Rationality Quotes - April 2009

post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-04-18T01:26:13.041Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 144 comments

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 Rune · 2009-04-18T21:00:18.091Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sheldon: "More wrong?" Wrong is an absolute state and not subject to gradation.

Stuart: Of course it is. It's a little wrong to call a tomato a vegetable; it's very wrong to say it's a suspension bridge.

-- The Big Bang Theory

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-04-18T01:28:35.542Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Correlation doesn't imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing 'look over there'.

-- Randall Munroe

Replies from: arundelo
comment by arundelo · 2009-04-18T04:13:21.216Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


(Tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to make that link to http://xkcd.com/about/.)

Replies from: Eliezer_Yudkowsky
comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-04-18T13:26:56.210Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world, and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

-- E. B. White

Replies from: sark
comment by sark · 2010-12-20T15:40:52.418Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah, the investment-or-consumption conundrum.

comment by gjm · 2009-04-19T00:59:34.560Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.


Replies from: pangloss
comment by pangloss · 2009-04-21T01:09:15.835Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is an interesting contrast with Spinoza's view that all ideas enter the mind as beliefs, and that mere apprehension is achieved by diminishing something about the idea believed.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2009-04-21T11:34:30.835Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think it's a contrast. The point is that it takes practice to do the necessary diminishing.

Spinoza was ahead of his time: there's more recent psychological research confirming that when you hear a statement -- even if the context makes it clear that no one is seriously telling you it's true -- the effect is to make you believe it more; and that this effect is stronger if you're having to use more of your brain for some other task at the same time. I forget all the details, but I think there was some discussion of this on Overcoming Bias 6-18 months ago (90% confidence interval).

Replies from: pangloss
comment by pangloss · 2009-04-21T14:26:37.469Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh, that's a good point. I was assuming Aristotle was commending people who could hear it without coming to believe it, but it could easily be that he is commending people who diminish their belief rapidly, and acquire a state of mere apprehension.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-04-18T01:27:08.077Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You cannot improve the world just by being right.

-- Confusion, Why functional programming doesn't catch on

comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2009-04-18T22:00:18.603Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true.

Bertrand Russell, ‘Introduction’, in Sceptical Essays, London, 1928

comment by gjm · 2009-04-19T01:07:40.560Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most things are, in fact, slippery slopes. And if you start backing off from one thing because it's a slippery slope, who knows where you'll stop?

Sean M Burke

comment by Furcas · 2009-04-18T22:11:19.836Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong.

-- Richard Dawkins

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-04-18T22:26:10.439Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One disadvantage of having a little intelligence is that one can invent myths out of his own imagination, and come to believe them. Wild animals, lacking imagination, almost never do disastrously stupid things out of false perceptions of the world about them. But humans create artificial disasters for themselves when their ideology makes them unable to perceive where their own self-interest lies.

-- E.T. Jaynes, Probability Theory as Logic [pdf].

comment by badger · 2009-04-18T23:10:46.334Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We're descended from the indignant, passionate tellers of half truths who in order to convince others, simultaneously convinved themselves. Over generations success had winnowed us out, and with success came our defect, carved deep in the genes like ruts in a cart track—when it didn't suit us we couldn't agree on what was in front of us. Believing is seeing. That's why there are divorces, border disputes and wars, and why this statue of the Virgin Mary weeps blood and that one of Ganesh drinks milk. And that was why metaphysics and scince were such courageous enterprises, such startling inventions, bigger than the wheel, bigger than agriculture, human artifacts set right against the grain of human nature.

-- Ian McEwan, Enduring Love (1998, p. 181)

comment by badger · 2009-04-18T04:48:59.385Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reason means truth, and those who are not governed by it take the chance that someday a sunken fact will rip the bottom out of their boat.

-- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr

Replies from: dlrlw
comment by dlrlw · 2015-05-12T09:01:44.250Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Alas, even those who are governed by reason take the chance that someday a sunken fact will rip the bottom out of their boat.

The odds are only somewhat less for this happening to those governed by reason.

comment by badger · 2009-04-18T04:43:33.679Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The greatest enemy of truth is very often not the lie -- deliberate, contrived, and dishonest -- but the myth -- persistent, pervasive, and unrealistic.

-- John F. Kennedy

(For those interested, I'm pulling most of these quotes from Rational Choice in an Uncertain World by Robyn Dawes, which I just began)

comment by steven0461 · 2009-04-22T13:55:28.463Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear.

--Daniel Dennett

comment by caiuscamargarus · 2009-04-19T00:01:05.996Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ludwig Wittgenstein: Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis?

