Rationality Quotes - July 2009

post by SilasBarta · 2009-07-02T18:35:19.802Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 185 comments

(Last month's started a little late, I thought I'd bring it back to its original schedule.)

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


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-07-02T22:07:14.360Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is no real me! Don't try to find the real me! Don't try to find someone inside of me who isn't me!

-- Princess Waltz

Commentary: What's odd is not how many people think they contain other people. What's odd is how many of those people think the other person is the real one.

comment by CannibalSmith · 2009-07-03T15:11:20.767Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But we do - in the same sense that racing sims contain cars.

comment by JulianMorrison · 2009-07-03T16:43:31.436Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The person I think of as "me", the person the world sees, and the person that could be figured out by a very detailed examination of my actions would probably each barely resemble the other. Also, they would shift over quite short timescales as bits of personality are triggered and demoted by context. I can't really claim to be a unitary person, only a unitary brain. So "the real me" is a terribly messy question. Or 1.5 kg of grey goop, depending how it's asked.

comment by RobinHanson · 2009-07-04T19:55:34.526Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, humans try to present themselves as simple, so that others can understand and trust them. But humans really are quite complex. Hence an inevitable divergence between what we are and how we appear must be managed. Hence others can reasonably wonder of how we appear is how we really are.

comment by gwern · 2009-07-03T13:10:01.566Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Voted up for striking very home for me - I just finished watching His and Her Circumstances, which had far too much adolescent wangst about 'real mes'.

comment by scav · 2009-07-03T13:22:07.132Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

voted up for "wangst".

comment by AndyWood · 2009-07-03T14:23:56.792Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps the "person inside" is a metaphor for the vision of who they would like to become?

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-07-02T22:14:44.909Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I was young, I thought the act of getting older meant, year by year, getting more sophisticated, more hard, cool, and unpitying. Less innocent.

Maybe that was a childish idea of what getting older was about. Maybe adults, mature adults, get more innocent with time, not less. Because the word "innocent" does not mean "naive," it means "not guilty."

Children do small evils to each other, schoolyard fights and insults, not because their hearts are pure, but because their powers are small. Grown-ups have more power. Some of them do great evils with that power. But what about the ones who don't? Aren't they more innocent than children, not less?

-- John C. Wright, Fugitives of Chaos

comment by arundelo · 2009-07-03T01:36:57.608Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On some pitch black mornings, hearing what I knew was a cold wind howling outside, I might think, "Well, it is certainly comfortable in this bed, and maybe it wouldn't hurt if I just skipped practicing to-day." But my response to this was not to draw on something called will power, to insult or threaten myself, but to take a longer look at my life, to extend my vision, to think about the whole of my experience, to reconnect present and future, and quite specifically, to ask myself, "Do you like playing the cello or not? Would you like to play it better or not?" When I put the matter this way I could see that I enjoyed playing the cello more than I enjoyed staying in bed. So I got up. If, as sometimes happened or happens, I do stay in bed, not sleeping, not really thinking, but just not getting up, it is not because will power is weak but because I have temporarily become disconnected, so to speak, from the wholeness of my life. I am living in that Now that some people pursue so frantically, that gets harder to find the harder we look for it.

John Holt, Freedom and Beyond, p. 119

See also this comment by Z_M_Davis.

comment by arundelo · 2009-07-03T01:32:56.834Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Numerical arithmetic should look to children like a simpler and faster way of doing things that they know how to do already, not a set of mysterious recipes for getting right answers to meaningless questions.

John Holt, How Children Fail, p. 101

See also Paul Lockhart.

comment by Marcello · 2009-07-02T22:16:22.531Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

-- Voltaire

comment by sark · 2010-12-20T15:28:55.542Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But usually causality doesn't run in that direction. Those who already wish to commit atrocities will go out of their way to seek absurd beliefs.

Voltaire, being an ideas person, overestimates the impact of ideas.

comment by roland · 2009-07-03T07:14:57.906Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, but I was immediately reminded of 9-11

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-07-02T22:05:51.067Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Experiment and theory often show remarkable agreement when performed in the same laboratory."

-- Daniel Bershader

comment by steven0461 · 2009-07-22T20:55:27.187Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

“Do as I say, not as I do:” this is considered the very motto of hypocrisy. But does anyone believe that having a good character is as easy as wanting it? If virtue is as difficult as other excellences, there must be few or none who are perfectly virtuous. If the rest of us are not even to talk about virtue or express admiration for it, how shall anyone improve? A hypocrite is one who claims virtue beyond what he possesses, not one who recommends virtue beyond what he claims. If a man’s principles are no better than his character, it is less likely to be a sign of an exemplary character than a sign of debased principles.

-- Mark Thompson

comment by MBlume · 2009-07-04T22:30:45.345Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"I'm writing a book on magic," I explain, and I'm asked, "Real magic?" By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers. "No," I answer. "Conjuring tricks, not real magic."

Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.

-from Net of Magic, by Lee Siegel

comment by sark · 2010-12-21T16:17:09.325Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems to me to be a confusion over senses of the word "real". "Real magic" as opposed to "Not real magic" here is simply used in the analogous sense of "Do you like like me?" vs. "Or do you just like me?". Whether "real magic" can in fact be done did not enter into the mind of the questioner in the above scenario. Hence "real" there is used in the sense of "genuine" instead of "actual".

This is a common pitfall for quotes/aphorisms. Their short length is an incentive for conciseness, but it can also become an end in itself. Hence leading us to tradeoff meaning for superficial features like symmetry, rhyme, etc.

comment by wuwei · 2009-07-04T02:33:44.004Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is a mathematical style in which proofs are presented as strings of unmotivated tricks that miraculously do the job, but we found greater intellectual satisfaction in showing how each next step in the argument, if not actually forced, is at least something sweetly reasonable to try. Another reason for avoiding [pulling] rabbits [out of the magicians's hat] as much as possible was that we did not want to teach proofs, we wanted to teach proof design. Eventually, expelling rabbits became another joy of my professional life.

-- Edsger Dijkstra

Edit: Added context to "rabbits" in brackets.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-07-02T22:45:38.359Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Mathemagician nodded knowingly and stroked his chin several times. "You'll find," he remarked gently, "that the only thing you can do easily is be wrong, and that's hardly worth the effort."

-- Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-07-02T22:08:21.112Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know how many people I've met who hold beliefs like "in three card stud a four is more likely to come up after an eight than a six." What the fuck? Is the concept of random that hard to grasp?

-- Alphadominance

comment by loqi · 2009-07-02T23:43:01.162Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's pretty depressing. Not too long ago, someone I know expressed the belief that red is more likely to come up on a roulette table if the last five spins landed on black. He holds a graduate degree in computer science.

