“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.”—David Deutsch
“Rudimentary organs may be compared with the letters in a word still retained in the spelling but become useless in pronunciation, but which serve as a clue in seeking for its derivation.”—Darwin 1859 432
“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.”—Werner Jaeger, Paideia 1.117
“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.”—Feynman (1985)
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.
“Most information, if it were instantiated in some physical object, would not have the property that when it acts on something it is conserved. So, for example, a book with a misprint, in the following edition of the book, the misprint is corrected; if the book is a good book, then the version without misprints is capable of surviving. So, it’s rather like genes: regions of DNA which are junk DNA, which are not used for anything, are just information, and the rest are genes. Similarly, most information does not consist of knowledge, because it doesn’t satisfy the fundamental property of a constructor, that it can produce something and then be able to reproduce it again, without limit.”—David Deutsch on distinguishing information and knowledge.
“It is indeed very strange, but I think inescapable, that human beings—or rather people, creative entities—have a special place in nature, because the overwhelming majority of processes that are possible are possible only when people are involved. This is a break with the Galilean tradition, which said that there’s nothing important about people; but in fact the thing that is important about people is the very thing that back 400 years ago was important to deny about people: that is, people are not supernatural, they’re part of the physical world, and they’re the most important part of the physical world. I’ve focused in my talk about what people can do (that is, almost everything requires people to do), but there’s also the converse question, what can the world make people do, that is, how would you predict the behavior of human beings? Well, if you think about scientists performing experiments and celebrating when they succeed and make a discovery and so on, you couldn’t predict the set of all such things unless you knew all the laws of physics. So human beings, uniquely, are entities which you can’t predict the behavior of without knowing everything about the universe.”—David Deutsch
“What Darwin showed us was that the mechanism of natural selection can, in principle, simulate the actions of the Creator, and His purpose and design, and that it can also simulate rational human action directed towards a purpose or aim.”—Karl Popper, Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge
“The soap bubble consists of two subsystems which are both clouds and which control each other: without the air, the soapy film would collapse, and we should have only a drop of soapy water. Without the soapy film, the air would be uncontrolled: it would diffuse, ceasing to exist as a system. Thus the control is mutual; it is plastic, and of a feed-back character. Yet it is possible to make a distinction between the controlled system (the air) and the controlling system (the film): the enclosed air is not only more cloudy than the enclosing film, but it also ceases to be a physical (self-interacting) system if the film is removed. As against this, the film, after the removal of air, will form a droplet which, though of a different shape, may still be said to be a physical system.”—Karl Popper, Of Clouds and Clocks
“One of the first items sold on [eBay] was a broken laser pointer for $14.83. Astonished, Omidyar contacted the winning bidder to ask if he understood that the laser pointer was broken. In his responding email, the buyer explained: ‘I’m a collector of broken laser pointers.’”—
When we moved out of the greater New York City area for the Catskill mountains when I was half-way through kindergarten, my father bought a personal computer and taught himself how to program. He made a living doing “desktop publishing,” which was a thing that happened between the advent of personal computing and its ubiquitization. After the Windows revolution, when people started doing their own desktop publishing, he was asked to beta test dial-up internet service, and so we became one of the first households in our area with access. When they didn’t heed any of his criticisms, he decided to start his own ISP, since he was looking for a new line of work anyway.
In those beta-testing days, he would log on briefly and download messages from various groups of other nerds who shared his programming interests, and then read them offline, before logging in again to reply. It was always a mysterious apparatus to me and my father wasn’t keen on explanations: he usually thought it more prudent to just fix my computer problems. To some degree I think I was rebelling when I was offline for the most part between 2001-2005.
What happened in 2005? I discovered that I could be in touch with people all over the world who were also studying Greek either professionally or for their own amusement like me. My progress increased rapidly immediately with access to quality feedback on my work and explanations for the notes in my school texts. It was unimaginably easy to share not only ideas but resources compared with the groups my father frequented. I suspect there are more amateur Hellenists than broken-laser-pointer collectors online, but probably not very many. The internet was made for us.
