re time discounting heavily enough to not notice that spike, and fuel is somehow the most expensive part of the whole operation, then you’re probably discounting heavily that you’re better off launching two rockets on one-way trips with about 25-50% fuel each, depending on specifics of the rocket. -In other words, the example fails to probe to the real heart of the mater because it doesn't matter if i use an Einsteinian reference frame or a Newtonian one, my answer is the same: either 100% fuel or very little fuel.
5BlazeOrangeDeer
This is backwards. Everyone in an inertial frame thinks other peoples clocks are slower. Acceleration is what causes the opposite, e.g. turning the spaceship around to come back
8pragmatist
You're right that Cowen got it backwards, but you're wrong about this: Acceleration is not the cause. The reason the astronauts age less is that the path they follow through space-time corresponds to a smaller proper time than the path followed by people who remain on the Earth, and the proper time along a path is what a clock following that path measures. So it's a geometrical fact about the difference between the two paths that causes the asymmetrical aging, not the acceleration of the astronauts. To make this obvious, it is possible to set up a scenario where another group of astronauts leaves Earth and then returns, accelerating the exact same amount as the first group, but following a path with larger proper time. This second group of astronauts will age more than the first group, even though the accelerations involved were the same. A lot of elementary presentations of relativity identify acceleration as the relevant factor in twin paradox type cases, but this is wrong (or, more charitably, not entirely right).
2shminux
Just to chime in, in Special Relativity in a simply connected Minkowski spacetime acceleration is required for differential aging, so "Acceleration is not the cause" is misleading. Not that it is relevant to the issue of positive discounting.
2pragmatist
But you can get differential aging without any difference in acceleration, so it does seem right to say that acceleration is not the cause of the differential aging. An analogy: Suppose you have two substances in the same lab that are burning at different rates, and you want to figure out the cause of the difference in burn rates. It would be wrong to say that the difference is due to the presence of oxygen in the lab, even though it is true that there would be no differential burning (or any burning at all) without oxygen. ETA: Perhaps this just devolves into a semantic debate about what we mean when we say "the cause". In the Pearlian framework it seems more natural to talk of multiple causally relevant factors without singling one out as "the" cause. And I admit that the presence or absence of acceleration is a causally relevant factor in the twin paradox. I guess my point was that "acceleration" is not the best explanation for the differential aging. There exists a more fundamental explanation that accounts for many more cases (i.e. when neither observer is inertial, or when the space-time is multiply connected), and allows a precise calculation of the extent of the effect. I think its a useful heuristic to single out the most explanatory causal factor as "the cause" if you want to play that game, but like I said, that's a semantic point.
-2shminux
You cannot. The duration and/or magnitude and/or direction of acceleration has to be different for the two worldlines to be different.

Check out this diagram for an example of two different worldlines (A and B) without any difference in duration, magnitude or spatial direction of acceleration. The accelerated segments are in red.

5cousin_it
Thanks for this! I had the same misconception as shminux.
5shminux
Thanks! I stand corrected. The timing of acceleration also matters. I should have known better. Anyway, I agree that It just seems like a tautology to me (the difference in aging is due to the difference in subjective clocks). To cause this difference one has to make the worldlines diverge, and this means difference in acceleration profiles. What I initially was unhappy about is the statement That last statement is perfectly correct.
0BlazeOrangeDeer
I wasn't claiming it was the whole story, but thanks for giving more info. I maybe should have said that you can't have that situation without changing trajectories but I thought acceleration was a simpler way to summarize.
1B_For_Bandana
I agree in principle, but I have basically no confidence in my ability to figure out what to do to help people in the future. There are two obstacles: random error and bias. Random error, because predicting the future is hard. And bias, because any policy I decide I like could be justified as being good for the future people, and that assertion couldn't be refuted easily. The promise of helping even an enormous number of people in the future amounts to Pascal's Wager, where donating to this or that charity or working on this or that research is like choosing this or that religion; all the possibilities cancel out and I have no reliable guide to what to actually do. Admittedly this is all "I failed my art" stuff rather than the other way around, but well, it's still true.
0shminux
Is it some kind of non-sequitur? How is it related to positive discounting? Probably because some are more real and others are less so.
0Jakeness
Can you explain in more detail what you mean by this?
2shminux
It's pretty reasonable to care about the live people you know more than about some from potential future generations.

The man who first declared that "seeing" was "believing" laid his finger (whether he knew it himself or not) on one of the fundamental follies of humanity. The easiest of all evidence to receive is the evidence that requires no other judgment to decide on it than the judgment of the eye—and it will be, on that account, the evidence which humanity is most ready to credit, as long as humanity lasts.

Wilkie C