Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Rationality Quotes January 2010

3 Post author: Zack_M_Davis 07 January 2010 09:36AM

A monthly thread for posting rationality-related quotes you've seen recently (or had stored in your quotesfile for ages).

  • 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  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB.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 (140)

Comment author: Unnamed 08 January 2010 12:48:32AM 27 points [-]

"Most haystacks do not even have a needle."

-- Lorenzo

Comment author: Rain 07 January 2010 11:39:22PM *  27 points [-]

In the wake of such suffering, there is no way to adequately explain the tragedy. Yet the seemingly random nature of the mass deaths has made them even harder for the survivors to understand.

"In a situation like this, it's only natural to want to assign blame," said Dr. Frederick MacDougal of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, who recently lost a third cousin to a degenerative nerve disorder. "But the disturbing thing about this case is that no one factor is at fault. People are dying for such a wide range of reasons--gunshot wounds, black-lung disease, falls down elevator shafts--that we have been unable to isolate any single element as the cause."

"No one simple explanation can encompass the enormous scope of this problem," MacDougal added. "And that's very difficult for most people to process psychologically."

[...]

Meanwhile, as the world continues to grapple with this seemingly unstoppable threat, the deaths--and the sorrow, fear and pain they have wrought--continue.

As Margaret Heller, a volunteer at a clinic in Baltimore put it, "We do everything we can. But for most of the people we try to help, the sad truth is it's only a matter of time."

-- The Onion, Millions and Millions Dead

Related: World Death Rate Holding Steady At 100 Percent

Comment author: MichaelGR 07 January 2010 09:52:09PM 18 points [-]

If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first four sharpening the axe. - Abraham Lincoln

Comment author: Cyan 07 January 2010 09:17:15PM *  16 points [-]

This conception of debate as combat is, in fact, probably the main reason why the Social Text editors fell for my parody. Acting not as intellectuals seeking the truth, but as self-appointed generals in the "Science Wars'', they apparently leapt at the chance to get a "real'' scientist on their "side''. Now, ruing their blunder, they must surely feel a kinship with the Trojans.

But the military metaphor is a mistake; the Social Text editors are not my enemies.

- Alan Sokal (hat tip)

Comment author: MichaelGR 08 January 2010 08:59:15PM 14 points [-]

This problem affects a question close to Frances Kamm’s work: what she calls the Problem of Distance in Morality (PDM). Kamm says that her intuition consistently finds that moral obligations attach to things that are close to us, but not to thinks that are far away. According to her, if we see a child drowning in a pond and there’s a machine nearby which, for a dollar, will scoop him out, we’re morally obligated to give the machine a dollar. But if the machine is here but the scoop and child are on the other side of the globe, we don’t have to put a dollar in the machine. --Aaron Swartz

Comment author: RichardKennaway 09 January 2010 09:39:30AM 13 points [-]

"You cannot understand what a person is saying unless you understand who they are arguing with."

-- Don Symons, quoted by Tooby and Cosmides.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 07 January 2010 09:50:16AM *  13 points [-]

2 + 3 = 5, 3 + 2 = 5, 5 - 2 =3, and 5 - 3 = 2 are not four facts, but four different ways of looking at one fact. Furthermore, that fact is not a fact of arithmetic, to be taken on faith and memorized like nonsense syllables. It is a fact of nature, which children can discover for themselves, and rediscover or verify for themselves as many times as they need or want to.

The fact is this:

***** <--> *** **

If you have before you a group of objects--coins or stones, for example---that looks like the group on the left, then you can make it into two groups that look like the ones on the right. Or--and this is what the two-way arrow means---if you have two groups that look like the ones on the right, you can make them into a group that looks like the one on the left.

This is not a fact of arithmetic, but a fact of nature. It did not become true only when human beings invented arithmetic. It has nothing to do with human beings. It is true all over the universe. One doesn't have to know any arithmetic to discover or verify it. An infant playing with blocks or a dog pawing at sticks might do that operation, though probably neither of them would notice that he had done it; for them, the difference between ***** and *** ** would be a difference that didn't make any difference. Arithmetic began (and begins) when human beings began to notice and think about this and other numerical facts of nature.

----John Holt, Learning All the Time

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 January 2010 11:43:13PM 12 points [-]

If you’ve never broken the bed, you’re not experimenting enough.

-- Miss HT Psych

Comment author: ciphergoth 08 January 2010 01:14:10AM 9 points [-]

Believe me, breaking the bed is a bit more worrying when you're tied to it.

Comment author: Rain 07 January 2010 11:37:36PM 12 points [-]

A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

-- Alexander Pope

Comment author: Rain 07 January 2010 11:34:47PM *  12 points [-]

He must be very ignorant; for he answers every question he is asked.

-- Voltaire

Comment author: Unnamed 07 January 2010 05:33:41PM 12 points [-]

"Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?"

-- attributed to George Carlin

Comment author: RichardKennaway 12 January 2010 12:17:17PM 10 points [-]

"If I were wrong, then one would have been enough."

Einstein's reported response to the pamphlet "One Hundred Authors Against Einstein."

