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Rationality Quotes: February 2010

2 Post author: wedrifid 01 February 2010 06:39AM

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  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB.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

ETA: It would seem that rationality quotes are no longer desired. After several days this thread stands voted into the negatives. Wolud whoever chose to to downvote this below 0 would care to express their disapproval of the regular quotes tradition more explicitly? Or perhaps they may like to browse around for some alternative posts that they could downvote instead of this one? Or, since we're in the business of quotation, they could "come on if they think they're hard enough!"

Comments (322)

Sort By: Controversial
Comment author: XiXiDu 01 February 2010 10:56:48AM 0 points [-]

There's no scientific reason to believe that we have free will. There's no buffer zone that we've found in any of the physical laws of how the universe works to make room for free will. There's non-determinism; but there's not choice. Choice is the introduction of something, dare I say it, supernatural: some influence that isn't part of the physical interaction, which allows some clusters of matter and energy to decide how they'll collapse a probabilistic waveform into a particular reality.

-- Mark Chu-Carroll

Comment author: XiXiDu 01 February 2010 11:25:20AM *  0 points [-]

Although I should note that I believe there to be phenomena that qualify to be defined as 'free will'. Specifically endogenous processes generating behavioral variability and thus non-linearity. Especially if you can show that the complexity of transformation by which a system shapes the outside environment, in which it is embedded, does trump the specific effectiveness of the environmental influence on the defined system. In other words, mind over matter. You are able to shape reality more effectively and goal-oriented and thus, in a way, overcome its crude influence it exerts on you. For example, children and some mentally handicapped people are not responsible in same the way as healthy adults. They can not give consent or enter into legally binding contracts. One of the reasons for this is that they lack control, are easily influenced by others. Healthy humans exert a higher control than children and handicapped people. You experience, or possess a greater extent of freedom proportional to the amount of influence and effectiveness of control you exert over the environment versus the environment over you. Though this definition of free will only works once you arbitrarily define a system to be an entity within an environment contrary to being the environment. Thus the neural activity, being either consciously aware and controlled by the system itself, or not, is no valid argument within this framework. Of course, in a strong philosophical sense this definition fails to address the nature of free will as we can do what we want but not chose what we want. But I think it might after all be a useful definition when it comes to science, psychology and law. It might also very well address our public understanding of being free agents.

Comment author: XiXiDu 05 February 2010 11:45:29AM *  1 point [-]

I should have checked the lesswrong wiki before posting this. And of course read the mentioned posts here on lesswrong.com.

One of the easiest hard questions, as millennia-old philosophical dilemmas go. Though this impossible question is fully and completely dissolved on Less Wrong...

Anyway, for those who care or are wondering what I have been talking about I thought I should provide some background information. My above drivel is loosely based on work by Björn Brembs et al.

"Our results address the middle ground between simple determinism and randomness that is currently not well understood or characterized. We speculate that if free will exists, it is in this middle ground." This leads me to believe that the question of whether or not we have free will appears to be posed the wrong way. Instead, if we ask 'where between chance and necessity are we located?' one finds that this is precisely where humans and animals differ. Humans may not have free will in the philosophical sense, but even flies have a number of behavioral options they need to decide between. Humans are less determined than flies and possess even more options. With this small reformulation, the topic of free will becomes the new biological research area of studying spontaneous behavior and can thus be discerned from the philosophical question.

PLoS ONE: Order in Spontaneous Behavior

Maybe a misinterpretation on my side. But now my above comments might make a bit more sense, or at least show where I'm coming from. I learnt about this via a chat about 'free will'.

Hope you don't mind I post this. Maybe somebody will find it useful or informative.

Comment deleted 03 February 2010 06:06:19AM [-]
Comment author: ciphergoth 03 February 2010 08:33:29AM 3 points [-]
Comment deleted 03 February 2010 06:06:04AM [-]
Comment author: arbimote 03 February 2010 06:25:43AM 8 points [-]

A man with one watch might have the wrong time; a man with two watches is more aware of his own ignorance.

Comment author: ChrisHibbert 03 February 2010 01:53:13AM 4 points [-]

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance: let us ask, "Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?" No. "Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?" No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. --- David Hume

(quoted in Beyond AI by JoSH Hall)

Comment author: Rain 01 February 2010 12:41:51PM 7 points [-]

The activist is not the man who says the river is dirty. The activist is the man who cleans up the river.

-- H. Ross Perot

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 February 2010 07:49:03PM 11 points [-]

To take advantage of professional specialization, gains from trade, capital infrastructure, comparative advantage, and economies of scale, the way grownups do it when they actually care, I'd say that the activist is the one who pays someone else to clean up the river.

Comment author: ciphergoth 02 February 2010 04:32:11PM 5 points [-]

The more I read this quote the more I hate it. It is an anti-rationality quote. It says, if you are not rich enough to run as an independent Presidential candidate, if you're not in a position to make a difference by yourself, if all the power you have is your voice, then shut up; leave action to the rich and powerful, without criticism. That your voice has power is part of the point of democracy, and it's not hard to see why a man like Perot might prefer to make that sound less legitimate.

Comment author: SilasBarta 01 February 2010 07:24:22PM *  4 points [-]

That doesn't sound like an activist. That sounds like "sucker doing other people's work for free", which doesn't sound like an effective plan for bringing about positive change -- those people tend to "weed themselves out" over the long run.

