Rationality Quotes December 2012

Once again, here's the new thread for posting quotes, with the usual rules:

Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be voted up/down separately.  (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments.  If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)

  • Do not quote yourself
  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.

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politicians and leaders worldwide don’t like to be associated with toilets, even state-of-the-art toilets. This sanitation stigma distorts international and national development agendas.

chairman of the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation

The quote was brought to my attention by a student in my Economics of Future Technology course who is writing on sanitation in the developing world.

Politics, after all, is the art of persuasion; the political is that dimension of social life in which things really do become true if enough people believe them. The problem is that in order to play the game effectively, one can never acknowledge this: it may be true that, if I could convince everyone in the world that I was the King of France, I would in fact become the King of France; but it would never work if I were to admit that this was the only basis of my claim.

  • David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Among a great many other things that chess teaches you is to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good. It trains you to think before grabbing, and to think just as objectively when you're in trouble. When you're making a film you have to make most of your decisions on the run, and there is a tendency to always shoot from the hip. It takes more discipline than you might imagine, to think, even for thirty seconds, in the noisy, confusing, high-pressure atmosphere of a film set. But a few seconds' thought can often prevent a serious mistake being made about something that looks good at first glance. With respect to films, chess is more useful in preventing you from making mistakes than giving you ideas. Ideas come spontaneously and the discipline required to evaluate and put them to use tends to be the real work.

-Stanley Kubrick

Life is essentially a chess game./
You have to plan and calculate and/
I am so lonely.
[If you play the opening wrong, the game is already lost.]

-A Softer World

Molten variables hiss and roar. On my mind-forge, I hammer them into the greatsword Epistemology. Many are my foes this night.

--Nate Silver Parody Twitter Account @fivethirtynate, on the night of the presidential election

Nor of course must they ever be allowed to raise Aristotle’s question: whether “democratic behaviour” means the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy. For if they did, it could hardly fail to occur to them that these need not be the same.


Even if they don’t read Aristotle (that would be undemocratic) you would have thought the French Revolution would have taught them that the behaviour aristocrats naturally like is not the behaviour that preserves aristocracy. They might then have applied the same principle to all forms of government.

-- Screwtape, from "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" by C. S. Lewis.

I can't find a source for the quote at the moment, but I remember reading that F. A. Hayek once said something along the lines of "The greatest enemy of capitalism is the capitalists."

Hayek was right. Capitalists in a mixed-economy seem to be in something analogous to a prisoner's dilemma. It would benefit any individual capitalist to seek monopoly privileges for their own firm, but it hurts all of them if any significant number of them do so.

You might expect that, having learned of the existence of immortal life, man would dedicate colossal resources to learning how the immortal jellyfish performs its trick. You might expect that biotech multinationals would vie to copyright its genome; that a vast coalition of research scientists would seek to determine the mechanisms by which its cells aged in reverse; that pharmaceutical firms would try to appropriate its lessons for the purposes of human medicine; that governments would broker international accords to govern the future use of rejuvenating technology.

NYT article titled "Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?"

The next line of the article after the above quote is "But none of this happened."

If you were taught that elves caused rain, every time it rained, you'd see the proof of elves.


It has been said that the past is a foreign country. Well, it is certainly inhabited by foreigners, people whose mindset was shaped by circumstances we shy from remembering. The mother of three children who gave birth eight times. The father of four children, the last of whom cost him his wife. Our minds are largely free of such horrors, and not inured to that kind of suffering. That is the progress of technology. That is what is improving the human race.

It is a long, long ladder, and sometimes we slip, but we've never actually fallen. That is our progress.

The past is in some respects worse than a third world country. In the United States around 1900, the life expectancy ranged from around 50 climbing steadily to reach around 60 around 1930 (curiously the Great Depression didn't cause a slump in life expectancy, although the rate of growth did slow). Source with related data(pdf). But, if one looks at current life expectancy in many countries in the developing world, most countries exceed the US-1900 numbers. Similar comparisons can be made for literacy and many other metrics of success. The middling developing countries today are better in many ways than most of the US was in 1900.