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 11 January 2010 11:48:19AM 10 points [-]

Mathematical folklore contains a story about how Acta Quandalia published a paper proving that all partially uniform k-quandles had the Cosell property, and then a few months later published another paper proving that no partially uniform k-quandles had the Cosell property. And in fact, goes the story, both theorems were quite true, which put a sudden end to the investigation of partially uniform k-quandles.

-- Mark Jason Dominus

Comment author: komponisto 11 January 2010 12:00:13PM 4 points [-]

This sounds like a funny "blooper" story, but could just as well be an entirely normal history of the solution to an important problem. Many important theorems are proved by contradiction, and for all we know, the question of the existence of partially uniform k-quandles could have been a difficult unsolved problem.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 11 January 2010 01:21:19PM 6 points [-]

There is a similar story -- whether true or not I don't know -- told at Oxford about Cambridge and at Cambridge about Oxford. Someone wrote a thesis on anti-metric spaces, which are like metric spaces, except that the triangle inequality is the other way round. He proved all sorts of interesting facts about them, but at the viva, the external examiner pointed out that there are only two anti-metric spaces: the empty set and the one-point set.

It is recounted that the student passed, but his supervisor was criticised for not having picked up on this earlier.

Comment author: komponisto 11 January 2010 01:57:41PM *  4 points [-]

Likewise there's the story about the Princeton student defending his thesis on the set of real functions that satisfy the Lipschitz condition for every positive constant C, and being asked by an examiner to compute the derivative of such a function...

My point having been, of course, that the k-quandle story is not (necessarily) of this type.

Comment author: ciphergoth 11 January 2010 03:48:46PM *  2 points [-]

I don't think you need to do anything as sophisticated as computing the derivative to prove that the only such functions are constant functions. Consider any distinct x_1, x_2. d(x_1, x_2) is nonzero by the definition of metric spaces. If d(f(x_1), f(x_2)) were nonzero, there would be a K small enough for the condition to be violated; therefore it must be zero for all x_1, x_2.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 23 January 2010 08:58:54PM 5 points [-]

The humor of asking the student to compute the derivative is that one imagines the student confidently starting to answer the question, until a dawning horror rises on the student's face as the implications of the answer become evident.

Comment author: ciphergoth 11 January 2010 01:56:31PM 0 points [-]

I... don't mathematicians usually have more than one interesting example of a mathematical object before they decide to study it?

Comment author: JoshuaZ 20 February 2011 04:19:40AM *  1 point [-]

Generally yes. But not always. Sometimes there's only a single such object. For example, there's a largest sporadic simple group. It is a very interesting object. But there's only one of it.

To use a slightly less silly example, up to isomorphism there's only one ordered complete archimedean field. We call it R and we care a lot about it.

Also, sometimes you lack enough data to know if there are other examples of what you care about. But yes, you should generally try to figure out if a non-trivial example exists before you start studying it.

Comment author: komponisto 11 January 2010 02:02:21PM 1 point [-]

Not when the question is whether any examples exist!

Comment author: ciphergoth 11 January 2010 05:54:08PM 1 point [-]

OK, but it takes two minutes to prove that an anti-metric space with more than one point can't exist. If x != y, then d(x, y) + d(y, x) > d(x, x).

Unless you allow negative distances, in which case an anti-metric space is just a mirror image of a metric space.

Comment author: roystgnr 20 February 2011 04:11:43AM 0 points [-]

Non-Euclidean geometries? IIRC the questions of "what can you still/now prove with this one postulate removed" were studied for centuries before hyperbolic or elliptic geometries were really understood.

Or maybe I'm misremembering. That always did seem odd to me. I guess hyperbolic geometries can't be isometrically embedded in R^3, which makes them hard to intuitively comprehend. But the educated classes have known the Earth was a sphere for millennia; surely somebody noticed that this was an example of an otherwise well-behaved geometry where straight lines always intersect.

Comment author: [deleted] 24 May 2011 06:57:23PM 0 points [-]

The fact that they didn't notice that Earth is an example of a non-Euclidean geometry is especially ironic when you consider the etymology of "geometry".

Comment author: Rain 07 January 2010 11:35:45PM 10 points [-]

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

-- Carl Sagan

Comment author: MichaelGR 07 January 2010 09:51:45PM 9 points [-]

I argue that people are primarily driven by envy as opposed to greed, so they are mindful of their relative, as opposed to absolute, position, and this leads to doing what others are doing as a mechanism of minimizing risk. --Eric Falkenstein

Comment author: Nic_Smith 07 January 2010 08:33:32PM 9 points [-]

"It is therefore highly illogical to speak of 'verifying' (3.8 [the Bernoulli urn equation]) by performing experiments with the urn; that would be like trying to verify a boy's love for his dog by performing experiments on the dog." - E.T. Jaynes, Probability Theory

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 11 January 2010 11:31:02AM 8 points [-]

What's wrong with identifying with sports teams

A very funny video comparing identifying with a team to assuming you were there in your favorite movies.

Comment author: Matt_Duing 08 January 2010 11:38:26PM *  8 points [-]

"Do not ask permission to understand. Do not wait for the word of authority. Seize reason in your own hand. With your own teeth savor the fruit."

-"The Way of Analysis", Robert S. Strichartz

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 January 2010 11:57:26PM 8 points [-]

You're always in a box. Being aware of the box can help you tremendously. It's when you think that you've left the box that's dangerous, because you're still in the box, but now you don't know it.

