Rationality quotes: September 2010

post by Morendil · 2010-09-01T06:53:51.432Z · score: 4 (7 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 157 comments

This is our monthly thread for collecting these little gems and pearls of wisdom, rationality-related quotes you've seen recently, or had stored in your quotesfile for ages, and which might be handy to link to in one of our discussions.

  • 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  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB.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.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Kyre · 2010-09-02T05:41:48.308Z · score: 35 (37 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Comic Quote Minus 37

-- Ryan Armand

Also a favourite.

comment by Nisan · 2010-09-02T18:46:02.717Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

An inexplicably related story.

comment by aleksiL · 2010-09-17T07:45:57.152Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That was beautiful. And funny. I don't think I've ever laughed and cried simultaneously before. Not at the same thing anyway.

Just... wow.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2010-09-17T08:01:18.994Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I printed that out and put it on my bedroom wall at one point.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2010-09-29T01:53:15.009Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There must be ways to make the risk of uFAI similarly salient. Are there psychological tricks that help to consistently process far mode dangers in near mode instead? All of a sudden I wish I'd paid more attention to Hanson's near/far posts. Oh well, there's tons of time.

comment by Rain · 2010-09-09T23:41:25.736Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I cried when I first saw this. Reading the rest of the storyline ruined it for me.

rot13: Gur punenpgre jvgu gur onfronyy ong vf n pncevpvbhf tbq pncnoyr bs qbvat jungrire fur jnagf gb gur havirefr, hc gb naq vapyhqvat qrfgeblvat znwbe pvgvrf jvgu snagnfgvpny perngherf, fgnegvat jnef jvgu nyvra fcrpvrf, perngvat na nsgreyvsr jvgu rgreany gbegher, naq qverpgyl pnhfvat gur qrngu bs rirel uhzna ba rnegu.

comment by TobyBartels · 2010-09-28T19:10:16.754Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's not the end of the story, however. (This is also why the omniscience clause is important in the theodicy argument.)

comment by jsalvatier · 2010-09-03T03:24:02.501Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That brought a tear to my eye.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2010-09-03T20:18:12.677Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is unfortunate I cannot upvote this multiple times. Truly beautiful.

comment by Arbitrarity · 2010-09-03T20:10:47.665Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by gwern · 2010-09-28T16:50:53.554Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As a long standing Minus fan (I have a print on my wall), I've always wondered whether that was a FLCL reference.

comment by Lightwave · 2010-09-02T10:59:12.784Z · score: 33 (33 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When people ask me what philosophy is, I say philosophy is what you do when you don't know what the right questions are yet. Once you get the questions right, then you go answer them, and that's typically not philosophy, that's one science or another. Anywhere in life where you find that people aren't quite sure what the right questions to ask are, what they're doing, then, is philosophy.

-- Daniel Dennett

comment by Rain · 2010-09-03T12:15:26.138Z · score: 29 (31 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Robot: "With all your modern science, are you any closer to understanding the mystery of how a robot walks or talks?"
Farnsworth: "Yes you idiot! The circuit diagram is right in the inside of your case."
Robot: "I choose to believe what I was programmed to believe!"

-- Futurama, The Honking

comment by Morendil · 2010-09-01T06:55:22.825Z · score: 29 (29 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Writing program code is a good way of debugging your thinking.

-- Bill Venables

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-09-01T09:38:01.882Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That seems like the extreme case of "you don't really understand something until you can explain it to somebody else", which I'm sure somebody other than me must have said a long time ago.

comment by gwern · 2010-09-01T13:03:57.498Z · score: 15 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


'116. You think you know when you can learn, are more sure when you can write, even more when you can teach, but certain when you can program.'

"Epigrams in Programming", by Alan J. Perlis; ACM's SIGPLAN publication, September, 1982

comment by Nominull · 2010-09-01T14:34:09.405Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Of course, machine learning algorithms render this obsolete. You don't have to understand something to program it, just have a vague understanding of how that understanding might come about.

comment by gwern · 2010-09-01T15:06:47.996Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Arguably, that's still understanding. 'Now I know that natural language parsing is in this family of parametric functions which my ML algorithm can handle, with the coefficients given by minimizing the divergence from a bazillion word corpus...&etc.'

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-09-01T15:22:40.025Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If that could work, that would be equivalent to having a Level 3 understanding of how to regenerate the required knowledge -- hardly a shortcut!

comment by DanielLC · 2010-09-05T17:42:44.111Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, you have to have a certain understanding of how that understanding might come about.

comment by Morendil · 2010-09-01T10:18:39.762Z · score: 15 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes! I'm happy that at least one person clicks on that.

The software industry is currently held back by a conception of programming-as-manual-labor, consisting of semi-mechanically turning a specification document into executable code. In fact it's much closer to "the art of improving your understanding of some business domain by expressing the details of that domain in a formal notation". The resulting program isn't quite a by-product of that activity - it's important, though not nearly as important as distilling the domain understanding.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-09-02T23:36:13.864Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Programming is the art of figuring out what you want so precisely that you can tell even a machine how to do it.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-09-01T15:18:53.162Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I agree. The real test of AI is not the automation of "formal specification -> working code" -- if the client could formalize it to that level, they could write the code themselves. Rather, the real test is whether an AI could talk to an extroverted MBA, figure out what they want, and then produce the working code. But so far, only humans programmers can do that.

comment by Morendil · 2010-09-01T15:31:31.728Z · score: 15 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And by the same token, we'll know we've nailed AI not when we have written a program that can have that conversation... but when we have written down an account of how we are able to have that conversation, to such a level of detail that there's nothing left to explain.

Writing a program which solves the Towers of Hanoi is not too hard. Proving, given a formalization of the ToH, various properties of a program that solves it, isn't too hard. But looking at a bunch of wooden disks slotted on pegs and coming up with an interpretation of that situation which corresponds to the abstract scheme we know as "Towers of Hanoi"... That's where the fun is.

comment by Theist · 2010-09-02T04:18:43.936Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One can't proceed from the informal to the formal by formal means. Yet.

(Apologies to Alan Perlis etc)

comment by ShardPhoenix · 2010-09-02T04:00:54.542Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

While that's basically true, a significant part of any large program consists of dealing with "accidental complexity" that isn't really part of the "business logic". Of course in many cases that only makes the programming even less mechanical.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-09-01T15:16:23.317Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, and explaining it to a computer (i.e. writing working code) is the hardest version of this test, because it's the closest thing to a blank slate -- you can't rely on anything being "understood" like you would with a person, in which case you can just start from the NePOCU (nearest point of common understanding, learn to live with the acronym).

