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Rationality Quotes July 2012

3 Post author: RobertLumley 04 July 2012 12:29AM

Here's the new thread for posting quotes, with the usual rules:

  • 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  • Do not quote yourself
  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB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 (466)

Comment author: Will_Newsome 03 July 2012 05:06:21AM 27 points [-]

I often tried plays that looked recklessly daring, maybe even silly. But I never tried anything foolish when a game was at stake, only when we were far ahead or far behind. I did it to study how the other team reacted, filing away in my mind any observations for future use.

— Ty Cobb

Comment author: Miller 05 July 2012 07:10:38PM 4 points [-]

I wonder if he let his teammates know this at the time. They are unlikely to approve and then what would he do. I'd wager this was more about creating drama around him and his team than studying the opponent. I've done this kind of thing in online multiplayer contexts, and the feedback you receive from this is substantially more weighted to your own team than the opponents.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 July 2012 11:30:38PM *  23 points [-]

Suppose we find a society which lacks our understanding of human physiology, and that speaks a language just like English, except for one curious family of idioms. When they are tired they talk of being beset by fatigues, of having mental fatigues, muscular fatigues, fatigues in the eyes and fatigues of the the spirit. Their sports lore contains such maxims as 'too many fatigues spoils your aim' and 'five fatigues in the legs are worth ten in the arms'. When we encounter them and tell them of our science, they want to know what fatigues are. They have been puzzling over such questions as whether numerically the same fatigue can come and go and return, whether fatigues have a definite location in matter and space and time, whether fatigues are identical with some physical states or processes or events in their bodies, or are made of some sort of stuff. We can see that they are off to a bad start with these questions, but what should we tell them? One thing we can tell them is that there simply are no such things as fatigues - they have a confused ontology. We can expect them to retort: 'You don't think there are fatigues? Run around the block a few times and you'll know better! There are many things your science might teach us, but the non-existence of fatigues isn't one of them!

--Dan Dennett, Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology

Comment author: Alejandro1 18 July 2012 06:18:11AM 1 point [-]

That's one of my favorite Dennett passages. A similarly great anthropological metaphor is his tale of the forest god Feenoman and the "Feenomanologists" who study this religion. I have not been able to find it online, but it is in the essay "Two approaches to mental images", in the same book.

Comment author: arundelo 05 July 2012 02:13:49PM *  13 points [-]

However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it's worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.

-- Clay Shirky

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 05 July 2012 06:28:09PM 30 points [-]

From the same page:

if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. [...] And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is

This gives me a new perspective on human insanity, or more positively, on how much relatively low-hanging fruit is out there.

Comment author: mindspillage 04 July 2012 06:08:12AM *  36 points [-]

The words "I am..." are potent words; be careful what you hitch them to. The thing you're claiming has a way of reaching back and claiming you.

--A.L. Kitselman

Comment author: sketerpot 04 July 2012 07:59:42PM 12 points [-]

See also Paul Graham's essay Keep Your Identity Small, on the same subject.

Comment author: tastefullyOffensive 06 July 2012 04:47:33PM 30 points [-]

Just explained the Higgs Boson to my friend even though I don't understand it myself. He was very convinced. I bet this is how religions get started.

-Rob DenBleyker

Comment author: ChrisNJ 10 July 2012 08:14:27PM 2 points [-]

Ha! I was in a checkout at the mall and pulled up a science blog to see the developments on the Higgs-Boson. When I heard the 99.9999% proof I literally could not hold in my verbal amazement. Well no one around me (mother, sister, scared check-out girl) had the slightest clue what it was about and explaining only led to resentment and confusion (despite using an apologetic light tone i.e. leaving out the "God Particle" association.)

Comment author: MixedNuts 09 July 2012 09:08:02PM 1 point [-]

I'm betting on psychotic episodes. Any way to settle it?

Comment author: DanArmak 13 July 2012 06:55:19PM 6 points [-]

Induce psychotic episodes in some people, explain Higgs boson to others, compare outcome religiosity.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 July 2012 10:43:14PM 4 points [-]

Now I'm reminded of when my mother phoned me asking me “what's about this God particle they've found and everyone's talking about? does it prove that God exist, or that God doesn't exist?” and I told her not to mind journalists as they don't understand a thing and they're just trying to sell newspapers, and to look at the cover picture on my Facebook profile instead. (It shows the Lagrangian of the Standard Model before symmetry breaking.) She was a bit disappointed by that. ;-)

Comment author: [deleted] 04 July 2012 05:41:30AM 10 points [-]

And here we tinker with metal, to try to give it a kind of life, and suffer those who would scoff at our efforts. But who's to say that, if intelligence had evolved in some other form in past millennia, the ancestors of these beings would not now scoff at the idea of intelligence residing within meat?

--Prime Function Aki Zeta-5, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Comment author: Vaniver 03 July 2012 12:58:26AM 10 points [-]

Many difficulties which nature throws our way, may be smoothed away by the exercise of intelligence.

--Titus Livius

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 03 July 2012 06:17:44PM 27 points [-]

We find it difficult and disturbing to hold in our minds arguments of the form ‘On the one hand, on the other.’ If we are for capital punishment we want it to be good in all respects, with no serious drawbacks; if we are against it, we want it to be bad in all respects, with no serious advantages. We want the world of facts to dictate to us, virtually, how to act; but this it will never do. We always have to make a choice.

-- Theodore Dalrymple, article in "Library of Law and Liberty".

Comment author: MixedNuts 04 July 2012 01:17:11AM 7 points [-]

It's strange that we have many phrases like "on the one/other hand", "pros and cons", and "both sides of the story", then.

Comment author: ScottMessick 04 July 2012 05:50:09PM 6 points [-]

These phrases are mainly used in near mode, or when trying to induce near mode. The phenomenon described in the quote is a feature (or bug) of far mode.

Comment author: Fyrius 04 July 2012 09:30:01AM *  6 points [-]

Not wanting to take a principle to heart is not the same thing as denying that's the way things work, though. I think most people acknowledge (or at least give lip service) that being able to be objective is virtuous and often important. Even the ones who are rubbish at actually being so in real life.

And of course it's entirely possible to be blatantly one-sided about capital punishment, but still want to hear both sides of the story when your kids are having an argument.

And of course it's also entirely possible to realise you should be objective, even if that's more difficult and disturbing and less satisfying. You can just grit your teeth and tell your need for one-sidedness to shut up and let you think properly.

Comment author: MixedNuts 04 July 2012 09:44:41AM 2 points [-]

True, though we're still treating objectivity as fairness in arguments rather than even-handedness in truth inquiries. All these phrases refer to two sides, not more.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 06 July 2012 05:04:47AM *  1 point [-]

It's strange that we have many phrases like "on the one/other hand", "pros and cons", and "both sides of the story", then.

No, those phrases exist to help patch the flaw in human reasoning the parent describes. In fact it would be strange that we had those phrases and the corresponding flaw didn't exist.

Comment author: lukeprog 27 July 2012 04:08:50AM 8 points [-]

...there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from ... the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

Niccolo Machiavelli

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 27 July 2012 07:21:15PM 1 point [-]

This coolness arises partly from ... the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

As well they should.

Comment author: ChristianKl 06 July 2012 11:17:14AM *  8 points [-]

Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.

John Ioannidis Why Most Published Research Findings Are False

Comment author: Alejandro1 03 July 2012 12:44:35AM 8 points [-]

Likewise people have their rituals in argument evaluation. Philosophers like to set out the premises in an orderly numbered fashion, and tend to regard this as making an argument clear. Whether or not it actually does so depends; unless the argument is being made from scratch, this procedure involves rearrangement and interpretation, so whether it actually does make things more clear, in terms of increasing understanding, seems to vary considerably. But it still feels like you are bringing order and clarity to a disordered muddle, so you find people who will swear by it, even though it's not difficult to find cases where it clearly introduced a distortion. There's an argument to be made -- it would, of course, be controversial among those who engage in this kind of practice -- that such people are taking the ritual itself to be a kind of clarity, by sympathetic magic, and are taking arguments in this form to be better arguments simply because they conform to ritual expectation. It may even have good practical results, if so; a ritual might well put one in the right state of mind for a certain kind of work, and there's no reason to think that philosophical thinking doesn't sometimes need 'being in the right state of mind' as much as any difficult endeavor. And, of course, you find people who try to refute arguments by naming them -- a practice difficult to avoid, but not really all that different from shamans casting out illness by naming it.

-- Brandon Watson

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 July 2012 08:45:06PM 17 points [-]

"Buddhism IS different. It's the followers who aren’t."

-- A Dust Over India.

Commentary: Reading this made me realize that many religions genuinely are different from each other. Christianity is genuinely different from Judaism, Islam is genuinely different from Christianity, Hinduism is genuinely different from all three. It's religious people who are the same everywhere; not the same as each other, obviously, but drawn from the same distribution. Is this true of atheistic humanists? Of transhumanists? Could you devise an experiment to test whether it was so, would you bet on the results of that experiment? Will they say the same of LessWrongers, someday? And if so, what's the point?

Now that I think on it, though, there might be a case for scientists being drawn from a different distribution, or computer programmers, or for that matter science fiction fans (are those all the same distributions as each other, I wonder?). It's not really hopeless.

Comment author: ChristianKl 14 July 2012 11:54:45AM 3 points [-]

I don't think that the claim is really supported by the observations that he made in the article.

In Buddhism lying isn't as bad as it is in Christanity. Using violence is more accepted in Christian culture than in Buddnism. As a result the followers do act differently. They are less likely to use violence against him but more likely to lie to him.

Why do you think that people are the same everywhere? And what do you mean with "the same"?

Comment author: fubarobfusco 15 July 2012 12:17:37AM 2 points [-]

In Buddhism lying isn't as bad as it is in Christanity. Using violence is more accepted in Christian culture than in Buddhism. As a result the followers do act differently.