I'm not saying you shouldn't do things to make the world a better place, like: not litter, drive courteously, etc. (Although you should be careful about which things actually accomplish a net good.) "Be the change you want in the world" (attr. Ghandi) is a good motto to keep. I'm just saying that you shouldn't expect major problems to get solved by Someone Else at no cost to you, nor complain about someone pointing out the dirty river instead of immediately cleaning it up.

Comment author: magfrump 02 February 2010 04:48:33PM 2 points [-]

Does this work better for you?:

"The rationalist is not the man who complains about biases. The rationalist is the man who works to understand his biases."

(coin-flipped for male)

Comment author: Rain 01 February 2010 10:30:54PM *  3 points [-]

Personally, I'm very good at discovering what's wrong with a process or situation. I can detect flaws easily and accurately. What I've found I need is someone who, after I've done my analysis, will look me in the eye and say, "OK. So how do we fix it?"

Without that simple question, I find that far too often I stop at the identification step, shaking my head at the deplorable state of affairs.

Comment author: wedrifid 02 February 2010 02:55:53AM 1 point [-]

The question analogous to to the Perot quote would be "So why don't you fix it?".

Comment author: ciphergoth 02 February 2010 03:49:13PM *  4 points [-]

So for example, it would make sense for me to try and personally swoop in and free Chinese political prisoners, but if I'm not prepared to do that, I shouldn't protest their incarceration.

I don't think this rule leads to the right kind of behavour.

Comment author: ciphergoth 01 February 2010 03:29:37PM 9 points [-]

If people don't realise that the river is dirty and that's causing problems, changing that is valuable work by itself.

Comment author: wedrifid 01 February 2010 07:11:11AM *  7 points [-]

During a conversation with a Christian friend, during which my apostasy was challenged sincerely and politely but with the usual arguments and style...

Christian: And the Bible tells us that if we have Faith as small as a mustard seed...
Me: Yeah, we can move mountains. Matthew 17:20. So, tell me. Could God make an argument so circular that even He couldn't believe it?
Christian: Of course! He's God, God can do anything.

'Made in His Image' seems to apply all too well.

Comment author: ciphergoth 01 February 2010 10:41:08AM 4 points [-]

You're quoting yourself!

Comment author: wedrifid 01 February 2010 12:01:01PM 5 points [-]

Excuse the cameo. I hope the extra context doesn't distract you too much from the SMBC quote or the reply.

Comment author: sorentmd 03 February 2010 04:40:23PM 3 points [-]

“He was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher...or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.”

Comment author: tut 13 February 2010 08:29:32PM 4 points [-]

"Love God?" you're in an abusive relationship.

DLC, commenter at Pharyngula.

Comment author: Kevin 02 February 2010 02:27:10AM 4 points [-]

For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars and so on - whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man - for precisely the same reasons.

-- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Comment author: Mycroft65536 02 February 2010 03:40:11AM 4 points [-]

I've always thought you can have more fun in New York than splashing around in the water. But I'm not a dolphin.

Comment author: aausch 07 February 2010 11:26:15PM 8 points [-]

Margaret Mead made a world-wide reputation for herself with her book Coming of Age in Samoa. After visiting the island of Samoa and talking to some teenage girls, she came away convinced that the Puritanism of the American sexual code was cultural artifact. In Samoa, by contrast, sex was freely practiced, with little attention to any niceties. Unfortunately, she was wrong about this, as we learned almost a half a century later, when Derek Freeman, who actually spoke Samoan, went to Samoa and interviewed the now grown women who had been interviewed by Margaret Mead many years earlier. He discovered that they had been putting her on. Decency and sexual restraint were as important to Samoans as to Americans.

  • James Q. Wilson, Moral Intuitions
Comment author: Tiiba 20 February 2010 05:55:44AM -1 points [-]

I'd like to buy each of those ladies a beer.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 12 April 2010 04:31:19AM 6 points [-]

Unfortunately, she was wrong about this, as we learned almost a half a century later, when Derek Freeman, who actually spoke Samoan, went to Samoa and interviewed the now grown women who had been interviewed by Margaret Mead many years earlier.

Freeman's case is not so clear-cut. From Skeptic Magazine:

The Trashing of Margaret Mead: How Derek Freeman Fooled Us All on an Alleged Hoax

Comment author: cupholder 12 April 2010 06:58:28AM 2 points [-]

That's odd. The Wilson quote in aausch's post heavily implies that Freeman spoke Samoan and Mead didn't. But Paul Shankman's Skeptic article says

Mead was a competent fieldworker who spoke Samoan with a degree of fluency and who understood Samoan joking.

Hmm. Wonder who's right.

Comment author: mattnewport 12 April 2010 04:43:57AM *  2 points [-]

In context, the closing paragraphs of the article are also relevant:

Freeman went to great lengths to convince a broad audience that Mead had been hoaxed. But the “hoaxing” argument was implausible because the interviews that Freeman used did not support his hypothesis. It is also unnecessary, for Mead’s interpretation of Samoa as a sexually permissive society was not due to her alleged “hoaxing” by Fa’apua’a and Fofoa, but rather the data that she collected from Samoan adolescent girls and from other Samoan men and women, her comparison of Samoa and America in the mid-1920s, and the social agenda that she advocated given her own personal background and interests.

Comment author: aausch 12 April 2010 05:11:04AM 0 points [-]
Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 February 2010 12:33:11AM 8 points [-]

Organizations don’t suffer pathologies; they are intrinsically pathological constructs. Idealized organizations are not perfect. They are perfectly pathological.