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2010-09-01T18:53:36.209Z · score: 25 (25 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

We have not solved all your problems. Each answer only led to new questions. We are still confused - but perhaps we are confused on a higher level, and about more important things.

-- seen on a hotel bulletin board

comment by fiddlemath · 2010-09-03T04:14:34.871Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was sure I'd heard that before, so I had to try to track it down. I found this.

comment by Snowyowl · 2010-09-01T19:18:29.175Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This describes the outcome of pretty much every argument I've ever had. Well, except the ones whose outcome was "each party agrees that their opponent is an idiot".

comment by NihilCredo · 2010-09-01T23:38:54.077Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

...while apparently unaware that they may very well be both right.

comment by thomascolthurst · 2010-09-03T23:28:42.486Z · score: 20 (20 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Someone once quoted Shakespeare to the philosopher W. V. O. Quine: "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." To which Quine is said to have responded: "Possibly, but my concern is that there not be more things in my philosophy than are in heaven and earth."

Reported by Chet Raymo

comment by simplicio · 2010-09-04T03:22:30.412Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The perfect reply to that, my least favourite line of Shakespeare.

comment by Kyre · 2010-09-02T05:40:12.917Z · score: 18 (18 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Comic Quote Minus 13

-- Ryan Armand

Sometimes I see something that just seems to hit the bullseye deeply in the centre, and sticks there, quivering.

comment by teageegeepea · 2010-09-02T02:13:29.532Z · score: 18 (22 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've linked to a quote from Daniel Ellsberg at Overcoming Bias, but it seemed relevant enough here to excerpt the bits that caught my eye:

First, you'll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn't, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn't even guess


you will forget there ever was a time when you didn't have it, and you'll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don't....and that all those other people are fools


you'll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information [...] But that takes a while to learn. In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn't have these clearances. Because you'll be thinking as you listen to them: 'What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?' And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening.


You will deal with a person who doesn't have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you'll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You'll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you'll become something like a moron. You'll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.

comment by Randaly · 2010-09-04T03:01:09.229Z · score: 17 (17 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Test Your God.... Test[s] cannot harm a God of Truth, but will destroy fakes. Fake gods refuse test[s]."

~ Dr. Gene Ray

comment by ata · 2010-09-04T03:07:26.728Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Never thought I'd see a quote from Gene Ray in Rationality Quotes, but I guess it's befitting of the Wisest Human!

comment by khafra · 2010-09-04T17:15:19.306Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

With Roger Schlafly popping up as the voice of reason in the open thread, this month's got me asking some serious questions.

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2010-09-01T07:50:13.790Z · score: 17 (21 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.

-G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

comment by katydee · 2010-09-01T23:21:50.813Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This comment is blank.

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2010-09-03T06:21:54.080Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Such as...?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-09T17:05:40.610Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-09-01T07:30:30.204Z · score: 17 (19 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

comment by simplicio · 2010-09-29T13:01:46.837Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yup. Although insofar as opinions may be objectively right, we would be wise not to fetishize originality too much.

comment by James_Miller · 2010-09-01T14:52:25.313Z · score: 16 (16 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Like all dreamers, I confused disenchantment with truth. (Jean-Paul Sartre)

comment by sark · 2010-09-07T03:52:55.293Z · score: 15 (17 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

House: There's never any proof. Five different doctors come up with five different diagnoses based on the same evidence.

Cuddy: You don't have any evidence. And nobody knows anything, huh? How is it you always think you're right?

House: I don't. I just find it hard to operate on the opposite assumption.

comment by ata · 2010-09-05T03:29:48.401Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent, but if we can come to terms with the indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

— Stanley Kubrick

comment by Craig_Heldreth · 2010-09-02T17:59:17.101Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is often said that experiments should be made without preconceived ideas. This is impossible.

--Henri Poincare, Science and Hypothesis.

comment by adsenanim · 2010-09-03T06:00:09.622Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This brings to mind the idea of correlation vs. casualty.

There is the idea that the mind will recognize the combination of multiple sensations as correlation and from that it will develop conceptional reality.

The process of going from correlation to that of causality is one of the process' of science.

Conception, which includes science, is part of the learning process, which should be held as one of the most basic principles of not only human, but of evolutionary process'.

Experimentation requires no preconception,it is part of the evolutionary process' and it happens regardless of the cognitive state.

Preconception is impossible without experimentation.

comment by arch1 · 2010-09-01T20:32:17.244Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A habit of basing convictions upon evidence, and of giving to them only that degree of certainty which the evidence warrants, would, if it became general, cure most of the ills from which the world is suffering. (Bertrand Russell)

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2010-09-02T02:14:36.283Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Did Russell ever provide an argument in favor of this assertion? I am interested in hearing it.

comment by Christian_Szegedy · 2010-09-02T23:08:57.847Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why? Do you agree with him? :)

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2010-09-03T02:11:26.356Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am very uncertain about the truth of the proposition, so I would like to hear arguments in favor of or against it to develop a more informed opinion.

comment by AlanCrowe · 2010-09-03T17:07:01.945Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see lots of ways for Russell's proposal to fail in practice. Whose evidence? If he is suggesting confining yourself to evidence that you have gathered in person, he is proposing an unreasonably tight confinement that will certainly make the world worse. For example running your own double-blind trial of a drug requires that you trust your collaborators, so most of medicine is off limits to those who want evidence that they have seen with their own eyes.

Granting trust in your close associates doesn't get you very far. You are still going to have to read the B.M.J. and trust "evidence" from people that you have never met and against whom you have no prospect of redress.

Right from the start we must read Russell as asking us to get into the habit of basing convictions upon third-party evidence. How then are we to grant only that degree of certainty which the evidence warrants? It is not our evidence. We didn't gather it in person. Clearly it is not just evidence that it at issue but also trust. Who do we trust and why?

I started with a legal perspective; what kind of custody chain conveys remote events to us? Turning to an accounting text book, the key words are relevance and reliability. There is a terrible tension between them. Two examples.

One argument in favour of the 2nd Amendment of the US constitution is that governments go bad and massacre their own citizens. One can read the history of the twentieth century as the story of governments disarming their citizens and then ruling badly; unconstrained, since they need no longer fear revolt. Is this a good argument? It is a coarse grained argument, based on rare events of huge importance. Rare events mired in their own detail and circumstance. There is a strong temptation to look finer grained aspects of the issue. The use of fire arms in ordinary criminal murders is common enough and random enough to permit the deployment of the statistical tools of social science. Many prefer to discuss the issue in terms of guns and murder rates. Looking at events that happen every day instead of looking at events that happen every century gives us reliability, but what price have we paid in relevance?