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-07-06T19:07:55.191Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If all I knew was that the last five spins landed on black, if I had to bet red or black, I'd bet black. There could be a bias in the wheel, although roulette wheels in today's casinos are pretty much free from biases. (I'd still prefer not to bet on roulette at all, though, at least not given the standard casino payouts.)

comment by JulianMorrison · 2009-07-03T16:50:04.706Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Representativeness heuristic. It's what humans have as a hardwired probability estimator, unless they learn counter-intuitive maths.

comment by roland · 2009-07-03T07:16:36.940Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't blame him, it's a fairly common mistake if you don't actively think it through.

comment by Psy-Kosh · 2009-07-03T02:31:10.603Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

ow ow ow ow ow.

comment by jajvirta · 2009-07-03T16:46:57.168Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Poker is actually an interesting social experiment of how badly a game can twist people's minds about randomness. Even the most rational players have hard time maintaining sanity when their brains are pattern-matching from data that does not have patterns (ie. deal of cards).

comment by KatjaGrace · 2009-07-03T07:03:33.879Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Philosophy triumphs easily over past and future evils; but present evils triumph over it."

-- Francois de La Rochefoucauld

comment by gwern · 2009-07-03T13:07:39.706Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've never quite understood that quote; is Rochefoucauld being very sarcastic about the (lack of) use of philosophy, or is he saying something else?

comment by KatjaGrace · 2009-07-03T16:19:45.122Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Observing that we nobly analyse distant things, and in the present do whatever the hell we want.

comment by thomblake · 2009-07-03T16:15:49.977Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No... it's just correct. Philosophy is very good at figuring out where we've gone wrong, or figuring out how to do things better next time. But in the present, philosophers are very good at getting fired and executed when they're against the authority. (cf Nazi Germany, or France when Aristotle went temporarily out of fashion in the Church)

comment by teageegeepea · 2009-10-28T02:41:00.361Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My guess is that most philosophers in those situations were good at accommodating the powers that be and did not get fired and/or executed.

comment by JohannesDahlstrom · 2009-07-02T22:02:28.567Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The truth may be out there, but the lies are inside your head.

-- Terry Pratchett, 'Hogfather'

comment by aausch · 2009-07-04T02:32:42.773Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time.

-- Terry Pratchett, 'Hogfather'

comment by hrishimittal · 2009-07-03T15:10:10.975Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

...you have to make a conscious effort to keep your ideas about what you want from being contaminated by what seems possible.This is isomorphic to the principle that you should prevent your beliefs about how things are from being contaminated by how you wish they were. Most people let them mix pretty promiscuously. The continuing popularity of religion is the most visible index of that.

-- pg

comment by SilasBarta · 2009-07-02T20:39:51.542Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"An economic transaction is a solved political problem."

--Abba Lerner

comment by RobinHanson · 2009-07-04T19:59:09.298Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some say a political transaction is a solved economic problem, that politics is about finding and fixing market failures. If there can be market failures, then economic transactions can create political problems that need to be solved.

comment by JGWeissman · 2009-07-04T20:16:28.174Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A lot of political transactions that I observe create economic problems.

comment by JustinShovelain · 2009-07-02T22:55:13.524Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Many highly intelligent people are poor thinkers. Many people of average intelligence are skilled thinkers. The power of a car is separate from the way the car is driven.

-- Edward de Bono

comment by anonym · 2009-07-04T00:11:05.429Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Isn't this obvious and also arguing against only a straw-man position with respect to intelligence and intellectual skill -- namely that intellectual skill is a function of one variable (intelligence) and that all other factors (such as industriousness & creativity) have no impact on intellectual skill?

It's phrased as if it conveys some deep wisdom, when the reality is that almost all reasonably intelligent people already believe this.

comment by spriteless · 2009-07-05T10:30:30.479Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reminds me of the Geography teacher I had with cerebral palsy, compared to college kids with no aspirations beyond working a coffee shop.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-07-02T22:05:57.291Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Defects of empirical knowledge have less to do with the ways we go wrong in philosophy than defects of character do: such things as the simple inability to shut up; determination to be thought deep; hunger for power; fear, especially the fear of an indifferent universe.

-- David Stove, What Is Wrong With Our Thoughts

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2009-07-04T14:44:55.858Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

By Ta Nehisi Coates

But I distrusted the whole game. Intuitively, I wonder about the honesty and proficiency of writers who opine on everything from Iran to education to drug policy to health care to cap and trade to race. Perhaps these people simply have more brains than me, but the catch-all nature of punditry, the need to speak on every policy topic as though one were an expert, is exactly what I hope to avoid.

comment by kpreid · 2009-07-04T16:24:55.023Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

FYI, Less Wrong accepts Markdown syntax in comments.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-22T04:29:20.779Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Corrected a mere 8 months later.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-07-02T22:09:35.480Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

All truth is not, indeed, of equal importance; but if little violations are allowed, every violation will in time be thought little.

-- Samuel Johnson

comment by Marcello · 2009-07-02T23:14:31.996Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anyone who doesn't take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones either.

-- Albert Einstein

comment by RobinHanson · 2009-07-04T19:52:02.314Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Both these quotes sound nice, but do we have evidence for them?

comment by KatjaGrace · 2009-07-04T21:00:22.114Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If they are false they are small violations of truth and thus inconsequential.

comment by loqi · 2009-07-04T21:07:37.670Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The scope of the Einstein quote is "anyone", and claims that we can infer distrust based on "minor" transgressions. I'd say this is a fairly significant claim, and would be more than just a "small" violation of truth were it found to be false.

comment by steven0461 · 2009-07-04T21:22:57.963Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed, but saying a medium-sized violation of truth is a small violation of truth is only a small violation of truth and thus inconsequential.

comment by cousin_it · 2009-07-05T22:19:57.033Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wanted to reply thus:

Thank you. Maybe I'm a dark person, but I want to learn to argue like that someday.

But then I contemplated that desire and banished it. So thanks anyway, and an upvote.

comment by KatjaGrace · 2009-07-04T21:23:27.500Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Making accurate significant claims in comments on obscure blogs isn't often consequential.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2009-07-04T21:02:16.976Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


All truth is not, indeed, of equal importance; but if little violations are allowed, every violation will in time be thought little.

comment by brian_jaress · 2009-07-02T19:29:36.408Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Censure yourself, never another. Do not discuss right and wrong.

-- Zengetsu

When I first saw this, I had a negative gut reaction. The second sentence especially bothered me. Over time, I've come to like it more. I'm now at the point of wanting to follow it but usually failing to do so.

Discussions here on akrasia seem to focus on procrastination, but this is my own very close number two.

comment by AlanCrowe · 2009-07-02T19:40:44.247Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That quote touches a sore spot on me due to the recent death of Erik Naggum. He was a controversial figure, and I find myself struggling to refrain from discussing whether he was right or wrong; discussions that are certain to turn into time consuming quarrels. It seems like an important struggle because his premature death emphasises that life is too short for quarrelling on the internet.

comment by gwern · 2009-07-17T02:13:53.530Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Life may be too short for quarrelling on the Internet; but I know I derived much more value from his writings than I may've from whatever he did in the Norwegian oil industry.

comment by davidr · 2009-07-04T12:08:15.976Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"On the contrary, it's because someone knows something about it that we can't talk about physics. It's the things that nobody knows about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance... so it's the subject that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about! "

-- Richard Feynman

comment by RobinHanson · 2009-07-04T19:35:22.629Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

He'd be correct if he'd said we can discuss the subjects we think no one knows anything about. I wonder; did Feynman think no one knew anything about psychology?

comment by orthonormal · 2009-07-04T22:59:42.796Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Given the story of his encounter with the psychologist (also in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!), I'd say he thought so, and ditto with the other fields he mentioned. I believe he was criticizing acceptable social conversation (at the Nobel Prize banquet, I believe!) as being restricted to topics on which nobody sufficiently facile with words could be conclusively shown to be wrong.

comment by RolfAndreassen · 2009-07-05T18:48:58.388Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The conversation took place in 1965; if Feynman believed that, as is likely, he was very probably correct. On the other hand, a lot of people probably thought they knew something about psychology; it was a popular subject at the time.

comment by anonym · 2009-07-03T04:40:20.572Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work.