Elizabeth Anscombe: I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: Well what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?

Replies from: jscn, gwern
comment by jscn · 2009-04-19T01:18:10.560Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you don't know about relative motion and inertia, then it does seem like the sun moves around the earth (even when you know, it still looks that way). Prior to the "Copernican" revolution, it was generally thought that our sense experience of everyday life was sufficient to expose the truth to us. Those two things combined make a major roadblock in establishing that the earth rotates.

Now we can fully appreciate that it doesn't even make sense to make an absolute statement either way. If earth is taken to be stationary, then the sun does move around it (interestingly, this was Tycho Brahe's solution to the problem of shifting to a helio-centric view.)

comment by gwern · 2010-11-23T20:55:00.887Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's a better version of this discussion - Anscombe's reply, for example, is worth quoting: http://lesswrong.com/lw/2p1/a_failure_to_evaluate_returnontime_fallacy/2l29?c=1

comment by gjm · 2009-04-19T01:10:57.932Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Truth emerges much more readily from error than from confusion.

Francis Bacon

comment by dreeves · 2009-04-18T20:12:26.319Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Faced with the choice of changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof." -- John Kenneth Galbraith

Replies from: lukeprog
comment by AndySimpson · 2009-04-18T19:55:05.097Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.

--Aldous Huxley

Replies from: caiuscamargarus
comment by caiuscamargarus · 2009-04-18T23:27:25.995Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.

Philip K. Dick

comment by dreeves · 2009-04-18T19:50:32.770Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Trying to be happy is like trying to build a machine for which the only specification is that it should run noiselessly." -- (unknown)

Replies from: MinibearRex
comment by MinibearRex · 2013-05-08T04:32:50.170Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To try to be happy is to try to build a machine with no other specification than that it shall run noiselessly. -Robert Oppenheimer, 1929

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-04-18T19:39:16.495Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Fifth Law of Decision Making: Decisions are justified by benefits to the organization; they are made by considering benefits to the decision makers." - Archibald Putt

comment by badger · 2009-04-18T04:48:10.843Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We consider ourselves distinguished from the ape by the power of thought. We do not remember that it is like the power of walking in the one-year-old. We think, it is true, but we think so badly that I often feel it would be better if we did not.

-- Bertrand Russell in Faith and Mountains

comment by Theist · 2009-04-21T19:02:24.922Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.

-- Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbors http://www-usr.rider.edu/~suler/zenstory/ritualcat.html

Replies from: thomblake
comment by thomblake · 2009-04-21T19:19:03.719Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Welcome! Don't forget to post on the welcome thread

comment by gjm · 2009-04-19T01:03:39.555Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense.

John McCarthy

comment by Rune · 2009-04-18T18:42:02.921Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Science is interesting and if you don't agree, you can fuck off."

-- Richard Dawkins quoting a former editor of New Scientist magazine.

Replies from: Dojan
comment by Dojan · 2015-01-04T02:14:24.044Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Funny, yes, but rational? Hardly.

comment by Rune · 2009-04-18T18:31:26.589Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"People will then often say, 'But surely it's better to remain an Agnostic just in case?' This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I've been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I think I would choose not to worship him anyway.)" -- Douglas Adams

Replies from: steven0461, infotropism, byrnema
comment by steven0461 · 2009-04-18T19:16:50.791Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.

-- the Agnostic's Prayer, by Roger Zelazny

comment by infotropism · 2009-04-19T00:23:05.151Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth."

God (presumably), Revelation 3:16

comment by byrnema · 2009-04-18T18:39:46.230Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, this is a reasonable rationality quote. However, can we discuss the idea behind it because it's not entirely clear to me.

If the person maintains that there is any possibility -- as indicated by his "just in case", then is he not, necessarily an agnostic? What is so wrong about choosing the correct word? He doesn't believe in God but believes he could be wrong: he's an agnostic atheist.

Q: Am I being down-voted because I'm wrong? Am I beyond help??

Replies from: Furcas, Psychohistorian, Vladimir_Nesov, Psychohistorian
comment by Furcas · 2009-04-18T19:41:19.418Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To say that you're agnostic about something can mean two things: That you're not 100% certain, or that you're (approximately) 50% certain. If you're using the first meaning, nothing you've said is wrong... but it is extremely pedantic. It's true we can't be 100% certain that there is no God, but it's also true that we can't be 100% certain about any of our beliefs except perhaps mathematical truths. Would you go around saying you're agnostic about the possibility that Obama is Satan in disguise, or the possibility that the keyboard in front of you is actually a specimen of an as-of-yet undiscovered species of animals with keyboard-mimicry capabilities? Of course you wouldn't. So why would you bother mentioning your agnosticism about God?

