September 22nd, 2017

Identity politics […] is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins elections — but can lose them.

Mark Lilla, ‘The End of Identity Liberalism’, The New York Times, November 18, 2016, p. SR1

September 19th, 2017

[N]ot the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage, and wisdom is supposed to consist not in seeing further than other people, but in not seeing so far.

John Stuart Mill, ‘Perfectibility’, in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Toronto, 1988, vol. 26, p. 429

September 18th, 2017

In Rome in 357 A.D., Emperor Constantino issued an edict forbidding anyone “to consult a soothsayer, a mathematician, or a forecaster… May curiosity to foretell the future be silenced forever.” In recent years, however, forecasting has become more acceptable.

Scott Armstrong, Principles of Forecasting: A Handbook for Researchers and Practitioners, New York, 2002, p. 2

September 17th, 2017

Writer’s block is a good example of a dispositional fallacy: A description of behavior can’t also explain the described behavior. Writer’s block is nothing more than the behavior of not writing. Saying that you can’t write because of writer’s block is merely saying that you can’t write because you aren’t writing. It’s trivial.

Paul Silvia, How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, Washington, DC, 2007, pp. 45-46

September 17th, 2017

The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” And the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.

G. K. Chesterton, What Is Wrong with the World, London, 1910, ch. 1

September 15th, 2017

Technologists like Elon Musk, Sam Altman, and Bill Gates, and physicists like Stephen Hawking have warned that artificial intelligence could one day pose an existential security threat. Musk has called it “the greatest risk we face as a civilization.” Think about it: Have you ever seen a movie where the machines start thinking for themselves that ends well? Every time I went out to Silicon Valley during the campaign, I came home more alarmed about this. My staff lived in fear that I’d start talking about “the rise of the robots” in some Iowa town hall. Maybe I should have. In any case, policy makers need to keep up with technology as it races ahead, instead of always playing catch-up.

Hillary Clinton, What Happened, New York, 2017, p. 241

September 12th, 2017

Schizophrenia, hypnosis, amnesia, narcosis, and anesthesia suggest that anything as complicated as the human brain, especially if designed with redundancy for good measure and most assuredly if not designed at all but arising out of a continuous process that began before we were reptiles, should be capable of representing more than one “person.” In fact, it must occasionally wire in a bit of memory that doesn’t belong or signal for a change in the body’s hormonal chemistry that makes us, at least momentarily, “somebody else.” I am reminded of the tantalizing distinction that someone made when my wife had our first child after two hours on sodium pentathol: It doesn’t make it hurt less, it just keeps you from remembering afterward. Strange that the prospect of pain can’t scare me once I’ve seen that, when I become conscious, I won’t remember!

Thomas Schelling, ‘The Intimate Contest for Self-command’, The Public Interest, 60 (Summer, 1980), pp. 97-98

September 12th, 2017

Suppose you have been with a lover for a while, but that he or she decides to break off the relationship. Because of the contrast effect, there is an initial reaction of grief. You may then observe your mind play the following trick on you: To reduce the pain of separation, you redescribe your lover to yourself so that he or she appears much less attractive. This, obviously, is a case of sour grapes, or adaptive preference formation. You then notice, however, that the endowment effect is also affected. By degrading the other, you can no longer enjoy the memory of the good times you had together. In fact, you will feel like a fool thinking back on the relationship you had with an unworthy person. To restore the good memories you have to upvalue the other, but then of course the grief hits you again.

Jon Elster, Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 32-33

September 11th, 2017

Mr. Buffon, from our disregard of the possibility of death within the four-and-twenty hours, concludes that a chance which falls below or rises above ten thousand to one will never affect the hopes or fears of a reasonable man. The fact is true, but our courage is the effect of thoughtlessness, rather than of reflection. If a public lottery were drawn for the choice of an immediate victim, and if our name were inscribed on one of the ten thousand tickets, should we be perfectly easy?

Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life and Writings, London, 1796

September 5th, 2017

All told, the Darwinian notion of the unconscious is more radical than the Freudian one. The sources of self-deception are more numerous, diverse, and deeply rooted, and the line between conscious and unconscious is less clear.

Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, New York, 1994, p. 324

September 5th, 2017

In my French and Latin translations I adopted an excellent method, which, from my own success, I would recommend to the imitation of students. I chose some classic writer, such as Cicero and Vertot, the most approved for purity and elegance of style. I translated, for instance, an epistle of Cicero into French; and, after throwing it aside till the words and phrases were obliterated from my memory, I re-translated my French into such Latin as I could find; and then compared each sentence of my imperfect version with the ease, the grace, the propriety of the Roman orator. A similar experiment was made on several pages of the Revolutions of Vertot; I turned them into Latin, returned them after a sufficient interval into my own French, and again scrutinized the resemblance or dissimilitude of the copy and the original. By degrees I was less ashamed, by degrees I was more satisfied with myself; and I persevered in the practice of these double translations, which filled several books, till I had acquired the knowledge of both idioms, and the command at least of a correct style.

Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life and Writings, London, 1796

September 4th, 2017

[O]ur normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, London, 1902, p. 388

August 24th, 2017

I never type in the morning. I don’t get up in the morning. I drink at night. I try to stay in bed until twelve o’clock, that’s noon. Usually, if I have to get up earlier, I don’t feel good all day. I look, if it says twelve, then I get up and my day begins. I eat something, and then I usually run right up to the race track after I wake up. I bet the horses, then I come back and Linda cooks something and we talk awhile, we eat, and we have a few drinks, and then I go upstairs with a couple of bottles and I type — starting around nine-thirty and going until one-thirty, to, two-thirty at night. And that’s it.

Charles Bukowski, Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews and Encounters 1963–1993, Northville, 2003, p. 78

August 21st, 2017

The psychopath, it’s been said, gets the words, but not the music, of emotion. […]

Joe was twenty-eight, better looking than Brad Pitt, and had an IQ of 160. Why he’d felt the need to beat that girl senseless in the parking lot, drive her to the darkness on the age of that northern town, rape her repeatedly at knifepoint, and then slit her throat and toss her facedown in that Dumpster in a deserted industrial park is beyond comprehension. Parts of her anatomy were later found in his glove compartment.

In a soulless, airless interview suite smelling faintly of antiseptic, I sat across a table from Joe—a million miles, and five years, on from his municipal, blue-collar killing field. I was interested in the way he made decision, the stochastic settings on his brain’s moral compass—and I had a secret weapon, a fiendish psychological trick up my sleep, to find out. I posed him the following dilemma:

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients. Each of the patients is in need of a different organ, and each of them will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs currently available to perform any of the transplants. A healthy young traveler, just passing through, comes into the doctor’s office for a routine checkup. While performing the checkup, the doctor discovers that the young man’s organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose, further, that were the young man to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor. Would the doctor be right to kill the young man to save his five patients? […]

“I can see where the problem lies,” he commented matter-of-factly when I put it to him. “If all you’re doing is simply playing the numbers game, it’s a fucking no-brainer, isn’t it? You kill the guy, and save the other five. It’s utilitarianism on crack… […] If I was the doctor, I wouldn’t give it a second thought. It’s five for the price of one, isn’t it?”

Kevin Dutton, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, New York, 2012, pp. 48-49

August 21st, 2017

We’ve created a culture that fetishizes the new(s), and we forget the wealth of human knowledge, wisdom, and transcendence that lives in the annals of what we call “history” – art, literature, philosophy, and so many things that are both timeless and incredibly timely.

Our presentism bias – anchored in the belief that if it isn’t at the top of Google, it doesn’t matter, and if it isn’t Googleable at all, it doesn’t exist – perpetuates our arrogance that no one has ever grappled with the issues we’re grappling with. Which of course is tragically untrue.

Maria Popova, quoted in Kelton Reid, ‘Here’s How Maria Popova of Brain Pickings Writes’, coplyblogger, August 7, 2013

August 18th, 2017

On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?

Thomas Babington Macaulay, ‘Southey’s Colloquies on Society’, The Edinburgh Review, vol. 50, no. 100 (January, 1930), p. 565

August 15th, 2017

Les grandes personnes aiment les chiffres. Quand vous leur parlez d’un nouvel ami, ells ne vous questionnent jamais sur l’essentiel. Elles ne vous dissent jamais : « Quel est le son de sa voix ? Quels sont les jeux qu’il préfère ? Est-ce qu’il collectionne les papillons ? » Elles vous demandent : « Quel âge a-t-il ? Combien a-t-il de frères ? Combien pèse-t-il ? Combien gagne son père ? »

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le petit prince, Paris, 1943, ch. 4

August 8th, 2017

Nobody likes an incessant whiner, the universe included.

