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Two Cult Koans

46 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 December 2007 05:45AM

Followup toEvery Cause Wants To Be A Cult

    A novice rationalist studying under the master Ougi was rebuked by a friend who said, "You spend all this time listening to your master, and talking of 'rational' this and 'rational' that—you have fallen into a cult!"
    The novice was deeply disturbed; he heard the words, "You have fallen into a cult!" resounding in his ears as he lay in bed that night, and even in his dreams.
    The next day, the novice approached Ougi and related the events, and said, "Master, I am constantly consumed by worry that this is all really a cult, and that your teachings are only dogma."
    Ougi replied, "If you find a hammer lying in the road and sell it, you may ask a low price or a high one.  But if you keep the hammer and use it to drive nails, who can doubt its worth?"
    The novice said, "See, now that's just the sort of thing I worry about—your mysterious Zen replies."
    Ougi said, "Fine, then, I will speak more plainly, and lay out perfectly reasonable arguments which demonstrate that you have not fallen into a cult.  But first you have to wear this silly hat."

    Ougi gave the novice a huge brown ten-gallon cowboy hat.
    "Er, master..." said the novice.
    "When I have explained everything to you," said Ougi, "you will see why this was necessary.  Or otherwise, you can continue to lie awake nights, wondering whether this is a cult."
    The novice put on the cowboy hat.
    Ougi said, "How long will you repeat my words and ignore the meaning?  Disordered thoughts begin as feelings of attachment to preferred conclusions.  You are too anxious about your self-image as a rationalist.  You came to me to seek reassurance.  If you had been truly curious, not knowing one way or the other, you would have thought of ways to resolve your doubts.  Because you needed to resolve your cognitive dissonance, you were willing to put on a silly hat.  If I had been an evil man, I could have made you pay a hundred silver coins.  When you concentrate on a real-world question, the worth or worthlessness of your understanding will soon become apparent.  You are like a swordsman who keeps glancing away to see if anyone might be laughing at him—"
    "All right," said the novice.
    "You asked for the long version," said Ougi.
    This novice later succeeded Ougi and became known as Ni no Tachi. Ever after, he would not allow his students to cite his words in their debates, saying, "Use the techniques and do not mention them."


    A novice rationalist approached the master Ougi and said, "Master, I worry that our rationality dojo is... well... a little cultish."
    "That is a grave concern," said Ougi.
    The novice waited a time, but Ougi said nothing more.
    So the novice spoke up again:  "I mean, I'm sorry, but having to wear these robes, and the hood—it just seems like we're the bloody Freemasons or something."
    "Ah," said Ougi, "the robes and trappings."
    "Well, yes the robes and trappings," said the novice.  "It just seems terribly irrational."
    "I will address all your concerns," said the master, "but first you must put on this silly hat."  And Ougi drew out a wizard's hat, embroidered with crescents and stars.
    The novice took the hat, looked at it, and then burst out in frustration:  "How can this possibly help?"
    "Since you are so concerned about the interactions of clothing with probability theory," Ougi said, "it should not surprise you that you must wear a special hat to understand."
    When the novice attained the rank of grad student, he took the name Bouzo and would only discuss rationality while wearing a clown suit.


Part of the Death Spirals and the Cult Attractor subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "Asch's Conformity Experiment"

Previous post: "Guardians of Ayn Rand"

Comments (85)

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Comment author: Doug_S. 21 December 2007 06:55:48AM 8 points [-]

That was cute. I'm not sure I understand it, though.

Comment author: Benquo 21 December 2007 07:20:21AM 1 point [-]


You certainly do take care to respond to the comments.

Comment author: Tiiba2 21 December 2007 07:28:33AM 2 points [-]

I'll try to decipher the message.

If I am concerned that the group I belong to is becoming cultish, the thing to do is to ask what is a cult and what is not a cult, and see if the definition applies to your group. The second koan reminds us not to use extraneous details like uniforms. More non-cultists than cultists use uniforms. In general P(Category|Feature) != P(Feature|Category).

I THINK that's what you're saying...

Comment author: pnrjulius 20 April 2012 02:04:22PM 2 points [-]

Maybe... but here's the thing: Uniforms actually ARE a very cultish thing. They are one of the quantitative traits that can add up into driving you into the cult attractor. The proper rationalist response is actually "I will not wear the hat, because I don't want to and you've not given me a reason to."

