Sunday, June 16, 2013

Selected quotes from books I've read in 2011-2013

God's Debris (Scott Adams)

Finished on August 13, 2011 (3.5/5.0)
  • "I can conceive of only one challenge for an omnipotent being—the challenge of destroying himself." "You think God would want to commit suicide?" I asked. "I’m not saying he wants anything. I’m saying it’s the only challenge." "I think God would prefer to exist than to not exist."
  • "Skeptics," he said, "suffer from the skeptics’ disease— the problem of being right too often."
  • "People think they follow advice but they don’t. Humans are only capable of receiving information. They create their own advice. If you seek to influence someone, don’t waste time giving advice. You can change only what people know, not what they do."
  • "Yes, that is the essence of being human. Any person you meet at a party will be interested in his own life above all other topics. Your awkward silences can be solved by asking simple questions about the person’s life."
  • "For the next few hours the old man revealed more of his ingredients for successful social living. Express gratitude. Give more than is expected. Speak optimistically. Touch people. Remember names. Don’t confuse flexibility with weakness. Don’t judge people by their mistakes; rather, judge them by how they respond to their mistakes. Remember that your physical appearance is for the benefit of others. Attend to your own basic needs first; otherwise you will not be useful to anyone else."
  • "When you consider all of the coincidences that are possible, it is not surprising that you experience a few every day."

Free Will (Sam Harris)

Finished on April 26, 2012 (4.0/5.0)
  • "Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? Of course not."
  • "Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings."
  • "People feel that they are the authors of their thoughts and actions, and this is the only reason why there seems to be a problem of free will worth talking about."
  • "You are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world."
  • "You can do what you decide to do—but you cannot decide what you will decide to do."
  • "I think that losing the sense of free will has only improved my ethics—by increasing my feelings of compassion and forgiveness, and diminishing my sense of entitlement to the fruits of my own good luck."
  • "Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do?"
  • "The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion."
  • "Einstein (following Schopenhauer) once made the same point: Honestly, I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the human will. I have a feeling, for instance, that I will something or other; but what relation this has with freedom I cannot understand at all. I feel that I will to light my pipe and I do it; but how can I connect this up with the idea of freedom? What is behind the act of willing to light the pipe? Another act of willing? Schopenhauer once said: Der Mensch kann was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will (Man can do what he will but he cannot will what he wills)."
  • "As Jerry Coyne points out (personal communication), this notion of counterfactual freedom is also scientifically untestable. What evidence could possibly be put forward to show that one could have acted differently in the past?"

The Moral Landscape (Sam Harris)