Also, third world countries can buy the used stuff we don't want anymore. The past can't do that.

... do we actually sell a lot of used goods overseas like that?

I think 'slightly obsolete' holds up a lot better.

This is why my family only buys computers while on vacation in the US.

Life expectancy can be misleading.

The poorest countries are still caught in a Malthusian trap, so that when modern medicine and other technology extend life, the increased population means that everyone is poorer.

So, increased life expectancy can correlate with greater poverty. See George Clark, A Farewell to Alms.

I dunno... Generally people will have fewer children if they expect all of them to survive to adulthood than if they expect most of them to die before, and fewer children per couple all other things being equal means that each of them will be better off. I think I've seen a few TED talks about that.

In December of each year, the New York Times film critics, like film critics everywhere, write Deep Think pieces about what patterns in the movies released in the current year tell us about Trends in the Big Issues. The annual answer ought to be: Virtually nothing, because what gets released in a single year is a close to a random sample of projects that had been in the works for years and happened to come to fruition now. But that never stops the critics from pontificating on 2012: The Meaning of It All.

--Steve Sailer, here

I was once, years and years ago, falsely accused by someone of egregious dishonesty, and after I put forward evidence that the accusation was false, was told, "Let's just agree to disagree." At which, of course, I exploded; I would not be agreeing to disagree about whether I had been completely dishonest, thank you very much. And every time someone uses the phrase I am tempted to say, "We don't need to agree to disagree because we already are disagreeing." I think what gets me is that it's such an unbelievably low standard that almost anything would be more intellectually robust; why not agree to something more ambitiously intellectual, like swapping book recommendations, or having a temporary cooling-off period, or going to a third party for arbitration or advice, or anything else, really?

I thought that "agree to disagree" had become a fixed expression meaning something like "stop discussing this for now even though we don't agree, because we have more productive things to do/talk about".

Yes, but understanding that makes it harder to get annoyed at people.

Not really. I usually see it used more as "I think you're an idiot, but don't want to bother explaining why, so let's talk about / do something else instead."

I believe the most appropriate corresponding expression is that the disagreement is "swept under the rug".

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. ... [M]ost of the bizarre and depressing research findings [about cognitive biases] make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people.

I'm not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law. Rather, what I'm saying is that we must be wary of any /individual/'s ability to reason. We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron. A neuron is really good at one thing: summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to 'decide' whether to fire a pulse along its axon. A neuron by itself isn't very smart. But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron.

In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it's so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth.

--Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

A person is said to exhibit rational irrationality when it is instrumentally rational for him to be epistemically irrational. An instrumentally rational person chooses the best strategies to achieve his goals. An epistemically irrational person ignores and evades evidence against his beliefs, holds his beliefs without evidence or with only weak evidence, has contradictions in his thinking, employs logical fallacies in belief formation, and exhibits characteristic epistemic vices such as closed-mindedness. Epistemically irrational political beliefs can reinforce one’s self-image; boost one’s self-esteem; make one feel noble, smart, superior, safe, or comfortable; and can help achieve conformity with the group and thus facilitate social acceptance. Thus, epistemic irrationality can be instrumentally rational.

If I falsely believe the road I am crossing is free of cars, I might die. So I have a strong incentive to form beliefs about the road in a rational way. However, if I falsely believe that import quotas are good for the economy, this has no directly harmful effects. (On the contrary, the belief can have significant instrumental value. It might make me feel patriotic; serve my xenophobia; serve as an outlet to rationalize, sublimate, or redirect racist attitudes; or help me pretend to have solidarity with union workers.) … Epistemic rationality is hard and takes self-discipline.

When it comes to politics, individuals have every incentive to indulge their irrational impulses. Demand for irrational beliefs is like demand for most other goods. The lower the cost, the more will be demanded. The cost to the typical voter of voting in epistemically irrational ways is nearly zero. The cost of overcoming bias and epistemic irrationality is high. The psychological benefit of this irrationality is significant. Thus, voters demand a high amount of epistemic irrationality.