The only sort of "uniform" that is rationally justifiable is something like body armor, or a hazmat suit, or a labcoat; sure, it's all the same, because it SERVES A PURPOSE---there's a reason soldiers wear Kevlar instead of tissue paper. But if you can't actually justify the uniform (like a nurse hat, or epaulettes, or the Pope's miter), then it really IS a bad sign that you are slipping into irrationality.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 20 April 2012 02:29:03PM 12 points [-]

The line isn't nearly as crisp as you make it sound.

For example, is a nurse's uniform as "rationally justifiable" as a hazmat suit? No. But it does serve a useful purpose for nurses, in that it frequently makes patients more likely to treat them as authority figures.

Now, you might ask why patients do that, but in some sense that doesn't matter. Even if patients are irrational to do that, it is still pragmatically useful for nurses to wear the uniform if it reliably obtains that benefit.

But in fact it isn't a senseless thing for patients to do, either, in that wearing a nurse's uniform is a more costly signal if I'm not a nurse than simply saying "I'm a nurse" (since other nurses might see me wearing the uniform and punish me), and therefore more reliable than simply saying that.

More generally: uniforms are one way humans signal a certain kind of social status, and status signaling is a valuable function.

Comment author: Tiiba2 21 December 2007 07:30:58AM 1 point [-]

I swear, the grammatical screwup in the above post was completely intentional.

Comment author: Benquo 21 December 2007 07:36:51AM 2 points [-]

Tiiba, do you mean to imply that if your group is cultish, the group I belong to is safe by the tu quoque principle?


Comment author: Benquo 21 December 2007 07:44:04AM 5 points [-]

Tiiba, do you mean to imply that if your group is cultish, the group I belong to is safe by the tu quoque principle? ;)

In all seriousness, I think the second point is a little more complicated than you described. Specifically, I think Mr. Yudkowsky is trying to point out that Bouzo had plenty of evidence more closely entangled with cult/non-cult status than whether or not they had uniforms. He had experienced Ougi's teachings directly. In the absence of that evidence, of course, the uniforms would be more important evidence.

But Mr. Yudkowski, why shouldn't we be concerned with such apparently superficial signs of cultishness? Shouldn't we -- especially the less experienced rationalists among us -- be on the lookout for objective clues to bias? After all, as has been pointed out already on Overcoming Bias, situations often look different from the inside, in ways that generate inaccuracies. (People tend to underestimate how biased their beliefs are. It's easier to show that someone's wearing uniform clothes than to show that they're wearing irrationally uniform beliefs.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 December 2007 07:53:23AM 23 points [-]

...okay, maybe this is a cult.

Comment author: Ian_C. 21 December 2007 08:11:59AM 4 points [-]

"I THINK that's what you're saying..."

I think it is saying that if you want to know if an idea is true or not, compare it to reality. Clothes are an irrelevancy. "If it can drive nails, who can doubt it's worth?"

Comment author: Benquo 21 December 2007 08:24:21AM 1 point [-]

Well, I must confess I was initially arguing in gamelike fashion -- just to see what your next move might be -- but I fell into my own trap door, and I'm really unsure that 1) this isn't a cult, and that 2) that would be a bad thing.

That is, who cares if we have mutually reinforcing behaviors etc.? What matters is whether these are good mutually reinforcing behaviors, and that we evaluate their goodness from a non-tautological (i.e. external) perspective. (That is, I'd distinguish between circles and vicious circles.)

I don't know whether or not that's part of your point. I suppose I shouldn't care. But it's certainly what the idealized Eliezer Yudkowsky in my head thinks. I certainly hope you're as smart as he is. ;)

Ian C.,

If I had a hammer that seemed to me to work really well, but no one was willing to pay me the going rate for hammers of that quality, would it really be ridiculous for me to seriously question the accuracy of my perception of the hammer?

Comment author: Ian_C. 21 December 2007 08:48:37AM 2 points [-]

"If I had a hammer that seemed to me to work really well, but no one was willing to pay me the going rate for hammers of that quality, would it really be ridiculous for me to seriously question the accuracy of my perception of the hammer?"

Yes, in the case of a hammer I think it would be [ridiculous to doubt yourself]. In the case of something more complicated, like Wine, you might start to question whether there is some subtle difference between your wine and theirs that you're not detecting, but there is no such thing as a hammer connoisseur.

Comment author: taryneast 13 December 2010 06:29:05PM *  7 points [-]

but there is no such thing as a hammer connoisseur.

ahem... you should meet some armourers I know... ;)

I personally know somebody that has a wall on which he hangs his 220 hammers... all of which he assures me are slightly different.