Of course, there are some people who really are agnostic about God, in the second sense of 'agnostic'. They're wrong, but at least they're not being pedantic.

What annoys atheists like me is those who take advantage of the dual meaning of 'agnostic' to make us look like overconfident fools: They'll say that no one can know "with absolute certainty" that God doesn't exist and that it is therefore arrogant to believe that he doesn't exist. To someone who hasn't come to terms with the inherently probabilistic nature of knowledge, this can sound like a convincing argument, but to the rest of us it can be rather infuriating.

Replies from: byrnema
comment by byrnema · 2009-04-18T19:54:49.356Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you. In the future (LW will get this question again) I think a link to this comment would be most helpful.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-04-18T23:01:30.114Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Agnostic," as used here and as criticized by Adams, is most often a weasel word used by atheists who believe atheism necessarily requires a god-hating, Hitchens-esque attitude towards religion and do not identify with that, or who are afraid to admit to their atheism for social reasons, or out of fear that they are wrong and god will punish them (and that calling themselves "agnostics" instead of "atheists" will somehow prevent god from punishing them, the absurdity of which is Adam's point, obviously.

Interestingly, this is not the original meaning of agnostic. A "gnostic" believes that the question "Is there a god?" is discoverable or knowable. An "agnostic" believes that it is unknowable or undiscoverable. Thus, an agnostic atheist is one who does not believe there is a god and believes we can never (fundamentally, not just practically) know if there is one or not. The person you would describe is just an atheist, and probably a gnostic one.

I think the vast majority of the atheists in this community believe they could be wrong, they just assign a very, very low probability to it, particularly with respect to certain specifications of god.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-04-18T22:10:40.306Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Agnostic," as used here and as criticized by Adams, is most often a weasel word used by atheists who believe atheism necessarily requires a god-hating, Hitchens-esque attitude towards religion and do not identify with that, or who are afraid to admit to their atheism for social reasons, or out of fear that they are wrong and god will punish them (and that calling themselves "agnostics" instead of "atheists" will somehow prevent god from punishing them, the absurdity of which is Adam's point, obviously.

Interestingly, this is not the original meaning of agnostic. A "gnostic" believes that the question "Is there a god?" is discoverable or knowable. An "agnostic" believes that it is unknowable or undiscoverable. Thus, an agnostic atheist is one who does not believe there is a god and believes we can never (fundamentally, not just practically) know if there is one or not. The person you would describe is just an atheist, and probably a gnostic one.

I think the vast majority of the atheists in this community believe they could be wrong, they just assign a very, very low probability to it, particularly with respect to certain specifications of god.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-04-18T12:57:56.790Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nothing defines humans better than their willingness to do irrational things in the pursuit of phenomenally unlikely payoffs. This is the principle behind lotteries, dating, and religion.

-- Scott Adams

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-04-18T01:27:52.251Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We learn about who someone is by the choices they make when the choice isn't obvious.

-- Ben Casnocha

comment by Autodidact · 2009-04-25T06:24:09.388Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Information wants to be anthropomorphized. ~ Anonymous

Replies from: ciphergoth
comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-04-25T09:58:19.808Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't anthropomorphize computers. They hate that.

comment by AlanCrowe · 2009-04-20T19:12:47.960Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Over on Hacker News mechanical_fish explains science

I don't believe anything which hasn't been replicated by a skeptic, because people are too trusting and hopeful and are blind to their own mistakes. Frankly, your equipment is probably broken and your students are probably ignorant; I only trust myself. And, come to think of it, I don't even trust me very much -- I should convince my skeptics to replicate my results so that I can believe me.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-04-18T22:39:42.590Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're never aware of your current point of view, only of previous ones.

-- William T. Powers

comment by dreeves · 2009-04-18T20:07:10.261Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"They laughed at Einstein. They laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown." -- Carl Sagan

Replies from: Eliezer_Yudkowsky
comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-04-18T20:45:50.986Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're posting more than five items here.

(But it also looks to me like someone is creating multiple accounts, coming through, and downvoting all recent comments. Other users, please look over recent comments and repair if this is the case.)