Meditation involves noticing what your mind is up to. One claims that one is studying the mind. The relevance of the thoughts going through your mind to the thoughts going through your mind is 100%. Excellent! But wait! You are studying introspection. That is only a tiny part of the life of the mind. If you generalise to the mind in toto what becomes of reliability? Is there any reliability left at all?

I hope my two examples don't distract from my broader point. An emphasis on evidence usually results in prioritising reliability over relevance. A habit of basing convictions upon evidence, if it became general, would lead us to take decisions based on irrelevant considerations about which we were certain.

comment by Christian_Szegedy · 2010-09-03T06:07:20.305Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just find it a bit circular that you want evidences for the assertion saying that assertions need evidences.

comment by simplicio · 2010-09-03T17:22:13.023Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Russell is not just saying that beliefs should be proportional to evidence (if anyone on LW disagrees with THAT, I'll be shocked); he's saying that if that were done, it would eliminate most of the world's problems.

If he had said 'many' instead of 'most,' it would be a great quote. Unfortunately there is a huge class of problems that, although they may eventually be solved by rational methods, are not solved just by being rational. Turning everyone rational overnight doesn't automatically cure death, for example. Nor does it remedy the partiality of human utility functions, or cure psychopaths of their psychopathy... et cetera.

comment by Christian_Szegedy · 2010-09-03T18:05:47.011Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You should not take the statement too literally: Look it in a historical context. Probably the biggest problems at Russel's time were wars caused by nationalism and unfair resource allocation due to bad (idealistic/traditionalist) policies.. Average life expectancy was around 40-50 years. I don't think anyone considered e.g. a mortality a problem that can or should be solved. (Neither does over 95% of the people today). Population was much smaller. Earth was also in a much more pristine state than today.

Times have changed. We have more technical issues today, since we can address more issues with technology, plus we are on a general trajectory today, which is ecologically unsustainable if we don't manage to invent and use the right technologies quickly. I think this is the fundamental mistake traditional ecological movements are making: There is no turning back. We either manage to progress rapidly enough to counteract what we broke (and will inevitably break) or our civilization collapses. There is no stopping or turning back, we have already bet our future. Being reasonable would have worked 100 years ago, today we must be very smart as well.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2010-09-03T20:20:32.099Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is not what circular means. If I say, "All claims need supporting evidence," then I am being inconsistent if I cannot provide evidence for that claim. Circular would be, "All claims require evidence. We know this, because without evidence, you cannot make a proper claim."

comment by ata · 2010-09-03T07:16:50.166Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The original quote made a much stronger claim than merely "assertions need evidence".

comment by kodos96 · 2010-09-03T02:31:46.067Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What part of it are you uncertain about? Do you just think that it's overstating things to think that rationality alone can "cure most of the ills from which the world is suffering"? Or are you actually questioning the wisdom of rationality?

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2010-09-03T02:45:48.247Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I might just be suffering from availability bias since I was reading about the French Revolution right before I read the quote, but I was thinking that so much of what we do that is non-rational (not based on explicit reasoning or weighing of evidence) could be adapted to our social environment through memetic evolution. If this was the case, dropping norms of behavior or social institutions simply because we don't have sufficient rational justification for them might prove disastrous.

Does this sound crazy or am I making sense?

comment by AlanCrowe · 2010-09-03T15:44:31.550Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Edmund Burke added lustre to an already high reputation with his Reflections on the Revolution in France published in 1790, in which he predicted that the revolution would lead to terrible disorder and, in time, a military coup.

The general principles that he relied on for his successful prediction are close to what you suggest. Indeed your question "Does this sound crazy or am I making sense?" jars somewhat. Your position, Burkean Conservatism, is highly controversial, but the controversy is all the fiercer because Burkean Conservatism is acknowledged to be a respectable position on matters of great importance.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-09-03T15:51:29.060Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Burkean conservatism seems to be different in critical ways from Phil Goetz's "Reason as memetic immune system disorder", in ways I can't quite articulate yet. Or at least, this is another case of, "Well, [Burke], it would have been a lot more convincing if you said it that way!" and another case of me getting angry because of how bad people are at explaining themselves.

Also, I don't think Burke would have liked the view of dominant memes as viruses we've learned immunity from (even after adjusting for the negative connotations of "virus", and Burke not being alive while the term was in common use in English).

comment by RobinZ · 2010-09-03T02:53:13.217Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, that makes sense - PhilGoetz wrote a post on the theme some time back.

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2010-09-03T03:04:52.749Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the link.

comment by fiddlemath · 2010-09-03T04:21:17.259Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It makes a certain sense. On the other hand, a sufficiently powerful rationalist should have some sense of what works well in our social environment, and thus shouldn't be reflexively ignored.

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2010-09-03T05:14:53.822Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

True, which is why I am very uncertain about the quote or my first thoughts about it. Also, I had a vague picture in my mind of an entire society going through the valley of bad rationality at the same time. Needless to say, that would be a very scary (and thankfully very improbable) possible future.

comment by brazzy · 2010-09-01T08:05:25.301Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The art of ignoring is one of the accomplishments of every well-bred girl, so carefully instilled that at last she can even ignore her own thoughts and her own knowledge.

-- H.G. Wells, Ann Veronica

comment by lionhearted · 2010-09-01T10:44:55.560Z · score: 10 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

-- Peter Drucker

comment by ata · 2010-09-01T13:36:50.756Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I disagree. I don't see why doing that which shouldn't be done at all inefficiently wouldn't be even more useless.

Edit: Ah, I see that was already discussed in the May 2009 thread.

comment by lionhearted · 2010-09-01T18:19:47.806Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I disagree. I don't see why doing that which shouldn't be done at all inefficiently wouldn't be even more useless.

I'm not sure of the exact context, but Drucker is primarily a writer on management and business. He wrote a really high number of books outlining management principles, he's considered one of the fathers of the discipline of management.

So to his audience, he's saying "Don't get excited how efficient your card-puncher-tallying system is, when your real goal is high quality output." I think he's reminding people to not get caught up in doing a process well if the process doesn't produce real results.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2010-09-03T20:10:28.142Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.

