We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

This is the truth of the Wizengamot: Many are nobles, many are wealthy magnates of business, a few came by their status in other ways. Some of them are stupid. Most are shrewd in the realms of business and politics, but their shrewdness is circumscribed. Almost none have walked the path of a powerful wizard. They have not read through ancient books, scrutinized old scrolls, searching for truths too powerful to walk openly and disguised in conundrums, hunting for true magic among a hundred fantastic fairy tales. When they are not looking at a contract of debt, they abandon what shrewdness they possess and relax with some comfortable nonsense. […] They know […] that a powerful wizard must learn to distinguish the truth among a hundred plausible lies. But it has not occurred to them that they might do the same.

– Eliezer Yudkowsky, in chapter 81 of the brilliant fan-fiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, on how those who wield political power are too caught up in their power games to take the time to obtain real knowlege. (For “powerful wizard” I read engineer, hacker, scientist, mathematician, Austrian economist, Samizdatista, etc.)

21 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Alsadius

    Glad to see I’m not the only one reading that.

    (If you’re unfamiliar with it, imagine a combination of a plot that’s probably better than the original Potter books, education on how science and rational thought works, and some pretty insane humour. It’s very good.)

  • Stonyground

    I have always thought that being an engineer naturally leads you to being a lover of truth. In engineering, if you lie or cheat you are quickly exposed because your projects simply don’t work.

  • I’m reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality myself. Fine read. It’s surprising how many really good Harry Potter fanfics there are. The only genre I’ve met that seems to have a similar high quality is the Discworld(Link) fanfic. And there aren’t nearly as many of them.

  • RRS

    … beyond that what truth you will find is only the removal of what is false.


  • Palamedes

    … being an engineer naturally leads you to being a lover of truth.

    I seem to remember hearing, Stonyground, that a surprisingly large amount of Islamic terrorists read Engineering or were Engineers. I wonder if the nature of the engineering not only leads to a love of truth but naturally disposes one towards acting on truth. After all the purpose of all the maths and physics that goes into building a bridge, is ultimately to build a bridge.

  • Hmm

    That fanfic is really VERY good. Thanks for linking it… only problem is I’ll have to read it all now 🙂

  • I thought that would go down well here. Anyone else reading it? Speak up!

    Stonyground: I think so. I have a feeling seeking truth leads inevitably to libertarianism, too. I wasn’t surprised to find that Eliezer describes himself as libertarian.

    Hmm: sorry about that. It’s ongoing, too. Having caught up I now find myself looking forward to the next chapters and having to read all the discussion on Less Wrong. The nice thing is that you can follow the clues and work out the mysteries, if you are clever enough.

  • Laird

    I had never heard of it before but have started reading it. Got through the first half-dozen chapters. Quite good. Thanks for making me aware of it; I generally avoid “fan fic”.

  • Sceptical Antagonist

    Re: engineers and scientists

    I’m from an engineering background also, but am saddened to see a lot of engineers treat their career choice as a religion. They can be very unwilling to listen to suggestions that don’t fit their immediate world-view.

    Likewise, I have difficulty with the concept of there being scientists with religious beliefs – to me it is an oxymoron – but they exist. Ditto the Islamic Engineers mentioned above.

  • Hmm

    Sceptical Antagonist: Science only exists within a narrow band of the entirety of existence. Science itself is not proof of any truth- it is merely a statistical analysis of the proof of reproducible experimentation. The best “Scientific truth” can never rise above being only a “Best fit theory”.

    “Best fit theory” over time quite quickly becomes dogma (the only allowable theory), and thus religion. As engineering is science based it oozes with religious dogma within its own theoretical contexts.

    When the religion of “science” meets “theosophy” problems only arise from third party interference. Without third party interference humans quite happily wrap their authorised beliefs around their daily religious ritual beliefs whatever those may be: Be they theist, atheist, narcissist, engineer, numismatist , lunatic, whatever 🙂

  • People compartmentalize their minds according to how dangerous self-deception is. Sometimes answers need to be right. Sometimes they need to be flattering. Sometimes they need to demonstrate loyalty.

    Engineers’ answers to engineering questions need to be right. Their answers to theological questions don’t.

  • John McVey

    Re engineers, truth, value, etc

    It’s called ‘having a split epistemology’. There are many with scientific and technical backgrounds who employ a generally rational epistemology for their work with the world around them insofar as it is not directly tied with the question of value but who then ditch that epistemology in favour of something considerably more irrational when the issue of values arises.