How much of this difference can actually be attributed to the followers attempting to obey religious precepts, and how much is simply floating in the sea of cultural memes in the parts of the world where Buddhism and Christianity respectively happen to be common? Would you expect practicing Christians in Japan, Korea, China, or India (and who are ethnically Japanese, Korean, etc.) behave more like your model of "Buddhists" or "Christians"?

Comment author: ChristianKl 15 July 2012 01:51:45PM 4 points [-]

How much of this difference can actually be attributed to the followers attempting to obey religious precepts

Religion is more than obeying general precepts. During the time my Catholic grandmother was in school she wanted to read some book. Before reading it she asked her priest to allow her to read it because it was on the Catholic census. Following the religion seriously and not reading anything that's on the census has an effect that goes beyond the general precepts.

A lot of Buddhists are vegetarians. A lot of Buddhists mediate. Those practices have effects.

and how much is simply floating in the sea of cultural memes in the parts of the world where Buddhism and Christianity respectively happen to be common? Religion isn't more than a bunch of cultural memes packed together into a packet.

Your question assumes that people in Japan can be either "Christians" or "Buddhists" but can't be both. Even when the Chrisitans in Malta pray to Allah you can't be Muslim and a Christian at the same time. There no similar problem with being a Zen Buddhist and being Christian at the same time.

Would you expect practicing Christians in Japan, Korea, China, or India (and who are ethnically Japanese, Korean, etc.) behave more like your model of "Buddhists" or "Christians"?

I think that there a correlation but I'm not sure about the extend to which Far East Christians resemble Western Christians. Making a decision to convert to Christianity when you live in China has a lot of apsects that don't exist when someone who lives in a Christian town simply decides to stay Christian.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 16 July 2012 05:29:17AM *  1 point [-]

I'm not sure I understand your response. Let me restate what I was getting at above, in responding to this assertion:

In Buddhism lying isn't as bad as it is in Christianity. Using violence is more accepted in Christian culture than in Buddhism. As a result the followers do act differently. They are less likely to use violence against him but more likely to lie to him.

This claim makes a prediction regarding the rates of lying and violence among "followers" of Buddhism and Christianity. But what counts as a data point for or against this claim depends on what could be meant by "the followers" of these religions. Two possible interpretations:

  1. "People who explicitly consider themselves to be Buddhists or Christians, and who attempt to live according to what they think the precepts of Buddhism or Christianity are";
  2. "People who come from those cultures which we call 'Buddhist' or 'Christian' respectively, regardless of whether those individuals consider themselves observant or religious at all."

For instance, I consider myself an atheist, but I was raised in a Christian family and live in a society where Christianity is the predominant religious influence. I have read the Gospels (and most of the rest of the Bible); by contrast I have not read the Qur'an, the Tripitaka, the Vedas, or the Talmud. I don't pray, attend church, or listen to the teachings of priests or pastors.

By interpretation 1, I am not a Christian; and whether I happen to lie or do violence would not count for or against the claim above. (It would also not count regarding Buddhism; although I've done Zen meditation more recently than I've done Christian worship ...) By interpretation 2, my cultural background counts me as a Christian; and my tendencies to lie or do violence would count for or against the claim above.

So, I'm asking: What would count as evidence for or against the claim regarding the rate of lying and violence among Christians and Buddhists?

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 10 July 2012 04:46:08PM *  3 points [-]

It's religious people who are the same everywhere

That's evidence that the religion does not change people too much.

Which might be a good thing. Religious cults do change people. An average Scientologist does not behave the same way as an average Christian. You could measure the influence of the religion by measuring how the distribution of personalities changes.

On the other hand, let's not reverse stupidity here. Changing personality is generally a bad thing, but that is not necessary, just very probable.

Comment author: wedrifid 10 July 2012 07:09:26PM 2 points [-]

That's evidence that the religion does not change people too much.

It's also evidence that religion may change people in the same way regardless of details.

Comment author: brahmaneya 03 August 2012 09:06:24PM 2 points [-]

I don't his comment about Buddhist people being not different is even true. They are, for example, on the average, less violent than Muslims. They're simply not different to the extent he expected them to be.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 09 July 2012 02:51:22AM 2 points [-]

Is this true of atheistic humanists? Of transhumanists? Could you devise an experiment to test whether it was so, would you bet on the results of that experiment? Will they say the same of LessWrongers, someday? And if so, what's the point?

Now that I think on it, though, there might be a case for scientists being drawn from a different distribution, or computer programmers, or for that matter science fiction fans (are those all the same distributions as each other, I wonder?).

If LW-rationality goes mainstream, it's followers will then be drawn from the same distribution.

Comment author: Nominull 08 July 2012 08:01:12PM *  17 points [-]

I never felt I was studying the stupidity of mankind in the third person. I always felt I was studying my own mistakes.

-Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics

Comment author: shokwave 03 July 2012 05:09:07AM *  34 points [-]

Person: "It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you."
Robot: " ... Paranoia is such a childish emotion. You're an adult. Why aren't all your enemies dead by now?"

-- RStevens

Comment author: RobertLumley 02 July 2012 03:15:03PM *  22 points [-]

Human behavior is economic behavior. The particulars may vary, but competition for limited resources remains a constant.

– CEO Nwabudike Morgan in Alpha Centauri

Comment author: rocurley 03 July 2012 12:38:09AM 12 points [-]

I find it troubling how much I want to upvote you just beause you're quoting SMAC.

Comment author: mwengler 04 July 2012 07:25:12PM 5 points [-]

I finally wikipediaed this and see you are talking about a Sid Meier video game. I played Civilization once for about an hour (where I was amazed when my 10 year old consultant on the game told me I was an idiot for going democratic, that I would have had a much better military if I'd gone communist and then built a statue of liberty, or something like that). I have spent countless hours on Railroad Tycoon back before Steve Jobs got fired.

Do I want to get SMAC and risk ruining my life? Perhaps have myself lashed to a mast before I try it?

Is SMAC addictive?

Comment author: RobertLumley 04 July 2012 07:53:21PM 4 points [-]

SMAC is the crown jewel of the series, if you ask me. The expansion, Alien Crossfire is almost impossible to find legally though, and adds a lot to the game.

Is it addictive? I don't know, largely because it's difficult to specify what is "addictive" and what isn't. The best answer I can give you is yes, in bursts. I'll play it for eight hours in a row one day and then not touch it for a month.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 04 July 2012 10:05:01PM 4 points [-]

I got the original SMAC and SMAX in one set on Amazon a few years ago.

A quick google reveals it's still available. Less than $5.

Comment author: RobertLumley 04 July 2012 10:46:02PM 2 points [-]

That's good. I heard somewhere it was really rare. Guess it's not.

Comment author: Vaniver 04 July 2012 08:14:25PM 8 points [-]

SMAC is my favorite of the Civilization series for two reasons:

The first is that it's just a very well-made game- it has lots of features and internal mechanics which took Civilization over a decade to catch up to (and still doesn't do as well).

The second is that it starts at slightly-future tech, and proceeds to singularity. I find that way more satisfying than starting at agriculture and proceeding to slightly-future tech, partly because I like sci-fi more than I like history, and partly because it lets you consider more interesting questions.

For example, the seven factions in the game aren't split on racial lines, but on ideological lines: there are seven competing views for how society should be organized and what the future should look like, and each of them has benefits and penalties that are the reasonable consequences of their focuses.

SMAC is deeply flawed for three reasons:

The AI is over a decade old, and so it's difficult to be challenged once you know how the game works. (This was also before they had figured out a good way to hamstring ICS, and so ICS is the dominant yet unfun strategy.)

The multiplayer code is over a decade old, and so not only are the AI difficult to play against in a fun manner, other people are difficult to play against for frustrating technical reasons.

The factions are tremendously unbalanced. While this is a neat statement about social organization- no, fundamentalism is a worse idea than an open society, unless you want to rule over a world of ash- it makes it a somewhat worse game, because single or multiplayer games are tainted by the tier rankings. Similarly, in single-player games you are always playing with the same seven factions, unlike in Civ games where you're able to play with a varied host (and as many or as few opponents as you want).

It is worthwhile to see the whole tech tree a few times; it is worthwhile to learn how the game works; it is possible to nod contentedly and walk away from SMAC, saying "I am done and this was a good experience."

It's also possible to play it for hundreds of hours (I certainly did), and it's the sort of game that I dust off every few years to play a game of. I would recommend playing it, but I would also recommend lashing yourself to a mast if there's something else you need to get done.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 04 July 2012 10:09:54PM 3 points [-]

The multiplayer code is over a decade old, and so not only are the AI difficult to play against in a fun manner, other people are difficult to play against for frustrating technical reasons

This is making me feel old. Me and a few college mates had a SMAC multiplayer game running for the better part of a year. If someone told me now that I could have a multiplayer game experience by taking my turn, zipping up the game file and emailing it to the next person in the cycle, I would laugh in their face.

Comment author: Bugmaster 11 July 2012 11:21:34PM *  3 points [-]

I don't know about "addictive", but I can tell you that playing SMAC with 5 to 7 human players, and no AIs, will definitely have a... transformative... effect on your life. You will be amazed at how quickly things go from

We're all coworkers, let's have some strategy game fun !


Psst, hey, I saw Joe and Bob talking in the corridor the other day. Couldn't hear what they were saying, but it Bob mimed an airplane with his hands at one point. Yeah. I know they're supposed to be enemies, and so are we, but if they beat us to Air Power, we're both in trouble... When was the last time you talked to your allies, anyway ? Just think about it...

Trust no one.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 12 July 2012 03:30:01AM 1 point [-]

I've successfully played diplomacy games with friends without it ruining any friendships.