-- http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/10/07/the-gervais-principle-or-the-office-according-to-the-office/

Comment author: Isaac 20 February 2011 05:11:20PM 5 points [-]

I'm interested to find that you read ribbonfarm.com, since along with lesswrong it's one of my two most-visited blogs.

I sometimes think Venkatash's way of thinking might be on a level above that of many of the posts here. As an engineer he seems to have internalized the scientific/rationalist way of thinking, but he's combined that with a metaphorical/narrative/artistic way of looking at the world. When it works well, it works really well. What do other people think?

Interestingly, he has PhD in an AI-related field (specifically, control theory), but thinks the Singularity is unlikely to happen: http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/01/28/the-misanthropes-guide-to-the-end-of-the-world/

Another article that might contradict a common belief of this community: http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/09/28/learning-from-one-data-point/

Anyway, certainly a blog I'd recommend to lesswrongers.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 February 2011 05:33:38PM 1 point [-]

Erm, sorry, I was just linked there or Googled there or something, don't read it on a regular basis.

Comment author: XFrequentist 21 February 2011 07:28:39PM 0 points [-]

Among my favorites as well! Venkat and Eliezer's recommendations currently dominate my reading queue, and I'd be hard-pressed to pick which of their books I'm more eagerly anticipating.

Venkat's observations about group decision making and organizational dynamics are a big part of what made me write this proposal (which I've procrastinated following up on due to being uncertain how to proceed).

There's definitely some interesting contrast between Venkat and Eliezer's views/styles/goals. A Blogging Heads episode could be fascinating!

Comment author: XiXiDu 01 February 2010 10:43:57AM *  9 points [-]

I'll start incorporating crazy counter-intuitive notions about the nature of the universe when the cold implacable hand of the universe starts shoving them down my throat, not before!

-- PZ Myers

Comment author: Document 17 August 2013 09:45:01PM 0 points [-]

I wonder if people who upvoted this did so sincerely or as a "look how irrational elite scientists are" quote.

Comment author: Rain 01 February 2010 12:44:08PM *  20 points [-]

One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.

I will maintain a realistic assessment of my strengths and weaknesses. Even though this takes some of the fun out of the job, at least I will never utter the line "No, this cannot be! I AM INVINCIBLE!!!" (After that, death is usually instantaneous.)

I will be neither chivalrous nor sporting. If I have an unstoppable superweapon, I will use it as early and as often as possible instead of keeping it in reserve.

If my advisors ask "Why are you risking everything on such a mad scheme?", I will not proceed until I have a response that satisfies them.

I will see a competent psychiatrist and get cured of all extremely unusual phobias and bizarre compulsive habits which could prove to be a disadvantage.

I will never build a sentient computer smarter than I am.

-- Peter's Evil Overlord List on how to be a less wrong fictional villain

Comment author: CannibalSmith 01 February 2010 09:51:54PM *  4 points [-]

I will never build a sentient computer smarter than I am.

Hear, hear! :D

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 February 2010 12:46:28AM 10 points [-]

Yeah, let me do it.

Comment author: PeterS 04 February 2010 12:35:38AM 6 points [-]
Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 February 2010 01:08:02AM 2 points [-]

Fair 'nuff.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 01 February 2010 10:19:31AM 11 points [-]

"People are not complicated. People are really very simple. What makes them appear complicated is our continual insistence on interpreting their behavior instead of discovering their goals."

-- Bruce Gregory

Comment author: Yvain 01 February 2010 12:21:53PM *  48 points [-]

On utility:

culturejammer: you know what pennies are AWESOME for?

culturejammer: throwing at cats

culturejammer: it only costs a single penny

culturejammer: and they'll either chase it, or get hit by it and look pissed off

culturejammer: i now use that system to value prices of things

culturejammer: for example, a thirty dollar game has to be at least as awesome as three thousand catpennies


Comment author: Zubon 02 February 2010 10:54:52PM 5 points [-]

Given yesterday's xkcd, I note that Google has no hits for "strip catpennies."

Comment author: Sniffnoy 15 February 2010 03:48:12AM 4 points [-]

Huh; I know someone who made this same suggestions, only he was talking about throwing the pennies at people... I suppose it's worth noting that in this case, the pennies are not as recoverable.

Comment author: Rain 01 February 2010 10:25:15PM *  25 points [-]

also from bash.org (made as a reply since I'm already at my 5-quote limit):

<+kritical> christin: you need to learn how to figure out stuff yourself..
<+Christin1> how do i do that

Comment author: CannibalSmith 01 February 2010 10:24:36PM 8 points [-]

The analysis fails to take into account the cost of buying and raising of cats.

Comment author: Mycroft65536 02 February 2010 03:36:54AM 12 points [-]

Or at least of maintaining friendships with people who have cats.

Comment author: Rain 01 February 2010 10:22:22PM *  6 points [-]

While hilarious, and I upvoted it, I doubt economists would agree with the stated cost of the catpenny game, nor with its comparability to other forms of entertainment.

ETA: and catpenny seems likely to be subject to drastically diminishing returns.

Comment author: Jack 02 February 2010 12:29:59AM 5 points [-]

I seriously can't decide if catpennies have diminishing marginal utility or not!

Comment author: LucasSloan 02 February 2010 12:32:45AM 6 points [-]

We should test this! Anyone got a cat? I've got 9 pennies I don't want.

Comment author: Nanani 02 February 2010 02:12:09AM *  8 points [-]

Don't forget to consider the negative utility of an angry cat attacking the catpenny player, which will surely happen after x catpennies.

Anyone going to go looking for x? It would of course have to be statistical distribution, varying with cat age, breed, and so on.