-- Nazgulnarsil

Comment author: FAWS 10 January 2010 03:25:40PM *  7 points [-]

"I once spent a whole day in thought, but it was not so valuable as a moment in study. I once stood on my tiptoes to look out into the distance, but it was not so effective as climbing up to a high place for a broader vista. Climbing to a height and waving your arm does not cause the arm's length to increase, but your wave can be seen farther away. Shouting downwind does not increase the tenseness of the sound, but it is heard more distinctly. A man who borrows a horse and carriage does not improve his feet, but he can extend his travels 1,000 li [~500km] A man who borrows a boat and paddles does not gain any new ability in water, but he can cut across rivers and seas. The gentleman by birth is not different from other men; he is just good at "borrowing" the use of external things."

-- Xunzi, An Exhortation to Learning (勸學) 4, translated by John Knoblock in "Xunzi: A Translation and study of the Complete Works"

Comment author: Rain 07 January 2010 11:35:26PM 7 points [-]

No effect is ever the effect of a single cause, but only a combination of causes.

-- Herbert Samuel

Comment author: JohannesDahlstrom 07 January 2010 10:05:35PM *  7 points [-]

Matter flows from place to place

And momentarily comes together to be you

Some people find that thought disturbing

I find the reality thrilling

—Richard Dawkins quoted in Our Place in the Cosmos

Comment author: Unnamed 07 January 2010 05:38:01PM 7 points [-]

"The most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted."

-- Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

Comment author: ABranco 09 January 2010 02:42:32PM 6 points [-]

Don't go around saying the world owes you a living; the world owes you nothing; it was here first. —Mark Twain

Comment author: RichardKennaway 09 January 2010 09:32:48AM 6 points [-]

"With my eyes I can see you. With your eyes I can see myself."

K. Bradford Brown

Comment author: quanticle 11 January 2010 03:54:57AM 5 points [-]

A theory, however elegant and economical, must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.

-- John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

Comment author: RichardKennaway 09 January 2010 09:37:06AM 5 points [-]

"I'd rather do what I want to do than what would give me the most happiness, even if I knew for a fact exactly what actions would lead to the latter."

Keith Lynch, rec.arts.sf.fandom, <hhbk90$hu5$3@reader1.panix.com>

Comment author: James_K 08 January 2010 04:37:42AM *  5 points [-]

There is a perception among the people who are in charge of this monkey that if you just turn the rankings over to a computer, the computer will figure those things out. The reality is that it can't. It is very difficult to objectively measure anything if you don't know what it is you are measuring.

~ Bill James

Comment author: gaffa 07 January 2010 01:49:18PM 5 points [-]

He thought he knew that there was no point in heading any further in that direction, and, as Socrates never tired of pointing out, thinking that you know when you don't is the main cause of philosophical paralysis.

-- Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Comment author: jscn 07 January 2010 11:01:52PM 7 points [-]

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

-- Mark Twain

Clearly Dennett has his sources all mixed up.

Comment author: Cyan 07 January 2010 04:29:33PM 5 points [-]

Just out of curiosity, who is being discussed, and what direction did he discount?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 January 2010 12:00:43AM 11 points [-]

Nobody wants to die. They just want the pain to stop.

-- Tetragrammaton

Comment author: ABranco 09 January 2010 02:44:39PM 4 points [-]

The absence of alternatives clarifies your mind marvelously. —Kissinger

Comment author: Nic_Smith 07 January 2010 08:39:18PM *  4 points [-]

"Psychologists tell us everyone automatically gravitates toward that which is pleasurable and pulls away from that which is painful. For many people, thinking is painful." - Leil Lowndes, How to Talk to Anyone

(Given the context, perhaps a bit of a Dark Arts view.)

Comment author: gwern 07 January 2010 09:43:18PM 3 points [-]

"[T]he rule is irrational; for it involves the assumption that wherever A's scribes made a mistake they produced an impossible reading.
Three minutes' thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and 3 minutes is a long time."

--A.E Housman, Juvenal (1905), xi

Comment author: gwern 07 January 2010 09:42:35PM 2 points [-]
 "Could man be drunk forever
With liquor, love, or fights,
Lief should I rouse at morning
And lief lie down of nights.
But men at whiles are sober
And think by fits and starts,
And if they think, they fasten
Their hands upon their hearts."

--A.E. Housman, Last Poems 10

Comment author: MatthewB 07 January 2010 02:06:09PM *  10 points [-]

People will torture their children with battery acid from time to time anyway -- and who among us hasn't wanted to kill and eat an albino? I sincerely hope that my "new atheist" colleagues are not so naive as to imagine that actual belief in magic might be the issue here. After all, it would be absurd to criticize witchcraft as unscientific, as this would ignore the primordial division between mythos and logos. Let me see if I have this straight: Belief in demons, the evil eye, and the medicinal value of a cannibal feast are perversions of the real witchcraft - -which is drenched with meaning, intrinsically wholesome, integral to our humanity, and here to stay. Do I have that right?

Sam Harris's reply to Karen Armstrong

Comment author: ciphergoth 07 January 2010 03:47:03PM 3 points [-]

Armstrong's reply is nothing but chiding Harris for being rude, and waffle. Returning to the "niceness" discussion, it strikes me that if Harris had made the same points with a straight face and without sarcasm, Armstrong would have been left with nothing but waffle.