Comment author: Bugmaster 13 July 2012 06:39:39PM 2 points [-]

Alpha Centauri is much more conducive to abject paranoia than Diplomacy, though -- at least, the way we played it. We would start a game by taking turns on the same machine, for the first 10 turns or so, during lunch. Then, we would go back to work, and take our turn on that machine when it came up (we'd VNC into it). This way, the game doesn't disturb our actual work too much, and each player can take as long to micromanage his cities as he wants.

Thus, all the player-to-player interaction takes place on back channels -- through email, or clandestine meetings. This fact, combined with the knowledge that one tech advance, or one airstrike at the right time, could shift the entire balance of power, results in truly Cold War-grade levels of paranoia. It is an exhilarating experience, in a way.

I should probably mention that no relationships were ruined by our games, either, as far as I can tell. A game is still only a game, after all.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 14 July 2012 06:51:55AM 1 point [-]

The diplomacy games I'm referring to were also played one move a day.

Comment author: DaFranker 04 July 2012 08:28:03PM 2 points [-]

Yes to all of those questions.

Comment author: Oligopsony 04 July 2012 07:57:38PM 2 points [-]

Do I want to get SMAC and risk ruining my life?


Comment author: RobertLumley 03 July 2012 01:17:14AM 3 points [-]

I recently rediscovered it and realized how many quotes fit into LW memes. And apparently there was an expansion too. I never knew that until about a month ago.

Comment author: tgb 03 July 2012 12:45:39AM 3 points [-]

Another amusing one from Alpha Centauri:

'Abort, Retry, Fail?' was the phrase some wormdog scrawled next to the door of the Edit Universe project room. And when the new dataspinners started working, fabricating their worlds on the huge organic comp systems, we'd remind them: if you see this message, always choose 'Retry.'
Bad'l Ron, Wakener
Morgan Polysoft

Comment author: MBlume 03 July 2012 07:25:10PM 4 points [-]

This actually seems wrong. Clicking "retry" seems to map to "make the same attempt, in the same way, and hope things go better". It's worth trying once or twice, but eventually you have to update towards the possibility that the strategy you're trying is fundamentally flawed, that it will never work, abort, and come at things from a completely different angle.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 03 July 2012 07:47:23PM 17 points [-]

Doing the same thing over and over again in the hopes of eventually getting a different result is, I'm told, one definition of insanity.

It is also, in my experience, an important aspect of physical therapy.

Comment author: dspeyer 04 July 2012 03:42:19AM 9 points [-]

I've never understood that saying. Most real life actions are practically speaking nondeterministic. I've often found it worthwhile to test each course of action 10 times and keep track of what fraction it worked (if the course of action is quick and easy to test).

Comment author: MBlume 03 July 2012 08:01:42PM 4 points [-]

Right, which is why sometimes you need help -- sometimes a domain expert tells you that yes, you might naively think that, having tried the same thing 25 times, you can reasonably give up, but that's not true in this case because of these biological mechanisms.

Comment author: wedrifid 03 July 2012 08:17:05PM *  3 points [-]

Right, which is why sometimes you need help -- sometimes a domain expert tells you that yes, you might naively think that, having tried the same thing 25 times, you can reasonably give up, but that's not true in this case because of these biological mechanisms.

In lieu of (and in most cases in precedence over) biological mechanisms I would take testimony from the expert that, for example, "30 of the 50 people I have seen learn this took 30 or more attempts and I don't know of a better way to try than what you are doing".

Comment author: [deleted] 03 July 2012 08:00:25PM 2 points [-]

If you really did the same thing in the same environment and expected a different result it would be insane, realistically I never expect the world to respond to my actions the same way twice so that saying holds about as much weight as any other truism.

Comment author: arundelo 05 July 2012 02:07:13PM 5 points [-]

[H]ow you get to Carnegie Hall is you sell out Town Hall twice in a year, and now you sell enough tickets to do a show at Carnegie Hall.

-- Louis C.K.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 03 July 2012 05:24:54AM *  26 points [-]

Here is a hand. How do I know? Look closely, asshole, it's clearly a hand.

Look, if you really insist on doubting that here is a hand, or anything else, there's nothing really I can say to convince you otherwise. What the tits would the world even look like if this weren't a hand? What sort of system is your doubt endorsing? After all, you can't just say "It's not true that here is a hand." You have to be endorsing some other picture of the world. [...]

So it turns out when I say things like "Here is a hand" I'm not really making a claim about the world, I'm laying down some rules for discussion. If you doubt there's a hand here, then fuck you and that's all there is to it. We can't really talk about anything now, because we can't even agree on something as simple as a goddamn hand. When we all agree here is a hand, then we can go about discussing our world in meaningful ways. Skepticism just undermines a foundation and replaces it with nothing; it[']s paralyzing. The grounds for such radical skepticism don't exist; it presupposes and relies on the very certainty it tries to undermine.

This is more practical than you realize. There are people who actually believe that the world is only 6,000 years old. What the fuck, right? But if you've ever talked with one of them, you know that they're fucking impossible to have what you consider a 'reasonable' discussion with. It's not like they don't have answers for everything, it[']s just that those answers don't make any fucking sense to you. It[']s the sort of gibberish that makes you want to scream. The problem is that you don't even play the game by the same goddamn rules. You're both certain of your positions, because those positions are logically derived from the worldview each of you endorses as your starting point, and you both look at each other's foundations and say, "Seriously, what the fuck are you talking about?" You don't even know how you would go about convincing them that you're right and they're wrong; you don't even agree on a method by which to do that.

If you flew to some part of the world where they'd never heard of an airplane or even a bird, how the fuck could you convince them you flew? They don't even know what that means. They would have all sorts of questions, and would consider your answers nonsensical or magical. When a non-believer is told that God exists, he reacts in the same way; also, a believer when he is told there is no God.

So everything we believe about the world is built on some sort of foundation. Sure, that foundation can change, but there is always something there at the base, and it is that base that enables us to talk about the world. Not everyone has the same base you do, and that has to be okay. Just know that some of your beliefs are just as unsupported as everyone else's. It's just the way it is, bro.

Philosophy Bro summarizing Wittgenstein's "On Certainty". (I'm not sure the summary is very true to the original but it's interesting nonetheless.)

Comment author: [deleted] 03 July 2012 05:37:25AM 3 points [-]

It's a reasonably accurate translation of the spirit of the original into colorful English.

Comment author: MixedNuts 04 July 2012 01:23:01AM 13 points [-]

If you doubt there is a hand, I'll use it to smush a banana on your face. If you end up looking ridiculous with banana on your face, then there was in fact a hand and my foundation is better than yours. If I end up looking ridiculous trying to grab a banana of doubtful existence with no hands, I promise to admit your foundation is better than mine. If we disagree on what happens, why am I even aware of your existence?

Comment author: roystgnr 09 July 2012 07:06:20PM 5 points [-]

In grade school, I recall there being more than one occasion when I slapped a friend in the back of the head for such instructional purposes when he became too solipsistic. (this wouldn't disprove solipsism, of course, but it would imply a "masochistic solipsism", and it turned out he strongly preferred realism over that)

In hindsight I wonder why he remained such a steadfast friend, and now I wonder whether, if I had ever had a banana handy, that would have been the last straw.

Comment author: duckduckMOO 09 July 2012 05:43:43PM 2 points [-]

People who are experiencing scepticism should have bananas smushed in their faces, is what you're saying? And apparently that's worth 12 upvotes.

Comment author: MixedNuts 09 July 2012 09:01:31PM *  0 points [-]

I've got a worse one: people who are experiencing skepticism should have their children taken away, forcibly stabbed with a syringe needle, injected with chemicals chosen by the government, and returned only if they will allow an institution they hate to keep stuffing their kids with chemicals.

Edit: Wait, that is controversial? Huh. Is LW unusually opposed to mandatory vaccination or am I wrong about the mainstream?

Comment author: Vaniver 03 July 2012 12:56:18AM 12 points [-]

Reality is the ultimate arbiter of truth. If your thoughts, beliefs, and actions aren't aligned with truth, your results will suffer.

--Steve Pavlina

Comment author: sketerpot 03 July 2012 01:49:20AM 23 points [-]

Or, because running into heavy objects is a good intuition pump:

Reality is what trips you up when you run around with your eyes closed.

I think this was in a book by James P. Hogan, but a bit of Googling only reveals one or two other people quoting it but not remembering where it came from.

Comment author: Stabilizer 05 July 2012 08:53:15AM 18 points [-]

A computer is like a violin. You can imagine a novice trying first a phonograph and then a violin. The latter, he says, sounds terrible. That is the argument we have heard from our humanists and most of our computer scientists. Computer programs are good, they say, for particular purposes, but they aren't flexible. Neither is a violin, or a typewriter, until you learn how to use it.

-Marvin Minsky

Thinking of your brain (and yourself) like an instrument to played might be useful for instrumental rationality.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 July 2012 05:43:39AM 24 points [-]

We are all aware that the senses can be deceived, the eyes fooled. But how can we be sure our senses are not being deceived at any particular time, or even all the time? Might I just be a brain in a tank somewhere, tricked all my life into believing in the events of this world by some insane computer? And does my life gain or lose meaning based on my reaction to such solipsism?

--- Project PYRRHO, Specimen 46, Vat 7. Activity recorded M.Y. 2302.22467. (TERMINATION OF SPECIMEN ADVISED)

From Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Comment author: lukeprog 23 July 2012 07:23:55AM 4 points [-]

Misunderstanding of probability may be the greatest of all impediments to scientific literacy.

Stephen Jay Gould

Comment author: Alejandro1 04 July 2012 08:11:35AM *  14 points [-]

Religion begins by being taken for granted; after a time, it is elaborately proved; at last comes a time (the present) when the whole effort is to induce people to let it alone.

