Most of the infinite set of possibilities are caused by objects which have a great deal of knowledge. People are the most significant feature of the universe, because we have an unlimited capacity to create explanatory knowledge and compare it to the truth by criticizing it. Human beings are the only people we know. The humanities are about us.
It’s a beautiful theory, but more to the point, it’s how the world is: you and I are collections of, not just particles at particular positions at each instant, but of matrices, walking around, performing measurements, perceiving the world and ourselves. You may not want to be a bunch of matrices; I quite like the idea. But either way we have no choice: if we want to understand the physical world at the deepest level currently known to human beings, it has to be via quantum theory.
The Greeks always thought of personality as actively related to the world (in fact, to two worlds, the world of nature and the world of human society) and not as isolated from it. Therefore Greek expressions of personal emotion and thought have nothing purely and exclusively subjective in them: it might rather be said that a poet like Archilochus has learnt how to express in his own personality the whole objective world and its laws—to represent them in himself. Personality, for the Greeks, gains its liberty and its consciousness of selfhood not by abandoning itself to subjective thought and feeling, but by making itself an objective thing; and, as it realizes that it is a separate world opposed to the external law, it discovers its own inner laws.
It’s true that you worry about the fact that they’ll be able to store information better, and have more information about people, and whether that will produce a Big Brother. That depends on the attitude of the leaders of society. Rather interestingly, the country which is more democratic, and which is less interested in all the information about what everybody is doing, to make sure they’re not doing something wrong, is where the computers are developed the most. And the place where’d you think the government would find the computer the greatest use, because you can file all the information about everybody—they don’t develop the computer very much and they don’t know how to use them.
If you can’t watch this right now, it’s worth bookmarking for later. This is one of the best explanations of computing that I’ve ever heard. Richard Feynman explained in 1985 how you get from a simple filing system to an automated machine. It’s clear and funny and prescient: at the end he touches on surveillance and politics, how we can compare humans and computers, and what that means about intelligence.
The Washington Post printed an interesting argument from a new book by former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens:
The Second Amendment expressly endorsed the substantive common-law rule that protected the citizen’s right (and duty) to keep and bear arms when serving in a state militia. In its decision in Heller, however, the majority interpreted the amendment as though its draftsmen were primarily motivated by an interest in protecting the common-law right of self-defense. But that common-law right is a procedural right that has always been available to the defendant in criminal proceedings in every state. The notion that the states were concerned about possible infringement of that right by the federal government is really quite absurd.
As a result of the rulings in Heller and McDonald, the Second Amendment, which was adopted to protect the states from federal interference with their power to ensure that their militias were “well regulated,” has given federal judges the ultimate power to determine the validity of state regulations of both civilian and militia-related uses of arms. That anomalous result can be avoided by adding five words to the text of the Second Amendment to make it unambiguously conform to the original intent of its draftsmen. As so amended, it would read:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”
I look forward to reading his book. The Supreme Court serves the important scholarly function of interpreting what the constitution means—what knowledge its language was meant to encode and how we might say it more clearly—but our job as citizens is to take its results and ask further: is that what we want it to say? That’s the genius of it, not that it contains infallible knowledge waiting to be correctly deciphered, but that it provides for its own improvement. This political experiment was part of a larger intellectual struggle (which we call the Enlightenment) to reject the very idea of infallibility or authority, not merely in politics or religion, but in knowledge generally.
With anything you think you know a bit about, you’re probably tempted to rely on your own experience to make an inductive generalization. That can work if you really know what you’re talking about, but it doesn’t work if you’re just using that way of doing it, on another context, where your knowledge is not so secure.
This comes from the lectures of Marianne Talbot, Critical Reasoning for Beginners, at Oxford (lecture 4 approx. 30:50), which are otherwise very good lectures introducing the principles of argumentation. Induction is a type of commonsense, and so when Hume explained why it was wrong in principle, even he continued to treat it as if it were true, rather like we still speak about the sun rising. If you understand inductive logic as a fallacy, rather than a weaker branch of logic, and reject it entirely, its absence seems elegant, and the inductive sections of philosophy lectures are humorous, not because the professors are stupid, but precisely because they are so smart. Talbot invariably has to equivocate whenever analyzing inductive arguments, and her distaste for them is clear to the audience, but I think not really to herself. This quote is the highlight of that cognitive dissonance. She has just suddenly abandoned an example as bad, before completely expounding it, and proceeds in these sentences to explain that induction is false, even as she seems satisfied that she has justified it, and moves on to the next topic.
Kate’s dashboard coincidence provides a great opportunity to say a few words about optimism. In the first place, we use the word in two very different ways: (1) hoping blindly that things will turn out well, and (2) believing that problems are soluble. The first idea is silly and it is what makes this joke funny (there are two serious answers to his question, by the way: nice things might happen by accident, or because there is a person who wants something nice to happen and knows how to make it happen); the second sense is not silly at all, but is rather a logical consequence of physics.
At the most fundamental level, there are only two types of things, those that are possible and those that are impossible. It is the role of physical laws to differentiate them, to explain why certain things are impossible: if something is impossible, that is because there is a law of physics which makes it impossible. Everything else is possible. There is no third possibility; there is nothing which is possible but which can’t be done: if there were something not prevented by the laws the of physics, but nevertheless impossible for some other reason, then that reason would itself be a law of physics. All things which are possible but which we don’t know how to do yet can be accomplished by creating the appropriate knowledge; so also discovering why something previously thought to be possible is actually impossible constitutes the discovery of a new law of physics.
Here we can begin to glimpse two deep and surprising things: (1) the central role of people in the physical world (the final two sentences of that quote might seem banal at first glance, but actually constitute a remarkable argument), and (2) that something like optimism (in the second sense) can be deduced from scientific principles.