--T.H. White, The Once and Future King

comment by arch1 · 2010-09-01T20:29:57.424Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death.... Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man. (Bertrand Russell)

comment by Emile · 2010-09-02T08:37:49.995Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death

I don't think that's true. In fact, it sound close to "Well, if those people don't agree with me, it must be because they are afraid of my thoughts!", which is a convenient excuse to ignore other people's opinions, with an implicit ad hominem ("They must be disagreeing with me for irrational reasons!").

If you don't agree with me, you're probably just afraid of my ideas.

comment by JohnDavidBustard · 2010-09-02T16:20:50.380Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the reason you can tell that people are afraid is because they start getting angry at what you have said. The more the discussion occurs the angrier they get. If you're not afraid, the expected response would be interest (why do you think that?) or boredom. Many discussions become angry, so I suggest most discussions are frightening and by extension the thought that caused the discussion in the first place could well be scary all by itself.

comment by DSimon · 2010-09-03T14:11:38.781Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This ignores a third potential reason for people to get angry: They've rationally assessed your idea X but still disagree with it strongly, and also think that if your idea were more widely adopted it would cause lots of disutility. Expressing anger is unlikely to change your mind, but it may help to prevent a third party from taking idea X seriously.

comment by JohnDavidBustard · 2010-09-03T15:39:29.539Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think this is a pretty good reason to be afraid. While you may be slightly psychopathic and are expressing anger for purely manipulative reasons, I would suggest that it is more plausible to say that you are afraid that other people will adopt that view.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-09-04T20:04:53.484Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another theory for why someone might get angry at me when I "express an idea" is that I might think that I'm simply expressing an idea but they could interpret my expressions primarily as an insult.

For example, John, if I suggested that you were "slightly psychopathic" if people get angry at you when you try to express ideas, then I think it would be legitimate for you to get angry with me for insulting you like that. I might use this anger as further evidence of your psychopathy, but that would be kinda silly :-P

Really, if this is what was happening, I think it would involve more failure on my part (failing to communicate without insulting you) than on yours (failing to silently accept my insults while attending to the reasoning hidden behind them).

comment by JohnDavidBustard · 2010-09-05T06:44:43.034Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think this post starts to get to the heart of why ideas are frightening.

At first glance it seems strange to have evolved any mental system that attributes such weight to something (intellectual discussion) that has no immediate survival consequences.

However studies have shown that status (community judgments of different members value) and legitimacy (whether a person has committed an appropriate or socially taboo action) do carry with them significant effects on survival, and in severe cases can last across generations (making them worse than say, being eaten by an animal). This is because status determines who has influence (and may determine if one gets to eat or not), and legitimacy determines whether one is attacked (in a communities eyes, punished) with people being so willing to enforce these ideas that they are willing to suffer in order to maintain them.

In this sense the quote is entirely correct, thought is the most terrifying thing because thought carries with it changes in status and legitimacy rules. The examples in the quote demonstrate the power of thought, highlighting the kind of traditional social defenses thought can destroy.

An insult, is the very name we give to incidents of this fear, the more directly we concentrate on the person speaking the more obvious the association, but fundamentally when thought is most powerful it alters our status and legitimacy values, and so, regardless of how obliquely we make statements, they are always going to be frightening, and thus experienced as an insult.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-09-05T20:57:14.884Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That was a beautiful reply :-D

To push a little more (and much more gently this time) I suspect that you are homing in on a familiar critique of politics rather than ideas themselves (which can sometimes be profitably separated from politics).

I personally have a very hard time remembering situations where ideas themselves seemed to lead to emotional reactions, rather than having ideas expressed in front of an audience, with competitive processes layered in as an inherent part of what's going on. Like, I love having conversations on road trips, because its private and safe and there is room for 90 minutes of undistracted cooperative communication. In my experience, those kind of conversations don't cause people to freak out very much at all, even when the ideas are themselves very "fraught".

According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.

-Jerry Seinfeld

I suspect that beyond a certain point, sanity can only be raised by groups of people who are aware of (and have the skills to manage?) issues like glossophobia. There is a big difference between contexts where people try to induce crazy emotions in someone they are debating (which I was sort of doing by example, in the grandparent and for which I apologize) versus contexts where people are explicitly trying to bring an epistemically "nurturing" environment into being :-)

comment by JohnDavidBustard · 2010-09-07T13:04:47.338Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I’m glad you like it : )

I suppose the question is, to what extent can ideas be separated from social dynamics, such as status and legitimacy, and therefore not carry with them the risk of causing anger and fear.

Well ideas can certainly create positive as well as negative responses. For example, more accurate understanding and the communication of practically useful approaches are often intrinsically enjoyable. As is the communication of experience that might help determine the correct course of action or help avoid problems (i.e. personal stories, news). Provided these don’t threaten our status and legitimacy rules they remain positive and rewarding. They can also serve to validate our choices and serve to bolster our self esteem, or even to reduce the importance of those who threaten our values (satire). These can be viewed as improving our feelings that we have status (value) and legitimacy (goodness), i.e. the opposite of the fear causing uses I mentioned above.

However, ideas can also influence these factors more indirectly. For example, in the entertainment industry the term ‘social currency’ is sometimes used. This is used to describe the value that people place on communicating ideas as a means for establishing relationships (mutually nurturing through making each other feel good) and raising status (being relatively more important because you convey the pleasure of entertainment). A process mirrored here through the karma points. As such it can carry fears associated with threatening those in an alpha position or a conflict in the rules that underlie the status, for example as expressed in the phrase “you’re just saying that to be popular”.

Academics and other creative roles have the added pressure that the continuous generation of ideas is the basis for their livelihood. This is likely to lead to ideas being a major factor in their self esteem, adding an extra intensity to the fears and pleasures associated with having them (perhaps explaining why Bertrand Russell said the quote in the first place).

More significantly, formal ideas, such as proofs can be extremely threatening because they introduce a method of influence that conflicts with many existing status hierarchies. It breaks many people’s sense of legitimacy, to say that anyone can make a formal statement for any reason and yet still determine other people’s actions, or even more significantly, that an opinion of a person can be considered to have no value if a formal statement demonstrates that it is false. Taken to extreme, it could lead to a position where a person had no influence (and thus no status) because they were incapable of ever making a statement that was not proved false. I would suggest it is more common to view the legitimacy of statements as deriving from status (which is why we tend to value quotes the way we do). And also to have status determined by tradition, which in some community’s leads almost all novelty to be treated as illegitimate. Thus reducing conversation to small talk or the repetition of traditional sayings (anything else would be ‘weird’). The power of scientific method (and this site) is in creating a set of traditions that enable novelty to be introduced in a legitimate way, so that these two positions are less likely to conflict (although I suspect they do so quite frequently).