Comment author: stcredzero 23 June 2012 12:36:10AM 1 point [-]

I've occasionally met people who are surprised and even incredulous to learn that the tinwhistle, recorder, and piccolo are different instruments, though no one who has ever spent time getting good with any of those instruments would think of them as hard to distinguish, even through double blind listening tests. It's all a matter of what you pay attention to.

Comment author: botogol2 21 December 2007 09:23:49AM 1 point [-]

"If I had a hammer that seemed to me to work really well, but no one was willing to pay me the going rate for hammers of that quality"

.. then by definition you have mis-estimated the going rate.

Comment author: Larks 20 August 2009 11:46:22PM 0 points [-]

You're confusing the going rate for hammers in general, with the going rate for this (possibily defective) individual hammer.

Comment author: bigjeff5 10 February 2011 07:11:24AM 0 points [-]

I suppose it depends on where you put the emphasis, but clearly botogol read that to mean the going rate of slightly used but functional hammers.

The sentence could stand to be made a little less ambiguous.

Comment author: RobinHanson 21 December 2007 10:58:37AM 7 points [-]

I think I'll side with the novices against Ougi here. The novices deserve a clearer answer than "think of ways to resolve your doubts" and "all will be clear when you try to use this stuff." Cults usually tell people many things that are actually useful, and confronting leaders seems a reasonable way to resolve doubts. As I said before, the word "cult" is a bit too easy a word to throw around - I'd prefer a clearer description of what it means exactly and how to recognize one.

Comment author: stcredzero 23 June 2012 12:45:08AM 2 points [-]


A few things to look for, gleaned from the Wikipedia article:

In Cults, coercive Mind Control is said to take these forms:

- People are put in physically or emotionally distressing situations;
- Their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized;
- They receive what seems to be unconditional love, acceptance, and attention from a charismatic leader or group;
- They get a new identity based on the group;
- They are subject to entrapment (isolation from friends, relatives and the mainstream culture)

Cults also seem to involve the adulation of charismatic leaders, who become corrupted by the power the situation brings them. The most common complaints against cults involve sexual abuse of members. Cults have also been known to cause harm through getting members to forego medical care.

I think this is ok for a place to start.

Comment author: Chris 21 December 2007 11:58:13AM 0 points [-]

Robin, transmission of expertise in non-rational domains has to rely on authority rather than argument, so is more susceptible to slide into abuse of authority than transmission in rational domains. The original post here is strange in that it supposes such a type of transmission in the field of rational teaching. The definition of cult in the field of master / disciple relationships has to start with an examination of whether authority is being abused by, for example, being exercised in areas unrelated to the teaching. Don't take sweets from philosophers.

Comment author: Zubon 21 December 2007 01:36:14PM 2 points [-]

I only got into the rationalist game because I'm fond of hats. Oh, and Robin's advice on gift-giving.

Comment author: Caledonian2 21 December 2007 02:24:37PM 2 points [-]

Well, this is a bit better than normal.

If you can immediately recognize the candlelight as fire, the meal was cooked a long time ago.

Comment author: Benquo 21 December 2007 03:11:41PM 0 points [-]

Ian C., do you know for sure, before evaluating this kind of evidence, whether the problem is simple like you seem to think a hammer is, or complicated like you seem to think wine is? I had thought that wine is simpler as its functionality is a matter of taste, while hammers' functionality is something that exists in some sense outside my first impression of it. (It may be hammering in the nails all crooked-like or something, and perhaps I don't notice bur everyone else does.) What mistake am I making?

Botogol, why not say that I have misestimated either the going rate, or what quality a hammer it is. (If I think it is steel, but it is cast-iron, that doesn't mean I have misestimated the going rate for steel hammers; it means I don't have one.)

Caledonian, I have no idea what that means, but I'm sure it's very profound. I would greatly appreciate it if you or anyone else would explain it.

Comment author: Kat 21 December 2007 03:13:03PM 4 points [-]

I had a friend in college who was a philosophy major; he'd been raised a fundamentalist Christian, and turned from that into some sort of chaotic evil deist. I used to enjoy arguing philosophy and ethics with him. But the further he got into his study, the more his arguments turned into half-understood quotations of Wittgenstein and Kant, and his debating technique turned into sophistries and trying to name and call out others' logical fallacies, sometimes correctly and sometimes not -- the same techniques he grew up with, only without having to wake up early on Sunday. I don't argue with him anymore...

Comment author: Caledonian2 21 December 2007 03:17:04PM 2 points [-]

I would greatly appreciate it if you or anyone else would explain it.