Replies from: dreeves, AndySimpson
comment by dreeves · 2009-04-19T00:04:06.202Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mea culpa! Apparently I'm blind. I deleted all but the 5 highest voted quotes I had added.

comment by AndySimpson · 2009-04-18T20:54:13.174Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I get the same sense.

comment by AndySimpson · 2009-04-18T19:50:55.151Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

...natural selection built the brain to survive in the world and only incidentally to understand it at a depth greater than is needed to survive. The proper task of scientists is to diagnose and correct the misalignment.

-E. O. Wilson

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-04-18T19:21:51.576Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"[T]he purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity." - Calvin, Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes"

comment by Rune · 2009-04-18T18:11:00.275Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned." -- Avicenna, Medieval Philosopher

Replies from: thomblake
comment by thomblake · 2009-04-18T20:17:07.459Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This quote is amusing, but it has always made me wonder... if this is a good translation, then did Avicenna really not understand the law of non-contradiction? Because one who denies that p^~p is a contradiction does not necessarily assert that p and ~p are the same.

Replies from: Rune
comment by Rune · 2009-04-18T21:07:11.758Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What does one mean when one denies the truth of ~(p^~p)? I would guess the person means that this statement is not always true, and thus there exists a p for which this statement is false. Which would mean that there is a p for which p and ~p are simultaneously true.

Of course this doesn't mean that the person believes that "to be beaten is the same as not to be beaten", but it's an amusing quote.

comment by badger · 2009-04-18T22:53:33.985Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The fundamental insight triggered by memetic studies is that a belief may spread without necessarily being true or helping the human being holding the belief in any way.

-- Keith Stanovich, The Robot's Rebellion (p. xii)

comment by MichaelGR · 2009-04-18T19:04:05.467Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Protein engineering is often approached as if it were part of biology. Imagine approaching aerospace engineering as if it were part of ornithology: Although the pioneers of human flight learned a lot about wings from birds, if they had waited for success in making artificial feathers and artificial muscle, we’d still be on the ground.

--K. Eric Drexler

comment by infotropism · 2009-04-18T15:50:11.444Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Philosophy easily triumphs over past and future evils. But present ones, prevail over it.

Maxim 22 François de La Rochefoucauld

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-04-18T01:25:42.916Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I worry far more about the "promising" stock market, particularly the "safe" blue chip stocks, than I do about speculative ventures -- the former present invisible risks, the latter offer no surprises since you know how volatile they are and can limit your downside by investing smaller amounts... I am very aggressive when I can gain exposure to positive Black Swans -- when a failure would be of small moment -- and very conservative when I am under threat from a negative Black Swan. I am very aggressive when an error in a model can benefit me, and paranoid when an error can hurt.

-- Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan

comment by pangloss · 2009-04-20T06:19:45.795Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Even in the games of children there are things to interest the greatest mathematician." G.W. Leibniz

comment by Mulciber · 2009-04-20T04:18:59.758Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Dear is Plato, dearer still is truth."


comment by infotropism · 2009-04-18T20:02:02.244Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There will always be a large difference between those who'd ask themselves "why won't things work as they are meant to" and those asking themselves "how could I get them to work". For the moment being, the human world belongs to those who would ask "why". But the future belongs, necessarily, to those who'd ask themselves "how".

Bernard Werber

Replies from: infotropism
comment by dreeves · 2009-04-18T19:42:51.680Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"This isn't right. This isn't even wrong." -- Wolfgang Pauli, on a paper submitted by a physicist colleague

Replies from: infotropism, robertskmiles
comment by infotropism · 2009-04-18T21:43:52.364Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"On two occasions I have been asked [by members of Parliament], 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question."

Charles Babbage

Replies from: SilasBarta
comment by SilasBarta · 2010-06-12T18:42:35.801Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I remember someone on slashdot replied to that quote by saying, basically, If you're a mid-19th century member of Parliament, and you're presented with a machine design you don't understand (and don't expect to), by a respectable person asking for money, but you have a basically non-mysterious view of the world, what kinds of questions can you ask to determine whether the idea is scam? The question Babbage complains about is an excellent one.

If the designer claims it can get the right answers no matter what you've input into the machine, thus relying on reading your mind, you can know it's just a crude attempt at scamming you.

Replies from: Blueberry
comment by Blueberry · 2010-06-12T23:49:43.416Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suspect that's giving mid-19th century members of Parliament way too much credit.

comment by robertskmiles · 2010-05-31T14:03:25.636Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reminds me of this, can't remember where it's from

"That's too confused even to be wrong. Yes, every statement must evaluate to true or false, but that won't even compile."