--John Stuart Mill (1854).

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 07 July 2012 10:05:25AM *  9 points [-]

It's better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

-Chinese proverb

Comment author: woodside 12 July 2012 07:37:31AM *  8 points [-]

"A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week."

General Patton

Obviously not true in all cases, but good advice for folks that have trouble getting things done despite being extremely intelligent (which this community has more than its fair share of).

Comment author: peter_hurford 02 July 2012 07:35:13PM *  14 points [-]

I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. I think most people will agree about this, although one may reach the same view by different routes. I shall not argue for this view. People can hold all sorts of eccentric positions, and perhaps from some of them it would not follow that death by starvation is in itself bad. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to refute such positions, and so for brevity I will henceforth take this assumption as accepted. Those who disagree need read no further.

Peter Singer

Comment author: gwern 05 July 2012 01:31:21AM 2 points [-]

Reminds me a little of Avicenna.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 July 2012 10:23:40AM 7 points [-]

"Man's unfailing capacity to believe what he prefers to be true rather than what the evidence shows to be likely and possible has always astounded me. We long for a caring Universe which will save us from our childish mistakes, and in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary we will pin all our hopes on the slimmest of doubts. God has not been proven not to exist, therefore he must exist." Academician Prokhor Zakharov, Alpha Centauri

Comment author: lukeprog 31 July 2012 02:15:28PM *  3 points [-]

We are accustomed to thinking of evolution in a biological context, but modern evolutionary theory views evolution as something much more general. Evolution is an algorithm; it is an all-purpose formula for innovation, a formula that, through its special brand of trial and error, creates new designs and solves difficult problems. Evolution can perform its tricks not just in the "substrate" of DNA, but in any system that has the right information processing and information-storage characteristics. In short, evolution s simple recipe of "differentiate, select, and amplify" is a type of computer program—a program for creating novelty, knowledge, and growth. Because evolution is a form of information processing, it can do its order-creating work in realms ranging from computer software to the mind, to human culture, and to the economy.

Eric Beinhocker, The Origin of Wealth

Comment author: Jay_Schweikert 09 July 2012 04:57:27PM 6 points [-]

In the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause -- it is seen. The others unfold in succession -- they are not seen: it is well for us, if they are foreseen. Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference -- the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee. Now this difference is enormous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favourable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, -- at the risk of a small present evil.

In fact, it is the same in the science of health, arts, and in that of morals. It often happens, that the sweeter the first fruit of a habit is, the more bitter are the consequences. Take, for example, debauchery, idleness, prodigality. When, therefore, a man absorbed in the effect which is seen has not yet learned to discern those which are not seen, he gives way to fatal habits, not only by inclination, but by calculation.

--From the introduction of Frederic Bastiat's "That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen".

Comment author: baiter 02 July 2012 11:27:14PM *  15 points [-]

"New rule: If you handle snakes to prove they won't bite you because God is real, and then they bite you -- do the math."

– Bill Maher, Real Time with Bill Maher, 6/8/2012

video article

Comment author: Desrtopa 04 July 2012 12:50:02PM 5 points [-]

Strictly speaking, the bible says of Jesus's followers "they will pick up serpents." It doesn't say "they will pick up serpents and not get bitten."

Of course, it does also say they can drink deadly poison without being harmed.

As it happens, I am related to and share my last name with this guy.

Comment author: wedrifid 04 July 2012 04:54:18PM 1 point [-]

Of course, it does also say they can drink deadly poison without being harmed.

Seems like this calls for either preventative antidotes and something to prove or a serious selective breeding program!

Comment author: RichardKennaway 08 July 2012 11:37:08PM 3 points [-]

It is promised that "these signs will follow those who believe". So if they do bite you, then God is still real, but you didn't have enough faith.

Just doing this.

Comment author: Ezekiel 03 July 2012 12:57:58PM *  10 points [-]

Sure. But if I handle snakes to prove they won't bite me because God is real, and they don't bite me -- you do the math.

More seriously, though: the sentiment expressed in the quote is flawed, IMHO. Evidence isn't always symmetrical. Any particular transitional fossil is reasonable evidence for evolution; not finding a particular transitional fossil isn't strong evidence against it. A person perjuring themselves once is strong evidence against their honesty; a person once declining to perjure themselves is not strong evidence in favour of their honesty; et cetera.

I think this might have something to do with the prior, actually: The stronger your prior probability, the less evidence it should take to drastically reduce it.

Edit: Nope, that last conclusion is wrong. Never mind.

Comment author: Jack 04 July 2012 07:34:00PM 4 points [-]

Right. Sensitivity does not equal specificity. Maher makes the mistake of assuming the rate of false positives and false negatives for the 'snakebite test for god' are equal. The transitional fossil test for evolution and the perjury test for honesty both have high false negative rates and low false positive rates.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 03 July 2012 11:46:33AM 14 points [-]

(An important lesson, but I wonder if it's wise to teach it in the context of politics. Among other things, I worry that the messages "boo religion!", "yay updating on evidence!", "boo religious conservatives!", "yay pointing out my enemies are inferior to me!", "yay rationality!", "yay my side for being comparatively rational!", &c. will become mixed up and seen as constituting a natural category even if they objectively shouldn't be. (Related.))

Comment author: lavalamp 08 July 2012 06:51:23PM 2 points [-]

Why does this have 12 upvotes? The fact that this is slightly funny and for our "side" doesn't make it good logic. We've no reason to think snakebites and deities ought to be correlated at all. Reversed stupidity is not intelligence and all that. This ought to be below the visibility threshold.

Comment author: Desrtopa 08 July 2012 07:12:39PM 4 points [-]

We've no reason to think snakebites and deities ought to be correlated at all.

But if you do think that snakebites and deities are correlated, then the correlation has to run both ways.

I didn't upvote since it's more politics than rationality, but there is a useful lesson there.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 04 July 2012 06:05:47PM 9 points [-]

Intellectuals may like to think of themselves as people who "speak truth to power" but too often they are people who speak lies to gain power.

-- Thomas Sowell

Comment author: TimS 10 July 2012 05:30:35PM 2 points [-]

Depending on the speaker, this quote has the potential for reinforcing substantial status quo bias, since taking it serious would dramatically reduce the frequency of truly attempting to speak truth to power. In other words, the quote seems tailor-made for justifying a generalized counter-argument to all speak-truth-to-power actions.

Comment author: hairyfigment 09 July 2012 07:56:21PM 1 point [-]

They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies! But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever, For in thee we live and move and have our being.

— Epimenides the Cretan

Comment author: gwern 30 July 2012 02:58:42PM *  5 points [-]

...’Twas a nest full of young birds on the ground
The cutter-bar had just gone champing over
(Miraculously without tasting flesh)
And left defenseless to the heat and light.
...The way the nest-full every time we stirred
Stood up to us as to a mother-bird
Whose coming home has been too long deferred,
Made me ask would the mother-bird return
And care for them in such a change of scene
And might our meddling make her more afraid?
That was a thing we could not wait to learn.
We saw the risk we took in doing good,
But dared not spare to do the best we could
Though harm should come of it; so built the screen
You had begun, and gave them back their shade.
All this to prove we cared. Why is there then
No more to tell? We turned to other things.
I haven’t any memory—have you?—
Of ever coming to the place again
To see if the birds lived the first night through,
And so at last to learn to use their wings.

--"The Exposed Nest", Robert Frost; I googled some interpretation & discussions of it after reading, and was surprised to see I seem to be the only person to take it as a discussion of ethics.

Comment author: Swimmer963 04 July 2012 04:03:51AM 5 points [-]

In the case of any person whose judgement is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself...the fallacy of what was fallacious.

–John Stuart Mill

Comment author: RobertLumley 02 July 2012 03:16:55PM *  11 points [-]

Why do you insist that the human genetic code is "sacred" or "taboo"? It is a chemical process and nothing more. For that matter—we—are chemical processes and nothing more. If you deny yourself a useful tool simply because it reminds you uncomfortably of your mortality, you have uselessly and pointlessly crippled yourself.

– Chairman Sheng-ji Yang in Alpha Centauri

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 02 July 2012 04:13:44PM 22 points [-]

For that matter—we—are chemical processes and nothing more.

While this is in some sense true, it doesn't add up to normality; it is an excuse for avoiding the actual moral issues. Humans are chemical processes; humans are morally significant; therefore at least some chemical processes have moral significance even if we don't, currently, understand how it arises, and you cannot dismiss a moral question by saying "Chemistry!" any more than you can do so by saying "God says so!"

Comment author: RobertLumley 02 July 2012 04:21:33PM *  6 points [-]

I don't think it's an excuse - it's an aside from the rest of the quote. If you take out that sentence, the quote still makes sense. I think the moral question (from a consequentialist point of view, at least) is put aside when he assumes (accurately, in my opinion) that the tool is "useful". It's usefulness to humans is all that matters, which is his point.

Comment author: Multiheaded 04 July 2012 07:25:24PM 4 points [-]

I don't think it's an excuse - it's an aside from the rest of the quote.

In-game, Yang does view it as an excuse, though, because he's more or less a totalitarian, nihilistic sociopath.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 July 2012 09:54:43PM 1 point [-]

at least some chemical processes have moral significance even if we don't, currently, understand how it arises

Moral significance is not a fact about morally significant humans. It's a fact about the other humans who view them as morally significant.

Our brains' moral reasoning doesn't know about, or depend on, the chemical implementations of morally significant humans' bodies. Therefore there are no moral questions about chemistry, including human biochemistry.

The original quote is correct: DNA should not be held sacred; DNA-related therapy is a tool like any biological or medical procedure. It has no moral status, and should not be assigned qualities like sacredness. Only specific applications of tools have moral status.