Comment author: topynate 07 January 2010 04:06:38PM *  4 points [-]

He absolutely gave her something to use against him by being sarcastic in a public forum, but I think he made a rational decision that an interesting dialogue in which he could be called snide would catch much more attention than the dull one in which he makes a polite, logically airtight case and receives a shorter reply full of nothing much.

Edit: Oh, I was going to add: and I now know a lot more about Armstrong than I would otherwise, namely, that her argumentative approach is deceitful and based on manipulating her audience's moral feelings.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 08 January 2010 12:11:12PM 2 points [-]

I'm not sure Armstrong's reply is so bad as all that-- it's legitimate to point out that there's a difference between doing science and using the reputation of science as an excuse to commit atrocities, as in Communism and Nazism.

Comment author: MatthewB 07 January 2010 03:59:59PM 2 points [-]

Armstrong's reply was not up when I first read the article. I am glad you brought that to my attention.

I am stunned at her reply. She completely missed the point that Harris was making (not surprising, I have known some pretty smart people who were caught flat-footed by the philosophical tool of object replacement). That she did not catch the comparison of witchcraft in Africa as a form of religious practice is... well, stunning.

Yes, Karen, what we need to do with Theologists such as William Lane Craig, who whole-heartedly defends the genocidal acts of his God in the old testament, is to have their theology enriched by rationalizing of those atrocities rather than have them understand why they do not stand up to a rational criticism.

Comment author: Blueberry 09 January 2010 09:43:09AM 0 points [-]

I have known some pretty smart people who were caught flat-footed by the philosophical tool of object replacement

Can you elaborate? What is the tool of "object replacement"?

Comment author: MatthewB 09 January 2010 10:51:01AM 2 points [-]

It is essentially what Harris did in the article. He replaced the noun objects of Armstrong's point with other, analogous/isomorphic objects to illustrate that the point being made did not have the merit that Armstrong thought it did.

I'll see about looking up the term as it applies to Propositional Logic. It's a more widely recognized term (at least here).

Comment author: Furcas 07 January 2010 05:49:54PM 0 points [-]

Yeah, but waffle is all Armstrong ever writes when she puts her theologian hat on, and it doesn't seem to bother her fans in the slightest. Using sarcasm allowed Harris to point out the ridiculousness in her article without giving the impression that it was sane enough to deserve a respectful reply.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 07 January 2010 06:37:06PM *  3 points [-]

To "point out" means to induce others to see what you see. Do you think that Harris's approach reliably induces people who don't already agree with him to see the ridiculousness that he sees? I suspect that he accomplishes little more than signaling his tribal loyalties, while exacerbating antipathy towards his tribe by non-tribe-members.

Comment author: Furcas 07 January 2010 06:44:26PM 0 points [-]

To "point out" means to induce others to see what you see. Do you think that Harris's approach reliably induces people who don't already agree with him to see the ridiculousness that he sees?

Since the people he has to convince are religious believers, I think his approach is about as reliable as the 'nice' approach, which is to say it's almost completely worthless. However, it has other benefits that the nice approach doesn't have.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 07 January 2010 06:52:20PM *  1 point [-]

Unless I'm reading you wrong, those "other benefits" amount to no more than signaling tribal loyalties, at least in practical terms.

ETA: . . . and if that kind of behavior helps a tribe to grow, it does so for non-truth-tracking reasons, producing a tribe full of people who are there just because they like the company.

Comment author: Furcas 07 January 2010 07:09:33PM 2 points [-]

The benefit is to help other non-believers (and perhaps a few believers) realize that Armstrong's article (and defense of religion in general) doesn't fit into the category of "Respectable beliefs I disagree with", it fits into the category of "Intellectually dishonest nonsense that should be scorned and ridiculed".

It's a benefit closely related to breaking the taboo that protects religious beliefs and raising the sanity waterline.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 07 January 2010 07:25:15PM *  3 points [-]

The benefit is to help other non-believers (and perhaps a few believers) realize that Armstrong's article (and defense of religion in general) doesn't fit into the category of "Respectable beliefs I disagree with", it fits into the category of "Intellectually dishonest nonsense that should be scorned and ridiculed".

If the benefit of scorn and ridicule is just to inform others about what to scorn and ridicule, then I don't see the point. Scorn and ridicule aren't terminal values.

It's a benefit closely related to breaking the taboo that protects religious beliefs and raising the sanity waterline.

That would be true if the ability to deride were a reliable signal of sanity. But derision is cheap; it's a tool that is equally available to the insane.

Comment author: Furcas 07 January 2010 08:49:22PM *  9 points [-]

One of the things that keep religion alive in western society in the 21st century is the dogma, widespread even among atheists, that even if religious beliefs are false they're sane enough to deserve respect. In other words, most non-believers treat mainstream religious beliefs as if they were like the belief that the Washington Redskins are going to win the 2010 Superbowl rather than like the belief that Tom Cruise is the son of Xenu, Lord of the Galactic Confederacy.