Replies from: Vladimir_Nesov
comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2010-05-31T14:59:30.883Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, every statement must evaluate to true or false

No, it's false.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2009-04-28T15:39:12.599Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If it were true that every innate predisposition of an organism were the result of some selectional pressure, then I would have to conclude that my dog has been selected for chasing tennis balls.

-- John Searle

Replies from: arundelo
comment by arundelo · 2009-04-28T16:18:24.229Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Voted this up, but of course Searle's dog was selected for chasing things similar enough to tennis balls.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2009-04-21T08:18:20.640Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not exactly a quote, but close enough - http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/1993-02-07/

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-04-18T22:20:00.726Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

-- St. Paul. (Phillipians 4:8)

(Yes, yes, someone who had a major hand in creating Christianity. I know. As context, I first encountered these words in the 1999 "Doomwatch" pilot, where they are spoken at the funeral of Dr Quist, and then googled it.)

comment by AndySimpson · 2009-04-18T19:51:53.318Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Life is short, and truth works far and lives long: let us speak the truth.

--Arthur Schopenhauer

comment by steven0461 · 2009-04-18T19:18:16.183Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reposting from the Open Thread:

From the Profit by "Kehlog Albran":

What lives longer? A Mayfly or a Cyprus tree?

If you answer a Mayfly then you are very perceptive: you realize that in time and space, time is relative and the short life of the Mayfly could be mysteriously longer than the life of the mighty Cyprus.

If you answered a Cyprus then you are unimaginative, but correct.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-04-18T07:24:55.793Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nature understands no jesting. She is always true, always serious, always severe. She is always right, and the errors are always those of man.


comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2009-04-18T22:17:02.036Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In science there are no “depths”; there is surface everywhere[.]

Otto Neurath, ‘The Scientific Conception of the World: the Vienna Circle’, in Marie Neurath and Robert S. Cohen (eds.), Otto Neurath: Empiricism and Sociology, Dordrecht, 1973, p. 306

comment by dreeves · 2009-04-18T19:38:41.989Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"I have no need of that hypothesis." -- Laplace to Napoleon

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-04-18T23:04:30.273Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fifth and last.

Don't learn tricks, learn juggling.

-- Anon

Replies from: RichardKennaway
comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-04-19T08:52:47.353Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As this got voted down, perhaps some commentary is in order. This quote is from a juggling forum a long time ago, and is in fact about juggling. But I also read it as a parallel of the twelfth virtue of rationality.

The juggler's task is to entertain his audience, and if he fails, it is futile for him to protest that he can do many tricks. It is not enough to master many techniques. They must be used to achieve the result that the techniques aim at.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-24T05:45:50.287Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2009-04-18T21:58:30.618Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The man of science, whatever his hopes may be, must lay them aside while he studies nature; and the philosopher, if he is to achieve truth, must do the same. Ethical considerations can only legitimately appear when the truth has been ascertained: they can and should appear as determining our feeling towards the truth, and our manner of ordering our lives in view of the truth, but not as themselves dictating what the truth is to be.

Bertrand Russell, ‘Mysticism and Logic’, in John G. Slater (ed.), The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, London, 1986, vol. 8, p. 33

comment by AndySimpson · 2009-04-18T19:39:23.820Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Before we study Zen, the mountains are mountains and the rivers are rivers. While we are studying Zen, however, the mountains are no longer mountains and the rivers are no longer rivers. But then, when our study of Zen is completed, the mountains are once again mountains and the rivers once again rivers.

-- Buddhist saying

comment by gjm · 2009-04-19T00:58:25.872Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Simplicity does not precede complexity, but follows it.

Alan Perlis (concerning computer programs, but I think the same is commonly true elsewhere)

comment by Rain · 2009-04-18T20:18:21.820Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wish I loved the Human Race; I wish I loved its silly face; I wish I liked the way it walks; I wish I liked the way it talks; And when I'm introduced to one, I wish I thought "What Jolly Fun!"

~Sir Walter A Raleigh

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-04-18T19:33:20.303Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"The First Law of Innovation Management: Management by objectives is no better than the objectives." - Archibald Putt

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-04-18T07:20:47.803Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Nature cannot be fooled."

--Richard Feynman

Replies from: ciphergoth
comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-04-18T09:55:52.393Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's worth including the whole sentence:

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled

comment by Lojban · 2009-04-18T05:26:15.026Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Information wants to be anonymous.


comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2009-04-18T21:59:07.568Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Give to any hypothesis which is worth your while to consider just that degree of credence which the evidence warrants.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, New York, 1945, p. 816

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2009-04-19T02:52:24.128Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion."