John Von Neumann

comment by [deleted] · 2009-07-02T23:15:56.585Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"I am about to discuss the disease called 'sacred'. It is not, in my opinion, any more divine or more sacred than other diseases, but has a natural cause, and its supposed divine orgin is due to men's inexperience, and to their wonder at its peculiar character"

--Hippocractic treatise on epilepsy

comment by Z_M_Davis · 2009-07-02T22:48:08.296Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We all know many things about the world. What form or shape does our knowledge take? We may be able to say some of what we know, though in many people there is a deep and dangerous confusion between what they say and think they believe and what they really believe. But all of us know much more than we can say, and many times we cannot really put it into words at all.

For example, if we have eaten them, we know what strawberries taste like. We have in us somewhere knowledge---a memory, many memories---of the taste of strawberries. Not just one berry either, but many, more or less ripe, or sweet, or tasty. But how can we really speak of the taste of a strawberry? When we bite into a berry, we are ready to taste a certain kind of taste; if we taste something very different, we are surprised. It is this---what we expect or what surprises us---that tells us best what we really know.

We know many other things that we cannot say. We know what a friend looks like, so well that we may say, seeing him after some time, that he looks older or no older; heavier or thinner; worried or at peace, or happy. But our answers are usually so general that we could not give a description from which someone who had never seen our friend could recognize him.

---John Holt, What Do I Do Monday?

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-07-02T22:26:28.845Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"To stay young requires unceasing cultivation of the ability to unlearn old falsehoods."

-- Robert A. Heinlein (to be precise, his character Lazarus Long, but I don't think there's much difference)

comment by RobinHanson · 2009-07-04T19:50:24.264Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But is it true? Do young folks have more of an ability to unlearn falsehoods than old folks?

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-07-04T21:32:27.891Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it is true relative to the average young folk and the average old folk. To the extent that there is an uncommon skill involved in unlearning falsehoods, we can imagine people who get better at this skill by practice and learning over time. And hence, as it were, "stay young".

comment by Sideways · 2009-07-04T20:13:18.187Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the point of the quote is not that young folks are more able to unlearn falsehoods; it's that they haven't learned as many falsehoods as old people, just by virtue of not having been around as long. If you can unlearn falsehoods, you can keep a "young" (falsehood-free) mind.

comment by Alicorn · 2009-07-04T20:10:54.459Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think that's necessarily the thrust of the quote. It doesn't say "to remain youthful, with respect to the ability to unlearn falsehoods, requires unceasing cultivation of this ability". I don't know the context or the intent behind the quote, but it doesn't seem to imply for sure that young people generally have more of this ability than older people.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-07-05T20:53:03.346Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The only context is that it appears in a set of other sayings of Lazarus Long in the interlude chapters of "Time Enough For Love", later collected into "The Notebooks of Lazarus Long". I've always thought it reasonable to assume that this is Heinlein himself talking. He had more of these aphorisms than could be worked into the dialogue.

Some people through the years accumulate more and more knowledge and beliefs, not all true, and never unlearn any of them. Whatever they acquire, they cling to, and end up as stiff, bitter old folks railing against a world they can no longer deal with. Others retain a lively intellect indefinitely, by always being open to the truth -- that is, to discovering that they were wrong. That is my interpretation of the quote.

As someone else put it:

"The things that we learn prevent us from learning."

-- W. Roy Whitten

comment by wuwei · 2009-07-05T22:33:17.830Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

According to an old story, a lord of ancient China once asked his physician, a member of a family of healers, which of them was the most skilled in the art.

The physician, whose reputation was such that his name became synonymous with medical science in China, replied, "My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape and so his name does not get out of the house."

"My elder brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name does not get out of the neighborhood."

"As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords."

-- Thomas Cleary, Introduction to The Art of War

comment by Z_M_Davis · 2009-07-02T23:05:17.045Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

[N]ot just our actions and reactions but our very perceptions, what we think we see, feel, smell, and so on, are deeply affected by our mental model, our assumptions and beliefs about the way things really are. In a great variety of experiments with perception, many people, many times over, have shown this to be true. Therefore it is not just fancy and tricky talk to say that each of us lives, not so much in an objective out-there world that is the same for all of us, but in his mental model of that world. It is this model of the world that he experiences. We are not, then starting an impossible contradiction, or using language carelessly, when we say that I live in my mental model of the world, and my mental model lives in me.

---John Holt, What Do I Do Monday?

Compare "Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom"

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-07-02T23:32:11.373Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Speak to us more of this book.

comment by arundelo · 2009-07-03T01:40:48.061Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I haven't read it, but I have read quite a bit of other things by John Holt.

He is known mainly as a theorist of education (the title of the above-quoted book may be a reference to a teacher trying to plan class activities) but he would probably say that he was interested in learning, and interested in education only inasmuch as it helps or hinders learning. He is the primary initiator of the "unschooling" philosophy of homeschooling.

I have posted some other John Holt quotes elsewhere in this post's thread.

comment by Lightwave · 2009-07-05T09:54:57.551Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Related to that:

"We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are."

-- Anais Nin

comment by steven0461 · 2009-07-22T19:38:58.107Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

All my life I've had one dream, to achieve my many goals.

-- Homer Simpson

comment by spuckblase · 2009-07-04T08:05:55.295Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"I’m moved to laughter at the thought of how presumptuous it would be to reject mathematics for philosophical reasons. How would you like the job of telling the mathematicians that they must change their ways…now that philosophy has discovered that there are no classes? Can you tell them, with a straight face, to follow philosophical argument wherever it leads? If they challenge your credentials, will you boast of philosophy’s other great discoveries: that motion is impossible, that a Being than which no greater can be conceived cannot be conceived not to exist, that it is unthinkable that anything exists outside the mind, that time is unreal, that no theory has ever been made at all probable by evidence (but on the other hand that an empirically ideal theory cannot possibly be false), that it is a wide-open scientific question whether anyone has ever believed anything, and so on, and on, ad nauseam? Not me!"

-- David Lewis, 'Parts of Classes'

comment by RobinHanson · 2009-07-04T19:37:26.388Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Apparently Lewis is implicitly contrasting math to some other fields where it would be OK for philosophers to correct the beliefs of others. What are those other fields?

comment by spuckblase · 2009-07-05T11:01:50.672Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Lewis held that our common-sense-beliefs have greater initial plausibility than every philosophical argument against them, be it in mathematics ("there are numbers") or metaphysics ("there is time"), philosophy of mind ("there are beliefs"), ethics, etc.