Finished on November 5, 2012 (4.25/5.0)
  • "Meaning, values, morality, and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures—and, in our case, must lawfully depend upon events in the world and upon states of the human brain. Rational, open-ended, honest inquiry has always been the true source of insight into such processes. Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident."
  • "Religious thinkers in all faiths, and on both ends of the political spectrum, are united on precisely this point; the defense one most often hears for belief in God is not that there is compelling evidence for His existence, but that faith in Him is the only reliable source of meaning and moral guidance."
  • "A science of human flourishing may seem a long way off, but to achieve it, we must first acknowledge that the intellectual terrain actually exists."
  • "While it would be unethical to deprive young children of normal care for the purposes of experiment, society inadvertently performs such experiments every day."
  • "As with all matters of fact, differences of opinion on moral questions merely reveal the incompleteness of our knowledge; they do not oblige us to respect a diversity of views indefinitely."
  • "The concept of well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists precise definition, and yet it is indispensable."
  • "Is it possible that certain people are incapable of wanting what they should want? Of course—just as there will always be people who are unable to grasp specific facts or believe certain true propositions."
  • "Anyone who wants to understand the world should be open to new facts and new arguments, even on subjects where his or her views are very well established."
  • "Slovic’s experimental work suggests that we intuitively care most about a single, identifiable human life, less about two, and we grow more callous as the body count rises."
  • "The fact that it may often be difficult, or even impossible, to know what the consequences of our thoughts and actions will be does not mean that there is some other basis for human values that is worth worrying about."
  • "It seems abundantly clear that many people are simply wrong about morality—just as many people are wrong about physics, biology, history, and everything else worth understanding."
  • "It is now well known that our feeling of reasoning objectively is often illusory."
  • "But why is the conscious decision to do another person harm particularly blameworthy? Because consciousness is, among other things, the context in which our intentions become completely available to us. What we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds—our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc. If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king—well, then killing the king really reflects the sort of person you are. Consequently, it makes sense for the rest of society to worry about you."
  • "And the mistakes people tend to make across a wide range of reasoning tasks are not mere errors; they are systematic errors that are strongly associated both within and across tasks. As one might expect, many of these errors decrease as cognitive ability increases."
  • "So while knowledge is increasingly open-source, ignorance is, too. It is also true that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities. This often produces an ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance that is very difficult to correct for."
  • "It is worth reflecting on what a reasoning bias actually is: a bias is not merely a source of error; it is a reliable pattern of error. Every bias, therefore, reveals something about the structure of the human mind."
  • "There is no question that human beings regularly fail to achieve the norms of rationality. But we do not merely fail—we fail reliably."
  • "Does a lone psychotic become sane merely by attracting a crowd of devotees?"
  • "Introspection offers no clue that our experience of the world around us, and of ourselves within it, depends upon voltage changes and chemical interactions taking place inside our heads. And yet a century and a half of brain science declares it to be so."
  • "As is often the case with religious apology, it is a case of heads, faith wins; tails, reason loses."
  • "There is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States. This isn’t surprising, as very few scientific truths are self-evident and many are deeply counterintuitive. It is by no means obvious that empty space has structure or that we share a common ancestor with both the housefly and the banana."
  • "Despite our perennial bad behavior, our moral progress seems to me unmistakable. Our powers of empathy are clearly growing. Today, we are surely more likely to act for the benefit of humanity as a whole than at any point in the past."
  • "We will embarrass our descendants, just as our ancestors embarrass us. This is moral progress."
  • "I have argued that they cannot be, as anything of value must be valuable to someone (whether actually or potentially)—and, therefore, its value should be attributable to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures."
  • "I believe that conservatives have the same morality as liberals do, they just have different ideas about how harm accrues in this universe."
  • "However, most of the research done on happiness suggests that people actually become less happy when they have children and do not begin to approach their prior level of happiness until their children leave home."
  • "However, a famous study of human achievement suggests that one of the most reliable ways to diminish a person’s contributions to society is for that person to start a family."
  • "Whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet? Judging from recent events, it wouldn’t appear so. Perhaps a deep understanding of economics will always elude us. But does anyone doubt that there are better and worse ways to structure an economy?"
  • "For nearly a century, the moral relativism of science has given faith-based religion—that great engine of ignorance and bigotry—a nearly uncontested claim to being the only universal framework for moral wisdom. As a result, the most powerful societies on earth spend their time debating issues like gay marriage when they should be focused on problems like nuclear proliferation, genocide, energy security, climate change, poverty, and failing schools."
  • "I am convinced that every appearance of terms like "metaethics," "deontology," "noncognitivism," "antirealism," "emotivism," etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe."
  • "To say that morality is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal) because we must first assume that the well-being of conscious creatures is good, is like saying that science is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal) because we must first assume that a rational understanding of the universe is good."
  • "It is wrong to force women and girls to wear burqas because it is unpleasant and impractical to live fully veiled, because this practice perpetuates a view of women as being the property of men, and because it keeps the men who enforce it brutally obtuse to the possibility of real equality and communication between the sexes."
  • "The neuroscientists Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen make the same point: Most people’s view of the mind is implicitly dualist and libertarian and not materialist and compatibilist … [I]ntuitive free will is libertarian, not compatibilist. That is, it requires the rejection of determinism and an implicit commitment to some kind of magical mental causation … contrary to legal and philosophical orthodoxy, determinism really does threaten free will and responsibility as we intuitively understand them (J. Greene & Cohen, 2004, pp. 1779–1780)."
  • "When comparing mental states, the reality of human consciousness is a given. We need not understand how consciousness relates to the behavior of atoms to investigate how emotions like love, compassion, trust, greed, fear, and anger differ (and interact) in neurophysiological terms."
  • "There are many factors that bias our judgment, including: arbitrary anchors on estimates of quantity, availability biases on estimates of frequency, insensitivity to the prior probability of outcomes, misconceptions of randomness, nonregressive predictions, insensitivity to sample size, illusory correlations, overconfidence, valuing of worthless evidence, hindsight bias, confirmation bias, biases based on ease of imaginability, as well as other nonnormative modes of thinking."
  • "As Stanovich and West (2000) observe, what serves the genes does not necessarily advance the interests of the individual. We could also add that what serves the individual in one context may not serve him in another. The cognitive and emotional mechanisms that may (or may not) have optimized us for face-to-face conflict (and its resolution) have clearly not prepared us to negotiate conflicts waged from afar—whether with email or other long-range weaponry."
  • "In fact, there are whole sections of the New Testament, like the Book of Revelation, that were long considered spurious, that were included in the Bible only after many centuries of neglect; and there are other books, like the Shepherd of Hermas, that were venerated as part of the Bible for hundreds of years only to be rejected finally as false scripture. Consequently, it is true to say that generations of Christians lived and died having been guided by scripture that is now deemed to be both mistaken and incomplete by the faithful. In fact, to this day, Roman Catholics and Protestants cannot agree on the full contents of the Bible. Needless to say, such a haphazard and all-too-human process of cobbling together the authoritative word of the Creator of the Universe seems a poor basis for believing that the miracles of Jesus actually occurred."