As I said, morality is in the eye of the beholder; one might therefore think it's possible to assign moral status to anything one wishes. However, assigning moral status to tools, methods, nonspecific operations, generally leads to repugnant conclusions and/or contradictions. Some people nevertheless say certain tools are immoral in their eyes. Other people value e.g. logical consistency higher than moral instincts. It's a matter of choice.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 02 July 2012 10:03:22PM 0 points [-]

Our brains' moral reasoning doesn't know about, or depend on, the chemical implementations of morally significant humans' bodies. Therefore there are no moral questions about chemistry, including human biochemistry.

I suspect that, if I propose to drip an unknown liquid into your eyes, you will find the question of its chemistry very morally significant indeed.

Since our morality is embedded in, and arises from, physics, the moral questions are indeed at some level about chemistry even if the current black-box reasoning we use has no idea how to deal with information expressed in chemical terms. When we fully understand morality, we will be able to take apart the high-level reasoning that our brains implement into reasoning about the moral significance of individual atoms.

Comment author: Bugmaster 04 July 2012 06:06:15AM 7 points [-]

"It is every citizen's final duty to step into the Tanks, and become one with all the people."

-- Recycling Tanks, Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, Alpha Centauri

Comment author: alex_zag_al 02 July 2012 06:55:34PM 3 points [-]

Lineage has been considered sacred since before it was known what chemicals made it up - think royal families, horror at the idea of racial intermixing, etc. And I don't see why that should change because we know what it's made of - for other reasons maybe, but not that.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 July 2012 05:25:15AM *  6 points [-]

Great quote, especially the last line should be emphasised. Awesome audio of Yang quotes. The comments are also surprisingly entertaining and interesting especially consider this is on YouTube.

Post-humanism, egalitarianism, and authoritarianism. MMmmmm. . . I wish I could vote for Chairman Yang.


I would say that Yang represents the new view on the chinese philisophy of legalism. Legalism promotes the rule of law, where peace and happyness is achieved through the fear of the punishments. If people fear the law, they don't commit crime, if crime is not commited the people are happy. Sheng-ji Yang has a very simillar view to Shang Yang- the core philisopher of legalism and the advisor of the Qin Dynasty.


I don't think that view of Legalism really fits the snapshot we see of Shen-ji Yang's philosophy in the game. His subjects are not meant to be afraid of violating the law, they are meant to be genetically tailored to follow biological imperatives and instincts that are compatible with a code of laws. Like his quote about the Gene Jack not being oppressed because he is created with the desire to work and live as he does without urges that would contradict his role.


Yang was supposed to be representative of a political/social philosophy without making it unambiguously evil. Whether you percieve any faction leader as evil or good has more to do with what you think would be an ideal society than the writters pinning the villain tag on them. That makes SMAC very awesome compared to all those "Civ" games where the civs are all pretty much the same.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 July 2012 05:27:57AM *  3 points [-]

My gift to industry is the genetically engineered worker, or Genejack. Specially designed for labor, the Genejack's muscles and nerves are ideal for his task, and the cerebral cortex has been atrophied so that he can desire nothing except to perform his duties. Tyranny, you say? How can you tyrannize someone who cannot feel pain?

-- Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, "Essays on Mind and Matter"

This argument may have influenced my thoughts several years later.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 July 2012 05:19:11AM *  3 points [-]

I love the Alpha Centauri quotes, the game probably infected me with lost of the memes that made LW appealing. For the longest time I couldn't see any virtue or weirdtopia in the Yang's Human Hive society, but I eventually came to saw the dystopian possibilities of it are no greater than that those of the other factions. Also in the context of the difficulty of a positive singularity (transcendence in the game) it has pragmatic arguments in its favour.

Comment author: dspeyer 03 July 2012 02:53:33PM 3 points [-]

Susan: Oh that's just --

Death of Rats: WHAT DO YOU MEAN, 'JUST'?

--Terry Pratchett, Hogfather, tweaked for greater generality

In the original, Susan finishes her line with "an old story", but by having DoR cut her off she could just as easily have said "chemistry" or "data" or something like that.

Comment author: DanArmak 03 July 2012 06:29:19PM 2 points [-]

Technically, he just said SQUEAK. Which is even more general.

Comment author: RobertLumley 02 July 2012 03:17:43PM *  7 points [-]

Scientific theories are judged by the coherence they lend to our natural experience and the simplicity with which they do so.”

– Commissioner Pravin Lal in Alpha Centauri

Comment author: shminux 02 July 2012 06:07:27PM 8 points [-]

Rational politician:

It certainly isn't the government's job to educate voters. Our system is designed to make candidates compete for votes, and the most effective way to compete is by appealing to emotion and ignorance. The last thing a politician wants is to be labeled professorial. That's the same as boring.

Dilbert blog

Comment author: Emile 04 July 2012 03:45:57PM 2 points [-]

I don't see the implied link between

It certainly isn't the government's job to educate voters.

... and

Our system is designed to make candidates compete for votes, and the most effective way to compete is by appealing to emotion and ignorance.

The fact that appealing to emotion works to get elected doesn't mean that elected politicians have any incentive one way or the other towards educating voters.

Comment author: AspiringRationalist 04 July 2012 08:26:01PM 1 point [-]

The fact that appealing to emotion works to get elected doesn't mean that elected politicians have any incentive one way or the other towards educating voters.

That's the point. They have no incentive one way or another, so it's not their job. The quote doesn't say it's their job not to, just that it isn't their job.

Comment author: lukeprog 23 July 2012 04:04:54AM 4 points [-]

Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing with its probability.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Comment author: Fyrius 29 July 2012 05:02:56PM 4 points [-]

If that's how it works, then I suspect paranoia is the same thing, but with fear instead of desire.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 July 2012 04:48:11PM *  4 points [-]

His books celebrated the joyful wonders of scientific investigation and included such exuberant passages as this one written about the successful prediction of the location of the new planet Uranus: "Praised be this science! Praised be the men who do it! And praised be the human mind, which sees more sharply than does the human eye."

Walter Isaacson, Einstein (quoting Aaron Bernstein's People's Books on Natural Science)

Comment author: matabele 29 July 2012 01:38:46PM *  2 points [-]

Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.

– James Baldwin

The obscure language was likely due to the political context of the original; try substituting 'identified' for 'faced'.

Comment author: lukeprog 23 July 2012 07:22:41AM 2 points [-]

As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.

Albert Einstein

(Quoted here but not in any LW quotes thread.)

Comment author: AngryParsley 05 July 2012 02:33:31AM 8 points [-]

I'd like to propose a new guideline for rationality quotes:

  • Please don't post multiple quotes from the same source.

I enjoy the Alpha Centauri quotes, but I think posting 5 of them at once is going a bit overboard. It dominates the conversation. I'm fine with them all getting posted eventually. If they're good quotes, they can wait a couple months.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 04 July 2012 06:12:36PM 9 points [-]

Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good. In area after area - crime, education, housing, race relations - the situation has gotten worse after the bright new theories were put into operation. The amazing thing is that this history of failure and disaster has neither discouraged the social engineers nor discredited them.

-- Thomas Sowell

Comment author: AspiringRationalist 04 July 2012 11:07:12PM 9 points [-]

Without having a date on the quote, it's hard to know exactly which three decades he's referring to, but we certainly seem to be in a better position regarding crime, housing and race relations than three decades ago. Education, probably not so much. This sounds to me like just a meta-contrarian longing for a return to the imagined "good old days".

Comment author: sketerpot 06 July 2012 05:44:07AM *  10 points [-]

Without having a date on the quote, it's hard to know exactly which three decades he's referring to,

He published that in 1993, which was about at the historic peak of violent crime in the US since 1960. The situation has improved a lot since then, but through the decades of 1960-1990, things looked pretty grim.

Comment author: [deleted] 05 July 2012 06:01:13AM 10 points [-]


In the US at least the murder rates today are comparable to those of the 1960s only because of advances in trauma medicine.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 05 July 2012 05:36:02PM 9 points [-]

Another important reason is that Americans have in the meantime embraced a lifestyle that would have struck earlier generations as incredibly paranoid siege mentality. (But which is completely understandable given the realities of the crime wave in the second half of the 20th century.)

Yet another reason is, of course, the draconian toughening of law enforcement and criminal penalties.

Comment author: [deleted] 05 July 2012 05:49:35PM *  5 points [-]

To clarify I was commenting on murder rates specifically in light of how trauma medicine has reduced the fraction of violent assaults that cause death. The factors you describe seem more along the lines of avoiding violent assault in the first place.

Controlling for improvements in trauma medicine, today's murder rate would be three times that of the 1960s, but the numbers would be better than the controlled for medicine 1990s numbers, which where five times 1960s levels.

In other words yes in the past 20 years Americans seem to be getting assaulted less and I think all of what you describe played a role. There is also the unfortunate problem of police sometimes having nasty incentives to misclassify crimes so some of the drop might be fictional.

Comment author: Alicorn 05 July 2012 06:08:33AM 3 points [-]

Interesting. Where did you find this fact? Are there others like it there?

Comment author: [deleted] 05 July 2012 06:28:10AM *  9 points [-]

Murder and Medicine: The Lethality of Criminal Assault 1960-1999

Despite the proliferation of increasingly dangerous weapons and the very large increase in rates of serious criminal assault, since 1960, the lethality of such assault in the United States has dropped dramatically. This paradox has barely been studied and needs to be examined using national time-series data. Starting from the basic view that homicides are aggravated assaults with the outcome of the victim’s death, we assembled evidence from national data sources to show that the principal explanation of the downward trend in lethality involves parallel developments in medical technology and related medical support services that have suppressed the homicide rate compared to what it would be had such progress not been made.We argue that research into the causes and deterrability of homicide would benefit from a “lethality perspective” that focuses on serious assaults, only a small proportion of which end in death.