Jason Brennan, The Ethics of Voting, p.173-74

I think this quote might have the analysis backwards. Politicians are not irrational for spouting irrational nonsense - because that is what voters want to hear. I'm not sure if that is accurately described as "epistemically irrational" because some of the politicians probably know what the correct answers are.

None of that creates incentives on voters to be epistemically irrational - except for game-theoric reasons. There certainly are costs to voters being epistemically irrational (assuming one believes there are meaningful differences between the political parties - which may not be the local consensus.

Except that an individual vote have a negligible effect on who wins an election, so voters have no incentive to figure out which political party best represents their goals.

Someone recently wrote a post analyzing optimal voter behavior. It turns out that anyone who would vote in a country where a random voter is selected to decide the election should vote in the current setup. Plus, voting has knock-on effects for future elections.

And most people wouldn't vote rationally in that country either.

I wish we would reconsider the upvote/downvote mechanics on LW.


it is exactly what the quote said:

The cost to the typical voter of voting in epistemically irrational ways is nearly zero. The cost of overcoming bias and epistemic irrationality is high. The psychological benefit of this irrationality is significant. Thus, voters demand a high amount of epistemic irrationality.

In the case of LW, voting irrationally has almost zero costs. You don't get penalized for voting wrongly(Incidentally I suggested trying to implement some measure of this kind and guess what... I was downvoted). The penalties are more indirect, like diminishing the amount of epistemically correct contributions.

So why would you assume that LW would be less prone to have this sort of problem?

The evidence suggests that the problem should actually be worse on LW, see1, 2.

One in four Americans has an opinion about an imaginary debt plan

A new poll from Public Policy Polling found that an impressive 39 percent of Americans have an opinion about the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan.

Before you start celebrating the new, sweeping reach of the 2010 commission’s work, consider this: Twenty-five percent of Americans also took a stance on the Panetta-Burns plan.

What’s that? You’re not familiar with Panetta-Burns? That’s probably because its “a mythical Clinton Chief of Staff/former western Republican Senator combo” that PPP dreamed up to test how many Americans would profess to have an opinion about a policy that did not exist. They found one in four voters to do just that.

Panetta-Burns’ nonexistent policy proposals were supported by 8 percent and opposed by 17 percent of the voters surveyed. Simpson-Bowles’ real policy proposals had stronger favorables, with 23 percent support and 16 percent opposition.

Devil's advocate time:

They don't know nothing about it. They know two things.

  1. It's a debt reduction plan
  2. It's named after Panetta and Burns

Here are some reasons to oppose the plan, based on the above knowledge:

  • We don't need a debt reduction plan, just keep doing what we're doing and it will sort itself out.

  • I like another existing plan, and this is not that one, so I oppose it.

  • I've heard of Panetta and (s)he's a complete douchebag. Anything they've come up with is clearly junk.

  • I haven't even heard of either of them, so what the heck would they know about debt reduction?

  • They're from different parties, there's no way they could have come up with something sensible.

  • I've heard 10 different plans described, and surely this is one of them. I can't remember which one this is, but I hated all of them so I must oppose this too.

And of course you can make a very similar set of reasons to support it. Not trying to rationalise people's stupidity or make excuses for them as such, just present the opposing argument in all its glory. Ok maybe making excuses for them is exactly what I'm doing. But honestly, how many of your political opinions, as a percentage, including all those that you don't know you have until asked, are really much better than the reasons above?

If you were being polled about an unfamiliar plan, would you more likely think that a) the pollster was asking you about a fictional plan, or b) that the pollster was doing a genuine survey, and that you just hadn't heard about that plan yet? Granted, forming an opinion about something in the absence of any knowledge, just because someone asked you for your opinion, is another matter entirely.

This might be a distinction without a difference. The trick was to get people to think they knew about some topic X well enough to profess an opinion on it, even though in fact they didn't know the first thing about X. Making sure that X doesn't exist is just a cheap way to implement this trick.

Granted, forming an opinion about something in the absence of any knowledge, just because someone asked you for your opinion, is another matter entirely.

Isn't it damning either way, and this dilemma the point of the setup?