Comment author: ellx 02 February 2010 05:24:29AM 1 point [-]

also, don't forget to consider that the cat is conscious and might not like getting hit by pennies :)

Comment author: Larks 02 February 2010 02:38:52AM 3 points [-]

Also, how hard you've managed to hit it with the pennies. I think you have to try to maximise the damage:irateness ration.

Comment author: Mycroft65536 02 February 2010 03:38:24AM 12 points [-]

Doesn't catpenny cost less than a penny (in terms of dollars spent)? You can recover most, if not all, of the pennies.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 01 February 2010 10:13:36AM 13 points [-]

"We can get very confused, because we think that words must have some secret meaning that we have to figure out. They don't. They are just noises or marks, and they mean whatever experience you have learned to mean by them. People tend to use similar words in similar situations, but unless you have specifically agreed on what the words will mean, in terms of underlying experiences, there's no way to know what another person understands when you use them. The experience you attach to a word when you say it isn't automatically the same as the experience another person attaches to the same word when hearing it."

William T. Powers

Comment author: ShardPhoenix 02 February 2010 12:55:57AM *  5 points [-]

I find this (the unspoken and un-agreed-upon array of connotations behind a word) is a major source of disagreement even on this site.

Comment author: Kevin 01 February 2010 08:38:40PM *  16 points [-]

Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.

-- Isaac Asimov via Salvor Hardin, Foundation

Comment author: dclayh 01 February 2010 10:50:42PM 17 points [-]

That is not dead which can eternal lie,/ And with strange aeons even Death may die.

—H.P. Lovecraft, clearly talking about cryonic preservation

Comment author: ciphergoth 03 February 2010 08:38:23AM 3 points [-]

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling...

Yeats, on what he'll do when no longer "fastened to a dying animal".

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 February 2010 12:40:01AM 18 points [-]

The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to close it again on something solid.

-- G.K. Chesterton

Comment author: [deleted] 02 February 2010 06:19:39AM 2 points [-]

A "friend" of mine was a fan of using this to argue for Christianity. The idea of never changing one's mind doesn't seem very rational.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 02 February 2010 09:22:55AM 9 points [-]

"Who are you?"

"Who am I? I'm not quite sure."

"I admire an open mind. My own is closed upon the conviction that I am Shardovan, the librarian of Castrovalva."

-- Doctor Who

Comment author: katydee 30 December 2011 10:52:55PM 2 points [-]

To be fair, G.K. Chesterton was probably also using this to argue for Christianity.

Comment author: brian_jaress 03 February 2010 08:30:25AM 10 points [-]

Your friend must be pretty hungry by now.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 February 2010 01:32:32AM 19 points [-]

"You don't use science to show that you're right, you use science to become right." --Randall Munroe, in the alt-text of xkcd 701

Comment author: Nic_Smith 01 February 2010 07:43:17AM *  26 points [-]

If you can't feel secure - and teach your children to feel secure - about 1-in-610,000 nightmare scenarios - the problem isn't the world. It's you.

-- Bryan Caplan

Comment author: Nanani 02 February 2010 02:19:30AM 3 points [-]

Great quote, though it took me a minute to parse. I think it's the dashes that did it. Wouldn't this read a lot better with commas instead?

Comment author: sketerpot 06 February 2010 10:03:35AM 1 point [-]

It works better with longer dashes -- I always get thrown off when someone uses a single hyphen instead of faking an en dash with two hyphens surrounded by spaces.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 February 2010 06:00:36AM 8 points [-]

If you can't feel secure (and teach your children to feel secure) in nightmare scenarios with 1-in-610,000 odds, the problem isn't the world. It's you.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 01 February 2010 10:16:33AM 68 points [-]

From a BBC interview with a retiring Oxford Don:

Don: "Up until the age of 25, I believed that 'invective' was a synonym for 'urine'."

BBC: "Why ever would you have thought that?"

Don: "During my childhood, I read many of the Edgar Rice Burroughs 'Tarzan' stories, and in those books, whenever a lion wandered into a clearing, the monkeys would leap into the trees and 'cast streams of invective upon the lion's head.'"

BBC: <long pause> "But, surely sir, you now know the meaning of the word."

Don: "Yes, but I do wonder under what other misapprehensions I continue to labour."

Comment author: RobinZ 19 February 2010 04:56:28PM 2 points [-]

A bit of a meta-quote:

But in choosing a chair we follow the dictates of our eyes, for better or for worse, more often than those of our "ischial tuberosities," and the hammocklike Hardoy looks comfortable. [Joseph] Rykwert correctly assumes that "the buyers of Hardoy chairs, like many other customers for design goods, are guided in their choice by promptings quite different from the dictates of reason." And he adds a conclusion worth remembering: "The very fact that they do so should be a matter of interest to the designer: nothing human should be alien to him."

A Philosophy of Interior Design (1990) by Stanley Abercrombie, quoting "The Sitting Position - A Question of Method" (1958) by Joseph Rykwert.

Comment author: Sniffnoy 14 February 2010 07:15:51AM 17 points [-]

On parsimony:

If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.

--John von Neumann, at the first national meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 February 2010 08:53:03PM 6 points [-]

If you think of losing as “not winning,” then when you try to work out why you’ve lost, or (God forbid) why you’re a loser, you’ll tend to focus on the things you didn’t do and the qualities you don’t have. So it goes with any “negative” concept, one that is defined by what it isn’t (think of how “background” = “everything but the foreground” or how valleys are made by the mountains around them).