You cannot understand the moon by deconstructing the finger.

Comment author: Zubon 21 December 2007 04:38:59PM 2 points [-]

The student asked, "Where is the true master of the Way?" The master replied, "Where is a true student of the Way?"

Comment author: Ian_C. 21 December 2007 05:33:23PM 0 points [-]

Benquo: "What mistake am I making?"

I think you are artificially restricting your knowledge to direct perception of the objects. Don't you also know that there are entire shops that sell only wine, that they have many varieties, at many prices, and they have competitions, experts etc?

It is *this* knowledge that leads you to conclude that wine is probably a complicated business and you may very well have made a mistake.

Comment author: George_Weinberg2 21 December 2007 07:09:20PM 6 points [-]

"Since you are so concerned about the interactions of clothing with probability theory," Ougi said, "it should not surprise you that you must wear a special hat to understand."

But isn't this almost the exact opposite of what the student was saying? Questioning the robes indicates to me that the student felt there was not any interaction between learning probability theory and clothing, and that therefore it served some other purpose, presumably differentiating between an in group and an out group.

Or am I just nuts for trying to argue with you about the internal thoughts of your own fictional characters?

Comment author: Arandur 31 July 2011 06:34:25PM -3 points [-]

No interaction is still an interaction.

Comment author: Caledonian2 21 December 2007 07:16:43PM 0 points [-]

Do not attempt to deduce the thought processes of fictional characters; that is impossible. Seek only to recognize the truth: that what the author says is objective, has implications on its own, and does not necessarily have anything to do with what he meant.

Comment author: TGGP4 21 December 2007 07:34:57PM 5 points [-]

A koan: If you have ice cream, I will give it to you. If you have no ice cream, I will take it away from you. It is an ice cream koan.

Caledonian, did you get your's from Stargate?

Comment author: Chris_Hibbert 21 December 2007 07:59:52PM 6 points [-]

A few of you touched on the point I got out of this, but no one explained it very well. In the first koan, Ougi says two things. The clearer one is tangential to rationality, but important for self-doubting cultists. "You are like a swordsman who keeps glancing away to see if anyone might be laughing at him".

The more important point was that the teachings are valuable if they are useful. (This is applicable to the sword fighter because allowing yourself to be distracted is an immediate danger.)

The importance of the parable about hammers doesn't relate to prices, but to usefulness. "Use the hammer to drive nails" in a discussion about rationality is metaphoric for using the techniques to make better decisions. If Ougi's teachings help you make better decisions in your life, then they are valuable. If they merely bind you more tightly to Ougi, then you are a cultist.

Bouzo didn't learn anything that helped him make decisions, he was merely cowed into following Ougi more closely. Ni no Tachi learned to "concentrate on a real-world question", so "the worth ... of his understanding [became] apparent."

Ni no Tachi figured out how to use the hammer, but Bouzo only sold them without understanding their value.

Comment author: RobinHanson 21 December 2007 08:38:12PM 11 points [-]

Chris, for a while I was a member of what most people would consider a "cult", and from my experience "cults" usually teach people useful things. So it is a mistake to assure yourself you are not in a cult because you see that you are learning useful things.

Comment author: Caledonian2 21 December 2007 08:51:53PM -1 points [-]

Caledonian, did you get your's from Stargate?

No. I got it from the same sources as Stargate's writers.

Lightning flashes. Sparks shower. In one blink of your eyes you have missed seeing.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 21 December 2007 10:02:53PM 3 points [-]

If clothes are unrelated to probability theory, why do the students have to wear robes?

Comment author: [deleted] 02 December 2010 09:11:23PM 1 point [-]

Because we've read too many comics, manga, and sci-fi/fantasy books that romanticize a particular aesthetic. Robes are cool, silly. So is writing ideas in Japanese, makes the wisdom sound wiser, but what's especially important is that it's fun. Who wants to be part of a boring revolution?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 02 December 2010 09:28:29PM 11 points [-]

Who wants to be part of a boring revolution?

(raises hand)

Comment author: SlyClaw 28 January 2012 08:59:54PM 1 point [-]

also raises hand

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 December 2007 10:07:20PM 4 points [-]

Why not?

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 21 December 2007 10:26:00PM 0 points [-]

Why not just regular everyday clothes?