Depending on the phrasing and any specifics of the plan presented to me, I might conclude that it was not only fictional but deliberate FUD; that sort of misdirection's not unheard of. If I were given nothing but a label, though, I'd likely assume B.

The actual question was "Do you support or oppose the Panetta-Burns plan?" (The previous question was "... the Bowles-Simpson plan?") So you could infer that the two were related, and possibly partisan/opposing plans, but not much more than that.

Thanks for linking to the full results, very interesting.

I was surprised at first glance by:

Q12 Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Nate Silver?

Favorable ........................................................ 12%

Unfavorable .................................................... 10%

Not sure .......................................................... 77%

both because I assumed more people had heard of him (which shows, I guess, I live in a bubble and don't correct enough for it), and because I had assumed a more favorable score, with perhaps only extreme Republicans having an unfavorable opinion. I guess I was failing to take into account that the kind of people who follow polls with so much dedication to have heard of Silver are almost all committed partisans.

Nitpick: 'not sure' isn't the same as 'haven't heard of him'. There are lots of things I know about that I don't have an opinion on.

This maybe makes more sense in an open thread than as a rationality quote.

This certainly is interesting. While at a glance, really bad metacognition looks like the chief culprit, there are other explanations. For example, they could be confusing Panetta-Burns with something else they've heard of. I'd be curious in particular if the poll asked the same people about Panetta-Burns it asked about Simpson-Bowles. One could conceive of someone not remembering the name and thinking that is what was being talked about. Also, this may to some extent be purely a demonstration that people don't like to look ignorant, and so they've said yes, but that that vocalized knowledge wouldn't have any impact on their actual behavior.

What intrigues me the most is not that people said they knew of it, but that they had a formed opinion for or against. If they didn't ask about Simpson-Bowles to the same people, then maybe as you suggest people had an opinion on S-B but misremembered and thought that this was the topic. But if they did, then the only explanation I can think of is that 8% of the people have such a strong positive prior for "bipartisan plans devised by a Clinton Chief of Staff/former western Republican Senator combo” that they agree with them without knowing what they are, and the reverse is true for 17% of the people.

"It's frightening to think that you might not know something, but more frightening to think that, by and large, the world is run by people who have faith that they know exactly what is going on." - Amos Tversky

Opinions are like assholes... Everybody's got one!

Related saying which I can't find a legit source for.

Long quote to make a simple point, but relevant. (Context: this is from a Star Wars novel, so it's fiction.)

A death hollow is a low point where the heavier-than-air toxic gases that roll downslope from the volcanoes can pool.

The corpse of a hundred-kilo tusker lay just within its rim, its snout only a meter below the clear air that could have saved it. Other corpses littered the ground around it: rot crows and jacunas and other small scavengers I didn't recognize, lured to their deaths by the jungle's false promise of an easy meal.

I said something along these lines to Nick. He laughed and called me a Balawai fool.

"There's no false promise," he'd said. "There's no promise at all. The jungle doesn't promise. It exists. That's all. What killed those little ruskakks wasn't a trap. It was just the way things are."

Nick says that to talk of the jungle as a person-to give it the metaphoric aspect of a creature, any creature-that's a Balawai thing. That's part of what gets them killed out here.

It's a metaphor that shades the way you think: talk of the jungle as a creature, and you start treating it like a creature. You start thinking you can outsmart the jungle, or trust it, overpower it or befriend it, deceive it or bargain with it.

And then you die.

"Not because the jungle kills you. You get it? Just because it is what it is." These are Nick's words. "The jungle doesn't do anything. It's just a place. It's a place where many, many things live... and all of them die. Fantasizing about it - pretending it's something it's not - is fatal. That's your free life lesson for the day," he told me. "Keep it in mind."

I will.

  • Mace Windu, in Shatterpoint by Matthew Stover

I have a rule - I only read Star Wars fiction when it's by Matthew Stover. (He made the Revenge of the Sith novelization way better than it had any reason to be)

Another of this books, "Traitor", has an interesting example of a "true" prisoner's dilemma.