I think it’s worthwhile to occasionally invert the picture, to see “being a winner” as “not being a loser.” That way you attend to those habits of mind that are hurting you, instead of the ones that might be helping.

-- Jsomers.net, How to be a loser (Relevance)

Comment author: Bongo 09 February 2010 06:41:20PM 8 points [-]

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do.

-- Benjamin Franklin

Comment author: brian_jaress 07 February 2010 08:07:14AM 6 points [-]

What is it about us, the public, and what is it about conformity itself that causes us all to require it of our neighbors and of our artists and then, with consummate fickleness, to forget those who fall into line and eternally celebrate those who do not?

-- Ben Shahn, "The Shape of Content"

Comment author: gwern 06 February 2010 07:52:07PM *  6 points [-]

"If we were bees, ants, or Lacedaemonian warriors, to whom personal fear does not exist and cowardice is the most shameful thing in the world, warring would go on forever.
But luckily we are only men - and cowards."

--Erwin Schrodinger, Mind and Matter

Comment author: gwern 05 February 2010 06:43:22PM 4 points [-]

"I waste many hours each day being efficient."

--Emanuel Derman

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 05 February 2010 05:34:42PM 2 points [-]

ETA: It would seem that rationality quotes are no longer desired. After several days this thread stands voted into the negatives. Wolud whoever chose to to downvote this below 0 would care to express their disapproval of the regular quotes tradition more explicitly?

For the record, I didn't downvote this below zero, but it did at one point downvote this back to zero (and did the same for the Open Thread). Not because I'd disagree with the tradition in any way, but because I don't think the first person to get around posting the month's thread should get tens of points of karma for simply being quick.

Comment author: Morendil 05 February 2010 05:41:30PM 7 points [-]

Rewarding people for prompt attention to housekeeping tasks seems more appropriate than punishing them.

Comment author: wedrifid 05 February 2010 05:49:26PM *  1 point [-]

I tend to vote such threads to around a couple of karma myself. 0 isn't unreasonable. < 0 is quite peculiar. But my confusion was resolved in this instance. Someone messaged me and explained that he was trying to work out why the votes were fluctuating so much (4 -> 0 in an hour) so was testing what would happen if he put down one more to -1.

As a side effect to these posts going up and down I've now started paying attention to only the last digit of the score. The 10s are mostly noise!

Comment author: gwern 04 February 2010 07:22:06PM 2 points [-]

"What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure."

--Dr. Samuel Johnson

Comment author: Morendil 04 February 2010 10:26:25AM *  7 points [-]

Ce que l'on conçoit bien s'énonce clairement / Et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément

-- Nicolas Boileau

Rough translation: "What is well understood can be told clearly, and words to express it should come easily."

ETA: it is worth pondering the converse; just because something rolls off the tongue doesn't mean it's well understood. It could be that it's only well-rehearsed.

What the quote is aimed at is work of a supposedly high intellectual caliber, which just so happens to be couched in impenetrable jargon. Far more often, that is in fact evidence of muddled thought, not that the material is "beyond me".

Comment author: thomblake 05 February 2010 06:42:29PM 1 point [-]

It's obvious, but I must point out that giving the quote in the original French and providing a "rough translation" seems at odds with the message of the quote.

Comment author: Morendil 05 February 2010 06:49:22PM *  1 point [-]

Why? I'm not an expert French->English translator, and I only invested a few minutes in the translation, so calling it "rough" seems appropriate. And saying something clearly in more than one language is more difficult than saying the same thing clearly in one language.

That a perfect, instant translation of a well-crafted quote by a talented French Enlightenment philosopher doesn't just roll off my fingertips in English shouldn't compromise the message.

Comment author: thomblake 05 February 2010 07:02:31PM 2 points [-]

That a perfect, instant translation of a well-crafted quote by a talented French Enlightenment philosopher doesn't just roll off my fingertips in English shouldn't compromise the message.

Weird. I thought you'd posted it this way to be ironic. Anyway...

It compromises the message for precisely that reason. If you agree with the quote, then if you understand what it means, then it should be easy to express it clearly.

Comment author: Morendil 05 February 2010 07:18:30PM 3 points [-]

Which are you claiming: a) that I don't understand the quote, or b) that my rough translation is unclear?

Are you perhaps supposing that "rough" and "clear" are antonyms?

I think the translation is clear enough; what makes it "rough" is that a perfect translation would feel like it was a literal translation, all the while keeping the exact nuance of the original. If you will, it is the fact of its being a translation which makes it rough.

For more on the subtleties of translation, I'll direct you to Hofstadter's excellent Le Ton Beau de Marot.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 04 February 2010 05:07:03AM 2 points [-]

JANEWAY: I understand you grew up on Vico Five. No wonder you became a cosmologist.
HARREN: Wildest sky in the Alpha quadrant.
JANEWAY: So they say. I've never been there.
HARREN: Do you really believe that childhood environment is more important than genetically driven behaviour patterns?
JANEWAY: Just making conversation.
HARREN: Conversation filled with unspoken assumptions, which I don't agree with. I'm a product of my nucleic acids. Where and how I was raised are beside the point. So if you're trying to understand me better, questions about my home planet are irrelevant.