Philosophy can help to find a realiser - a best candidate - for the role of numbers, beliefs, etc., but the price for "losing our moorings" (after g.e. moore), i.e., denying common-sense propositions, is almost always too high.

There is at least one case, of course, where Lewis was willing to pay: modal realism.

comment by MBlume · 2009-07-04T23:03:07.441Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is he? I actually didn't get that impression.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-07-02T23:25:08.209Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice that failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds."

-- R.D. Laing, Knots

comment by KatjaGrace · 2009-07-04T21:35:38.818Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It could be of course that you are limited by other features of your psychology, and fail to notice because noticing such things doesn't lead to useful or sexy behavior. Such discriminating failure to notice things can't be mere random stupidity.

comment by AlanCrowe · 2009-07-03T20:26:47.462Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually by Daniel Goleman. It comes from Goleman's book, Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, which looks relevant to the mission of Less Wrong.

comment by Tiiba · 2009-07-02T22:53:06.913Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At the other end of the spectrum are the opponents of reductionism who are appalled by what they feel to be the bleakness of modern science. To whatever extent they and their world can be reduced to a matter of particles or fields and their interactions, they feel diminished by that knowledge....I would not try to answer these critics with a pep talk about the beauties of modern science. The reductionist worldview is chilling and impersonal. It has to be accepted as it is, not because we like it, but because that is the way the world works.

--Steven Weinberg

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-07-02T23:30:34.567Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah... I understand the sentiment, but as someone who delivers those pep talks, I do think, in all seriousness, that the guy's wrong. If we weren't made out of particles we'd be made out of something else. Particles is just the stuff that stuff turns out to be made of. Anyone who has a problem with this has misunderstood something, or their real problem is something else.

For example, it is very depressing that people who die are gone forever. But this is not a matter of them being made out of particles. It would be just as bad if they were made out of freeplegrunge and then ceased to exist forever.

comment by BrandonReinhart · 2009-07-03T01:06:00.758Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I recently watched your second bloggingheads debate with Adam Frank and the point you make above is one I think you should have stated clearly in that debate. Mr (Prof?) Frank based part of his argument on the feeling of fulfillment that one receives being in a relationship and believing that there is a metaphysical element to the relationship (and similar situations). Yet he does not actually believe that metaphysical element exists...only that the belief has some kind of psychological benefit. The way you addressed your position made it sound like the reductionist view is one in which feelings of fulfillment and "meaning" (a term that I think is fairly weakly defined in these discussions) cannot exist or exist differently. I know this was not your point.

Someone who has a fuzzy warm feeling from a metaphysical belief is still getting warm and fuzzy in a physical world in which their belief is wrong. There is nothing inherent about the nature of the world or knowing things about the nature of the world that precludes feeling satisfied, happy, warm, complete, or fulfilled. Those feelings exist within the substrate of physical material that makes up the world already. As you have pointed out before, those feelings would be all the more genuine and meaningful if they were founded on beliefs that more closely matched the actual working world.

I think in that debate you were approaching this topic somewhat from the side of things.

"I read the book of Job last night, I don't think God comes out well in it."

  • Virginia Woolf
comment by Tiiba · 2009-07-03T17:51:34.351Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually, I agree. I'm not entirely clear on why people being made out of particles might be a bad thing. It's just the last clause of the last sentence that I find awesome. People talk about how atheists have no morality, or how there is no point to living if you're an atheist, as if this is bayesian evidence against atheism. Besides the fact that they're wrong.

I should have pointed that out.

comment by RolfAndreassen · 2009-07-05T19:05:45.982Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Although that is true, I think people who believe in freeplegrunge also believe that freeplegrunge implies immortality; indeed, that's the reason they believe in freeplegrunge, although they rarely admit it. So your statement misses the mark a bit; it's not the lack of freeplegrunge people object to, it's the lack of immortality. And that is not only depressing, it really is a property of particles as opposed to freeplegrunge; at least this is true in the minds of freeplegrungists, because of the very strong coupling between their freeplegrunge-belief and their immortality-belief.

comment by JohannesDahlstrom · 2009-07-02T22:02:22.763Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.

-- Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, 'Good Omens'

comment by Furcas · 2009-07-03T04:19:44.970Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In other words, let's replace an attempt to understand human history as a result of the moral axioms of its actors with an extremely vague and lazy tautology.

I hear this kind of nonsense all the time when discussing the negative effects of religion. "Oh, it's not because of their religious beliefs that Muslims are more likely to be terrorists than any other religious group, it's because they're people." It's a refusal to try and figure out why people act as they do.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-07-03T08:05:57.894Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I view it as the opposite. It seems to suggest figuring out what people are rather than throwing up our hands and calling them good/evil/crazy/etc. Kind of like this. YMMV.

comment by Furcas · 2009-07-03T20:36:48.085Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You can either throw up your hands or try to come to a greater understanding regardless of whether you call people 'people' or 'evil' or 'crazy', but the last two adjectives are more precise descriptors.

comment by JohannesDahlstrom · 2009-07-04T18:32:55.254Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is no concept of "evil" or "crazy" in objective reality, but there is a concept of "people". The quote reminds us that understanding human behaviour begins by accepting that people do what they do exactly because they are people -- that is, instances of a very specific mental architecture forged by blind evolution in very specific circumstances on this specific planet.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-07-04T00:16:18.311Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

'people' or 'evil' or 'crazy', but the last two adjectives are more precise descriptors.

More precise? Yes. More accurate? No. Inaccurate? Yes.

comment by JohannesDahlstrom · 2009-07-03T13:04:47.876Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by cousin_it · 2009-07-24T20:53:07.987Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would note that orthodox statistics and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory are just two different manifestations of a single intellectual disease, closely related to logical positivism, which has debilitated every area of theoretical science in this century. The symptoms of this disease are the loss of conceptual discrimination; i.e., the inability to distinguish between probability and frequency, between reality and our knowledge of reality, between meaning and method of testing, etc.

-- E.T. Jaynes, summarizing all of Eliezer's posts

comment by spriteless · 2009-07-06T03:15:09.249Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

...and then I came over here, and then I told you the story, and then it was now, and then I don't know what happened.

-Fry of the show Futurama perceives the future well

comment by JustinShovelain · 2009-07-02T22:51:23.423Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In a sense, words are encyclopedias of ignorance because they freeze perceptions at one moment in history and then insist we continue to use these frozen perceptions when we should be doing better.

-- Edward de Bono

comment by anonym · 2009-07-04T00:14:12.696Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Except that language is a living, breathing thing, and words are constantly being invented, falling out of favor, taking on new meanings and losing old ones.

comment by RobinZ · 2009-07-09T03:06:26.817Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I thought about med school again, the anatomy class I had told Jason about. Candice Boone, my one-time almost-fiancée, had shared that class with me. She had been stoic during the dissection but not afterward. A human body, she said, ought to contain love, hate, courage, cowardice, soul, spirit ... not this slimy assortment of blue and red imponderables. Yes. And we ought not to be dragged unwilling into a harsh and deadly future.

But the world is what it is and won't be bargained with. I said as much to Candice.

She told me I was "cold". But it was still the closest thing to wisdom I had ever been able to muster.