I've read two non-Stover Star Wars novels and judging from those, your rule might be a good idea.

What's this about an example of a prisoner's dilemma in Traitor, though? I read that one too, but I don't remember what part you're referring to. (Well, there was a prisoner who had a dilemma, but...)

Traitor is a really good book and you should not read the following unless you've already read it:

Va gur svefg unys (ol sne gur zbfg vagrerfgvat unys), lbh unir Wnpra yrneavat gb pbzzhavpngr jvgu na vasnag jbeyq-zvaq ivn cnva. Gurl unir n ybg bs vagrerfgvat artbgvngvbaf (n ybg bs arng rknzvangvba bs Wnpra'f - naq znal cebonoyl ernqref - anvir zbenyvgl). Wnpra vf n fynir, ohg unf rabhtu cbjre gb erfvfg gung gur zvaqfrrq unf gb jnfgr n ybg bs gvzr oernxvat uvz.

Wnpra pnerf nobhg gur yvirf bs gur bgure cevfbaref, gur zvaqfrrq bayl pnerf nobhg gur urnygu gur jbeyq. Bire gur pbhefr bs frireny jrrxf/zbaguf (hapyrne), ng svefg jvgu zhghny qrsrpgvba, gurl obgu yrnea gb pbbcrengr jvgu rnpu bgure, naq gur erfhyg vf gung Wnpra vzcebirf dhnyvgl bs yvsr sbe gur cevfbaref, naq gur zvaqfrrq orpbzrf gur zbfg cebfcrebhf bs gur bgure eviny zvaqfrrqf.

Hagvy gur svany vgrengvba bs gur qvyrzzn pbzrf. Gurl pbzr gb n qrny jvgu rnpu bgure - Wnpra jvyy xvyy nyy gur eviny zvaqfrrqf gb rafher "uvf" zvaqfrrq orpbzrf qbzvanag, naq va erghea uvf zvaqfrrq jvyy frg gur cevfbaref serr. (Jub bgurejvfr jbhyq unir orra xvyyrq, fvapr gurl jrer ab ybatre arprffnel)

Ubjrire, arvgure bs gurz jvyy arrq rnpu bgure nsgrejneqf. Wnpra vf fgvyy orggre bss vs ur pna pbzcyrgryl fnobgntr uvf pncgbe'f cynaf (xvyyvat "uvf" zvaqfrrq nf jryy nf gur bguref), naq gur zvaqfrrq vf ng yrnfg fbzrjung orggre bss vs vg yrgf nyy gur cevfbaref trg xvyyrq.

Nf vg gheaf bhg, Wnpra qrpvqrf gb qrsrpg (ohg vf ceriragrq sebz qbvat fb ol n guveq cnegl), ohg gur zvaqfrrq sbyybjf guebhtu ba vgf cebzvfr gb frg gur bguref serr.

It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if the cat is not there.

— Confucius, allegedly (quoted in The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed)

Edit: The rationality relevance might need some explanation. The way I've seen this aphorism used is this: it's sometimes hard to distinguish between a task that's achievable but very difficult (and that it therefore might make sense to spend time/effort on), and a task that is impossible (and thus is a complete waste of time/effort).

If you spend some time searching for the cat in the dark room, you might not find it. Is that because finding it is difficult (after all, this is what you might quite plausibly expect, if you assume that the cat is there), or because the cat is not there and you're wasting your time?

Truth comes out of error more easily than out of confusion.

-Francis Bacon

I read that as meaning something along the lines of, "if Nature is truly so wonderful, why did dogs leave it (to become domesticated)?"

Someone responded:


and @afoolswisdom replied:

Because your problems are best solved by the solutions you already have. Know your problems better than you know your solutions.

Do not read written works and think, "This is the Way." Written works are like the gate to approach the Way. Thus, there are people who remain ignorant of the Way regardless of how much they have learned and how many Chinese characters they know. Though they face the pages and read as skillfully as though they were annotating the ancients, they are ignorant of the truth and so do not make the Way their own.