---Star Trek: Voyager, "Good Shepherd"

Comment author: sketerpot 06 February 2010 10:09:57AM *  2 points [-]

I really dislike the nature versus nurture false dichotomy. It grates on me to see it still taken seriously, even after the premise that our actions are shaped entirely by one or the other has been as scientifically discredited as phlogiston.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 06 February 2010 07:41:33PM 1 point [-]

Oh, I agree with you that nature vs. nurture is a false dichotomy, but I was actually cheered to see this exchange. As terrible as it is by our epistemic standards, it's actually quite sophisticated by Star Trek standards. (So much of what gets called science fiction is actually technology fantasy.) I was similarly cheered to see the other exchange that I posted from that episode: he actually used the word hypothesis! Real philosophy of science! On Voyager! I love it! Best episode ever!

And you can see how this is still a rationality quote despite the conceptual confusion. Janeway is trying to break through Harren's contempt, but Harren resists her cliches and insists on (what he erroneously thinks is) accuracy.

Comment author: komponisto 06 February 2010 07:53:03PM 3 points [-]

So which of the two characters exemplifies rationalist virtues? It seems to me we've got one who's trying to use clichés to "break through" to the other, and one who's just stubbornly wrong.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 04 February 2010 05:04:52AM 1 point [-]

TELFER: At least I have a friend. Don't you ever get lonely down there?
HARREN: In the company of my own thoughts? Never.
TELFER: I don't believe that. Spend some time with us when we get back. You might enjoy yourself.
HARREN: A hypothesis that would require testing. I'm a theoretician, remember?

---Star Trek: Voyager, "Good Shepherd"

Comment author: ata 04 February 2010 01:31:05AM 4 points [-]

As the mind learns to understand more complicated combinations of ideas, simpler formulae soon reduce their complexity; so truths that were discovered only by great effort, that could at first only be understood by men capable of profound thought, are soon developed and proved by methods that are not beyond the reach of common intelligence.

Marquis de Condorcet, 1794

Comment author: Matt_Duing 03 February 2010 02:53:33AM 7 points [-]

"Seeing is believing, but seeing isn't knowing." -- AronRa

Comment author: Matt_Duing 03 February 2010 02:52:09AM 2 points [-]

"In madness all sounds become articulate." -- "Language of the Shadows", Nile

Comment author: [deleted] 02 February 2010 05:04:21PM 1 point [-]

"To know something is to make this something that I know myself; but to avail myself of it, to dominate it, it has to remain distinct from myself." -- Miguel de Unamuno

Comment author: Shalmanese 02 February 2010 09:47:05AM 21 points [-]

"In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it." GK Chesterton

Comment author: woodside 02 February 2010 04:46:38AM 4 points [-]

"Most people are more complicated than they seem, but less complicated than they think"

  • BS
Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 February 2010 12:45:39AM 10 points [-]

It's amazing the things people would rather have than money.

-- Garfield

Comment author: RichardKennaway 02 February 2010 09:21:25AM 5 points [-]
Comment author: bentarm 02 February 2010 02:14:00PM *  3 points [-]

"Dad, the reason I like to shop and buy things is to get rid of my money"

8 year old Cayley Landsburg, quoted in Fair Play

edit. Link added to disambiguate citation...

Comment author: LucasSloan 02 February 2010 07:38:54AM 2 points [-]

Why is this interesting? Money isn't inherently useful. Why say "than money" when "It's amazing the things people like" will serve?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 February 2010 12:37:09AM 4 points [-]

Who am I to judge myself?

-- Karp

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 February 2010 12:35:59AM 5 points [-]

Karl Marx's writings glorifying communism (though Western capitalists regard it as grim and joyless) may well have reflected merely his alienation from society due to a lifelong series of excruciatingly painful boils, according to a recent British Journal of Dermatology article. In an 1867 letter, Marx wrote, "The bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles until their dying day." [Reuters, 10-30-07]

-- News of the Weird (relevance)

Comment author: Tom_Talbot 01 February 2010 07:11:06PM 16 points [-]

"If the tool you have is a hammer, make the problem look like a nail."

Steven W. Smith, The Scientist and Engineer's Guide to Digital Signal Processing

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 01 February 2010 06:38:17PM *  13 points [-]

'Cause it's gonna be the future soon
And I won't always be this way
When the things that make me weak and strange get engineered away

--Jonothan Coulton

Comment author: Tiiba 02 February 2010 03:43:14AM *  5 points [-]

Perfecting my warrior robot race,
Building them one laser gun at a time.
I will do my best to teach them
About life and what it's worth,
I just hope that I can keep them
From destroying the Earth!


Comment author: Cyan 01 February 2010 06:57:48PM 2 points [-]

Interesting vid here.

Comment author: aausch 01 February 2010 06:18:37PM 9 points [-]

'Nash equilibrium strategy' is not necessarily synonymous to 'optimal play'. A Nash equilibrium can define an optimum, but only as a defensive strategy against stiff competition. More specifically: Nash equilibria are hardly ever maximally exploitive. A Nash equilibrium strategy guards against any possible competition including the fiercest, and thereby tends to fail taking advantage of sub-optimum strategies followed by competitors. Achieving maximally exploitive play generally requires deviating from the Nash strategy, and allowing for defensive leaks in ones own strategy. -- Johannes Koelman

Comment author: gregconen 01 February 2010 05:50:19PM 16 points [-]

More people are killed every year by pigs than by sharks, which shows you how good people are at evaluating risk.

Bruce Schneier

Comment author: ShardPhoenix 02 February 2010 12:59:24AM 11 points [-]

Presumably not per unit exposure, which is the relevant measure when you're near a pig or shark. If he's talking about abstract worry, then he might have a point.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 February 2010 07:46:17PM 6 points [-]

I've decided to spend today abstractly worrying about sharks.