  • Robert Charles Wilson, Spin
comment by spuckblase · 2009-07-04T09:02:15.170Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"The reader in search of knock-down arguments in favor of my theories will go away disappointed. Whether or not it would be nice to knock disagreeing philosophers down by sheer force of argument, it cannot be done. Philosophical theories are never refuted conclusively. (or hardly ever. Gödel and Gettier may have done it.) The theory survives its refutation - at a price. Perhaps that is something we can settle more or less conclusively. But when all is said and done, and all the tricky arguments and distinctions and counterexamples have been discovered, presumably we will still face the question which prices are worth paying, which theories are on balance credible, which are the unacceptably counterintuitive consequences and which are the acceptably counterintuitive ones. On this question we may still differ. And if all is indeed said and done, there will be no hope of discovering still further arguments to settle our differences."

-- David Lewis (thousand-year-old vampire)

comment by RobinZ · 2009-07-09T03:07:20.688Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sagredo: [I]n my opinion nothing occurs contrary to nature except the impossible, and that never occurs. - "Two New Sciences" (1914 translation), Galileo Galilei

comment by gwern · 2009-07-17T02:00:28.792Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Since the beginning, not one unusual thing has happened."

(On a side note, does anyone know whether that's original to Robin Brandt?)

comment by RobinZ · 2009-07-17T02:27:30.684Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A similar quote appears in Quantum Explanations - I imagine that's who Robin Brandt quoted.

comment by gwern · 2009-07-17T03:38:49.846Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yep, looks like it. That's a problem with Google - if you search for Robin's very slightly variant, you only turn up Robin; but google without quotes, and you're lightyears away from any useful link.

comment by RobinZ · 2009-07-17T12:48:42.270Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Now that is very strange, if my Yahoo search is any indication.

(For the record: when I searched on Yahoo, it gave me "Quantum Explanations" as the very first hit. This may be a case of context-dependent searching, as I had immediately prior searched with the quotes.)

Edit: Fascinating! Look at Altavista!

comment by gwern · 2009-07-17T22:08:33.549Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Those results are way better than Google's. You're right about the interestingness - Yahoo and Altavista are infinitely superior in searching for non-quoted quotes. I'll have to remember that in the future and not assume Google is always better.

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2009-07-08T01:30:33.733Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Many of the arguments on LW remind me of this quote:

"for the obscurity of the distinctions and of the principles that they use is the reason why they talk about everything as confidently as if they knew about it, and defend everything they say about it against the most subtle and knowledgeable, without leaving any room to convince them of their mistake. In doing this they seem to me to resemble a blind person who, in order to fight without any disadvantage against a sighted person, would bring them into the depths of a very dark celar."

-Rene Descartes from the Discourse on Method

comment by anonym · 2009-07-03T04:17:10.029Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Philosophers who reject God, Cartesian dualism, souls, noumenal selves, and even objective morality cannot bring themselves to do the same for the concepts of free will and moral responsibility. The question is: Why?

Tamnor Sommers — Distributed Cognition and the Will: Individual Volition and Social Context, “The Illusion of Freedom Evolves”, p. 62, MIT Press, 2007

comment by anonym · 2009-07-03T04:15:06.962Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Pretend what we may, the whole man within us is at work when we form our philosophical opinions.

William James

comment by Adaptive · 2009-07-03T00:45:42.959Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Go is a game of big moves and little moves. One problem we will examine here is what may look big now can, in the final analysis, be small, and vice versa. The ability to see what is and what is not territory and potential territory is to see the truth on the board.

– Peter Shotwell, Go: More than a game

comment by Madbadger · 2009-07-14T01:58:30.366Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

Abraham Maslow

For many years I had a slight variant of this in my sig: "When the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems start to look like nails"

comment by arundelo · 2009-07-14T02:55:08.692Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Classic. I've heard it a lot (in multiple variations), but never with an attribution. Its Wikipedia article even has a citation! -- which shows the original (not particularly epigrammatic) wording as:

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

comment by RobinZ · 2009-07-09T03:05:45.371Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One request I must make of my reader, which is, that in judging these poems he would decide by his own feelings genuinely, and not by reflection upon what will probably be the judgment of others. How common is it to hear a person say, I myself do not object to this style of composition, or this or that expression, but to such and such classes of people it will appear mean or ludicrous! This mode of criticism, so destructive of all sound unadulterated judgment, is almost universal: let the reader then abide, independently, by his own feelings, and, if he finds himself affected, let him not suffer such conjectures to interfere with his pleasure.

  • Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads, qtd. in Forms of Verse by Sara DeFord and Clarinda H. Lott, pg. 36
comment by Steve_Rayhawk · 2009-07-09T11:51:58.507Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Link to a related claim of mine: "If you have to predict other peoples' judgments a lot, your brain starts to count their predictive categories as "natural". The effect can be viral . . ."

comment by Joe · 2009-07-08T03:21:09.703Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be. -Vonnegut

Seems apropos to recent posts on honesty, as well.

comment by spuckblase · 2009-07-05T11:35:58.364Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have written letters that are failures, but I have written few, I think, that are lies. Trying to reach a person means asking the same question over and again: Is this the truth, or not? I begin this letter to you, then, in the western tradition. If I understand it, the western tradition is: Put your cards on the table.

-- Amy Hempel, 'Tumble Home'

comment by wuwei · 2009-07-04T00:39:12.321Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Testing shows the presence, not the absence of bugs.

-- Edsger Dijkstra

comment by davidr · 2009-07-04T12:18:30.903Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

isomorphic to experiments in science, false and correct theories

comment by cousin_it · 2009-07-03T17:00:32.141Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do stuff, read stuff, think and make up your mind. Have you actually selected an entity which you think of as "objective"? This is like having a slave port in your brain.

-- yosefk

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-07-03T01:52:00.396Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Leadership skills are quite different from management skills. When you "manage," by definition, you're trying to distribute resources where they will do the company the most good. When you "lead," by definition, you're trying to get those resources distributed to yourself. Obviously, leadership is a better way to go. It's easier too.

-- Scott Adams, Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook

comment by JustinShovelain · 2009-07-02T22:45:58.396Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some people are always critical of vague statements. I tend rather to be critical of precise statements; they are the only ones which can correctly be labeled 'wrong'.

-- Raymond Smullyan

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-07-02T23:33:00.356Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Surely, to label a statement "vague" is a higher order of insult than to call it "wrong". Newton was wrong but at least he was not vague.

comment by gjm · 2009-07-03T00:03:56.692Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the other hand, precise statements that are somewhere in the vicinity of the truth can be dangerous, because people tend to mistake precision for accuracy, and because modes of reasoning (e.g., formal logic) adapted to precise statements tend to be brittle -- one can deduce very wrong conclusions from slightly wrong premises.

A charitable reading of Smullyan would be that when a precise statement is made, he likes to examine it as closely as its precision allows, to avoid such dangers; and that a vague statement, so far as it's vague, is not worth the trouble of criticizing.