To be clear there are other possible explanations for why violent assault as recorded has become less lethal, I just think this one is by far the most plausible.

Comment author: Alicorn 05 July 2012 04:56:06PM 8 points [-]

I always think it's weird on cop shows and the like where an assaulter is in custody, the victim is in the hospital, and someone says "If he dies, you're in big trouble!". The criminal has already done whatever he did, and now somehow the severity of that doing rests with the competence of doctors.

Comment author: komponisto 07 July 2012 05:32:11AM 2 points [-]

Indeed, this seems to be an area where the legal system opts for a consequentialist approach; no surprise, then, that you would find it weird.

Comment author: scav 09 July 2012 08:21:35AM 1 point [-]

Um, I thought consequentialism was about evaluating the goodness of a course of action based on its probable consequences. If all it amounts to is hindsight then it's not much use for making ethical decisions about future actions. But I think that would be a straw man.

If you apply that crazy approach to consequentialism then I should be allowed to stand on a roof heaving bricks out into the street, and I'm not doing anything wrong unless and until one of them actually hits somebody.

Comment author: komponisto 09 July 2012 03:07:06PM 2 points [-]

Consequentialism is about deriving the ethical value of actions from their consequences. If someone thinks that the badness of an action is not determined until the consequences are known (like the police in Alicorn's example, or more to the pont the legal system they represent), then, necessarily, they are applying consequentialist moral intuitions, and not deontological moral intuitions.

No one said anything about "all it amounts to" being "hindsight". Your second paragraph is a straw man. While it is true that if someone believes that, they must be a consequentialist, it does not follow that a consequentialist must necessarily believe that.

Comment author: Nornagest 06 July 2012 07:08:17AM *  1 point [-]

I've no idea of the data's provenance, but this table claims aggravated assault rates of 86/100,000 in 1960, 440/100,000 in 1993, and 252/100,000 in 2010 if I've got my math right. Murder rates are 5.08/100,000, 9.51/100,000, and 4.77/100,000 respectively. So the decline in murder since 1993 has outpaced the decline in assault (it also rose less steeply between '60 and '93), and trauma medicine's a plausible cause, but both declines are quite real: I wouldn't say the comparison to the 1960s is valid only because of medical improvements.

In any case, 1960 was more like fifty years ago. The per-100,000 aggravated assault rate in 1980 was just under 300 -- substantially over the 2010 numbers.

Comment author: James_Miller 02 July 2012 03:29:42PM *  10 points [-]

All mushrooms are edible. But some of them you can eat only once.

From Paleohacks.

Comment author: mindspillage 04 July 2012 01:18:02AM 9 points [-]

Reminds me of advice to people who want to know if they can sue someone: You can always sue. You just can't always expect to win.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 06 July 2012 06:06:44PM 10 points [-]

I can call spirits from the vasty deep. Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?

Comment author: DanielLC 03 July 2012 01:05:20AM *  7 points [-]


11. Everything is air-droppable at least once.

The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries

I don't really see the point of either of these quotes.

Edit: Fixed. Thanks.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 July 2012 10:20:28AM 4 points [-]

Its not air-droppable if there's no aircraft capable of lifting it!

Comment author: arundelo 03 July 2012 01:12:58AM 2 points [-]

Because Markdown renumbers numbered lists for you (making it easier for you to re-order them). Prevent it with a backslash before the period:

> 11\. Everything is air-droppable at least once.
Comment author: RobertLumley 02 July 2012 06:06:53PM 14 points [-]

It seems like the author is defying the common usage without a reason here. The common usage of edible is "safe to eat", or more precisely "able to be eaten without killing you", and I don't see what use redefining it to mean "able to be swallowed" is. It just seems like a trite, definitional argument that is primarily about status.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 06 July 2012 06:04:35PM 6 points [-]

I take "All mushrooms are edible. But some of them you can eat only once." to be a useful warning, hopefully made more memorable by being framed as a joke.

Comment author: duckduckMOO 09 July 2012 05:34:54PM 4 points [-]

Apart from the hilarious joke, this quote makes the point that "will kill you" is not actually the same as impossible to eat, which more generally generally points out that impossible is often used in place of "really bad idea."

I read edible as a synonym for eatable. Poisonous mushrooms: edible. rocks, not edible. That's how that word is attatched in my head. I assume you read it as non-poisonous/fit to eat so it feels like a crass and overt redefinition. If the guy who wrote that reads that word the same way I assume you do it's a really cheap joke. If he doesn't the quote makes a lot of sense.

Comment author: nshepperd 05 July 2012 04:26:46AM 4 points [-]

Sure. It's really an amusing play on words more than a rationality quote.

Comment author: Alicorn 02 July 2012 06:58:55PM 8 points [-]

I agree with the sense of your comment but wish to nitpick - I think "nontoxic" means you can eat it without it killing you. Crayons fit this definition, but are not properly called "edible"; many flowers can be eaten without killing you but "edible flowers" are the ones you might actually want to eat on purpose. "Edible" is narrower.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 July 2012 11:32:35PM 7 points [-]

Nonetheless, the sentiment "You can do X, but only once" seems broadly useful.

Comment author: RobertLumley 02 July 2012 11:46:03PM *  5 points [-]

Can you explain how so? This does not seem obvious to me. It seems broadly true, but not broadly useful. (And I'm not really sure what you mean by useful anyway.)

Comment author: fubarobfusco 03 July 2012 02:01:54AM 19 points [-]

My model of Eliezer says: "You can launch AGI, but only once."

Comment author: MixedNuts 03 July 2012 02:29:57AM 6 points [-]

I think I get it. If you have a big weapon of doom that will ruin everything, it's not useless; you can use it when you're absolutely desperate. So options that sound completely stupid are worth looking at when you need a last resort.

Comment author: sketerpot 07 July 2012 06:30:49AM 4 points [-]

Having a scary desperate option, along with clear, publicly-known criteria which will trigger it, can prevent things from deteriorating to the point where you'll be tempted to use that desperate option. A honeybee will die if it stings you, but it will sting you if it feels too threatened, so people try to avoid antagonizing honeybees, and the bees don't end up dead because people didn't antagonize them.

Related: Thomas Schelling's "Strategy of Conflict".

Comment author: mwengler 04 July 2012 07:01:29PM 2 points [-]

Just because you can do something doesn't mean the price for doing it is acceptable.

Just because the price for doing something is your own death (or consignment to non-volatile ROM) doesn't mean the price is unacceptable.

Comment author: komponisto 04 July 2012 08:40:30PM *  4 points [-]

You and Alicorn are confusing denotation and connotation here. "Edible" simply means "able to be eaten"; it is used instead of "eatable", because the latter is for some reason not considered a "standard" or "legitimate" word. As such, it possesses exactly the same semantics as "eatable" would; in fact, a sufficiently supercilious English teacher will correct you to "edible" if you say "eatable". (Similarly "legible" instead of "readable", although "readable" seems to be increasingly accepted these days.)

Yes, it's true that people only usually apply the word to a more restricted subset of things than those which won't kill the eater; but such a behavioral tendency should not be confused with the actual semantics of the word.

The sense of the quote is exactly the same as if it had been:

All mushrooms can be eaten. But some of them can be eaten only once.

In this case, it would hardly be legitimate to complain that "can be eaten" means "safe to be eaten". The fact is that the phrase is ambiguous, and the quote is a play on that ambiguity. Likewise in its original form, with "edible".

It just seems like a...definitional argument that is primarily about status.

You've just provided a reasonable first-approximation analysis of wit!

Comment author: Alicorn 05 July 2012 06:05:14AM 8 points [-]

(Similarly "legible" instead of "readable", although "readable" seems to be increasingly accepted these days.)

Something "illegible" cannot have its component characters distinguished or identified. Something that is merely "unreadable" might just have ridiculously convoluted syntax or something.

Comment author: bbleeker 06 July 2012 10:46:05AM 7 points [-]

Of course 'edible' does literally mean 'can be eaten', and equally of course, it is normally interpreted as 'fit to be eaten'. That's why paleohacks writes it that way. It's a joke!

Comment author: tut 07 July 2012 04:08:23PM 4 points [-]

When did this turn into the jokes thread?

Comment author: scav 09 July 2012 03:45:50PM 1 point [-]

If you're not having fun, why bother?

Comment author: [deleted] 05 July 2012 01:06:11AM 3 points [-]

(Similarly "legible" instead of "readable", although "readable" seems to be increasingly accepted these days.)

I've seen a distinction being made between “legible” applying to typography etc. and “readable” applying to grammar etc., so that a über-complicated technical text typeset in LaTeX would be legible but not readable, and a story for children written in an awful handwriting would be readable but not legible.

Comment author: shminux 05 July 2012 12:05:29AM 5 points [-]

"Edible" simply means "able to be eaten"

The standard definition of edible is fit to be eaten, not "able to be eaten".

Comment author: gwern 05 July 2012 12:57:24AM 7 points [-]

Indeed. Given people like Monsieur Mangetout or disorders like pica, it's hard to see why we would even bother using the word 'edible' if it didn't mean fit to be eaten.

Comment author: bentarm 05 July 2012 12:25:15PM 2 points [-]

Yes, it's true that people only usually apply the word to a more restricted subset of things than those which won't kill the eater; but such a behavioral tendency should not be confused with the actual semantics of the word.

To claim that the actual semantics of a word can be defined by anything other than the behavioural tendencies of its users is, at best, highly controversial. Whatever you or I may think, "irregardless" just is a (near) synonym for "regardless" and, to judge from my own experience (and the majority of comments from native speakers on the thread) "edible" actually means "safe to eat" (although, as Alicorn says, it's a little bit more complicated than that).

Words mean exactly what people use them to mean - there is no higher authority (in English, at least, there isn't even a plausible candidate for a higher authority).