A journey of a thousand miles begins, obviously, with a single step. But isn’t it equally obvious that a step of a single metre must begin with a single millimetre? And before you can begin the last micron of that millimetre, don’t you have to get through 999 other microns first? And so ad infinitum? That “ad infinitum” bit is what worried the philosopher Zeno of Elea. Can our every action really consist of sub-actions each consisting of sub-sub-actions … so that before we can move at all, we have to perform a literally infinite number of distinct, consecutive actions?
Zeno’s paradox is the earliest known critique of the common-sense idea that we live in a “continuum” — an infinitely divisible, smoothly structured space. It highlights one of several awkward problems with that concept, which would be considered fatal flaws if there were a reasonable alternative. But the only alternative is that space is not infinitely divisible but discrete, and the flaw in that is a killer too: if there are only finitely many points — actions, changes, or whatever — between one place and another, how can you ever get from one to the next? There is, by definition, nothing in between, nowhere to be while you cross the gap. You start having not yet crossed; then you have crossed. Period.
This dilemma kept coming up in various guises: does matter consist of atoms? how many angels can stand on the head of a pin? In the nineteenth century the continuum seemed to have won, with the triumph of the wave theory of light — though Darwin knew that there was a problem with evolution if, as he thought, inherited traits are continuously variable. He needn’t have worried. When Max Planck solved the black body problem by postulating that atoms could absorb or emit energy only in discrete amounts, the quantum age began. The idea of quantization — the discreteness of physical quantities — turned out to be immensely fruitful. Niels Bohr used it to construct the first successful model of the internal structure of atoms. Albert Einstein used it to analyse the photoelectric effect. However, escaping from the infinities of continuous motion again raised the question “how do you get from A to B?” Modern quantum theory gives an answer of sorts. Remarkably, it describes a reality in which observable quantities do indeed take discrete values, yet motion and change are nevertheless continuous.
How can that be? Regrettably, the standard answer taught to subsequent generations of physics students was nonsense: “It’s a particle and a wave — discrete and continuous — simultaneously”. Or: “It isn’t really localised or spread out until you see the result of your experiment”. The fact that scientists could take such positions — and students accept them — marks an embarrassing period in the history of physics. A resolution compelling enough to satisfy Zeno is not yet available, but quantum theory brings us substantially closer. I believe that the resolution depends on an implication of quantum theory yet to be widely accepted: the existence of parallel universes. In short, within each universe all observable quantities are discrete, but the multiverse as a whole is a continuum. When the equations of quantum theory describe a continuous but not-directly-observable transition between two values of a discrete quantity, what they are telling us is that the transition does not take place entirely within one universe. So perhaps the price of continuous motion is not an infinity of consecutive actions, but an infinity of concurrent actions taking place across the multiverse. A kind of progress, surely.
Nowadays we rely on quantum theory to explain every last counter-intuitive nuance of the behaviour of matter at atomic scales. One of the objectives in my own field is to build quantum computers — devices that will be capable of qualitatively new types of information processing. Only the very simplest have been built so far: quantum cryptographic devices whose security depends not, as all current systems do, on transient assumptions about how much computer power or mathematical ingenuity is available to potential eavesdroppers, but on the timeless laws of quantum mechanics. It will probably be decades before even more spectacular applications, such as cracking the best existing cryptographic systems, become feasible. It is an extremely challenging task. Many different technologies have been proposed. Some doubt that it can be done, but no one seriously disputes that if these computers can be built, they will possess those capabilities. For the predictions of quantum theory are superbly corroborated in every known test. In 1900, Max Planck wasn’t sure what he had discovered. He didn’t like it, but he knew that somehow it had to contain the explanation for the observed phenomena — so he ran with it. He was right. Later generations discovered what it meant; and the longer we live with it, the more sense it makes.
“When abundant matter is ready, when space is to hand, and no thing and no cause hinders, things must assuredly be done and completed. And if there is at this moment both so great store of seeds as all the time of living existence could not suffice to tell, and if the same power and the same nature abides, able to throw the seeds of things together in any place in the same way as they have been thrown together into this place, then you are bound to confess that there are other worlds in other regions and different races of men and generations of wild beasts.”—
Lucretius DRN 2.1067-1076
All things not prevented by the laws of physics “must assuredly be done and completed.”