— Yagyū Munenori, The Life-Giving Sword

Nevertheless, it is quite difficult to approach the Way without studying. Still, one cannot say that a man embodies the Way simply because he has studied and speaks well. There are also people who are naturally in harmony with the Way and who have never studied at all.

— Yagyū Munenori, The Life-Giving Sword

A: Embodies the Way. B: Has studied. P(A|B)>P(A|~B). P(A|B)0.

“it is quite difficult to approach the Way without studying” is more like P(A|~B) << 1.

In fact, the quote says nothing at all about lower bounds on P(A|B). It's possible that it's even more difficult to approach the Way by studying.

True, but only if P(B) > P(~B) (that is, if more people study than don't study).

Ah, we are forgetting that sometimes books may be actively misleading, and may deviate one from truth (no matter how much you read those propaganda books, they probably won't tell you what you really need to know).

Ah, I had misread the quote, and confused P(A|B) with P(B|A). Nevertheless, I think your objection is with the statement that P(A|B) > P(A|~B).

When you have run the length of various practices and none of those practices remain in your mind, that very lack of mind itself is the heart of "all things." When you have exhaustively learned the various practices and techniques and made great effort in disciplined training, there will be action in your arms, legs, and body but none in your mind; you will have distanced yourself from training, but will not be in opposition to it, and you will have freedom in whatever techniques you perform. You yourself will be unaware of where your mind is, and neither demons nor heresies will be able to find it.

— Yagyū Munenori, The Life-Giving Sword

It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking; and it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.

John Cleese


"Right and wrong do exist. Just because you don't know what the right answer is — maybe there's even no way you could know what the right answer is — doesn't make your answer right or even okay. It's much simpler than that. It's just plain wrong."

--Dr. House

The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.

-- Eden Phillpotts

Yes, the universe is full of things waiting for our wits to grow sharp enough that we stop anthropomorphizing them...

The universe is full of sharp things, waiting to skewer us.

No idea what I got the sudden urge to respond with that.

"...they have all these experts' predictions about the year 2000 and I kid you not they are fucking psychotic. Just not even close, like oh we'll be growing cars in vats and having nuclear wars with China and then black rainbows will drain the earth of its oxygen and kill everyone except our moon colonists. Experts. I mean people cannot predict shit. We think we can and we fucking can't."

"Well, how about this — that man, unlike animals, is a creature who experiences an insurmountable need for knowledge? I've read that somewhere."

"So have I," said Valentine. "But the trouble is that man, or in any case the common man, easily overcomes this need for knowledge of his. It seems to me that he doesn't have such a need at all. There's a need to understand, but knowledge is not required for that. The God hypothesis, for instance, gives one an unparalleled ability to understand absolutely everything, while discovering absolutely nothing... Give a person a highly simplified model of the world and interpret any event on the basis of this simplified model. Such an approach required no knowledge. A few memorized formulas plus some so-called intuition, so-called practical acumen, and so-called common sense."

Roadside Picnic, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

But are we asking too much when we declare that our drugs need to work through single defined targets? Beyond that, are we even asking too much when we declare that we need to understand the details of how they work at all? Many of you will have had such thoughts (and they've been expressed around here as well), but they can tend to sound heretical, especially that second one. But that gets to the real issue, the uncomfortable, foot-shuffling, rather-think-about-something-else question: are we trying to understand things, or are we trying to find drugs?

Derek Lowe, In the Pipeline

I don't have any previous experience with this sort of thing, but judging from what I hear and read, I'm supposed to be asking why all this is happening, and why it's happening to me. Honestly, those questions are about the farthest thing from my mind.

Partly, that’s because they aren't hard questions. Why does our world have gravity? Why does the sun rise in the East? There are technical answers, but the metaphysical answer is simple: that’s how reality works. So too here. Only in the richest parts of the rich world of the twenty-first century could anyone entertain the thought that we should expect long, pain-free lives. Suffering and premature death (an odd phrase: what does it mean to call death "premature"?) are constant presences in the lives of most of the peoples of the Earth, and were routine parts of life for generations of our predecessors in this country—as they still are today, for those with their eyes open. Stage 4 cancers happen to middle-aged men and women, seemingly out of the blue, because that's how reality works.