The first step towards a society in which ridiculous beliefs are acknowledged to be ridiculous, is to stop acting as if these beliefs aren't ridiculous. The point of ridicule is first to make those who hold ridiculous beliefs feel ashamed or at least uncomfortable, and second to help make rationalists feel the appropriate emotion when dealing with such extremes of irrationality. The end goal is a society in which people have the same attitude towards religious beliefs than they do towards belief in alien abductions.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 09 January 2010 08:40:20AM 5 points [-]

I'm dubious of militant atheism, as it seems counter-productive. Promoting atheism is closely related to promoting science. Aggressively promoting science and proclaiming it to be in direct conflict with religion will polarize society as religious groups will in turn attack science. On the other hand, if you just quietly taught science to everyone and not mention anything about a conflict, religious people would just compartmentalize their beliefs so that they didn't interfere with the things science teaches. You'd basically get people who were technically religious, but close to none of the negative sides.

This has pretty much already happened in my country (Finland). The majority still belongs to a religious domination, but religion is considered a private thing and actually arguing in favor of something "because of the Bible" will get you strange looks and likely branded as a fanatic. Yes, there is still a Christian political party in parliament, but they're a minor player, fielding 7 representatives out of 200. There has traditionally been practically no public debate about any sort of conflict between science and religion, though that's possibly changing as parts of the populace have began to express a fear of Islam. Judging from past evidence, that is probably just going to make any clash of cultures worse. That article is also a good example of the results you'll get when the debate gets polarized, as it shows people who might otherwise have been moderates become extremists.

And yes, we should regardless still continue to provide some critique of religion and the fallacies involved, to shift the social consensus even further into the "religion is just a private way you look at the world, not something you can base real-world decisions on" camp. But one can do that without being overly aggressive.

Comment author: Cyan 07 January 2010 08:59:15PM *  7 points [-]

Humans are social animals. Inducing shame and discomfort might be useful if the believer is isolated away from other believers and cannot rely on them for emotional support. If not, he or she will likely relieve their shame by seeking the company of fellow believers, reinforcing the affiliation with the believing group.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 07 January 2010 09:28:54PM *  3 points [-]

The first step towards a society in which ridiculous beliefs are acknowledged to be ridiculous, is to stop acting as if these beliefs aren't ridiculous. The point of ridicule is first to make those who hold ridiculous beliefs feel ashamed or at least uncomfortable, and second to help make rationalists feel the appropriate emotion when dealing with such extremes of irrationality.

Perhaps it seems tautologous that ridicule is the best way to deal with the ridiculous. So I'm tabooing the word "ridiculous". What do you mean by it?

Does it just mean "crazy" in the sense in which Eliezer uses it? Then, for what reason do you believe that ridicule (e.g., sarcasm and contemptuous scorn) is the best way to achieve your end goal?

If I read "crazy" where you wrote "ridiculous", then your claim is that the first step towards a society in which crazy beliefs are acknowledged to be crazy is to heap scorn and contempt on them. But this is far from obvious. How do you make this argument without relying on the verbal similarity between the words "ridiculous" and "ridicule"?

Comment author: Morendil 08 January 2010 08:19:10AM 9 points [-]

[...] Probability theory can tell us how our hypothesis fares relative to the alternatives that we have specified; it does not have the creative imagination to invent new hypotheses for us.

-- E.T. Jaynes, Probability Theory

Comment author: roland 09 January 2010 10:17:00PM 1 point [-]

Do you remember where exactly in the book this quote is?

Comment author: Kazuo_Thow 09 January 2010 10:40:02PM 2 points [-]

Page 136 (in Chapter 5 - "Queer Uses for Probability Theory"), in the first full paragraph.

Comment author: roland 09 January 2010 10:45:17PM *  0 points [-]

Wow, that was fast, I can see that you definitively did your homework. :)

Comment author: Kazuo_Thow 09 January 2010 11:11:09PM 5 points [-]

Google Books is your friend.

Comment author: roland 09 January 2010 11:37:37PM -1 points [-]

LOL. :(

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 January 2010 12:01:55AM 9 points [-]

My two worst business experiences have been with ostentatiously 'spiritual' people. It's not that they're insincere in their beliefs, it's just a lot easier for them to deceive themselves that the selfish things they do have justifications in them somewhere.

-- PeteWarden

Comment author: ciphergoth 08 January 2010 11:16:17AM *  11 points [-]

If you're doing business with a religious son-of-a-bitch, get it in writing. His word isn't worth shit. Not with the good lord telling him how to fuck you on the deal.

-- William S Burroughs, Words of Advice for Young People

Comment author: PhilGoetz 08 January 2010 03:34:23AM 3 points [-]

I have a brother-in-law who used to manage a Christian rock band. He told me that Christian organizations were the worst about paying for performances, because they assumed that the musicians were in it for service to God, not for the money.

But it could also be that the Christian organizations just had less money.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 January 2010 11:54:26PM 7 points [-]

When someone tells you that anything is possible, tell them to dribble a football.

-- Anon

Comment author: ciphergoth 08 January 2010 01:15:48AM 3 points [-]

In the UK to dribble a football means to keep it close to your feet as you move along the pitch - is that the meaning you refer to here? If so I can't make sense of the quote, because it's perfectly possible.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 08 January 2010 03:35:43AM *  7 points [-]

Heh. Make that, "tell them to basketball-dribble an American football."

People in the rest of the world dribble footballs all the time.