“The growth of unreason throughout the nineteenth century and what has passed of the twentieth is a natural sequel to Hume’s destruction of empiricism.”—Bertand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy
“The fact that there is always an infinity of logically possible solutions to every problem is a decisive fact for the philosophy of science. It is one of those things that makes science such a thrilling adventure. For it renders inefficient all merely routine methods. It means that scientists must use imagination and bold ideas, though always tempered by severe criticism and severe tests.”—Karl Popper, The Myth of the Framework
Freedom, we have seen, defeats itself, if it is unlimited. Unlimited freedom means that a strong man is free to bully one who is weak and to rob him of his freedom. This is why we demand that the state should limit freedom to a certain extent, so that everyone’s freedom is protected by law. Nobody should be at the mercy of others, but all should have a right to be protected by the state.
Now I believe that these considerations, originally meant to apply to the realm of brute force, of physical intimidation, must be applied to the economic realm also. Even if the state protects its citizens from being bullied by physical violence (as it does, in principle, under the system of unrestrained capitalism), it may defeat our ends by its failure to protect them from the misuse of economic power. In such a state, the economically strong is still free to bully one who is economically weak, and to rob him of his freedom. Under these circumstances, unlimited economic freedom can be just as self-defeating as unlimited physical freedom, and economic power may be nearly as dangerous as physical violence; for those who possess a surplus of food can force those who are starving into a ‘freely’ accepted servitude, without using violence. And assuming that the state limits its activities to the suppression of violence (and to the protection of property), a minority which is economically strong may in this way exploit the majority of those who are economically weak.
If this analysis is correct, then the nature of the remedy is clear. It must be a political remedy—a remedy similar to the one which we use against physical violence. We must construct social institutions, enforced by the power of the state, for the protection of the economically weak from the economically strong. The state must see to it that nobody need enter into an inequitable arrangement out of fear of starvation, or economic ruin.
”—Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945)
This is my 1,607th post. I’m sick and I sat down with toast and tea to write this on a lazy morning before I realized that this whole business started six years ago today. It was the spring semester of my first year in graduate school. I had been keeping a blog for about three years elsewhere strictly about my private study of ancient Greece. Now that I was to be writing professionally about Classics, I had the idea for a new project, where I could keep a journal of creative writing and personal reflection. I think I stumbled on Tumblr by following a link hoping to see a pretty girl, and it seemed as good a place and time to start as any.
I quickly noticed some important differences in the platform. Quotations had their own formatting, and so it became a convenient commonplace book. For the same reason, I began posting photographs immediately, although that had not been my original intention. The social aspect was also influential. I acquired a handful of followers and suddenly it wasn’t so anonymous, so I began censoring myself, which violated the original spirit of the project. It became an intellectual journal again with more reflections on school than my personal life.
Over those six years I can see a clear evolution in my thought (much of what I’ve asserted I would now contest or qualify) but the project has retained some integrity. It has always been a commonplace book. More often than not, I offer no comment on the passages, and I certainly don’t agree with them all: I often post things which challenge my positions. There have been flashes of intimacy—fears, hopes, embarrassments—but the personal reflections have been mostly responses to arts and literature and graduate school. It has always been irreverent. I have never used a hashtag in my life, although I wish I had taken advantage of the feature for organizational purposes. Although reblogging is one of the great features of Tumblr, and facilitates conversations, I have always disliked its aesthetics, with all the indentation, and so avoided it in many cases where I might otherwise have done it. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been doing it more in the past year or so. I try to cite things accurately, even though I think we’re all a bit too obsessed with sources and credit and authority, and would sometimes like to see what you think about a quotation or painting without knowing its source.