Comment author: Cyan 02 February 2010 07:56:59PM 2 points [-]

Fake Jedi sharks, no doubt.

Comment author: gregconen 02 February 2010 01:16:55AM 3 points [-]

But what's the unit exposure? Does the exposure related to ocean swimming match the exposure of camping in Michigan wilderness? You have a point, though. Of course, most people should worry about neither pig nor shark attacks.

Comment author: Jack 02 February 2010 12:44:10AM 7 points [-]

Ok, but most people who are more worried about sharks than pigs are going on vacation to the beach and don't work on a swine farm. And I don't think those people are wrong to worry about sharks more than pigs. It is also quite likely that swine farmers do worry about pigs more than the rest of us.

Comment author: pwno 01 February 2010 06:21:08PM -1 points [-]

Since when is fear only about risk of death?

Comment author: gregconen 01 February 2010 09:36:53PM 1 point [-]

I suspect similar odds hold for non-fatal injuries.

Is there some fear associated with sharks other than the danger of injury or death?

Comment author: Alicorn 01 February 2010 09:56:21PM 25 points [-]

The terrifying soundtrack that accompanies them when they approach.

Comment author: gregconen 01 February 2010 05:05:36PM *  9 points [-]

I always saw a close kinship between the needs of "pure" mathematics and a certain hero of Greek mythology, Antaeus. The son of Earth, he had to touch the ground every so often in order to reestablish contact with his Mother; otherwise his strength waned. To strangle him, Hercules simply held him off the ground. Back to mathematics. Separation from any down-to-earth input could safely be complete for long periods — but not forever.

-Benoit Mandelbrot

Comment author: Steve_Rayhawk 03 February 2010 02:49:37AM *  1 point [-]

While I agree, where could the earth be getting its strength from?

Comment author: Steve_Rayhawk 03 February 2010 03:05:33AM *  2 points [-]

Also: if mathematics in contact only with mathematics becomes "less mathematical" than mathematics in contact with praxis, then how can praxis in contact with mathematics become more practical than praxis out of contact with mathematics?

Comment author: gregconen 03 February 2010 05:13:25PM 2 points [-]

If you have no mathematical techniques, you don't know how to think about your empirical evidence.

If you have no empirical evidence, you have nothing to use your mathematical techniques on.

You need both.

Comment author: bogus 01 February 2010 03:58:08PM *  14 points [-]

If [Ayn] Rand really wanted to build an individualist sub-culture, she would have done so in an evolutionarily informed way. If people naturally care about the opinions of others, jumping on people is a good way to get dishonest conformity, but a bad way to get an honest exchange of ideas. Instead, an individualist sub-culture must be built upon tolerance and honesty. I'd suggest three key norms:

  1. Don't think less of people who sincerely disagree.
  2. Do think less of people who insincerely agree.
  3. Do think less of people who think less of people who sincerely disagree.

--Bryan Caplan

Reference: Guardians of Ayn Rand

Comment author: gregconen 01 February 2010 03:53:24PM *  11 points [-]

I much prefer the sharpest criticism of a single intelligent man to the thoughtless approval of the masses.

Johannes Kepler

Comment author: clockbackward 01 February 2010 03:06:30PM 6 points [-]

"In my experience, the most staunchly held views are based on ignorance or accepted dogma, not carefully considered accumulations of facts. The more you expose the intricacies and realities of the situation, the less clear-cut things become."

Mary Roach - from her book Spook

Comment author: Kutta 01 February 2010 02:40:35PM *  27 points [-]

Many people equate tolerance with the attitude that every belief is equally true, and that we should all simply accept this fact and go our separate ways. But I view tolerance as the willingness to come together, to face one another in the same room and hack at each other with claw hammers until the truth finally trickles out from the blood and the tears.

-- Raving Atheist, found via the Black Belt Bayesian blog (props to Steven)

Comment author: Rain 01 February 2010 12:42:53PM 15 points [-]

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

-- Mark Twain, excerpt from The War Prayer

Comment author: Rain 01 February 2010 12:41:11PM 19 points [-]

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things
We know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

-- Donald Rumsfeld, Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

Comment author: CannibalSmith 01 February 2010 10:08:52PM *  15 points [-]

Something is missing here, a fourth term: [..] the unknown knowns - things we don't know that we know. That's the unconscious! That's ideology!

-- Slavoj Žižek @ Google

Comment author: Jack 02 February 2010 12:34:29AM 2 points [-]

I saw the Rumsfeld quote, immediately thought of that Zizek line and then instantly concluded no one at Less Wrong would like to hear from Slavoj Zizek. This must be the first time a continental philosopher has received upvotes here. I'm fascinated.

Comment author: RobinZ 02 February 2010 02:19:30AM 3 points [-]

He noticed the blatantly missing corner in the field of possibilities and replied to it intelligibly. I have no idea what a continental philosopher is, much less who Zizek is, but the quote is appropriate.

Comment author: Jack 02 February 2010 02:35:27AM 1 point [-]

Did no one check out the video?

Comment author: RobinZ 02 February 2010 02:50:07AM 1 point [-]

I didn't - watching just now, as suggested by your comment, I bailed at the German type of toilet.

Comment author: Rain 01 February 2010 12:40:42PM 9 points [-]

There's no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.

-- Han Solo

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 February 2010 06:08:49PM 4 points [-]


This page persuaded me, by the way - I am now a Force Skeptic with respect to the Star Wars universe.