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, by David Hume

comment by steven0461 · 2009-04-18T20:17:17.740Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

[God] lives on pain. And He must be starved to death.

-- http://www.necronomi.com/projects/amor/

comment by [deleted] · 2009-04-18T16:19:39.740Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by Z_M_Davis · 2009-04-18T05:39:26.155Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Want to know / How you feel / Want to know / What is real / I want to know / Everything / Everything

--Avril Lavigne

comment by outlawpoet · 2009-04-18T02:45:10.953Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In a manner which matches the fortuity, if not the consequence, of Archimedes' bath and Newton's apple, the [3.6 million year old] fossil footprints were eventually noticed one evening in September 1976 by the paleontologist Andrew Hill, who fell while avoiding a ball of elephant dung hurled at him by the ecologist David Western.

~John Reader, Missing Links: The Hunt for Earliest Man

comment by pangloss · 2009-04-21T01:12:21.002Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Never believe a thing simply because you want it to be true." - Diax

comment by aausch · 2009-04-20T21:18:46.204Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am not looking for intelligent disagreement any longer.... What I am looking for is intelligent agreement. ~ Ayn Rand

comment by UnholySmoke · 2009-04-20T10:55:03.264Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

'The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.'

  • Thomas Jefferson

I had recourse to use this one recently.

Quoting XKCD for cheap points Eliezer - I'll have to pull one of those out next month!

comment by [deleted] · 2009-04-20T06:48:03.564Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We live in a state of uncertainty, not just in Northern Ireland, but by virtue of being human. What I have tried to do over the last decade is to subject my former beliefs to ruthless scrutiny. Instead of searching for ways to confirm my beliefs, I have searched for ways to prove them false. When, after dispassionate examination, you cannot prove your beliefs false, then perhaps you are on the way to discovering some sort of truth.

-- Eamon Collins, terrorist-turned-informer, from his memoir Killing Rage

comment by pangloss · 2009-04-20T06:24:15.223Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason." - David Hume

Note about the selection of this quote: While I am not inclined towards the position that reason is (and ought to be) slave to the passions, I considered this a good quote on the topic of rationality because it concisely presents one of the most fundamental challenges for rationalism as such.

comment by anonym · 2009-04-19T17:25:34.458Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The rationality of our universe is best suggested by the fact that we can discover more about it from any starting point, as if it were a fabric that will unravel from any thread.

George Zebrowski

comment by anonym · 2009-04-19T17:16:31.931Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Trust a witness in all matters in which neither his self-interest, his passions, his prejudices, nor the love of the marvelous is strongly concerned. When they are involved, require corroborative evidence in exact proportion to the contravention of probability by the thing testified.

Thomas Henry Huxley

comment by anonym · 2009-04-19T17:15:25.719Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We define the art of conjecture, or stochastic art, as the art of evaluating as exactly as possible the probabilities of things, so that in our judgments and actions we can always base ourselves on what has been found to be the best, the most appropriate, the most certain, the best advised; this is the only object of the wisdom of the philosopher and the prudence of the statesman.

Jacob Bernoulli

comment by dreeves · 2009-04-18T20:08:14.493Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anthropologist: What's the most important thing to get right when you do a rain dance?

Indian Chief: Timing.

-- Terence Kelly

comment by dreeves · 2009-04-18T19:59:34.181Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Beware of bugs in the above code; I have only proved it correct, not tried it." -- Donald Knuth

comment by dreeves · 2009-04-18T19:48:58.604Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"I don't like spinach and I'm glad I don't because if I liked it I'd eat it, and I just hate it." -- (unknown)

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-04-18T19:38:45.690Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"First Law of Advice: The correct advice to give is the advice that is desired." - Archibald Putt

Replies from: CronoDAS
comment by CronoDAS · 2009-04-18T22:30:59.564Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In context:


Learning to give good advice is so important to technologists that special laws of advice have been developed. The first of these is often stated as follows: "The correct advice is the desired advice." However, this form of the law leaves ambiguous whether the recipient wants correct advice or whether the desired advice is by definition the correct advice. A much clearer and completely unambiguous statement is provided by the following version of the First Law of Advice:

The correct advice to give is the advice that is desired.

A classic example of good advice was given to the mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1920. A major city highway, built on the side of a hill, began sliding, a piece at a time, onto railroad tracks below. With every heavy rain, more mud and parts of the road washed down, causing many of the railroad tracks to be unusable. Efforts to remove the mud to keep all tracks operable had been too slow following some of the more massive mud slides.