(For the avoidance of doubt: I think such a reading would probably be too charitable, and I upvoted Eliezer's comment.)

comment by JustinShovelain · 2009-07-03T01:02:57.352Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do not agree with all interpretations of the quote but primed by:

That's not right. It's not even wrong. -- Wolfgang Pauli

I interpreted it charitably with "critical" loosely implying "worth thinking about" in contrast to vague ideas that are not even wrong. Furthermore, from thefreedictionary.com definition of critical, "1. Inclined to judge severely and find fault.", vague statements may be considered useless and so judged severely but much of the time they are also slippery in that they must be broken down into precise disjoint "meaning sets" where faults can be found. So vague ideas cannot necessarily be criticized directly in the fault finding sense. (Wide concepts that have useful delimitations in contrast to arbitrary ill-formed vague ones can be useful and are a powerful tool in generalization. In informal contexts these two meanings of vague overlap).

comment by orthonormal · 2009-07-04T22:45:07.746Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Given what I've read of The Tao is Silent, I'm inclined to take a more literal (and less agreeable) interpretation of his quote here.

comment by MBlume · 2009-07-02T22:53:54.075Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Statements should be as precise as possible, but no more precise.

comment by JustinShovelain · 2009-07-02T23:25:44.219Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.

-- Albert Einstein

comment by gwern · 2009-07-02T23:54:04.532Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"It is the mark of an instructed mind to rest assured with that degree of precision that the nature of the subject admits, and not to seek exactness when only an approximation of the truth is possible."


comment by Alicorn · 2009-07-20T04:43:32.117Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Before anything, ask yourself, "What do I want to have happen?"

James Lee Stanley

comment by colinmarshall · 2009-07-09T20:22:37.734Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I used to be a terrible hypochondriac when I was young and a great reader of medical dictionaries. One day I realised that I was not actually frightened of terminal illness but of not getting done the things I wanted to get done.

(My interpretation: remember that our various seemingly nonsensical personality tics can mask other, more addressable concerns.)

comment by MineCanary · 2009-07-06T18:18:17.537Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"But if today is really in honor of a hundred children murdered in war," he said, "is today a day for a thrilling show?"

"The answer is yes, on one condition: that we, the celebrants, are working consciously and tirelessly to reduce the stupidity and viciousness of ourselves and of all mankind."

--Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

comment by spuckblase · 2009-07-06T13:28:29.947Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

All rested, eventually. Their technology climbed to some complacent asymptote, and stopped—and so they do not stand before you now. Now even my creators grow fat and slow. Their environment mastered, their enemies broken, they can afford more pacifist luxuries. Their machines softened the universe for them, their own contentment robs them of incentive. They forget that hostility and technology climb the cultural ladder together, they forget that it's not enough to be smart. You also have to be mean.

-- Peter Watts, 'Ambassador'

comment by rhollerith_dot_com · 2009-07-04T22:37:57.613Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.

-- Samuel Johnson

comment by wuwei · 2009-07-04T17:43:15.275Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Take the thoughts of such an one, used for many years to one tract, out of that narrow compass he has been all his life confined to, you will find him no more capable of reasoning than almost a perfect natural. Some one or two rules on which their conclusions immediately depend you will find in most men have governed all their thoughts; these, true or false, have been the maxims they have been guided by. Take these from them, and they are perfectly at a loss, their compass and polestar then are gone and their understanding is perfectly at a nonplus; and therefore they either immediately return to their old maxims again as the foundations of all truth to them, notwithstanding all that can be said to show their weakness, or, if they give them up to their reasons, they with them give up all truth and further enquiry and think there is no such thing as certainty.

-- John Locke, Of the Conduct of Understanding

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-07-03T03:20:12.053Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"The future already happened. We just haven't reached it yet." - Sarda the Sage

Brian Clevinger, 8-Bit Theater

comment by anonym · 2009-07-03T04:16:09.069Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.

William Gibson — National Public Radio: “Fresh Air”, Aug. 31, 1993

comment by gwern · 2009-07-17T02:15:18.171Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

“The Japanese seem to the rest of us to live several measurable clicks down the time line. The Japanese are the ultimate Early Adopters, and the sort of fiction I write behooves me to pay serious heed to that. If you believe, as I do, that all cultural change is essentially technologically driven, you pay attention to the Japanese. They’ve been doing it for more than a century now, and they really do have a head start on the rest of us, if only in terms of what we used to call ‘future shock’ (but which is now simply the one constant in all our lives).”

Gibson, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/apr/01/sciencefictionfantasyandhorror.features

comment by Wei_Dai · 2009-08-01T07:05:25.088Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So what do you do when your dream dies?

When your dream dies, you give it up.

-- A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge

comment by ajayjetti · 2009-07-31T23:25:10.678Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

“To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it” --I tried to find where I read it, but unsucessfully

EDIT: Googled, it's by Kurt Vonnegut

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-07-31T23:37:59.410Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Google says it's Kurt Vonnegut.

Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

comment by ajayjetti · 2009-08-01T00:16:36.099Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

yeah, very well put, every reason to give the art of rationality a chance

comment by gwern · 2009-07-19T16:41:58.284Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"As a final practical maxim, relative to these habits of the will, we may, then, offer something like this: Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or 2 something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin."

--William James, The Principles of Psychology 1890, Chapter IV

comment by gwern · 2009-07-17T01:53:38.891Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"The person who takes the banal and ordinary and illuminates it in a new way can terrify. We do not want our ideas changed. We feel threatened by such demands. "I already know the important things!" we say. Then Changer comes and throws our old ideas away."

Chapterhouse Dune, Frank Herbert

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-07-06T16:12:39.585Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Beyond the age of information is the age of choices.

-- Charles Eames

comment by anonym · 2009-07-03T04:42:39.704Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In all sensation we pick and choose, interpret, seek and impose order, and devise and test hypotheses about what we witness. Sense data are taken, not merely given: we learn to perceive.… The teacher has forgotten, and the student himself will soon forget, that what he sees conveys no information until he knows beforehand the kind of thing he is expected to see.

Peter Medawar — Pluto’s Republic, “Hypothesis and Imagination”, p. 117

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-07-02T23:00:51.370Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house."

-- Robert Heinlein (as Lazarus Long)

ETA: If I could downvote my own postings, I'd downvote this one. I won't delete it, to leave the context for loqi's response.

Dammit, I've read Distress and I know without looking exactly the context of the Egan quote. I was practically cheering for Rourke in that chapter. But there's a big gap between encountering an idea and finding it good, and actually applying it after closing the book.

comment by loqi · 2009-07-03T01:24:48.499Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You say that your opponent lacks humanity. It's the oldest semantic weapon there is. Think of all the categories of people who've been classified as non-human, in various cultures, at various times. People from other tribes. People with other skin colors. Slaves. Women. The mentally ill. The deaf. Homosexuals. Jews. Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, Armenians, Kurds [...]

But suppose you accuse me of 'lacking humanity.' What does that actually mean? What am I likely to have done? Murdered someone in cold blood? Drowned a puppy? Eaten meat? Failed to be moved by Beethoven's Fifth? Or just failed to have—or to seek—an emotional life identical to your own in every respect? Failed to share all your values and aspirations?

The answers is: 'any one of the above.' Which is why it's so fucking lazy. Questioning someone's 'humanity' puts them in the company of serial killers—which saves you the trouble of having to claim anything intelligent about their views.