Comment author: wedrifid 02 February 2010 03:16:09AM *  3 points [-]

That page sounded like banal propaganda. Yes, any magic is indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology but it sounds to me like the author has a strong preference to blaming evidence on an invisible robotic dragon in his garage rather than uncover the actual explanation whatever it may be.

This is a world where you can hear sound in space and of light is more of a guideline than an actual rule. Your real world preconceptions just don't apply. Once there is any evidence whatsoever that Jedi are unwilling to subject the force to any scientific scrutiny then such skepticism beings to gain credibility. As things stand, however, I would expect the Jedi to be willing participants in Force research. I would, naturally, engage in such research myself. Partly out of a desire to understand the laws of the universe but mostly because I intended to harness the force to my own ends.

Comment author: Kutta 02 February 2010 11:31:20AM 3 points [-]

That page sounded like banal propaganda.

Rather, it sounds exactly like a humorous, ironic fan-written piece, with no intention to truthfully explain in-universe things...

Comment author: gwern 01 February 2010 10:32:10PM 2 points [-]

From an EU perspective, that page is quite wrong, especially with assertions like

The Force supposedly cannot be detected by any device that has yet been built anywhere in the Galaxy. Furthermore, the only people who can detect the Force are those few "gifted" individuals who are "sensitive" to it.

(EU introduced Force-detecting devices left over from the Jedi purges.)


If the Jedi ability to "see" the Remote with their eyes covered and only the Force to guide them is so central to the Jedi's repertoire, then why do Jedi engaged in combat against opponents with real blasters always deflect the bolts with their eyes open?

(I think Lucas himself wrote in a blind Jedi or two.)

Comment author: Yvain 01 February 2010 12:24:51PM 16 points [-]

In our public medical personas, we often act as though morality consisted only in following society's conventions: we do this not so much out of laziness but because we recognize that it is better that the public think of doctors as old-fashioned or stupid, than that they should think us evil.

-- The Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine

Comment author: RichardKennaway 01 February 2010 11:53:30AM 27 points [-]

"Intuition only works in situations where neurology and evolution has pre-equipped us with a good set of basic-level categories. That works for dealing with other humans, and for throwing things, and for a bunch of other things that do not, unfortunately, include constructing viable philosophies."

-- Eric S. Raymond

Comment author: XiXiDu 01 February 2010 10:58:47AM 7 points [-]

A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.

-- Groucho Marx

Comment author: Theist 03 February 2010 03:28:30AM 3 points [-]

It's bad luck to be superstitious.

Comment author: XiXiDu 01 February 2010 10:50:03AM 13 points [-]

The introduction of suitable abstractions is our only mental aid to organize and master complexity.

-- Edsger W. Dijkstra

Comment author: Nic_Smith 01 February 2010 08:00:44AM *  2 points [-]

Shamisen deserves an honorable mention. Although he only has one speech, he's a good enough philosopher that upon being introduced he manages to sidetrack the brigade members into a debate over the nature of conversation and away from the fact that, you know, he's a talking cat. - TV Tropes, "The Philosopher"

[Connections to rationality: Focus, taking action, and conversation style.]

Comment author: anonym 01 February 2010 07:01:33AM 5 points [-]

The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.

John Maynard Keynes

Comment author: anonym 01 February 2010 06:53:17AM 27 points [-]

Education is a technology that tries to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at. Children don't have to go to school to learn how to walk, talk, recognize objects, or remember the personalities of their friends, even though these tasks are much harder than reading, adding, or remembering dates in history. They do have to go to school to learn written language, arithmetic, and science, because those bodies of knowledge and skill were invented too recently for any species-wide knack for them to have evolved.

Steven Pinker -- The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Comment author: [deleted] 16 February 2010 07:31:46PM *  1 point [-]

I love this quote, and I plan to get around to reading this book soon, but I figured I should post this article which seems to say that we do have an innate instinct for numbers, addition, and subtraction, even if we may not completely realize it right away.

Comment author: anonym 01 February 2010 06:51:49AM 18 points [-]

Thinking is skilled work. It is not true that we are naturally endowed with the ability to think clearly and logically--without learning how, or without practicing.... People with untrained minds should no more expect to think clearly and logically than people who have never learned and never practiced can expect to find themselves good carpenters, golfers, bridge-players, or pianists.

Alfred Mander -- Logic for the Millions

Comment author: anonym 01 February 2010 06:50:31AM 15 points [-]

Million-to-one odds happen eight times a day in New York.

Penn Jillette

Comment author: bgrah449 02 February 2010 05:50:54PM 2 points [-]

Events with million-to-one odds of happening in one day to one person happen eight times a day in New York - on average.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 February 2010 06:13:49AM 12 points [-]

Note to self: every day, eight million things happen in New York.

Comment author: anonym 02 February 2010 06:31:34AM 1 point [-]

I'm guessing the number comes from the population of New York city: about 8 million.

Comment author: Larks 02 February 2010 08:18:20PM 2 points [-]

Wow, New York must be a pritty boring place to live in.

Comment author: gwern 01 February 2010 10:35:14PM 1 point [-]

Hm. And I thought I was being original when I liked to say 'billion to one odds happen 7 times a day on Earth'.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 02 February 2010 06:29:47AM 8 points [-]

Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself.

--- James Stephens

Comment author: anonym 01 February 2010 06:49:32AM 6 points [-]

The secret of what anything means to us depends on how we've connected it to all the other things we know. That's why it's almost always wrong to seek the "real meaning" of anything. A thing with just one meaning has scarcely any meaning at all.

Marvin Minsky -- The Society of Mind