Several solutions were offered by local engineering and construction firms and by concerned citizens. One was to pave the entire side of the hill to prevent erosion. Another was to build a metal structure to support the road and protect the tracks. All the suggestions would have been quite expensive, causing thoughtful people to wonder how or if the city could pay for the necessary work. Furthermore, no one knew if any of the proposed ideas would solve the problem.


The mayor knew he needed good advice. Ultimately, he hired G. W. Goethals as a consultant. Goethals had served as chief engineer for the Panama Canal and had considerable experience with landslides. His expertise was evident not only in his experience, but also in his consulting fee of $1,000 per day - an extraordinary sum at that time.

After only one day of study, Goethals was prepared with his advice and with his bill. His advice to the city was simple: "Let it slide."

The opposition party and one of the newspapers made sport of the city administration for paying so much for this advice. The mayor rightly argued that it was a small price to pay to learn that none of the more expensive proposals would work. The mayor chose to follow this most economical advice and permitted the hill to slide.

Whether technically right or wrong, the consultant's advice was the desired advice. It did not involve construction expenses. Furthermore, any other solution would have been under constant attack from engineering and construction firms whose "solutions" had been rejected in favor of the winning contractor. The desired advice was clearly the correct advice.

This classic example also stands up well in terms of the Second Law of Advice:

The desired advice is revealed by the structure of the organization, not by the structure of the technology.

And it also agrees with the Third Law of Advice:

Simple advice is the best advice.

Another classic example of advice that obeys all three laws was the advice given to the vice president of a petroleum company during the 1920s. The company had discovered a major oil deposit of high quality that could be refined economically into gasoline and other products. There was only one problem. The resultant gasoline had a greenish tint. Because all gasoline at that time was clear, like water, the marketing group believed there would be considerable customer resistance to an impure-looking gasoline.

The production manager submitted his proposal for solving the problem. It called for modernization of the refinery. The company's chief chemist objected on the grounds that there was no proof that refinery modifications would result in a better product. Removing the greenish tint was a difficult chemical problem that had defied every attempt at a solution. The chief chemist, therefore, recommended an expanded research program.


Rather than adopting either solution, the vice president wisely turned to an outside consultant for advice. The consultant was a chemical engineer of good reputation in academic circles, who had consulted before in the petroleum industry.

He listened to the proposal of the chief chemist and then to that of the production manager. He talked to engineers and managers at the refinery and to chemists in the laboratory. Then he returned to the university for further study. If he were to recommend more experimental work, the chief chemist would be pleased. On the other hand, a recommendation to modernize the refinery was the desired advice of the production manager.

The important thing for the consultant, however, was to determine what advice was desired by the vice president. The vice president did not want to be responsible for choosing either of the proposals already presented. He wanted to avoid responsibility for any decision that would appear to favor either of his subordinates. If such a decision had to be made, it would be best to attribute the decision to an outsider. This, the consultant discerned, was the real reason why he was hired. Even better for the vice president would be a totally different solution that played no favorites.

After several weeks of additional work, the consultant was ready with a uniquely neutral recommendation - one that required neither research work nor modernization of the refinery. His advice to the vice president was simple: "Advertise the color."

The marketing success of the greenish gasoline and the fact that most gasoline is now artificially colored demonstrate once again that the advice found by studying the structure of the organization - not the structure of technology - is the desired advice. It also substantiates the Third Law. Indeed, simple advice is the best advice.

(The rest of the chapter is not relevant.)

Replies from: Jonnan
comment by Jonnan · 2009-04-23T03:58:08.701Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't . . . get any of that on me please. Ick.

Replies from: Jonnan
comment by Jonnan · 2009-04-23T21:14:58.932Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Really? -4 for not liking a defense of marketing sophistry? One which literally noted "Advertise the color" as a positive virtue?

Sorry, if that's not favoring the darkside, I'm not sure how you're defining 'darkside', and karma around here is way too arbitrary - {G}. I will concede to a bias against marketing as a solution to anything - the marketing textbook I was subjected to in college was the most self-important ego-centric defense of a field I've ever seen - {G}.


comment by billswift · 2009-04-18T17:49:18.048Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The best intelligence test is what we do with our leisure.

    • Dr Laurence J Peter
Replies from: byrnema
comment by byrnema · 2009-04-18T18:12:27.804Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are other comments above that are just as bad (Goethe, Adams, Casnocha whose statements I generally like, Feynman who statements I almost always dislike) but I will pick on this one.