Comment author: Chris 21 December 2007 10:29:37PM 0 points [-]

Robin, you're right, most people do think economics is a cult, even though there may be a small proportion of usefulness in the teachings... characteristics are, cult members cut off from contact with non-cult members (in this case by the ignorance of the non-cult members, of course), devotion to the cult leader (Keynes ! Friedman ! the Gourd! the Sandal!), proclamations of infallibility (the market is infallible), progressive alienation (this is a science, I can believe six impossible things before breakfast), and ending in total learned helplessness (for instance, when a team of six beauticians, or whoever it happens to be this week, outperform the nation's best fund managers yet again...). Only teasing, but I was just reading some very old threads and came across one where you professed surprised at relative levels of acceptance of announcements in economics and physics, and am still suffering from vertigo. Happy Christmas !

Comment author: pdf23ds 21 December 2007 10:48:34PM 6 points [-]

"Why not?"

Because it confuses them into thinking that maybe the clothes have something to do with the meat of the instruction, and it takes longer for them to learn what they're being taught. It obscures the the real teaching, hides it among irrelevant rituals.

Comment author: George_Weinberg2 21 December 2007 10:49:48PM 1 point [-]

Ni no Tachi figured out how to use the hammer, but Bouzo only sold them without understanding their value.

"A bird in the hand is worth what you can get for it." --Ambrose Bierce

Fiction is fiction, but it seems to me that that if student objects to wearing silly clothes and his master responds by ordering him to wear yet sillier clothes, it's a lot more plausible that the student will conclude his master is a quack and drop out than that he'll decide to extend his master's teaching by taking silly clothes to a whole new level.

Maybe the whole point of this exercise is to remind us that one can't come to reliable conclusions from fictional evidence? If so, well, maybe I haven't learned anything... but at least I've learned I haven't learned anything.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 December 2007 11:31:11PM 20 points [-]

Well, it's clear that a lot of people found the koans confusing. Silly me, I realized I forgot to include Mumon's commentaries!

Mumon's commentary on the first koan:

Because Ni no Tachi hated rich men, Ougi gave up his wealth of silence. When Ni no Tachi became a rich man, He loaned money to his students.

Mumon's commentary on the second koan:

A flower is neither bread nor water, Why not replace it with a weed? Bouzo changed the shape of Ougi's garden, But did he really understand?

Comment author: SlyClaw 28 January 2012 09:06:53PM -1 points [-]

as someone who is easily irritated I do not read the comments because they usually irritate me if it were not for the fact that i have nothing better to do today i would have missed this and continued on being greatly confused.

I apologize for the run on sentence.

Comment author: Z._M._Davis 22 December 2007 12:15:51AM 1 point [-]

I still like Tom's the best.

Comment author: Emile 13 December 2010 08:01:52PM 5 points [-]

The link to the comment is now this one

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith2 22 December 2007 03:51:52AM 1 point [-]

Davis, thanks, that is good.

Comment author: TGGP4 22 December 2007 03:54:33AM 2 points [-]

I don't think Hanson is saying economics is a cult, he is referring to either this or this.

Comment author: savagehenry 22 December 2007 08:27:36PM 0 points [-]

I think Eliezer outed himself as an anime fan in this post. It's ok, I'm a pretty big one myself.

Comment author: gwern 20 June 2009 07:34:12PM 6 points [-]

Only in this post? You must not've been reading Eliezer for very long then!

Comment author: ChrisHibbert2 22 December 2007 10:51:57PM 0 points [-]

Thanks TGGP. That's a better suggestion than I came up with. Since Robin seemed to be responding to me (rather than to "Chris"), I guessed he was referring to the "cultish" experience he shared with me. But your suggestions are more likely.

Robin: "It is a mistake to assure yourself you are not in a cult because you see that you are learning useful things." But isn't the opposite conclusion safe? If you can't figure out how to use the hammer, but you nonetheless convince younger students of its importance, aren't you likely to be in a cult? Or more likely, if you can see that many of the other teachers are teaching material they don't understand?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 December 2007 11:17:56PM 11 points [-]

If you can't figure out how to use the hammer, but you nonetheless convince younger students of its importance, aren't you likely to be in a cult? Or more likely, if you can see that many of the other teachers are teaching material they don't understand?

Sounds like either a cult or a college.

Comment author: Doug_S. 23 December 2007 02:12:10AM 4 points [-]

What's wrong with being in a cult, as long as you're reasonably self-aware about it? Cults are fun! ;)

Incidentally, Wikipedia lists itself in its list of alleged cults.

Comment author: pdf23ds 23 December 2007 03:44:13AM 2 points [-]

Did I mention I hate Zen-style teaching?

Hate hate hate.