Funny, when I was a kid I sometimes used to try to basketball-dribble a US football for fun. Never got it down very well.

Comment author: AngryParsley 08 January 2010 01:26:42AM *  3 points [-]

American football, basketball dribble.

Edit: Aww, I lose alphabetically and chronologically.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 08 January 2010 01:31:59AM 0 points [-]

You found better references, though. :)

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 08 January 2010 01:20:51AM *  2 points [-]

He almost certainly meant an American football, and dribbling as in basketball, which is done by bouncing it off the ground repeatedly.

Comment author: ABranco 09 January 2010 02:44:19PM 4 points [-]

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. —Nietzsche

Comment author: Morendil 23 January 2010 04:02:51PM *  2 points [-]

The only meaning of life worth caring about is one that can withstand our best efforts to examine it.

-- Daniel Dennett

Interestingly, my memory of the quote was corrupted, until I retrieved it to post here; I thought he'd said "harshest efforts"; perhaps owing to contamination from the quote "That which can be destroyed by the truth should be".

Comment author: orthonormal 18 January 2010 03:04:04AM *  2 points [-]

"My powerful brain has come up with a topic for my paper."

"Great."

"I'll write about the debate over Tyrannosaurs. Were they fearsome predators or disgusting scavengers?"

"Which side will you defend?"

"Oh, I believe they were fearsome predators, definitely."

"How come?"

"They're so much cooler that way."

Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes (via Pharyngula)

Comment author: CronoDAS 14 January 2010 01:29:27PM 2 points [-]

"Wars do not end when they are won, but when those who want to fight to the death find their wish has been granted." - Spengler

Comment author: FAWS 10 January 2010 06:05:00PM *  2 points [-]

Though the earthworm has neither the advantage of claws and teeth nor the strength of muscles and bones, it can eat dust and dirt above ground and drink from the waters of the Yellow Springs below, because its mind is fixed on a constant end. The crab has eight legs and two claws; still if there is no hole made by an eel or snake, it will have no safe place to live, because its mind moves in every direction at once.

For these reasons, if there is no dark obscurity in purpose*, there will be no reputation for brilliance; if there is no hidden secretiveness in the performance of duties, there will be no awe-inspiring majesty in achievements. If you attempt to travel both forks of a road, you will arrive nowhere, and if you attempt to serve two masters, you will please neither.

-- Xunzi, An Exhortation to Learning (勸學) 1.6, translated by John Knoblock in "Xunzi: A Translation and study of the Complete Works"

*Knoblock gives "If there is no ardor and enthusiasm in purpose" as an alternative, personally I would translate it as "if there is no one who deeply wills it" and similarly the next passage as "if there is no one who singlemindedly labors for it" (Knoblock doesn't give any alternative there).

Comment author: ciphergoth 09 January 2010 03:00:41PM *  2 points [-]

The world is neither fair nor unfair

The idea is just a way for us to understand

But the world is neither fair nor unfair

So one survives

The others die

And you always want a reason why

-- The Cure, "Where The Birds Always Sing"

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 08 January 2010 12:22:29AM *  2 points [-]

Go as far as you can see; when you get there you'll be able to see farther.

-- Thomas Carlyle

Comment author: Nic_Smith 07 January 2010 08:29:55PM *  3 points [-]

Mattalast: I learned the truth about this world.

Hamyutz: Yeah? How does that make you feel?

Mattalast: It's just as I thought. The world is pointless and irrational.

Hamyutz: That's great! Your prediction was right on the money.

-The Book of Bantorra, Episode 12

Comment author: MichaelGR 07 January 2010 10:03:09PM 8 points [-]

"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference." - Richard Dawkins

Comment author: Morendil 17 January 2010 09:38:43AM *  2 points [-]

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

-- G.K. Chesterton, quoted in Jonah Lehrer's How we decide

(In the section which discusses psychopaths and notes that the "rational" part of their brains appears to be undamaged: the human brain relies on the circuitry of emotion to form moral decisions, or at any rate that's what's broken in psychopaths.)

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 09 January 2010 10:29:12AM *  2 points [-]

It is not enough to have this globe or a certain time,
I will have thousands of globes and all time.

--- Walt Whitman, "Song of Joys"

Comment author: RichardKennaway 10 January 2010 09:08:54PM 1 point [-]

"One word, Ma'am," he said, coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. "One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things--trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Supose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."

Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, in C.S. Lewis "The Silver Chair".

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 07 January 2010 09:58:55AM *  -2 points [-]

CHARLIE BROWN: Isn't there anyone---who knows what Christmas is all about?

LINUS: Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.

Lights please.

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

---A Charlie Brown Christmas

(edited to include more context)

Comment author: mattnewport 07 January 2010 05:14:06PM 0 points [-]

I don't understand why this is a rationality quote. Am I missing some context? (I've never read any Charlie Brown books).

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 07 January 2010 05:21:04PM 1 point [-]

I thought it exemplifies a virtue which is nameless.

Comment author: Alicorn 07 January 2010 05:32:03PM 0 points [-]

In what way does it exemplify that virtue?