These quotes aren't really about rationality and the awesome power of an effective tool. They're about the smugness of being right. I'd say leave your superiority out of it, and prefer statements that balance the power of the tool with the humility of being human (Russell, Confusion, Munroe, Maxim 22).

Replies from: XFrequentist
comment by XFrequentist · 2009-04-18T18:59:50.282Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool." -- Richard Feynman

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-04-18T01:30:14.147Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The difficult thing here is not, to dig down to the ground; no, it is to recognize the ground that lies before us as the ground.

-- Wittgenstein

comment by pangloss · 2009-04-20T06:10:31.524Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

He that uses his words loosely and unsteadily will either not be minded or not understood. - John Locke

comment by Mulciber · 2009-04-20T05:09:07.360Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"To understand the secret laws and relations of those high faculties of thought by which all beyond the merely perceptive knowledge of the world and of ourselves is attained or matures, is an object which does not stand in need of commendation to a rational mind."

-George Boole

comment by Mulciber · 2009-04-20T04:19:18.135Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"It is curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want."


comment by J_Grim · 2009-04-19T20:37:59.476Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To conquer Chaos one must Learn, To maintain Stability one must Know, The dual struggle can be exhausting. --Donald Kingsbury

comment by anonym · 2009-04-19T17:25:49.619Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Explanations come to an end somewhere.

Ludwig Wittgentstein

comment by Z_M_Davis · 2009-04-19T01:32:24.757Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"I could beg you to do it in order to save me. I could beg you to do it in order to avert a national disaster. But I won't. These may not be valid reasons. There is only one reason: you must say it, because it is true."

--from Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

comment by robsica · 2009-04-18T21:08:30.979Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We never desire passionately what we desire by reason alone.

La Rochefoucauld

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2009-04-19T02:54:25.531Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(In Markdown, you need to use an underscore instead of an or ; see http://daringfireball.net/projects/markdown/syntax#em )

comment by [deleted] · 2009-04-18T10:12:42.394Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: Vladimir_Nesov
comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-04-18T14:35:20.944Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The citation is taken from "Brinkmanship in Business"[pdf]. The cited assertion is actually a mistake, as it presupposes that the right thing to do in the Ultimatum game is to accept any amount offered to you, and never punish the unfair dealer. The whole document is a lesson in Dark Arts.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2009-04-18T15:00:21.378Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: Vladimir_Nesov
comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-04-18T15:23:17.688Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Please taboo "Dark Arts".

I like the phrase. The document is written to profess a mistaken position about how to deceive, and as a result it becomes a deceptive lesson in deception, Dark Side Epistemology incarnate.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2009-04-18T15:58:52.090Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: Vladimir_Nesov
comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-04-18T16:19:06.499Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, he might be right about how people in business react "rationally", and I wouldn't know anything about that.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2009-04-19T09:25:16.200Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: Vladimir_Nesov
comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-04-19T12:12:35.302Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You may give solid advice, accompanying it with ridiculous rationalization. The bottom line is correct, but the reasons you put above it are not. So, in this case, I assume that the practical advice he gives might be reasonable, but the description of why it works is not.

comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2009-05-01T22:23:48.803Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is it decisive after all that we arrive at that view of God, world, and reconciliation which makes us feel most comfortable? Rather, is not the result of his inquiries something wholly indifferent to the true inquirer? Do we after all seek rest, peace, and pleasure in our inquiries? No, only truth—even if it be most abhorrent and ugly.

Friedrich Nietzsche

comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2009-04-18T22:21:09.062Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Engineering should learn from evolution, but never blindly obey it.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, Creating Friendly AI, 2001

comment by dreeves · 2009-04-18T19:56:42.383Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"As far as I know, this computer has never had an undetected error." -- (unknown)

comment by steven0461 · 2009-04-18T19:23:19.281Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

[God] lives on pain. And He must be starved to death.

-- http://www.necronomi.com/projects/amor/

comment by Mulciber · 2009-04-20T04:12:32.592Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting."


comment by dreeves · 2009-04-18T20:10:07.387Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"People are limited in their ability to integrate many different pieces of evidence. Computers are not." -- Daphne Koller

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-04-18T19:44:35.033Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Information wants to be WRONG!" - Sam & Max: Moai Better Blues

comment by dreeves · 2009-04-18T19:55:41.547Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Eat shit. 50 million flies can't be wrong." -- (unknown)

comment by steven0461 · 2009-04-21T14:24:59.643Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

.... I'm as good as that guy called Jesus

I can cure a cripple with a prosthesis

I can walk on water when it freezes...

--- Exit 57, hat tip Anders Sandberg