I am in the unfortunate position of enjoying conversations about status and legitimacy, which are almost always fraught with the risks of taboo violation. Not to mention the fact that thinking about status and legitimacy tends to make your values different from those around you, making interactions a lot like walking on thin ice (exhilarating and terrifying) : ).

comment by cousin_it · 2010-09-07T13:22:01.291Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another related LW post: The Nature of Offense.

comment by JohnDavidBustard · 2010-09-07T13:56:14.212Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you, it's such a pleasure to find so many interesting discussions of these ideas.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-09-02T00:48:09.192Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is lovely.

It is not quite my watchword -- I would be a very different person if it were, and I'm not sure I'm prepared for that -- but I can at least look through the window, so to speak, and see the view.

comment by homunq · 2010-09-04T18:10:51.314Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm looking for a Darwin quote I used to have, but lost. It was something about how whenever he encoutered a fact that seemed wrong to him, he immediately noted it down, as such facts are both important and easy to forget.

It's harder to find than you think. It's not on the master list of rationality quotes or any of the top 10 google results for "darwin quotes". And the problem with 19th century thinkers is that their vocabulary is too big, and so Google is crippled against them.

(Edit: good job. I had tried "fact", but not limiting the source. And some other words I attempted - "note", "write", "remember", "forget" - are not there.)

Anyone who upvotes this comment is committing to upvote the person who finds the quote.

comment by simplicio · 2010-09-06T06:20:05.105Z · score: 38 (38 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I had, also, during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.

-From his Autobiography, 1902.

A wonderful quote indeed. Found by guessing that it was biographical or autobiographical (it seemed a little too personal for a scientific treatise) and searching for the word "fact" in the online text of the (very readable) autobiography.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-09-08T02:06:25.730Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I could give an additional upvote for your elaboration of methodology, I would.

comment by Kazuo_Thow · 2010-09-01T15:38:48.458Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ignoring the trees to see the forest doesn't mean that one is more important than the other - it just gives a different perspective.

-- Michael Sipser, Introduction to the Theory of Computation (2nd ed., page 257)

comment by linaresj · 2010-09-01T08:27:35.107Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Be not astonished at new ideas; for it is well known to you that a thing does not therefore cease to be true because it is not accepted by many.

-- Spinoza

comment by James_Miller · 2010-09-01T14:55:06.533Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But not being accepted by many provides some evidence against a thing being true.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-09-02T21:04:50.796Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And being thought of by someone is evidence of the thing being true. And all these evidences are screened off by correct analysis of the thought itself.

comment by Drahflow · 2010-09-03T10:30:27.986Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But some thoughts are both so complex and so irrelevant that a correct analysis of the thought would cost more than an infrequent error about thoughts of this class (costs of necessary meta-analysis included).

comment by wedrifid · 2010-09-03T11:08:17.361Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But some thoughts are both so complex and so irrelevant that a correct analysis of the thought would cost more than an infrequent error about thoughts of this class (costs of necessary meta-analysis included).

Most of what we do here, for example.

comment by Kazuo_Thow · 2010-09-03T15:01:58.272Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How do you get new ideas? That you do by analogy, mostly, and in working with analogy you often make very great errors. It's a great game to try to look at the past, at an unscientific era, look at something there, and say have we got the same thing now, and where is it?

-- Richard Feynman, The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, page 114

comment by Alan · 2010-09-03T03:05:15.092Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If there were a party of those who are not sure they are right, I'd belong to it.

--Albert Camus

comment by homunq · 2010-09-04T18:26:22.829Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Politics is the pursuit of ends (whether they be some ethical goal or simply power itself). Camus's attitude, though appropriate to the seeking of truth, is not appropriate to politics.

In other words, there is a party of those who are not sure they are right, and don't want to make common cause with anybody who is sure they're right. It's the people who don't get involved in politics.

comment by lionhearted · 2010-09-01T08:42:41.640Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

-- Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor

comment by NihilCredo · 2010-09-01T10:51:33.092Z · score: 20 (20 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was about to reply that apparently Marcus Aurelius had never put his hand on a burning stove, but then I remembered that he had probably been taught about Mucius Scaevola about a million times.

comment by lionhearted · 2010-09-01T11:11:02.682Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Huh, I'd never heard of that. Great story. Thanks for sharing -


"I am Gaius Mucius, a citizen of Rome. I came here as an enemy to kill my enemy, and I am as ready to die as I am to kill. We Romans act bravely and, when adversity strikes, we suffer bravely." He also declared that he was one of three hundred other Romans willing to give their own life to kill Porsenna.(Ab Urbe Condita, II.12) Porsenna, fearful and angry, ordered Mucius to be cast into the flames. Mucius stoically accepted this punishment, preempting Porsenna by thrusting his hand into that same fire and giving no sign of pain. Impressed by the youth's courage, Porsenna freed Mucius.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-09-01T07:18:09.570Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.

-- Mark Twain

comment by Drahflow · 2010-09-03T10:34:17.128Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Loyality to petrified opinion has already kept chains from being closed and souls from being trapped.

comment by Bongo · 2010-09-25T21:32:02.053Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Distrust any historical anecdote good enough to have survived on its literary merit.

-- David Friedman

comment by Christian_Szegedy · 2010-09-15T06:51:28.390Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.

Marcus Aurelius

comment by Morendil · 2010-09-05T16:49:04.940Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let’s consider what an economist would do if he wanted to study horses. [...] What would he do? He’d go to his study and think, ‘What would I do if I were a horse?’ And he’d come up with the conclusion that he’d maximize his utility.

-- Ronald Coase, quoting Ely Devons

The longer, less soundbite-y quote is also interesting:

Now what’s wrong with this situation? What’s wrong with economists acting in this sort of way? I’ll tell you a tale about an English economist, Ely Devons. I was at a conference and he said, “Let’s consider what an economist would do if he wanted to study horses.” He said, “What would he do? He’d go to his study and think, ‘What would I do if I were a horse?’ And he’d come up with the conclusion that he’d maximize his utility.” That wouldn’t take us very far if we were interested in horses, but we aren’t really interested in horses at all. What Devons said was, I think, part of the problem, but not the whole of it. I think it’s not really the most important objection – the lack of realism.