Unless you're going to tell me Godel, Escher, Bach consisted of Zen-style teaching, in which case I'll bring it down to two hates. (But it sure is pretty.)

Also, college: hate hate hate.

Comment author: TGGP4 23 December 2007 06:35:02AM 1 point [-]

My least favorite portions of GEB: An EGB were the Zen ones.

Comment author: Caledonian2 23 December 2007 03:47:41PM 3 points [-]

Did I mention I hate Zen-style teaching?

I presume you feel the same way about the Socratic method?

Comment author: William_Newman 23 December 2007 04:41:00PM 0 points [-]

Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote of ideas one can't see the value of, and teachers who don't seem to understand their teachings, "Sounds like either a cult or a college."

I dunno, at least for many technical fields and for some other endeavors too (like learning to communicate effectively in writing) one can see that many of the teachers can do some handy hard-to-fake real-world stuff, and that the students emerging through the pipeline tend to be able to do it too. When I was an undergraduate, the EEs in my residence hall traditionally maintained a little hand-made custom-programmed telephone PBX which ran from the two college official phone jacks in the lobby to a motley collection of old salvaged telephones in most of the other rooms. I, at least, was impressed. If you're in an organization where the initiates routinely levitate out their windows to go to lunch, and levitate some more whenever they have trouble finding a convenient chair, is it a mystical cult because levitation or funny hats or even confusing explanations are involved, or might it be unusually successful pragmatic applied philosophy?

Once stretched to cover everything from incompetent posers to arrogant weird competent people (like Isaac Newton at the hypercompetent extreme, or various academics in a less extreme way), a concept like "cult" may not be all that valuable. Perhaps there is value in reminding us that part of the reason the posers can gull people with their behavior is that it's not so uncommon for non-posers to act in some similar way. But there is also value in to reminding people that part of the reason speculative bubbles can happen is that price moves based on fundamentals can look similar enough to gull speculators into mistaking a bubble for one one. That doesn't mean we should think of every big price move as a "bubble" (or as being bubble-ish, or whatever). We might say "every big price move wants to be a bubble," but saying a market situation where the fundamentals don't make sense "sounds like a bubble or an ordinary market" would seem to me to be missing a point.

Comment author: Doug_S. 23 December 2007 09:09:31PM 16 points [-]

From the Discworld novel Thief of Time:

In the Second Scroll of Wen the Eternally Surprised a story is written concerning one day when the apprentice Clodpool, in a rebellious mood, approached Wen and spake thusly:

"Master, what is the difference between a humanistic, monastic system of belief in which wisdom is sought by means of an apparently nonsensical system of questions and answers, and a lot of mystic gibberish made up on the spur of the moment?"

Wen considered this for some time, and at last said: "A fish!"

And Clodpool went away, satisfied.

Comment author: victordrake 02 May 2013 10:07:14PM *  6 points [-]

Student: What is truth? And what is God?

Teacher: You don't really want an answer to that question.

Student: Yes, I do. Please.

Teacher (after thinking for a moment): If I take a lamp and shine it toward a wall, a bright spot will appear on the wall. The lamp is our search for truth, for understanding. Too often, we assume that the light on the wall is God. But the light is not the goal of the search. It is the result of the search. The more intense the search, the brighter the light on the wall. The brighter the light on the wall, the greater the sense of revelation upon seeing it.

[All the students are looking on with blank faces]

Teacher: Similarly, someone who does not search, who does not bring a lantern with him...sees nothing. What we perceive as God is the byproduct of our search for God. It may simply be an appreciation of the light, pure and unblemished, not understanding that it comes from us. Sometimes we stand in front of the light and assume that we are the center of the universe. God looks astonishingly like we do. Or we turn to look at our shadow and assume that all is darkness. If we allow ourselves to get in the way, we defeat the purpose, which is to use the light of our search to illuminate the wall in all its beauty... and all its flaws... and in so doing better understand the world around us.

Student: Ah...yes...but... What is truth? And what is God?

Teacher (rolls eyes): Truth is... a river.

[amazed looks and murmurs from the students]

Student: And god?

Teacher: God is the mouth of the river.

[pleased expressions and excited exclamations among the students, Teacher facepalms]

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 02 May 2013 10:54:02PM 7 points [-]

Excellent quote, but you should really attribute it.

It's from Babylon 5, season 5, episode 14, "Meditations on the Abyss".

The Teacher is G'kar, the student is some random Narn.

Comment author: pdf23ds 23 December 2007 10:23:11PM 0 points [-]

Caledonian, not so much, no, though I've never really noticed being used so much. (If I did maybe it would annoy me too.) Why would you think so?