As for why this is happening to me in particular, the implicit point of the question is an argument: I deserve better than this. There are two responses. First, I don't—I have no greater moral claim to be free from unwanted pain and loss than anyone else. Plenty of people more virtuous than I am suffer worse than I have, and some who don't seem virtuous at all skate through life with surprising ease. Welcome to the world. Once again, it seems to me that this claim arises from the incredibly unusual experience of a small class of wealthy professionals in the wealthiest parts of the world today. We think we live in a world governed by merit and moral desert. It isn't so. Luck, fortune, fate, providence—call it what you will, but whatever your preferred label, it has far more to do with the successes of the successful than what any of us deserves. Aristocracies of the past awarded wealth and position based on the accident of birth. Today's meritocracies award wealth and position based on the accident of being in the right place at the right time. The difference is smaller than we tend to think. Once you understand that, it’s hard to maintain a sense of grievance in the face of even the ugliest medical news. I’ve won more than my share of life's lotteries. It would seem churlish to rail at the unfairness of losing this one—if indeed I do lose it: which I may not.

The second response is simpler; it comes from the movie "Unforgiven." Gene Hackman is dying, and says to Clint Eastwood: "I don't deserve this. To die like this. I was building a house." Eastwood responds: "Deserve’s got nothing to do with it."

That gets it right, I think. It's a messed-up world, upside-down as often as it's rightside up. Bad things happen; future plans (that house Hackman was building) come to naught. Deserve's got nothing to do with it.

--William J. Stuntz, discussing his cancer diagnosis

Apologies for the length, but I wanted to include the full substantive point and hated to snip lines here and there. For what it's worth, Prof. Stuntz was a devout Christian, and the linked post went on to discuss his theological views on why "something deep within us expects, even demands moral order—in a world that shouts from the rooftops that no such order exists." Obviously I draw a different conclusion about this conflict, but I still respect that he could take such an unflinching view of how morally empty nature really is.

That reminded me of this:

Sometimes I lie awake at night and ask: "Why me?" And a voice answers: "Nothing personal, your name just happened to come up".

Charlie Brown

"something deep within us expects, even demands moral order—in a world that shouts from the rooftops that no such order exists."

This conclusion is accurate unless he used a specifically Christian definition of "moral order".

Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.

  • David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Edit: Yup, apparently that's a famous quote by Bradley which I read for the first time in that book. Good catch.

A Google search attributes this to Gen. Omar Bradley.

"Speed is what distinguishes intelligence. No bird discovers how to fly: evolution used a trillion bird-years to 'discover' that - where merely hundreds of person-years sufficed." - Marvin Minsky

"There are lives at stake, Sherlock! Actual human lives - just, just so I know, do you care about that at all?"

"Will caring about them help save them?"


"Then I'll continue not to make that mistake."

-- Sherlock (BBC series), season 1, episode 3 "The Great Game"

Yes, I know that if you correct for differences in caring due to distance/scope insensitivity/etc. it does help save them, and that caring doesn't preclude skepticism about which actions are helpful, and that in this particular case Sherlock should have refused to respond to blackmail and there'd have been fewer deaths. But it works as a retort to "can't say no" spending. Don't give to some counterproductive charity because you care about starving kids in Africa, give to the Against Malaria Foundation because it makes fewer kids dead.

I might quote that the next time I see "like this if you care" on Facebook.

The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.

The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions.

Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observation of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.

The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.

Police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.

Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice, and warning is found to be insufficient.

Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions, and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.

The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.

Robert Peele

The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.

Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.

Lisa: That's specious reasoning, Dad.

Homer: Thank you, dear.

Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.

Homer: Oh, how does it work?

Lisa: It doesn't work.

Homer: Uh-huh.

Lisa: It's just a stupid rock.

Homer: Uh-huh.

Lisa: But I don't see any tigers around, do you?

Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.

Perhaps he should have said "conspicuous absence". An absence of tigers is only conspicuous if you would otherwise expect tigers everywhere.