Comment author: mattnewport 07 January 2010 05:25:24PM 0 points [-]

Hmm, I still don't get it but thanks for the explanation.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 07 January 2010 10:04:24PM *  8 points [-]

Right, so Charlie Brown is frustrated with commercialism and asks if anyone knows what Christmas is all about, and Linus replies by quoting the Bible, reminding Charlie Brown about the religious significance of the day and thereby guarding against loss of purpose. (In our state of knowledge, we don't regard religious observance as a legitimate purpose, but conditioning on the premise that Christianity is true, it would be important to make sure your holidays remain being about Christ, rather than wandering off and becoming about gifts or something.)

I like the indirectness of Linus's reminder (the scene would have been much less effective if Linus had just said, "Well, it's about Jesus"), which is why I referred to the Eliezer's "twelfth virtue" in my (apparently still too opaque) attempt at explanation above. Mere words can only be pointers; they don't in themselves contain the complexity of a thought. The thoughts that you can only invoke indirectly are important. ("You may try to name the highest principle with names such as 'the reason for the season,' 'the true spirit of Chirstmas,' or 'God's word,' but what if &c.)

I like the seeming incongruity of using a religious quote in a Rationality Quotes thread, which on a meta level illustrates that specific ideas can be accepted or rejected on their own merits. Of course Christianity is false, but if a religious quote also demonstrates something true or useful, the irrationality of the source doesn't matter.

Maybe too subtle (judging by the downvotes), but I'm not so sure.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 09 January 2010 11:03:01PM *  5 points [-]

Linus replies by quoting the Bible, reminding Charlie Brown about the religious significance of the day and thereby guarding against loss of purpose.

Loss of purpose indeed.

Charlie Brown: Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

Linus: Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about. Lights, please?

Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:

Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.

They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

-- Jeremiah 10:1-4

Linus: It's a pagan holiday, Charlie Brown.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 07 January 2010 10:25:03PM 3 points [-]

Right, so Charlie Brown is frustrated with commercialism and asks if anyone knows what Christmas is all about, and Linus replies by quoting the Bible, reminding Charlie Brown about the religious significance of the day and thereby guarding against loss of purpose.

This context is absent in the quote, which makes it impenetrably confusing (and as such, a bad quote).

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 07 January 2010 10:43:11PM 0 points [-]

Edited to include character names and previous line of dialogue

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 January 2010 11:35:14PM 4 points [-]

If you haven't grown up in a Christian household or something, this completely fails. It doesn't sound like a reminder of purpose. Just a fail.

Comment author: mattnewport 08 January 2010 12:19:38AM 0 points [-]

It did occur to me after the first attempted explanation that perhaps my unreligious upbringing was why this quote doesn't work for me. My immediate reaction to Linus' quote is simply 'no, that's not what Christmas is about at all' - Christmas has almost nothing to do with religion for me so the quote doesn't work.

Comment author: Technologos 07 January 2010 07:07:10PM 0 points [-]

I believe this is from a tv special; I'm having trouble determining the relevance as well.

One possibility: the extended description of the story, rather than a simple statement of fact or belief, constitutes a warning about the power of contextual imagery in activating availability heuristics.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 07 January 2010 09:38:52AM *  0 points [-]

You should not give in to your so-called "needs"! Luxury is the herald of weakness! There aren't even rules for sleeping, you know!

Order of the Stick

Comment author: Nic_Smith 07 January 2010 11:48:04PM 1 point [-]

Funny quote; what's the connection to rationality? The character in question not being in touch with reality? The recent melatonin thread? Something else?

Comment author: Morendil 26 January 2010 01:46:39PM 1 point [-]

Throughout relativity, both in its original, classical form and in the attempts to create a quantum form of it, clocks play a vital role, yet nobody really asks what they are. A distinguished relativist once told me that a clock is "a device that the National Bureau of Standards confirms keeps time to a good accuracy". I felt that, as a theorist, he should be telling them, not the other way around.

-- Julian Barbour, The End of Time

Comment author: Cyan 23 January 2010 05:06:31PM 1 point [-]

We are stardust. We are billion year old carbon.

- Joni Mitchell

Comment author: orthonormal 23 January 2010 08:12:54PM 1 point [-]

Beautiful (in the song) and true, but it doesn't sound very poetic on its own, and the following line is beautiful and false.

Comment author: Cyan 23 January 2010 08:40:36PM 1 point [-]

In the next line, only the word "back" is false.

Comment author: Kutta 07 January 2010 08:14:26PM *  1 point [-]

If choices are not clearly connected to their benefits, people usually interact in ways that make outcomes unpredictable.

--- Mike Caro

Comment author: CronoDAS 14 January 2010 09:20:30AM 0 points [-]
Comment author: ThomasRyan 17 January 2010 05:08:20AM *  -1 points [-]

The stability of the family depends on marriage, which becomes a mere protection for society with no other object but the reproducing of that same society. Hence marriage is by nature profoundly conservative. To attack it is to attack the very bases of society.

-- Octavio Paz, The labyrinth of Solitude

Italicized emphases mine. I really liked that phrase.

Comment author: wedrifid 17 January 2010 05:28:09AM 2 points [-]

The italicized premise seems bogus to me.

Comment author: ThomasRyan 17 January 2010 06:05:58AM *  0 points [-]

I can't give an opinion on the surrounding context of that phrase. However, I really liked the phrase because it is eloquent.