Comment author: komponisto 05 July 2012 02:14:00PM 1 point [-]

To claim that the actual semantics of a word can be defined by anything other than the behavioural tendencies of its users is, at best, highly controversial.

On the contrary, it's trivially true. If semantics depended exclusively on behavior patterns, then novel thoughts would not be expressible. The meaning of the word "yellow" does not logically depend solely on which yellow objects in the universe accidentally happen to have been labeled "yellow" by humans. It is entirely possible that, sitting on a planet somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy, is a yellow glekdoftx. Under the negation-of-my-theory (I'll try not to strawman you by saying "under your theory"), that would be impossible, because, due to the fact that humans have never previously described a glekdoftx as "yellow", the extension of that term does not include any glekdoftxes. Examples like this should suffice to demonstrate that semantic information does not just contain information about verbal behavior; it also contains information about logical relationships.

edible" actually means "safe to eat

Guess what: I agree! Here, indeed, is my proof of this fact:

  1. "Edible" means "able to be eaten".
  2. In the relevant contexts, "able to be eaten" means "safe to eat".
  3. Therefore, "edible" means "safe to eat".

See how easy that was? And yet, here I am, dealing with a combinatorial explosion of hostile comments (and even downvotes), all because I dared to make a mildly nontrivial, ever-so-slightly inferentially distant point!

Insert exclamation of frustration here.

Words mean exactly what people use them to mean - there is no higher authority

Yes, that thought is in my cache too. It doesn't address my point, which is more subtle.

Comment author: TimS 05 July 2012 02:29:15PM 1 point [-]

It's reasonable to play with the expected meanings - but playing with the expected meanings in this case seems inconsistent with applying the label "Rationality Quote."

The quote is isomorphic to "Don't eat poisonous things - and some things are poisonous." That quote won't get upvotes if posted as a Rationality Quote - why should its equivalent?

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 06 July 2012 04:50:31AM 1 point [-]

It just seems like a...definitional argument that is primarily about status.

You've just provided a reasonable first-approximation analysis of wit!

Upvoted for this.

Comment author: matabele 27 July 2012 05:28:19PM 3 points [-]

Men show their characters in nothing more clearly than in what they think laughable.

-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

(re-posted on request.)

Comment author: matabele 21 July 2012 02:58:46PM *  3 points [-]

A perennial favourite: "If you torture the data enough, they will confess."

Often attributed to Ronald Coase, however this version was likely: "If you torture the data long enough, nature will confess" - perhaps implying a confession of truth. Another version, attributed to Paolo Magrassi: "If you torture the data enough, it will confess anything" - perhaps implying a confession of falsehood.

Personally, I find the ambiguous version of greater interest.

Comment author: [deleted] 22 July 2012 08:23:08AM *  1 point [-]
Comment author: shminux 04 July 2012 04:09:21AM *  3 points [-]

I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.

Susan B. Anthony

Comment author: sketerpot 04 July 2012 08:20:23AM *  7 points [-]

That is not always true.

Comment author: MixedNuts 09 July 2012 09:15:07PM 4 points [-]

Mortification of the flesh is at least a mixed case. Delicious kinky endorphins.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 03 July 2012 06:35:04AM 3 points [-]

Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldnt even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People dont pay attention. And then one day there's an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. It's just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it's just a coin. Yes. That's true. Is it?

— Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

Comment author: shokwave 03 July 2012 06:43:58AM *  4 points [-]

What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?

--- the character Chigurh, from the same novel and author.

It's almost like a koan for me - thinking about what in my history I have lost on a coin toss is a great jumping point into more introspection.

Comment author: gwern 05 July 2012 02:22:37AM 3 points [-]

Nothing would happen now. All that had happened was that some pieces of metal had innocently lifted other metal; nothing more. And that pouch would lie there in the dark for an unknowable span of days, and nothing would happen then, either. It is a mysterious trait of this world that the slightest cipher or symbol of which one is utterly ignorant can determine the days of one’s life.

--The Ones Who Walk Toward Acre

Comment author: AspiringRationalist 04 July 2012 11:08:27PM *  4 points [-]

Never do anything on principle alone. If the principle of the thing is the only reason to do it, don't.

-- Bill Bryson

Comment author: Nominull 06 July 2012 02:52:37AM 2 points [-]

I think this is a bad principle to try to uphold. It means you have to understand the motivations behind all your principles, rather than just knowing that they are good principles. Which may be valuable for a small class of philosophers, but it's wasted effort for the general population.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 06 July 2012 05:09:56PM 3 points [-]

After a while, Kit noticed that a large part of the pattern that made a bridge or a tower was built entirely out of people.

Kij Johnson, "The Man Who Bridged the Mist"

nominated for this year's Hugo

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 04 July 2012 06:04:50PM *  3 points [-]

It may be expecting too much to expect most intellectuals to have common sense, when their whole life is based on their being uncommon -- that is, saying things that are different from what everyone else is saying. There is only so much genuine originality in anyone. After that, being uncommon means indulging in pointless eccentricities or clever attempts to mock or shock.

-- Thomas Sowell

Retracted, because it's a duplicate.

Comment author: gwern 05 July 2012 02:02:22AM 7 points [-]

"Those writers who lay on the watch for novelty, could have little hope of greatness; for great things cannot have escaped former observation."

--Dr. Samuel Johnson; "The Life of Cowley", Lives of the English Poets (1781)

Comment author: Vaniver 03 July 2012 12:57:05AM 3 points [-]

Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.


Comment author: wedrifid 03 July 2012 01:34:57PM 1 point [-]

Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.

Don't know about that. He who has everyone else in his power sounds rather powerful too.

Comment author: MBlume 03 July 2012 07:26:42PM *  0 points [-]

Ey who has everyone else in eir power has everyone else in the power of someone ey doesn't have control over.

Comment author: wedrifid 03 July 2012 07:29:17PM 14 points [-]

Too many not-words in one sentence for me I'm afraid.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 03 July 2012 07:46:00PM 14 points [-]

Reframed with more standard pronouns: if I have everyone else in my power, but not myself, then everyone else is in the power of someone I don't control.

Comment author: Fyrius 07 July 2012 09:07:00AM *  1 point [-]

Minor spoiler alert. (I think you know the drill.)

Nsgre Oebaa jvaf n qhry:

Ynql Neela: "Lbh qba'g svtug jvgu ubabe!"

Oebaa: "Ab."

Oebaa fzvyrf naq cbvagf gb gur zna ur whfg qrsrngrq.

"Ur qvq."

Game of Thrones (TV series), episode S01E06

(Rational agents should WIN.)

Comment author: MinibearRex 13 July 2012 12:33:48AM 6 points [-]

I like the quote, though really there's no particular reason to put it in rot13.

Minor point: The character's name is spelled Oebaa

Comment author: Fyrius 13 July 2012 01:34:36PM *  2 points [-]

[Hiding a spoiler in the alt tag of a fake link]

...huh. Well wow. I'm going to remember that trick, that's clever. I had no idea you could do that here.

Also, noted, and fixed.

Comment author: Fyrius 08 July 2012 02:26:53PM 1 point [-]

If those four people who downvoted this would enlighten me as to why this is a bad quote, that would be much appreciated.

Comment author: Grognor 12 July 2012 04:22:48AM *  6 points [-]

I have a general policy of downvoting anything in rot13. No, I'm not going to work to read your comment!

Instead, put your spoiler text in the hover text of a fake url, like this


[like this](http://notareal.url/ "See? See how much better this is?")
Comment author: tut 08 July 2012 06:33:04PM 4 points [-]

First, it is an appeal to consequences against honor. Worse, it is an appeal to fictional consequences.

Second, honor is not the opposite of rationality. Just making an argument against honor would not automatically be a rationality quote even if it was a good argument.

Third it was encrypted which made me waste more than three times the amount of time reading it that I would have if it was in plain text. When it turned out to be bad this made the disappointment much worse.

Comment author: Fyrius 08 July 2012 07:19:28PM *  4 points [-]

Jeez, you guys. You miss the point.

But at any rate, WIN. Don't lose reasonably, WIN.


If you fail to achieve a correct answer, it is futile to protest that you acted with propriety.


(...) what good does a sense of violated entitlement do? At all? Ever? What good does it do to tell ourselves that we did everything right and deserved better, and that someone or something else is to blame?

-- Eliezer Yudkowsky

The point isn't that honour is bad, the point is (much more generally) that rational agents shouldn't follow the Rules and lose anyway, they should WIN. Whether the Rules are the rules of honour, of mainstream science or of traditional rationalism, or whatever, if they don't get you to win, find a way that does. And it's futile to complain about unfairness after you lost, or the guy you were rooting for did.

The only part that appeals to fictional consequences is the additional implication that oftentimes, an ounce of down-to-earth pragmatism beats any amount of lofty ideals if you need to actually achieve concrete goals.

I thought adding that "rational agents should win" reference would make the intended idea clear enough. But I'll take my own advice and just make a mental note to be clearer next time.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 13 July 2012 02:47:44AM *  2 points [-]

I dunno, I think all of that is overstated. I mean, sure, perfectly rational agents will always win, where "win" is defined as "achieving the best possible outcome under the circumstances."

But aspiring rationalists will sometimes lose, and therefore be forced to choose the lesser of two evils, and, in making that choice, may very rationally decide that the pain of not achieving your (stated, proactive) goal is easier to bear than the pain of transgressing your (implicit, background) code of morality.

And if by "win" you mean not "achieve the best possible outcome under the circumstances," but "achieve your stated, proactive goal," then no, rationalists won't and shouldn't always win. Sometimes rationalists will correctly note that the best possible outcome under the circumstances is to suffer a negative consequence in order to uphold an ideal. Sometimes your competitors are significantly more talented and better-equipped than you, and only a little less rational than you, such that you can't outwit your way to an honorable upset victory. If you value winning more than honor, fine, and if you value honor more than winning, fine, but don't prod yourself to cheat simply because you have some misguided sense that rationalists never lose.