What I think is important is that economists don’t study the working of the economic system. That is to say, they don’t think they’re studying any system with all its interrelationships. It is as if a biologist studied the circulation of the blood without the body. It is a pretty gory thought, but it wouldn’t get you anywhere. You wouldn’t be able to discuss the circulation of the blood in a sensible way. And that’s what happens in economics. In fact the economic system is extremely complicated. You have large firms and small firms, differentiated firms and narrowly specialized firms, vertically integrated firms and those single-stage firms; you have in addition non-profit organizations and government entities – and all bound together, all operating to form the total system. But how one part impinges on the other, how they are interrelated, how it actually works – that is not what people study. What is wrong is the failure to look at the system as the object of study.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-09-01T08:12:46.334Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This one is rather long, but I think makes a point worth considering for anyone writing to instruct the public.

One who hopes to effect any good by his writings, must be so pure in his life, that what he proposes for instruction or imitation must be a transcript of his own heart. But general improvement is so little to be anticipated, that almost any attempt which may be made by an individual in his zeal to do good, seems to be lost labour. Those whose character has attained to the greatest perfectness, are at all times the persons most willing and anxious to avail themselves of any hint or suggestion which might tend to improve them in virtue and knowledge, so that what is intended for universal benefit serves but to instruct a very few, and those few the individuals who require it least. Serious works, meant to reform the careless, are read only by those who already are serious, and disposed to assent to what such works set forth. In that case their object, humanly speaking, is in a great measure defeated. It seems hopeless to attempt to infuse a taste for serious reading into the minds of the thoughtless multitude. Write down to the capacity of the weak and slenderly informed, or write up to the taste of the intellectual portion of them; give it cheap, or give it for nothing, it is all the same--a man will not thus be forced or induced to read what you put in print for his especial benefit.

The most powerful means, therefore, of promoting what is good, is by example, and this means is what is in every individual's power. One man only in a thousand, perhaps, can write a book to instruct his neighbours, and his neighbours in their perversity will not read it to be instructed. But every man may be a pattern of living excellence to those around him, and it is impossible but that, in his peculiar sphere, it will have its own weight and efficacy; for no man is insignificant who tries to do his duty--and he that successfully performs his duty, holds, by that very circumstance, a station, and possesses an influence in society, superior to that which can be acquired by any other distinction whatever. But it is only those who propose to themselves the very highest standard, that attain to this distinction. There are many different estimates of what a rationalist's duty is, and society is so constituted, that very false notions are formed of that in which true excellence and greatness consists; besides, many men who are theoretically right are practically wrong--all which detracts from the weight of rational influence upon human society. But however much human opinion may vary, and however inconsistent human practice may be, there is but one right rule; and it is only he who has this rule well defined in his own mind, who can exhibit that preeminence in the rational life which is the noblest distinction to which man can attain. It is deeply to be regretted that they who seek for this preeminence are a very small number compared with the mass of the professedly rational world. But small though the number be, the good which might be effected through their means is incalculable, if they were bound as in solemn compact to discountenance all those vices and habits which the usages of society have established into reputable virtues--thus becoming as it were a band of conspirators against the formless lord of this world and his kingdom--transfusing and extending their principles and influence, till they draw men off from their allegiance to that old tyrant by whom they have been so long willingly enslaved.

The italicised words are where I made some systematic substitutions from the original text, and of course the hyperlink is not in the original. Here's the attribution, rot13'd:

Sebz gur 1842 cersnpr ol Tenpr Jrofgre gb Yrjvf Onlyl'f "Gur Cenpgvpr bs Cvrgl: Qverpgvat n Puevfgvna Ubj gb Jnyx, gung Ur Znl Cyrnfr Tbq" (1611). Jvgu "Puevfgvna" ercynprq ol "engvbany".

Just in case the writer's actual subject would have provoked a reflexive rejection.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-09-01T13:18:17.985Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This one is rather long, but I think makes a point worth considering for anyone writing to instruct the public. I've made a few alterations to the quote (in italics) and rot13'd the attribution, lest the writer's actual subject provoke a reflexive rejection.

This seems to rather have a similar effect, to my mind. Put this notice after the quote, perhaps?

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-09-01T14:11:43.563Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed and so edited.

comment by DanielVarga · 2010-09-04T15:39:33.807Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Von Neumann advised Shannon to use the word “entropy” on the grounds that “Nobody knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.”

Gowers quoting H-T Yau quoting Shannon quoting von Neumann

comment by wnoise · 2010-09-04T16:42:49.084Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, there's also the issue that they're fundamentally the same thing.

comment by DanielVarga · 2010-09-04T17:26:34.900Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is hindsight. In 1948, Shannon and von Neumann were obviously aware of a deep analogy, but nothing more than that. The position you take was made popular by Jaynes only in 1957, nine years later.

comment by wnoise · 2010-09-04T17:43:52.537Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Made popular by, yes. Invented? Not according to Jaynes, who saw it as implicit in the work of Gibbs.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-09-19T05:15:03.208Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I firmly believe that the whole materia medica as now used could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.

  • Oliver Wendel Holmes (1809 - 1894)
comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-09-08T01:47:37.593Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Stand firm for what you believe in, until and unless logic and experience prove you wrong. Remember, when the emperor looks naked, the emperor is naked. The truth and a lie are not sort of the same thing.

-Daria Morgendorffer (from the TV show Daria)

comment by NihilCredo · 2010-09-02T00:47:30.248Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do. (St. Thomas Aquinas)

I find this a very efficient three-step guide to living, provided of course that we interpret "ought to" in a way that is very much not the Angelic Doctor's.

(For the record, he followed up with: The first is taught in the [Nicean] Creed... the second in the Lord's prayer; the third in law. Wish it were so simple.)

comment by arch1 · 2010-09-01T20:42:58.434Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Finally, a third from Russell that I admire chiefly for its unflinching courage. And love him or hate him, you've got to admit - the guy had a way with words:

"That man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

"Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding dispair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built."

comment by Apprentice · 2010-09-01T22:32:11.156Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I'll repurpose a recent quote here: Personally, this is not the first time I've heard about the Serious Philosophical Issues posed by the death of the solar system, and my attitude has always been that I'm willing to grapple with those issues for as many centuries as it takes.

I find worries about the heat death of the universe almost as comically premature. Ping me about heat death in a million years - if it still looks like a problem at that point, then I'm willing to consider it an issue. "But you probably won't be alive in a million years!" Well, then there's even less reason for me to worry about this.