Comment author: Caledonian2 23 December 2007 11:57:06PM 1 point [-]

Because Socratic-style teaching IS Zen teaching, only with training wheels on.

Comment author: Benquo 24 December 2007 02:36:05AM 0 points [-]

Caledonian, do you mean the sort of stuff found in Plato's writings, or do you mean the question-and-answer style that passes for "Socratic" in law schools etc.?

I can see how the former might be called Zen with training wheels, but not the latter.

Comment author: Paul_Gowder 28 December 2007 09:30:23PM 1 point [-]

Oy. I just glanced through the last couple weeks of posts. Hence the lack of a loud sigh on this one before. So consider this the loud-sigh of the confirmedly anti-koan, the person who thinks that metaphor and other such non-expository modes of speech have aesthetic value only, and that if one cannot speak of an idea in clear language, well, one ought to keep silent about it. (I can see Wittgenstein glaring at me...)

Or: what's the point of rationalist koan* exactly?

* It also irks me like crazy to see people taking the Japanese word "koan" and sticking an s on the end to pluralize it. You don't do that in Japanese.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 December 2010 09:20:04PM 6 points [-]

You don't suffix with "-s" in Japanese, but you do prefix with "anti-"? Innnteresting.

Comment author: SlyClaw 28 January 2012 09:13:48PM 1 point [-]

I'm in second year Japaneses and our teacher said that "the phrase i can not not eat is the same as i can not eat" because of the lack of literature double negatives.

Comment author: SlyClaw 28 January 2012 09:15:48PM 0 points [-]

You are not suppose to because they add counters to the end signifying the type of object and how many.

Comment author: bil. 31 December 2007 07:29:00AM 0 points [-]

It must be difficult traipsing around the Highlands in those big clown shoes.

Comment author: John_David_Galt 02 January 2008 09:13:00PM -2 points [-]

It seems to me that some people take the notion "Never accept anything uncritically!" (or equivalently, "There are no certainties in science!") too far.

The core tenets of logic as set out by Mill, at least, must be accepted uncritically and never doubted, or the whole conversation in which they are doubted disintegrates into fallacy and nonsense, and thus becomes useless (except to a dishonest speaker who might use it to manipulate irrational people). There are other beliefs which are similarly necessary (for instance, mathematics) if the discussion extends to topics where they apply.

Comment author: tristanhaze 17 October 2014 02:20:24AM 0 points [-]

Mill?! When are you from, John David Galt?!

Comment author: Kagehi 25 February 2008 07:50:00PM 4 points [-]

Snort. Got here while trying to figure out what, if any answer (the comic provides none) there is to "What kind of ice cream do you put on a Koan?" And here I find this... lol

Seriously, though, like most arguments presented by monk style philosophers, the answer given is flawed. Which is more valuable of the following?

1. A pure gold hammer with a mess of rhinestones in the handle. Estimated material cost - $200.

2. A real hammer, with a gold filigree handle and an idiotic mess of bangles hanging off of it, jewels strung onto them. Estimated material cost - $200.

3. A real hammer, simple black handle, estimated store cost - $10.

Well, if the **point** of the hammer is to build a house, you have a problem, because both 2 and 3 are options. Number 2 is silly as hell, regardless of whether you glued all the junk on it yourself, or you claim to have found it in the lost tomb of Jesus. It may still hammer nails, but no one in their right mind would use it, except out of necessity of there being no other hammers available. Option #1 is completely useless, gold being too soft to hammer much of anything, and again, it doesn't become a more valuable **hammer** if you claim that "it" was found in the lost tomb of the great Illuminati or some similar gibberish. A cult is a cult because it either contains nothing but gold hammers, or it insists that everything **must** be done using hammers that have lots of idiotic junk glued onto them, which don't help make the hammer any more useful. Someone intent on building a house can as easily use the second option as the third, but the moment you start thinking that you "have to" have all the silly BS glued to the hammer for it to work, it becomes a cult. Witness pretty much all religions, which nearly universally insist that its impossible to invent a hammer, without the guidance of high order of hammer makers, as to what sort of bangles and filigree one has to add to it before the magic spirits will make it work right. ;) Some are though tend to be satisfied with just the hammer, but insist the handle must be red, or something, to make it lucky (which might be the approach of the few relatively "rational" religions in the world), of which most are not.