— Greg Egan (as James Rourke), Distress

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-07-03T07:38:28.786Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by AlanCrowe · 2009-07-08T11:33:40.872Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I read the quote from Lazarus Long in the original post as an olive branch to his opponents and a rebuke to his friends and allies. There is a concern underlying it that loqi's rebuke completely misses.

First Lazarus Long offers a test of humanity that is open to all. The deaf, the homosexual, the Jew, etc, all may pass Long's test. Read between the lines to find the implicit advice: Learn to cope with mathematics. It is good advice, good enough that it is a dangerous gift to give to ones enemies.

There is a saying in military circles that amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. An enemy that holds mathematics in contempt will blow off the logistical calculations behind his military campaigns. How many bullets do we need? How long will the march take? How much food do we need? Who cares, let us run at the enemy screaming!

An enemy that cannot cope with mathematics is seldom much of a threat; a friend or ally who cannot cope with mathematics is more dangerous. Simply moving the selector from single shot to fully automatic will let the innumerate comrade shoot off the expeditions ammunition in a matter of minutes, dooming the entire party.

Since the quote is from Lazarus Long we should think space opera. The ship has broken down and rescue is months away. Calculate the rations that let the crew survive. No doubt they are uncomfortably meagre. If too many cannot cope with mathmatics, refuse the unwelcome results of the calculation and insist on too large a ration, all will perish. This dilemma is a modern setting for a dilemma that was common in history. When the crops fail, meagre stocks must be nursed through a hungry winter. The sums are the same. Bryan Caplan captures the modern form of the problem.

Lazarus Long does not fear defeat by subhuman opponents. Why should he? He is sincerely believes that they are inferior. No. He fears being dragged down by his own side, most of who are no better.

comment by loqi · 2009-07-09T01:51:59.539Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reasonable concerns, but I don't think the "subhuman" terminology captures their meaning in the slightest. I generally don't consider "human" to be synonymous with "useful", "reliable", or "competent".

First Lazarus Long offers a test of humanity that is open to all. The deaf, the homosexual, the Jew, etc, all may pass Long's test.

By "Long's test" you still mean mathematics, right? "May"? Homosexuals "may" have heterosexual sex, deaf people "may" regain their hearing, and so on. Your statement seems to assume the very definition of humanity it's trying to support.

comment by gwern · 2009-07-02T23:58:07.862Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Stupidity is always a capital crime."

--Larry Niven (N-Space)

comment by MrHen · 2009-08-06T01:48:12.582Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths."

~ Bertrand Ruessell

comment by thomblake · 2009-08-06T02:06:35.141Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What about that most infamous claim, that women have fewer teeth than men? At first glance, one wonders (as does M.) how such a claim could serve an ideological purpose. How are the interests of men advanced at the cost of women by the belief that they have more bicuspids and molars? But more importantly, M. points out that there is some evidence to suggest that Aristotle's claim about teeth is actually a testament to his careful observation rather than evidence of apriorism in his science. Although the evidence is speculative, there is some proof that the diets of ancient Mediterranean women were deficient in vitamin C and D, deficiencies which resulted in diseases such as scurvy, osteomalacia, and osteoporosis, especially in pregnant and lactating women.5 No one knows exactly what Aristotle saw when he looked into the mouths of Mrs. Aristotle and her friends, but if he consistently saw fewer teeth that would hardly have been implausible given what we know about diet, calcium deficiency, and tooth loss.

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.09.19 Robert Mayhew, The Female in Aristotle's Biology. Reason or Rationalization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Reviewed by Thornton Lockwood, Sacred Heart University

Note that since Aristotle was about as close to an empiricist as you'll find those days, and discovered many exciting things about animals through direct observation, it's unlikely that this mistake was due to not having checked.

comment by MrHen · 2009-08-06T13:48:18.268Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good to know. :)

comment by steven0461 · 2009-07-28T07:32:07.809Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you believe that the religion's beliefs are not true, don't join them!

WikiHow, "How to Avoid Cults That May Try to Convert You"

comment by gwern · 2009-07-17T01:52:17.603Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"For there is no error so crooked, but it hath in it some lines of truth;

Nor is any poison so deadly, that it serveth not some wholesome use."

"Of Truth in Things False", Proverbial Philosophy, Martin Farquhar Tupper

comment by wedrifid · 2009-07-31T23:44:11.951Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The message tempts me, but I have to remind myself that no matter how creative I am with my positive interpretations... sometimes bullshit is just better left as bullshit.

comment by spuckblase · 2009-07-07T13:51:38.751Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Treat infinite descent as a working hypothesis, and since all entities turn out to be composite, supervenient, realized, and governed, it emerges that these attributes cannot be barriers to full citizenship in the republic of being. The macroworld, once regained, is not easily lost, even should real evidence for fundamentality arrive.

-- Jonathan Schaffer, 'Is There a Fundamental Level?'

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-07-07T18:54:53.888Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I googled around for this, and uncovered a rich seam of thought gone mad, including one complete lunatic insisting (in an academic journal, too) that nothing exists but quantum points, which have no relationship whatever to each other (and has also written about the secret rulers of the world in a book that an enthusiastic reviewer describes as more plausible than David Icke). Schaffer doesn't seem to actually take a position on atomism or monism -- here's another paper by him.

None of the material I looked at contained the argument (which convinces me) that the simplest descriptions of reality use complex entities (rocks, people, uranium, etc.), and that all the soul-searching over what really exists is just thought gone wrong.

comment by spuckblase · 2009-07-08T09:06:00.308Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Richard, a few thoughts and questions: what other people and papers did you look at?

IMO, Schaffer is the most interesting philosopher working in metaphysics today. He has a lot of interesting papers on questions of ontological priority and fundamentality. Well worth exploring, and too complicated to discuss in detail here (here's a link to all of his papers:)

In the end, he says, these are largely empirical questions, and that seems just about right. Many of his own argumets are of this sort (i.e., scientists finding ever deeper levels on the one hand, and entanglement on the other). And to me, his positions in the two papers seem largely consistent. There might be no fundamental level AND nonetheless a priority of the whole.

comment by RobinZ · 2009-07-09T03:02:25.239Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This quote is rather unclear - I had to look at the original source to determine what it might mean - and equally importantly, it seems rather useless. Schaffer wants to establish ... something about being real, i guess, by his philosophy, but I don't see how he would expect anything different thereby.

comment by spuckblase · 2009-07-09T08:29:19.593Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is some tendency - or bias, if you wish - on this site to take reductionism for granted. Schaffer might help here. By reading him we might come to expect, with some probability, scientific findings that point to an infinite descent of ontological levels, and so to the failure of reductionism. His other goal is to argue against a stronger form of reductionism that comes easily with the first: eliminativism in regard to, say, qualia, or beliefs.

comment by RobinZ · 2009-07-09T11:50:35.950Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure your (or his) argument actually addresses popular beliefs. Two points:

  1. Reductionism has been proposed not (merely) because it is intuitive, but because it is supported by the evidence. Starting with particle physics, you really can infer chemistry, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, solid mechanics, heat transfer, and so on - and you can make correct predictions about when the assumptions used in the latter will break down. (For example: when the channels of fluid flow are comparable in size to the particles.) This is just as would be the case in a reductionistic universe.