Edit: I don't disagree that Russell knew how to turn a phrase - I find the sentence Kazuo quoted especially appealing, the words "a universe in ruins" are evocative. (And thanks for digging up the link, KT.)

comment by arch1 · 2010-09-01T23:57:45.246Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Apprentice, You appear to be of like mind with - ironically, Russell himself (I'm not a Russell fanatic, really I'm not: - though I clearly find him a vein worth mining deeply on this particular topic:-). From 'Why I Am Not A Christian,' a 1927 talk to the National Secular Society in London (on a day on which I suppose his stomach was feeling better):

" I am told that that sort of view [of the earth eventually becoming cold, dead and lifeless] is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that, they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries about much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out -- at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation -- it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things."

I pledge NO MORE Russell quotes for the remainder of the day. Pacific Time.

comment by Kazuo_Thow · 2010-09-01T22:55:52.072Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

... the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins ...

Eh... "inevitably" is one of those words that takes a very high degree of confidence to use correctly - a degree of confidence we really don't have with current cosmology, if the simulation hypothesis is true.

(By the way, here's the quote from last month's thread which Apprentice was repurposing.)

comment by arch1 · 2010-09-01T23:45:39.153Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Kazuo, I agree; given our current knowledge that quote is open to criticism on several points of fact (most obviously its focus on the solar system rather than whatever passes for the universe these days). That's why I said I admire it mainly for its courage and style.

comment by Mark_Eichenlaub · 2010-09-01T18:05:59.736Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"The things with which we concern ourselves in science appear in myriad forms, and with a multitude of attributes. For example, if we stand on the shore and look at the sea, we see the water, the waves breaking, the foam, the sloshing motion of the water, the sounds, the air, the winds and the clouds, the sun and the blue sky, and light; there is sand and there are rocks of various hardness and permanence, color and texture. There are animals and seaweed, hunger and disease, and the observer on the beach; there may be even happiness and thought. Any other spot in nature has a similar variety of things and influences. It is always as complicated as that, no matter where it is. Curiosity demands that we ask questions, that we try to put things together and try to understand this multitude of aspects as perhaps resulting from the action of a relatively small number of elemental things and forces acting in an infinite variety of combinations."

Richard Feynman "The Feynman Lectures on Physics", section 2-1

comment by James_Miller · 2010-09-01T14:50:25.737Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Things are entirely what they appear to be and behind them... there is nothing. (Jean-Paul Sartre)

comment by simplicio · 2010-09-29T21:42:55.244Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nothing else, or "nothingness?"

comment by DaveX · 2010-09-07T18:55:32.670Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Hence our truth is the intersection of independent lies."

-- Richard Levins, "The Strategy of Model Building in Population Biology" American Scientist, V. 54, No 4, Dec 1966, pp421-430.

It is part of this paragraph on p. 423:

"Therefore, we attempt to treat the same problem with several alternative models each with different simplifications but with a common biological assumption. Then, if these models, despite their different assumptions, lead to similar results we have what we can call a robust theorem which is relatively free of the details of the model. Hence our truth is the intersection of independent lies."

comment by [deleted] · 2010-09-05T13:40:01.041Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by Perplexed · 2010-09-05T15:49:21.311Z · score: 3 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Closely related:

The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters.

--G. Khan

comment by James_K · 2010-09-06T07:29:08.432Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

G. Khan? That's the first time I've seen a title abbreviated that way.

It is a good quote in a "rationality is about winning" sort of way. Such a shame is definition of winning was so negative sum.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-09-06T16:22:56.289Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is it permissible to assert that rationality is about winning? Hume might argue that "winning" is about ends, whereas "rationality" is about means.

Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

-- D. Hume

However, it is sometimes argued that the word "rational" can be applied to ends, as well as means.

[M]ost preference logicians hold that any logic suitable to this purpose must assume that all rational preference orderings are transitive.

--M. Phipps in "Must Rational Preferences Be Transitive?"

It appears that Mr. Khan's expressed preferences are very likely transitive, but it is difficult to see how this could be argued regarding Mr. Bagehot's preferences. Unlike Mr Khan, Mr Bagehot makes his own desires dependent upon the expressed opinions of those around him.

comment by James_K · 2010-09-07T05:40:50.919Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Eliezer advocates the "rationality is about winning" position, as timtyler note sin his reply to you.

And this is actually a Humean point. The idea is that passion is about what you want i.e. want qualifies as winning and rationality is about getting what you want i.e. how to go about winning.

As for Mr Bagehot's preference set, it's true that transitivity is a necessary condition for rationality because an agent with intransitive preferences has no coherent utility function.

However, I don't think that's an issue here. Bagehot's preferences are dependant on others, but that doesn't make them intransitive. I fact there's no way to test for intransitivity with fewer than three alternatives to choose from.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-09-17T08:30:47.572Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is it permissible to assert that rationality is about winning? Hume might argue that "winning" is about ends, whereas "rationality" is about means.

You're right. And the "rationalist win" slogan gets annoying for that reason - a good point but not technically correct. There's something along the lines of 'most likely' or 'maximise' that is missing.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-09-17T08:29:34.269Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Unlike Mr Khan, Mr Bagehot makes his own desires dependent upon the expressed opinions of those around him.

Wow. I've never comparison to Gengis Khan used as a way to make someone sound fickle. :)

comment by Will_Sawin · 2010-09-06T19:16:36.323Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Untrue. Bagehot desires pleasure, and pleasure is dependent on the opinions of those around him. This is consistent.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-09-05T16:08:50.221Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by Perplexed · 2010-09-05T16:24:34.978Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, I don't think it is that closely related. Bagehot seems like a more constructive type, as his time and place predicts.


It is good to be without vices, but it is not good to be without temptations.

--W. Bagehot

Well, maybe. He advocates doing the supposed impossible, while merely daydreaming about the forbidden.

comment by timtyler · 2010-09-05T16:00:05.467Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is where Conan got his idea about "what is best in life" from.

comment by simplicio · 2010-09-06T06:10:09.793Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Clearly wrong, according to Cohen the Barbarian.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-09-05T16:11:54.966Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That's what's important! ... so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you!

--C. T. Barbarian

comment by Perplexed · 2010-09-04T21:49:44.140Z · score: 3 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won't be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

T. Kaczynski as quoted by R. Kurzweil as quoted in turn by Bill Joy

comment by AlanCrowe · 2010-09-05T21:26:42.887Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Since 1900, perhaps 1800 or even earlier, people have been letting markets make their decisions for them. When the Bolsheviks decided to turn off the markets by bringing the means of production and exchange into common ownership they found that the decisions necessary to keep the system running were so complex that human beings were incapable of making them intelligently.