In general, the more rational your starting framework, the least silly the necessary robes/clown suits are, but even the most rational groups, if they don't take a critical look at certain assumptions, can get cultish. The key difference being if they opt to make those choices for distinction, or because they have actually come to *believe* that some detail of their world won't work without the silly hat.

Oh, and anyone know the answer to the original question that got me here? lol

Comment author: Raw_Power 13 November 2010 04:56:59PM 1 point [-]

... I didn't understand this post the first time around... I guess my Power Level has increased...

Comment author: MrCheeze 02 December 2010 09:27:51PM *  -2 points [-]

Okay, I have no idea whatsoever what this is supposed to be saying.

EDIT: Wait, hold on. Is it supposed to not make sense?

Comment author: bigjeff5 10 February 2011 08:01:38AM 2 points [-]

A cult is what you make of it.

The first novice, Ni no Tachi, was not a cultist. The key was Ougi's statement: "How long will you repeat my words and ignore the meaning?"

Ni no Tachi learned the meanings and became a true rationalist - he understood that the clothes had nothing at all to do with it. You could kind of think of them as a way of promoting group identity while weeding out those destined to be forever irrational.

Bouzo never even got to the key statement. He stopped questioning as soon as Ougi implied that the silly hat was necessary. He learned all the teachings of Ougi, but he never understood their meanings. Eventually he would only discuss rationality while wearing a clown suit, because he believed without any evidence that silly clothes were related to probability theory, which is completely irrational.

Bouzo was a cultist.

Comment author: Multipartite 23 September 2011 10:33:41PM 8 points [-]

(Unlurking and creating an account for use from this point onwards; どうかお手柔らかにお願いします。)

Something I found curious in the reading of the comments for this article is the perception that Bouzo took away the conclusion that clothing was in fact important for probability.

Airing my initial impression for possible contrast (/as an indication of my uncertainty): When I read the last sentence, I imagined an unwritten 'And in that moment the novice was enlightened', mirroring the structure of certain koans I once glanced through.

My interpretation is/was that those words of Ougi's were what caused the novice to realise his error (in focusing on the clothing rather than the teachings when considering likelihood of cultishness), the absurdity of a hat worn affecting one's understanding revealing the absurdity the clothing worn by those in the dojo inherently for their rationality (though arguments could be made about indirect advantages and/or disadvantages in both directions?).

From that, the clown suit could be taken as a result of him being humbled by this lesson, it making such a deep impression on him that, taking it to heart, he established something to remind him (and others?) of it as part of his daily behaviour.

(This would be that, rather than thinking a clown suit really could make him more rational, him wearing a clown suit when discussing rationality to dramatically demonstrate the lack of importance of what he wore for what he said. I'm also reminded of the concept of abnormality being going to school in a clown suit rather than in all black, though this is arguably not directly relevant.)

I am as yet unfamiliar with the architecture of this location, and so do not know if anyone will automatically know about it nor in fact if it will ever be read, but it nevertheless is a significant weight off my mind to speak about my impressions alongside those of others. I thank you all.

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 23 September 2011 10:52:18PM 2 points [-]

I am as yet unfamiliar with the architecture of this location, and so do not know if anyone will automatically know about it nor in fact if it will ever be read, but it nevertheless is a significant weight off my mind to speak about my impressions alongside those of others. I thank you all.

The "Recent Comments" section on the right hand side displays the five most recent comments. So even comments on old posts have a chance to catch the eye one who is browsing. Some even subscribe to all the comments using RSS,

Comment author: Multipartite 26 September 2011 04:46:41PM 1 point [-]

Thank you!

If I may ask, is there a location in wiki.lesswrong.com or elsewhere which describes how to use quote-bars (of the type used in your comment for my paragraph) and similar?

Comment author: gwern 26 September 2011 05:06:59PM 2 points [-]

It's just Markdown. In fact, every time you reply, the 'Help' hyperlink is a mini-tutorial on Markdown.

Comment author: Solvent 02 October 2011 05:41:18AM -3 points [-]

Someone wishes he were Hofstadter.

Comment author: quinsie 02 October 2011 06:18:03AM 2 points [-]

Don't we all?

Comment author: sketerpot 02 October 2011 07:06:18AM 12 points [-]

Hofstadter surely wishes sometimes that he were Hofstadter. And so on.

(Truly it is said: they don't make koans like they used to. And they never did.)

Comment author: Solvent 02 October 2011 10:06:06AM 0 points [-]

Yes, admittedly.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 01 December 2011 12:03:16AM 4 points [-]

For anyone reading this at a future point there's more recent discussion from a sequence rerun here