I am having a hard time seeing how the premise of that phrase is bogus; the phrase, on its own, is a description of the process of society reproducing itself through generations. The phrase, on its own, has nothing to say about the device, or "protection," that does this.

It's fascinating that nations can stay around with the same name and substance even though the original founders have long died. Now, isn't "a mere protection for society with no other object but the reproducing of that same society" a good phrase for boxing up that fascination and making it wonderfully palpable?

Of course, the phrase would have to be modified to exist on its own. But for now, I am happy that I have it under my belt.

*E: Reading the phrase again, I can see that there may be cause for objection saying that the "protection" has only a single use. Is this what you find bogus?

Comment author: wedrifid 17 January 2010 08:17:30AM 1 point [-]

Reading the phrase again, I can see that there may be cause for objection saying that the "protection" has only a single use. Is this what you find bogus?

Yes, the 'no other object' part I find most bogus. I would still disagree if the claim was 'the main object' or even 'a significant object' although such relative judgements require more reasoning and background to evaluate than the banal absolute.

Now, isn't "a mere protection for society with no other object but the reproducing of that same society" a good phrase for boxing up that fascination and making it wonderfully palpable?

I find it abhorrent. It has enough 'wonderfully palpability' that many people will hesitate to actually parse the meaning and realise that, trying to describe it without an expletive, what little content it contains lacks factual merit.

Marriage is not merely, primarily or even credibly understood to be a protection for society with the object of reproducing of that same society.

I would much prefer Octavio put his ability to turn phrase into something harmless like, say, and 'Ode to Blue'. If he wants to keep up the airs of intellectual sophistication he can perhaps work some qualia into the mix. That would tie in nicely with the whole poignant solitude, sublime experience of the human condition vibe. Then if he wants to raise the intellectual bar another notch he can include "da ba dee dah be daa" as a refrain.

Comment author: ThomasRyan 17 January 2010 08:53:42AM *  1 point [-]

I concede that the quote was inappropriate.

Marriage is not merely, primarily or even credibly understood to be a protection for society with the object of reproducing of that same society.

This pertains to the part of the quote that I don't care too much about and don't have much of an opinion on.

The thing that I found most valuable in the phrase was this: "reproducing itself through generations," in the discussion of a nation. It's something that I've tried to say before, but it came out very clumsy. So, seeing something similar to what I've been trying to say, written, was great. I'm sure you've had the experience before.

Anyway, now I feel really silly putting that quote up. Please understand that I'm likely much younger than you and am just now getting my feet wet with rationality. Thank you for the discourse and I'll see you around.

Comment author: wedrifid 17 January 2010 09:54:09AM 0 points [-]

Don't feel silly for putting the quote up. It is a quote that has the form of wisdom and brushes past potential insight. In fact, the reason I object is not because it silly to identify with these quotes from Octavio but the reverse. It is the sort of thing that appeals to our intuition and we are naturally pulled into agreeing with when we may otherwise see flaws. It's a trap and, speaking here particularly of the poignant angsty existential quote, one that I carefully train myself to avoid.

Comment author: ThomasRyan 17 January 2010 05:04:41AM 0 points [-]

All men, at some moment in their lives, feel themselves to be alone. And they are. To live is to be separated from what we were in order to approach what we are going to be in the mysterious future. Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Man is the only being who knows he is alone, and the only one who seeks out another. His nature -- if that word can be used in reference to man, who has "invented" himself by saying "No" to nature -- consists in his longing to realize himself in another. Man is nostalgia and a search for communion. Therefore, when he is aware of himself he is aware of his lack of another, that is, of his solitude.

-- Octavio Paz, The labyrinth of Solitude

Comment author: wedrifid 17 January 2010 05:31:02AM 6 points [-]

Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition.

Or maybe that is just what a lonely man might think so he can feel deep. Like a high status emo.

Comment author: ThomasRyan 17 January 2010 07:00:40AM *  0 points [-]

Or maybe it's what a genius would say after emerging from the "existential labyrinth," the main theme of The Labyrinth of Solitude.

Here is Jostein Gaarder's response to your response:

Only philosophers embark on this perilous expedition to the outermost reaches of language and existence. Some of them fall off, but others cling on desperately and yell at the people nestling deep in the snug softness, stuffing themselves with delicious food and drink. 'Ladies and Gentlemen,' they yell, 'we are floating in space!' But none of the people down there care.

The condition of solitude is not imaginary; though, Octavio Paz, being a poet, sensationalizes it well. It's a condition that has, at the very least, lightly touched every human. And it is a condition that has spun many great people into the deepest kind of angst.

Communication is a major human bottleneck, and Octavio Paz laments this. Our input/output capabilities are severely restricting, considering everything that goes on in our minds. Our methods of communication aren't very effective.

I find Octavio Paz's quote interesting in light of transhumanism.

Comment author: wedrifid 17 January 2010 07:53:26AM 2 points [-]

Or maybe it's what a genius would say after emerging from the "existential labyrinth," the main theme The Labyrinth of Solitude.

"Lonely" -> "senstationalise the experience so I sound deep" -> "gain status as a poet and author" -> "get laid". That ranks well above "cutting" as far as plans go.

I do not respect wallowing in existential angst and definitely don't consider it rational. More importantly I do not allow my brain to reward itself with a sense of smug superiority when it generates such trains of thought for me.