That is Mises Economic calculation argument against socialism. Perhaps Mises argument is wrong. Free markets and private property offer a system that is roughly incentive compatible. Perhaps the real issue is that we do not know how to design a burearocracy in which the incentives of the bureaucrats are sufficiently aligned with the over-arching goal. Whatever. My main point is that people only make decisions locally and have never been in charge in the sense that quote claims.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-09-05T22:38:18.519Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My main point is that people only make decisions locally and have never been in charge in the sense that quote claims.

Perhaps not, but in the past, whenever folks have become too dissatisfied with the non-local decisions being made on their behalf, they have always managed to find some scapegoat to put up against the wall and shoot. And that catharsis, while costly, never quite reached the level of stupidity of a collective suicide.

I almost agree with the Unibomber here. I hope we never become so dependent on our technology that we simply can't find our way back.

comment by thomascolthurst · 2010-09-03T23:32:28.667Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perfect descriptions of reality are unattainable, unnecessary, and too costly for learning organisms, including humans. But workable descriptions are indispensable. So knowledge systems, like maps, are a complex blend of realism, flexibility, usefulness, and inspiration.

-- David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History

comment by Bongo · 2010-09-22T04:15:33.297Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are two ways of holding beliefs in one’s mind. Holding a belief may be experienced ... as plain awareness of a fact, without awareness of reasons to take it to be a fact. So are held most of our ordinary beliefs. ...

Other beliefs I hold because I also believe there is a good reason to hold them. ... we entertain them together with the reasons we have to accept them.

-- Dan Sperber (emphasis mine)

comment by DanielVarga · 2010-09-20T19:34:07.997Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Consciousness is overrated. What we call consciousness now is a very imperfect summary in one part of the brain of what the rest is doing.

-- Marvin Minsky

comment by NihilCredo · 2010-09-28T23:50:49.522Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can something be "overrated", no matter how bad it is, if we don't have anything better anyway?

comment by [deleted] · 2010-09-09T03:13:00.576Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is usual to distinguish four phases in creation: preparation, incubation, illumination and verification, or working out.... Preparation is largely conscious, and anyhow directed by the conscious. The essential problem has to be stripped of accidentals and brought clearly into view; all relevant knowledge surveyed; possible analogues pondered. It should be kept constantly before the mind during intervals of other work.... Incubation is the work of the subconscious during the waiting time, which may be several years. Illumination, which can happen in a fraction of a second, is the emergence of the creative idea into the conscious. This almost always occurs when the mind is in a state of relaxation and engaged lightly with ordinary matters.... Illumination implies some mysterious rapport between the subconscious and the conscious, otherwise emergence could not happen. What rings the bell at the right moment?

-- Littlewood (The Princeton Companion to Mathematics)

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-09-04T17:31:31.984Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

By now I have established myself as either a recognized authority possessing admirable diligence or a raving fanboy admitting dubious sanity, or just possibly the two are not mutually exclusive.

Noah Falstein

comment by sark · 2010-09-04T17:03:57.742Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

We agree with those whose ideas are at the same degree of confusion as our own.



I prefer the following version, but I don't have the source, so it's from memory:

We call clear those ideas that have the same degree of confusion as our own.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-09-01T13:23:11.052Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Billy [Beane] wasn't one to waste a lot of time worrying about whether he was motivated by a desire to succeed or the pursuit of truth. To his way of thinking the question was academic, since the pursuit of truth was, suddenly, the key to success.

Michael Lewis, Moneyball, Chapter Three ("The Enlightenment").

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-09-23T13:38:36.546Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

An attitude of nonjudgment, patience, and compassion entices clients to let down their defenses in order to get in touch with emotional charges they have been holding in their bodies. If practitioners try to break through the resistances -- to fight with the guardian -- clients are put in a no-win situation. They then have no choice but to fight back or to shut down the part of themselves that is in charge of protection, in which case the results might be catastrophic. The guardian is betrayed by the very part of the self that needs protection, propagating a situation that is already the origin of symptoms a person is experiencing.

--- Healing from Within with Chi Nei Tsung by Gilles Marin.

Chi Nei Tsung is a Taoist system of abdominal massage. In addition to the specific subject, it may be of interest to LW because it's an example of how far careful attention to qualia can go.

In re emotional charges held in the body: Marin might take this farther into metabolism, but here's at least a partial non-woo explanation. Emotions are partly expressed through the muscles. If you are determined to not show an emotion, you have to tighten the muscles used to express it. For example, not laughing or not crying requires tightening your chest and your face.

This is probably no big deal if you're doing it some of the time in some particular situations, but if you believe those emotions may never be shown (or never shown in response to particular thoughts), then the tension becomes stabilized because you never know when those thoughts might happen.

comment by Apprentice · 2010-09-04T00:52:24.157Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Those creatures, which by their original make are so constituted, that their desires and their duty always necessarily coincide, can't, I think, be said to have any claim to a reward: whereas those who are surrounded with difficulty and temptation, and who are obliged to deny themselves and submit to great inconveniences that they may maintain their integrity, if notwithstanding this, they do behave uprightly, seem on this account to have an equitable claim to it.

-- Thomas Bayes

(The first type of entity sounds like a properly designed FAI - there is certainly no need to feed it any rewards, it does what it does because that's what it wants to do. The second type of entity sounds like some sort of UFAI with tacked on 'safety' measures. It might make sense to reward it with some paperclips every day it manages not to destroy humanity. Pretty sure this was not where Bayes was going with this, though.)

comment by katydee · 2010-09-02T02:47:31.071Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If magic is all we've ever known
Then it's easy to miss what really goes on

-Insane Clown Posse, "Miracles." Unfortunately, the rest of the song is garbage (though humorous garbage) and glorifies the exact naive view criticized in these lines.

comment by linaresj · 2010-09-01T08:27:41.120Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Be not astonished at new ideas; for it is well known to you that a thing does not therefore cease to be true because it is not accepted by many.

-- Spinoza

comment by linaresj · 2010-09-01T08:24:44.436Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Sanity is a state in which our component selves love and trust each other, and are prepared to let each other assume control as circumstances demand."

comment by linaresj · 2010-09-01T08:23:22.424Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Sanity is a state in which our component selves love and trust each other, and are prepared to let each other assume control as circumstances demand."

comment by FAWS · 2010-09-01T08:24:13.087Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by linaresj · 2010-09-01T08:31:15.085Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Edited. Sorry, browser was not responding properly due to Java security. Better now.