I used to see the like-feature as a way to store things I wanted to visit again. I realized at some point that I was rarely or really never browsing them, and so I started to use it more and more to let other users know the types of things I wanted to see from them. I’ve liked 11,598 things. My use varies for different people. Two of my all-time favorite Tumblrs are sexpigeon and ragbag and a comparison illustrates one way this is true. I enjoy almost everything they post. I only like about 5-10% of sexpigeon’s posts, however, because they are more frequent, and so I use the feature to identify what I think are the very best. I’ve probably liked every single ragbag post, on the other hand, since they come along less frequently (and increasingly so). I’ve had a handful of posts whose likes number in the high hundreds, but I don’t think I’ve ever broken into the thousands. It’s not uncommon to get upwards of 20 likes, but if it receives more than 20 I consider it highly successful. I’m constantly surprised at what you guys like: some of the most important things I’ve ever posted received zero and at least half of the most popular ones are inexplicable to me.
I have 56 drafts in my folder right now. That has been pretty typical for the last year, although before that the number was higher, closer to 100. For every substantial text published, I’ve written probably 1.5 that I haven’t published for one reason or another—very often fear of criticism or the lack of time to respond to it. Half of those 56 will probably never be published. They consist mostly of quotes and photographs, with a handful of short text posts (the longest being a piece I started writing on my radio habits), one or two videos, and no chats or links. I often save drafts of quotations in order to reflect on them later: sometimes it takes weeks or months to determine how I feel about something. I probably post two-thirds of the quotations I save in my drafts. The oldest draft in my folder is about three years old.
I have 543 followers [I lost one while writing this: 542]. Only about 30-40 people interact with me on a regular basis. Mills was my first follower and largely because of his fame I think I acquired about 500 followers within the first year. Since then I’ve been picking up a few each month and losing probably half as many.
I’ve always kept a strict policy of limiting the people I follow to the number I can actually attend. There have been dozens of excellent Tumblrs over the years that I’ve had to unfollow because I can’t keep up with the number of posts. I try not to like posts that I haven’t taken the time to read, although honestly I do that sometimes to let someone know I appreciate their effort, even if I can’t give it my attention. I capped the number at some point around 100, and I’ve unfollowed some people I like to make room for new people. Sometimes it’s easy to look through and weed out defunct Tumblrs, although I’ve definitely regretted unfollowing people, and, in some cases, been too embarrassed to follow them again. Since getting internet access at home again this year, I’ve increased the number of people I follow to 143 and I think I have room for some more.
Tumblr has been more fun for me than Facebook. I don’t use Twitter although I think I’d like solving the problems posed by character-limits. I use Facebook as an interactive address book, especially to keep in touch with people I don’t have regular contact with in daily life or emails, and most especially to keep in touch with people around the world who will let me sleep on their couch again someday. Tumblr, on the other hand, has expanded my notion of friendship: we are now befriending people who are manifest to us in their words and ideas rather than physical bodies. I’ve met up with a handful of these virtual people. I’ve met up with some people locally in New York, like reconnoitre (who’s less intimidating in real life and very sleepy), and petersantiago (who by contrast probably never sleeps or even sits still except when reading). I was hosted in Ankara by tragos and okimago, who remind you of a celebrity couple without all the pitfalls of fame, and whom I would describe as intimidatingly smart, if they weren’t so unintimidating as people.
But I love so many of you on here whom I’ve never met, whether you’ve sent me photos of your boobs or not. I’m constantly informed about good articles on current events and cultural criticism, and I’m introduced to new artists on a regular basis. I laugh a lot. Although my life is something of a shambles in terms of finances and organization, I’ve never been happier intellectually. My whole adult life has been dedicated to studying what it means to be human, and for most of it I’ve felt that the answers were slipping further and further away. Over the past five years, in contrast, I have been formulating good answers to my biggest questions, and I’m not sure how long it would have taken to reach this point without a few key Tumblr friendships. That means they must of course be as real as any traditional friendship. I’m not sure how long we’ll all continue doing this, but for now I’ll be around, so feel free to get in touch.
“All that in one way or another is the normal metabolism of an animal in flight; but the runner was not in flight. The shot that set him off was the starter’s pistol, and what he was experiencing—deliberately—was not fear but exaltation. The runner is like the child at play: his actions are an adventure in freedom, and the only purpose of this breathless chemistry was to explore the limits of his own strength.”—Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man