EDIT: Anyone care to comment on the downvotes?

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 09 July 2012 02:47:24AM 1 point [-]

To the extent honor encodes valid ethical injunctions, ignoring it will cause you to loose in the long run.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 09 July 2012 03:32:24PM 2 points [-]

Exactly-- compare Protected from Myself to "rationalists should win!".

Comment author: RobertLumley 02 July 2012 03:13:17PM *  -1 points [-]

If our society seems more nihilistic than that of previous eras, perhaps this is simply a sign of our maturity as a sentient species. As our collective consciousness expands beyond a crucial point, we are at last ready to accept life's fundamental truth: that life's only purpose is life itself.

– Chairman Sheng-Ji Yang in Alpha Centauri

Comment author: DanArmak 02 July 2012 09:59:13PM 1 point [-]

I don't understand the quote. Under what definition of "nihilistic" does it make sense?

Wikipedia says:

nihilism: a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded

Often true and valid. Agrees with the quote in that life has no purpose beyond itself - e.g. no supernatural gods.

and that existence is senseless and useless.

Doesn't follow, and is false in any case. Unless one argues that all existing or even possible things are senseless and useless. Which would render these two words quite senseless and useless, in my view.

What is meant by 'nihilism' anyway?

Comment author: mwengler 04 July 2012 07:36:24PM 3 points [-]

In that same wikipedia article, follow the link to Moral Nihilism to learn

Moral nihilism, also known as ethical nihilism, is the meta-ethical view that morality does not exist as something inherent to objective reality...

If morality is not objective, than moral propositions do not have true-or-falseness about them, and all the discussions about morality are vapid.

What Chang means is he gets to make it up as he goes along because 1) it is not wrong to make it up as he goes along because in nihilism, nothing is "wrong," and 2) there isn't a "right" either.

Its possible a slightly warm-and-fuzzier Chang would choose Moral Relativism which is Moral Nihilism's more conventional 2nd cousin. But Nihilism makes for a much better story, it is stark and even the word sounds ominous.

Comment author: DanArmak 05 July 2012 03:29:57PM *  1 point [-]

If morality is not objective, than moral propositions do not have true-or-falseness about them, and all the discussions about morality are vapid.

It seems very obvious and uncontroversial to me that morality is not objective. (Yay typical mind fallacy!) Morality is, or arises from, a description of human actions, judgements and thoughts. Aliens who behaved completely differently should be said to have different morals.

It's not clear to me why someone would even think to argue for objective (=universally correct and unique) morals unless motivated by religion or tradition.

Of course, it's also clear to me that our subjective morals add up to normality. For instance murder is generally morally wrong. Of course that should be read to say it's wrong in our eyes! Of course things are not right or wrong in themselves; value judgements, including moral values, are passed by observers who have values/preferences/moral theories.

It seems to me that nihilism, if it is commonly understood to mean this, should be accepted by pretty much any materialist. This doesn't seem to be the case. What am I missing? What are the reasons to think there's something in nature (or in logic, perhaps) that should be identified as "objective morals"?

Comment author: mwengler 05 July 2012 04:32:09PM 2 points [-]

If I said "Murder is NOT wrong for humans, it is just a matter of personal choice" and you said "no you are wrong, murder is wrong for humans" I would conclude you are a moral realist, not a nihilist. I made a moral statement and you told me I was wrong. You seem to believe that that moral statement is either true or false no matter who says it, that "I think I'll murder Dan" is not just a subjective choice like "I think I'll read a Neil Gaiman book tonight" might be.

But you also characterize morality as a description of human actions. If I say "I notice that murder is said to be wrong by many people but is practiced by some non-trivial minority of humans, there fore, since I observe it is part of the human moral landscape, I will pick a kid at random in the mall and shoot him." and you say "no, you shouldn't" then you are probably a moral realist. You apparently think that the proposition I proposed has a truth or falseness to it that exists outside yourself, and you are expressing to me that this statement I made is false.

My moral nihilism which I have abandoned perhaps a week ago arose from my comparing the quality of moral facts and fact finding to the quality of scientific facts and fact finding. Science seemed developed through an objective process: you had to test the world to see if statements about the world were true or false. Whereas morality seemed to come entirely from intuitions and introspection. "you shouldn't kill random kids in the mall." "You should recycle." Blah blah blah where is even the test? In my case I was a nihilist in that I thought there was no sensible way to declare a moral statement to be a "fact" rather than a choice, but I was totally willing to kill reflecting my choices (i.e., kill someone who threatened me or my friends or my family). So I had what I thought was a de facto morality that I thought could not be justified as "fact" in the same way that engineering and physics textbooks could be justified.

Upon being reminded of "the problem of induction" I remembered that scientific facts are deduced from ASSUMPTIONS. We just do a pretty good job if aligning with reality is your standard. So the feature that any moral conclusions I was going to reach would necessarily be deduced from assumptions was not enough to relegate them to mere choices.

It could be that we are nowhere near as good at figuring out what the moral facts are as we are at figuring out what the scientific facts are. But 3000 years ago, we weren't very good at scientific facts either, and that presumably didn't stop them from being facts, we just didn't know much about them yet.

So maybe morality CAN'T be known as well as science, or maybe it can, we just haven't figure it out yet.

But to be a proper nihilist, you need to accept that murder is not wrong (it is not right either). Are you down with that?

Comment author: RobertLumley 02 July 2012 11:44:07PM 2 points [-]

I think "more nihilistic" is only meant to imply the progression of philosophical thought away from the dogmas of what "the purpose of life" was, which was for awhile, very broadly generalized, a progression from religion to nihilism.

I also think nihilistic was chosen because it is a trope that is is much more present in the cultural vernacular than other, more more philosophically precise words, like absurdist, which would be more accurate.

Comment author: DanArmak 03 July 2012 08:17:15AM 2 points [-]

If I look at the Wikipedia one-line definition again, that seems to match:

nihilism: a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded

...a sensible move away from religious, traditional values...

and that existence is senseless and useless.

...which is branded by religionists as leading to thinking "existence is senseless and useless", although that's both empirically and logically wrong. This part is the 'meaning' of 'nihilism' in the vernacular, as you say.

Comment author: amcknight 03 July 2012 04:54:52AM 1 point [-]

I wouldn't use wikipedia to get the gist of a philosophical view. At least to me, I find it to be way off a lot of the time, this time included. Sorry I don't have a clear definition for you right now though.

Comment author: matabele 27 July 2012 07:47:47PM *  1 point [-]

Another Goethe quote, whilst on that tack; seems appropriate for disciples of GS.

Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing; a confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.

-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Comment author: DaFranker 27 July 2012 07:58:48PM 1 point [-]

There's one (okay, more like 1.6) major problem with that quote, everything else being otherwise good:

The implicitly absolute categorization of "love" as "ideal", and the likewise-implicit (sneaky?) connotation that love is not as real as it is ideal or marriage as ideal as it is real.

Love is a very real thing. There are very real, natural, empirically-observable and testable things happening for whatever someone identifies as "love". However, further discussion is problematic, as "love" has become such a wide-reaching symbol that it becomes almost essential to specify just what interpretation, definition or sub-element of "love" we're talking about in most contexts if ambiguity is to be avoided.

Comment author: chaosmosis 13 July 2012 02:25:32AM 1 point [-]

If you want to learn why you think whatever it is you think, strip away existing context and force it into a new one and see what happens.

The Last Psychiatrist, at http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2011/11/judge_beats_his_daughter_for_b.html

Comment author: algekalipso 04 July 2012 02:54:59AM 1 point [-]

"'Whereof one cannot speak thereof be silent,' the seventh and final proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, is to me the most beautiful but also the most errant. 'Whereof one cannot speak thereof write books, and music, and invent new and better terminology through mathematics and science,' something like that, is how I would put it. Or, if one is not predisposed to some such productivity, '. . . thereof look steadfastly and directly into it forever.'"

-- Daniel Kolak, comment on a post by Gordon Cornwall.

Comment author: ChristianKl 04 July 2012 10:01:23AM *  5 points [-]

This misses the point that Wittgenstein made. Inventing better terminology doesn't help you if you don't have any information in the first place.

Something might have happened before the big bang. The big bang erased all information about what happened before the big bang. Therefore we shouldn't speak about what happened before the big bang.

Gods might exist or might not exist. We don't have any evidence to decide whether they exist. Therefore we should stop speaking about gods.

To come to a question that more central to this community: We have no way to decide through the scientific method whether the Many Worlds Hypothesis is true. According to Wittgenstein we should therefore be silent.

Inventing new terminology doesn't help with those issues.

Comment author: Danfly 04 July 2012 11:56:20AM *  3 points [-]

I'm by no means an expert on this, but I was under the impression that Wittgenstein meant that language was an insufficient tool to express the "things we must pass over in silence", e.g. metaphysics, religion, ethics etc., but that he nevertheless believed that these were the only things worth talking about. My understanding was that he believed that language is only good for dealing with the world of hard facts and the natural sciences and, while we cannot use it to express certain things, some of these things might be "shown" by different means, in line with his comment that the unwritten part of the tractatus was the most important part.

This conclusion from one of hist lectures largely sums up how I would understand his view of many of the "things we must pass over in silence".

"This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it."

This is largely the way I have been led to interpret it through reading other people's interpretations and it is probably wrong, but I thought that I'd try and express it here, because I do have a strong desire to expand my knowledge of Wittgensteinian philosophy. One thing which I do think is quite likely though, is that Wittgenstein would consider any written "interpretation" of his work to ultimately be "nonsense" insofar as any written part of it is concerned.