L’Étranger (Albert Camus)

Finished on November 28, 2012 (4.25/5.0)
  • "J’ai compris alors qu’un homme qui n’aurait vécu qu’un seul jour pourrait sans peine vivre cent ans dans une prison. Il aurait assez de souvenirs pour ne pas s’ennuyer."

How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed (Ray Kurzweil)

Finished on February 4, 2013 (4.0/5.0)
  • "From this perspective, reverse-engineering the human brain may be regarded as the most important project in the universe."
  • "If understanding language and other phenomena through statistical analysis does not count as true understanding, then humans have no understanding either."
  • "The operating principle of the neocortex is arguably the most important idea in the world, as it is capable of representing all knowledge and skills as well as creating new knowledge."
  • "We often misrecognize people and things and words because our threshold for confirming an expected pattern is too low."
  • "Natural selection does nothing even close to striving for intelligence. The process is driven by differences in the survival and reproduction rates of replicating organisms in a particular environment. Over time, the organisms acquire designs that adapt them for survival and reproduction in that environment, period; nothing pulls them in any direction other than success there and then."
  • "When scientists have thought about the pathways of the brain for the last hundred years or so, the typical image or model that comes to mind is that these pathways might resemble a bowl of spaghetti—separate pathways that have little particular spatial pattern in relation to one another. Using magnetic resonance imaging, we were able to investigate this question experimentally. And what we found was that rather than being haphazardly arranged or independent pathways, we find that all of the pathways of the brain taken together fit together in a single exceedingly simple structure. They basically look like a cube. They basically run in three perpendicular directions, and in each one of those three directions the pathways are highly parallel to each other and arranged in arrays. So, instead of independent spaghettis, we see that the connectivity of the brain is, in a sense, a single coherent structure."
  • "Although we experience the illusion of receiving high-resolution images from our eyes, what the optic nerve actually sends to the brain is just a series of outlines and clues about points of interest in our visual field. We then essentially hallucinate the world from cortical memories that interpret a series of movies with very low data rates that arrive in parallel channels."
  • "As we have seen, it is not just a metaphor to state that there is information contained in our neocortex, and it is frightening to contemplate that none of this information is backed up today. There is, of course, one way in which we do back up some of the information in our brains—by writing it down. The ability to transfer at least some of our thinking to a medium that can outlast our biological bodies was a huge step forward, but a great deal of data in our brains continues to remain vulnerable."
  • "I would not expect such an "uploading" technology to be available until around the 2040s."
  • "In our digital brain we would also back up old memories before discarding them from the active neocortex, a precaution we can’t take in our biological brains."
  • "I would also provide a critical thinking module, which would perform a continual background scan of all of the existing patterns, reviewing their compatibility with the other patterns (ideas) in this software neocortex. We have no such facility in our biological brains, which is why people can hold completely inconsistent thoughts with equanimity."
  • "This critical thinking module would run as a continual background task. It would be very beneficial if human brains did the same thing."
  • "The human brain appears to be able to handle only four simultaneous lists at a time (without the aid of tools such as computers), but there is no reason for an artificial neocortex to have such a limitation."
  • "Finally, our new brain needs a purpose. A purpose is expressed as a series of goals. In the case of our biological brains, our goals are established by the pleasure and fear centers that we have inherited from the old brain."
  • "As nonbiological brains become as capable as biological ones of effecting changes in the world—indeed, ultimately far more capable than unenhanced biological ones—we will need to consider their moral education. A good place to start would be with one old idea from our religious traditions: the golden rule."
  • "In mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them." —John von Neumann
  • "There is considerable plasticity in the brain, which enables us to learn. But there is far greater plasticity in a computer, which can completely restructure its methods by changing its software."
  • "Thus, in that respect, a computer will be able to emulate the brain, but the converse is not the case."
  • "Von Neumann was deeply aware of the increasing pace of progress and its profound implications for humanity’s future. A year after his death in 1957, fellow mathematician Stan Ulam quoted him as having said in the early 1950s that "the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life give the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue." This is the first known use of the word "singularity" in the context of human technological history."
  • "British philosopher Colin McGinn (born in 1950) writes that discussing "consciousness can reduce even the most fastidious thinker to blabbering incoherence.""
  • "If you were at a cocktail party and there were both "normal" humans and zombies, how would you tell the difference? Perhaps this sounds like a cocktail party you have attended."
  • "English physicist and mathematician Roger Penrose (born in 1931) took a different leap of faith in proposing the source of consciousness, though his also concerned the microtubules—specifically, their purported quantum computing abilities. His reasoning, although not explicitly stated, seemed to be that consciousness is mysterious, and a quantum event is also mysterious, so they must be linked in some way."
  • "If you do accept the leap of faith that a nonbiological entity that is convincing in its reactions to qualia is actually conscious, then consider what that implies: namely that consciousness is an emergent property of the overall pattern of an entity, not the substrate it runs on."
  • "The question as to whether or not an entity is conscious is therefore not a scientific one."
  • "It is difficult to maintain that a few-days-old embryo is conscious unless one takes a panprotopsychist position, but even in these terms it would rank below the simplest animal in terms of consciousness."
  • "Before brains there was no color or sound in the universe, nor was there any flavor or aroma and probably little sense and no feeling or emotion." —Roger W. Sperry
  • "Evolution also moves toward greater complexity, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, and the ability to express more transcendent emotions, such as love."
  • "While these observations certainly support the idea of plasticity in the neocortex, their more interesting implication is that we each appear to have two brains, not one, and we can do pretty well with either."
  • "In each of these cases, one of the hemispheres believes that it has made a decision that it in fact never made. To what extent is that true for the decisions we make every day?"
  • Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) wrote that "everyone believes himself a priori to be perfectly free, even in his individual actions, and thinks that at every moment he can commence another manner of life…. But a posteriori, through experience, he finds to his astonishment that he is not free, but subjected to necessity, that in spite of all his resolutions and reflections he does not change his conduct, and that from the beginning of his life to the end of it, he must carry out the very character which he himself condemns."
  • "Thus even though our decisions are determined (because our bodies and brains are part of a deterministic universe), they are nonetheless inherently unpredictable because we live in (and are part of) a class IV automaton. We cannot predict the future of a class IV automaton except to let the future unfold."
  • "Nonetheless I will continue to act as if I have free will and to believe in it, so long as I don’t have to explain why."
  • "But when one paradigm runs out of steam (for example, when engineers were no longer able to reduce the size and cost of vacuum tubes in the 1950s), it creates research pressure to create the next paradigm, and so another S-curve of progress begins."
  • "So it is with the law of accelerating returns: Each technology project and contributor is unpredictable, yet the overall trajectory, as quantified by basic measures of price/performance and capacity, nonetheless follows a remarkably predictable path."
  • "Intelligence evolved because it was useful for survival—a fact that may seem obvious, but one with which not everyone agrees."
  • "The last invention that biological evolution needed to make—the neocortex—is inevitably leading to the last invention that humanity needs to make—truly intelligent machines—and the design of one is inspiring the other. Biological evolution is continuing but technological evolution is moving a million times faster than the former."
  • "In either scenario, waking up the universe, and then intelligently deciding its fate by infusing it with our human intelligence in its nonbiological form, is our destiny."