    To add to Peter Taylor’s list:

    – sometimes compartmentalisation against using reason to determine values comes from fear that reason would say there is One And Only One Proper Answer when someone would prefer something else and this something else is not obviously inappropriate for man in principle. This is a large part of the motive behind assertion of “subjective values” in economics amongst honest people. The truth is that reason is very open to wide ranges of equally legitimate options. It is not as though reason could ever seriously be thought to mandate “thou shalt eat precisely 142 grams of grilled chicken breast for tonight’s dinner” or whatever, is it? At most reason here tells people about foods they ought avoid for various medical reasons, but that still leaves plenty of personal choice from among what’s left among the alternatives that reason gives the all-clear for. The existence of options that reason says are equally good for man qua man and how reason is happy to let the final choice among them be made by personal preference do NOT admit of “subjective” values in the proper philosophic meaning of that word. But this topic is for another time. Not all of this profession of subjective values is innocent, though…

    – sometimes people compartmentalise so as to avoid censure both from others and from their own better judgement for pursuing things that reason would indeed identify as inappropriate for man qua man. This is what motivates some people’s frantic profession of religious belief (it by no means covers all motives for religiosity), but also includes motives behind evading the questioning of all manner of pointlessly self-destructive desires. To the extent that an alternative epistemology besides reason is expressly mentioned (eg a suspiciously-over-anxious assertion of “subjective values” in economics or attacks on reason in general) it is a rationalisation either for a particular guilty-pleasure or for evading judgement about what is properly good or bad as such, and sometimes both.

    – and, as I once noted here a long time ago now, sometimes a compartmentalisation motivated by fear of a reason-based system of values is the predicated on belief in the false notion that the moment someone identifies “such and such is bad” in a forthright manner this then justifies an attempt to impose correctness by force in defiance of the wishes of the irrational. Those who have actually advocated and attempted to practice this throughout history are flat out wrong, irrespective of technical correctness of isolated judgements and irrespective of whether or not these advocates sincerely believed they were motivated by reason. Obviously, knowledge of this history is part of what is behind that fear, and why artworks such as by Heinlein or in Firefly/Serenity resonate with liberty lovers and are hated by our enemies. The fact of the matter is that, to paraphrase Wild Bill Hickock from Deadwood, people have the right to go to hell in their own damned way so long as they don’t violate others’ rights, even when it is patently obvious to everyone else how and why said people are going to metaphorical hell. If you can understand that and know how to reason then you shouldn’t have any sociopolitical insecurities about someone’s forthright judgement of right and wrong on *any* topic. After that the issue is only one of etiquette – itself subject to rational scrutiny, I hasten to add.

    Compartmentalisation boils down to the dichotomy of reason versus emotion in the question of what is proper to use to determine truth and value. It will become something practiced by only a very few once:

    a) myths about what reason consists of and requires are dispelled,

    b) people stop believing that it is somehow impudent to question either the provenance, correctness, or immutability of emotions, and

    c) people stop thinking that morality only exists to hinder people from pursuing their own interests and to direct them to serve something outside themselves (be that god, Kant’s caricature of reason, a social group of some kind, the environment, or whatever).

    Then the full question of how values and morality ought properly be determined can be settled in a manner consistent with science, and without compromising the full vigour of either values or science. Split epistemologies are unjustifiable. There is no in-principle unbridgeable gulf between fact and value.


  • Sceptical Antagonist

    Thanks for the input, guys – great discussion!


    “If you can understand that and know how to reason then you shouldn’t have any sociopolitical insecurities about someone’s forthright judgement of right and wrong on *any* topic.”

    If the world became hell-bent on self-destructive behaviour, whilst I can see that I don’t have the right to interfere, I think it would be agonizing to stand back and say “There goes the human race; but if that’s what they want to do, it’s fine by me”.

  • John McVey


    Quite. My point was to trash the false dichotomy of indifference versus ‘there oughta be a law.’ I despise both sides, there.

    With due consideration for manners in practice, we are morally at liberty to make our judgements and speak out about our concerns. Law that impedes this is as wrong as law that allows others to impose their judgements by force.


  • phwest

    Well so much for getting anything done over the weekend. Thanks for the link (and the next chapter is due Tuesday….)

  • I am a software engineer. What attracts me to engineering is not the exactness of it, but the striving for merit. I am reassured by the thought that in fact most projects only need to be good enough. Merit, however, for me, means the product meets and exceeds its real world requirements. It doesn’t have to be perfect, only fully adequate to the purpose for which it was built.

    Our own Billll, who comments here from time to time, and is a friend of mine, claims that (and I am paraphrasing here) ‘for most Engineering purposes, pi equals 3.’ Yes, all competent engineers need to take that journey to the truth of the real world and how it works, but, we aren’t talking ninja discipline here.

  • This fan-fiction really rustles my jimmies.

    1) It’s fan-fiction. Despite what my 13.8 GB folder of Touhou fan-comics (none of it porn!) would suggest, I am morally opposed to fan-fics in general. The fact that I once indulged a bit in it myself brings everlasting shame.

    2) This is good. With only a little bit of tweaking this could be an “original” work. Sure, it would still stink of Harry-Potter-ripoff, but it’s not like anything in Harry Potter is terribly original in the first place. Might even be able to sell it. Certainly a lot of work has gone into it.

    3)The characterization of the main character is way off. This is one of the cardinal sins of fan-fiction in general, and as good as this one is, it still falls in the trap. Harry Potter is good at magic, especially combat-style stuff, not book-smarts, and in any case he’s no super-genius. This kid is more Negi Springfield than Harry Potter.

  • Laird

    Actually, now that I’m getting into it, it’s more like Ender’s Game than Harry Potter. Both are good, just different.

  • korblimee

    I like this very much, very well written and i understand where Laird sees Enders Game type influences in the story and main protagonist.

  • I like reading through a post that can make men and women think.
    Also, many thanks for permitting me to comment!