  2. Eliminativism is no more implied by reductionism than amorality. If you think that rainbows don't exist once they've been unweaved, you're making a mistake that has nothing to do with science.

comment by spuckblase · 2009-07-09T12:56:10.843Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure your (or his) argument actually addresses popular beliefs.

I still think it relevant:

ad 1.: that might be so, but it's not all there is to reductionism, at least according to this or that attempt.

ad 2.: that might be so, but it's nonetheless a theory people rather easily catch, along with reductionism. For example: If you take reductionism for granted, and some entity does not easily fit it, then you are seduced into eliminating that entity.

comment by RobinZ · 2009-07-09T13:17:31.956Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Eliezer makes the further claim in those pieces that non-reductionism is based on confusion and doesn't lead to a coherent worldview, but that's not a property of reductionism.

| If you take reductionism for granted, and some entity does not easily fit it, then you are seduced into eliminating that entity.

Are there any actual individuals you have in mind when you make this generalization? To my knowledge, I have never heard of an individual ignoring observed phenomena they could not predict reductively.

comment by spuckblase · 2009-07-09T13:47:30.846Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ok, I wasn't specific enough. I meant mainly that Eliezer also claimed that there is a fundamental level and that there are no funda-mental entities.

Are there any actual individuals you have in mind when you make this generalization? To my knowledge, I have never heard of an individual ignoring observed phenomena they could not predict reductively.

I take it you mean explain reductively? Anyway, behaviourism (and its problems with mental entities) seems the locus classicus. Or what about eliminativists like the churchlands or dennett (for qualia)? Or hartry field for numbers? There must be lots of others.

comment by RobinZ · 2009-07-09T14:50:20.341Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Point taken. Nevertheless, the fact that people draw absurd conclusions from a belief has no bearing on whether that belief should be questioned unless those absurd conclusions are (1) logical, rather than philosophical, inferences, and (2) contrary to evidence. Those conditions do not hold for reductionism (and Dennett, in particular, had a few things to say about "greedy reductionism").

comment by thomblake · 2009-07-09T18:05:08.901Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure what you mean by 'logical, rather than philosophical, inferences'. Aren't most (all?) philosophical inferences logical?

comment by RobinZ · 2009-07-09T18:31:00.590Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A logical inference is inescapable. If the universe is purely deterministic, then everything that happens tomorrow can be predicted from a complete description of the laws of nature and state of the universe at this exact instant - this is a logical inference. But if the universe is purely deterministic, then the people in the universe might be fully responsible for their acts or they might not - philosophers have drawn both inferences, because the deduction depends on additional premises not stated in the syllogism.

Likewise, the inference from reductionism to the conclusion that ordinary things do not exist - what Dennett called "greedy reductionism", and what you^H^H^Hspuckblase (sorry, didn't look at the names!) offered Schaffer's beliefs as an anodyne to - has been argued, but has also been denied, by philosophers. Its validity depends on other premises, such as what it means to exist.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-07-09T10:22:05.676Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

scientific findings that point to an infinite descent of ontological levels, and so to the failure of reductionism.

I don't believe that breaks anything. Tabooing "reductionism", I don't see how infinity of ontological levels (whatever that could mean) is a surprising view. The problem is with mental concepts, thoughts manifested in the rules of the game, a design implemented in terms of the territory happening to also be engraved in its deepest principles.

comment by spuckblase · 2009-07-09T11:48:25.022Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm afraid you sort of lost me after "mental concepts", so the followong might not apply, but: "deepest principles" make no sense in an appropriate (as worked out by schaffer in the paper) account of infinite levels. His idea is that since every level is grounded by AND grounds another level, all entities on all levels are on an equal footing, including mental entities.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-07-09T11:53:31.972Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suspected you might pay attention to that detail. The appropriate generalization just says that you don't expect the same laws to apply at different levels (between levels): a concept in a mind (in a brain, that is a system constructed on top/in terms of lower levels) won't obey the same laws as the lower-level stuff from which the mind is built. There is also a nice antisymmetry here: a mind can look at lower levels and organize its thoughts to model them, but lower levels can't do the same to the thoughts in a mind.

comment by spuckblase · 2009-07-09T13:09:27.788Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suspected you might pay attention to that detail. The appropriate generalization just says that you don't expect the same laws to apply at different levels

What detail? What generalization of what? Is this supposed to be a refutation? If so, of what? Translation needed.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-07-09T13:26:05.797Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry for the confusion. The detail of using the word "deepest" that doesn't apply to the case where there is no bottom, and generalization from systems with a bottom to systems without. It was supposed to be a clarification of the sense in which I consider "mental" entities and what would make them irreducible.

comment by spuckblase · 2009-07-09T13:59:39.160Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the attempt to clarify it for me. Do we actually disagree? Anyway, ill try to do a top-level post tomorrow to shake your (apparent) belief that mental entities need to have non-mental parts.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-07-09T14:28:59.624Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see this whole discussion as royally confused and not worth pursuing unless a much more technical setting is introduced.

comment by arundelo · 2009-07-03T01:36:17.202Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was such a timid and conventional young man that it never occurred to me, not for a second, that I might stay out on the West Coast, arrange to get discharged [from the Navy] there, see something of California and the Northwest, and hear Woody Herman in the process.

John Holt, Never Too Late

comment by aausch · 2009-07-04T02:17:46.338Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don Quixote: Dost not see? A monstrous giant of infamous repute whom I intend to encounter.

Sancho Panza: It's a windmill.

Don Quixote: A giant. Canst thou not see the four great arms whirling at his back?

Sancho Panza: A giant?

Don Quixote: Exactly.

-- Cervantes

comment by RobinZ · 2009-07-11T02:17:24.284Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by aausch · 2009-10-13T02:44:36.832Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems everyone's been aiming at the same meta-level, so I thought I'd try something a bit less direct.

The quote, for me, comments on several common themes around here. Probably the strongest connections I make are to updating of priors based on evidence, and to the issue of communication, when the speakers possess different levels of self awareness and rational thinking ability.

The image is also one of the most recognizable from the book, and I thought it's worth while having it referenced here - though I suppose I should have researched a less oblique quote.

comment by RobinZ · 2009-10-13T02:52:24.011Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can guess at what you're getting at, but it's not really a sufficient quote to support the conclusions. If Don Quixote is good reading on the matter of rationality, that's all to the good, but I can't see it in just these five lines.

comment by wuwei · 2009-07-04T00:29:55.273Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wow, girls suck at math.

-- xkcd webcomic

comment by Z_M_Davis · 2009-07-04T00:58:05.750Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Downvoted for improper use of quotation. The comic is successful because it effectively communicates its message by cleverly juxtaposing two panels that are identical except for the implied sex of one character, and one word in the other character's line. To simply quote the second panel out of context doesn't make any sense at all. Linking to the comic does not redeem this mistake---quotes are supposed to be able to stand on their own. Comics are a visual medium; sometimes, like in this case, they simply aren't quotable.

comment by wuwei · 2009-07-04T01:03:33.226Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the explanations.