What I Believe (Bertrand Russell)

Finished on February 19, 2013 (3.75/5.0)
  • "The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge. Knowledge and love are both indefinitely extensible; therefore, however good a life may be, a better life can be imagined. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life."
  • "The practical need of morals arises from the conflict of desires."
  • "Boys and girls should be taught respect for each other’s liberty; they should be made to feel that nothing gives one human being rights over another, and that jealousy and possessiveness kill love. They should be taught that to bring another human being into the world is a very serious matter, only to be undertaken when the child will have a reasonable prospect of health, good surroundings, and parental care."
  • "The harm to the murderer is wholly regrettable, like the pain of a surgical operation. It may be equally necessary, but it is not a subject for rejoicing."
  • "I merely wish to suggest that we should treat the criminal as we treat a man suffering from plague. Each is a public danger, each must have his liberty curtailed until he has ceased to be a danger."
  • "To live a good life in the fullest sense a man must have a good education, friends, love, children (if he desires them), a sufficient income to keep him from want and grave anxiety, good health, and work which is not uninteresting."
  • "There is no short cut to the good life, whether individual or social. To build up the good life, we must build up intelligence, self-control and sympathy. This is a quantitative matter, a matter of gradual improvement, of early training, of educational experiment. Only impatience prompts the belief in the possibility of sudden improvement. The gradual improvement that is possible, and the methods by which it may be achieved, are a matter for future science. But something can be said now."
  • "There is probably no limit to what science can do in the way of increasing positive excellence. Health has already been greatly improved; in spite of the lamentations of those who idealise the past, we live longer and have fewer illnesses than any class or nation in the eighteenth century. With a little more application of the knowledge we already possess, we might be much healthier than we are. And future discoveries are likely to accelerate this process enormously."

Le mythe de Sisyphe (Albert Camus)

Finished on May 8, 2013 (3.75/5.0)
  • "Il n'y a qu'un problème philosophique vraiment sérieux : c'est le suicide. Juger que la vie vaut ou ne vaut pas la peine d'être vécue, c'est répondre à la question fondamentale de la philosophie. Le reste, si le monde a trois dimensions, si l'esprit a neuf ou douze catégories, vient ensuite. Ce sont des jeux ; il faut d'abord répondre."
  • "Il existe un fait d'évidence qui semble tout à fait moral, c'est qu'un homme est toujours la proie de ses vérités. Une fois reconnues, il ne saurait s'en détacher. Il faut bien payer un peu. Un homme devenu conscient de l'absurde lui est lié pour jamais."
  • "L'important, disait l'abbé Galiani à Mme d'Epinay, n'est pas de guérir, mais de vivre avec ses maux."
  • "Mais si je reconnais les limites de la raison, je ne la nie pas pour autant, reconnaissant ses pouvoirs relatifs. Je veux seulement me tenir dans ce chemin moyen où l'intelligence peut rester claire."
  • "Ce cri n'a pas de quoi arrêter l'homme absurde. Chercher ce qui est vrai n'est pas chercher ce qui est souhaitable. Si pour échapper à la question angoissée : « Que serait donc la vie ? » il faut comme l'âne se nourrir des roses de l'illusion, plutôt que de se résigner au mensonge, l'esprit absurde préfère adopter sans trembler la réponse de Kierkegaard : « le désespoir ». Tout bien considéré, une âme déterminée s'en arrangera toujours."
  • "C'est qu'en vérité le chemin importe peu, la volonté d'arriver suffit à tout."
  • "Mon raisonnement veut être fidèle à l'évidence qui l'a éveillé. Cette évidence, c'est l'absurde. C'est ce divorce entre l'esprit qui désire et le monde qui déçoit, ma nostalgie d'unité, cet univers dispersé et la contradiction qui les enchaîne."
  • "L'une des seules positions philosophiques cohérentes, c'est ainsi la révolte. Elle est un confrontement perpétuel de l'homme et de sa propre obscurité. Elle est exigence d'une impossible transparence. Elle remet le monde en question à chacune de ses secondes. De même que le danger fournit à l'homme l'irremplaçable occasion de la saisir, de même la révolte métaphysique étend la conscience tout le long de l'expérience. Elle est cette présence constante de l'homme à lui-même. Elle n'est pas aspiration, elle est sans espoir. Cette révolte n'est que l'assurance d'un destin écrasant, moins la résignation qui devrait l’accompagner."
  • "Car devant Dieu, il y a moins un problème de la liberté qu'un problème du mal. On connaît l'alternative : ou nous ne sommes pas libres et Dieu tout-puissant est responsable du mal. Ou nous sommes libres et responsables mais Dieu n'est pas tout-puissant. Toutes les subtilités d'écoles n'ont rien ajouté ni soustrait au tranchant de ce paradoxe."
  • "La mort est là comme seule réalité. Après elle, les jeux sont faits."
  • "Il vient toujours un temps où il faut choisir entre la contemplation et l'action. Cela s'appelle devenir un homme. Ces déchirements sont affreux."
  • "À cet égard, la joie absurde par excellence, c'est la création. « L'art et rien que l'art, dit Nietzsche, nous avons l'art pour ne point mourir de la vérité. »"
  • "Créer, c'est vivre deux fois."
  • "La fécondité et la grandeur d'un genre se mesurent souvent au déchet qui s'y trouve. Le nombre de mauvais romans ne doit pas faire oublier la grandeur des meilleurs."
  • "Il y a dans la condition humaine, c'est le lieu commun de toutes les littératures, une absurdité fondamentale en même temps qu'une implacable grandeur."
  • "Mais si je sais cela, si je peux aussi l'admirer, je sais aussi que je ne cherche pas ce qui est universel, mais ce qui est vrai. Les deux peuvent ne pas coïncider."