Steve Pavlina, ‘Broken Edges’, January 2, 2017

August 8th, 2017

The relation of a brother and a sister, especially if they do not marry, appears to me of a very singular nature. It is a familiar and tender friendship with a female, much about our own age; an affection perhaps softened by the secret influence of sex, but pure from any mixture of sensual desire, the sole species of platonic love that can be indulged with truth, and without danger.

Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life and Writings, London, 1796

August 8th, 2017

If anything is real, suffering is.

Thomas Metzinger, ‘The Mind Bleeds Into the World’,

July 30th, 2017

[A] small number of people expressed strong disagreement with the voting methods tested, while also saying or otherwise indicating that they did not understand them.

Antoinette Baujard & Herrade Igersheim, ‘Framed Field Experiments on Approval Voting: Lessons from the 2002 and 2007 French Presidential Elections’, in Jean-François Laslier & Remzi Sanver (eds.), Handbook on Approval Voting, Heidelberg, 2010, p. 365

July 29th, 2017

[I]t would not be difficult to produce a long list of ancients and modems, who, in various forms, have exhibited their own portraits. Such portraits are often the most interesting, and sometimes the only interesting parts of their writings; and, if they be sincere, we seldom complain of the minuteness or prolixity of these personal memorials. The lives of the younger Pliny, of Petrarch, and of Erasmus are expressed in the epistles which they themselves have given to the world. The essays of Montaigne and Sir William Temple bring us home to the houses and bosoms of the authors: we smile without contempt at the headstrong passions of Benvenuto Cellini, and the gay follies of Colley Cibber. The confessions of St. Austin and Rousseau disclose the secrets of the human heart; the commentaries of the learned Huet! have survived his evangelical demonstration; and the memoirs of Goldoni are more truly dramatic than his Italian comedies. The heretic and the churchman are strongly marked in the characters and fortunes of Whiston and Bishop Newton; and even the dulness of Michael de Marolles and Anthony Wood acquires some value from the faithful representation of men and manners. That I am equal or superior to some of these, the effects of modesty or affectation cannot force me to dissemble.

Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life and Writings, London, 1796

July 20th, 2017

The observant reader may feel at this point that structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, because one is in effect constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself. Exactly. One needs to be able to recognize and commit oneself to tasks with inflated importance and unreal deadlines, while making oneself feel that these tasks are important and urgent. This is not a problem, because virtually all procrastinators have excellent self-deception skills. And what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the negative effects of another?

John Perry, The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Dallying, Lollygagging, and Postponing, New York, 2012, p. 7

July 20th, 2017

An adult sympathizes with himself in childhood because he is the same, and because (being the same) yet he is not the same. He acknowledges the deep, mysterious identity between himself, as adult and as infant, for the ground of his sympathy; and yet, with this general agreement, and necessity of agreement, he feels the differences between his two selves as the main quickeners of his sympathy. He pities the infirmities, as they arise to light in his young forerunner, which now perhaps he does not share; he looks indulgently upon errors of the understanding, or limitations of view which now he has long survived; and sometimes, also, he honors in the infant tha trectitude of will which, under some temptations, he may since have felt it so difficult to maintain.

Thomas De Quincey, ‘Suspiria de profundis: Being a Sequel to the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’, Blackwood’s Magazine, vol. 57, no. 353 (March, 1845), p. 272

June 3rd, 2017

I know of no study that measures whether the quality of moral debate has risen over the twentieth century. However, I will show why it should have. The key is that more people take the hypothetical seriously, and taking the hypothetical seriously is a prerequisite to getting serious moral debate off the ground. My brother and I would argue with our father about race, and when he endorsed discrimination, we would say, “But what if your skin turned black?” As a man born in 1885, and firmly grounded in the concrete, he would reply, “That is the dumbest thing you have ever said—whom do you know whose skin has ever turned black?” I never encounter contemporary racists who respond in that way. They feel that they must take the hypothetical seriously, and see they are being challenged to use reason detached from the concrete to show that their racial judgments are logically consistent.

James Flynn, Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge, 2012,  p. 20

May 31st, 2017

Moore’s health was quite good in 1946-7, but before that he had suffered a stroke and his doctor had advised that he should not become greatly excited or fatigued. Mrs. Moore enforced this prescription by not allowing Moore to have a philosophical discussion with anyone for longer than one hour and a half. Wittgenstein was extremely vexed by this regulation. He believed that Moore should not be supervised by his wife. He should discuss as long as he liked. If he became very excited or tired and had a stroke and died—well, that would be a decent way to die: with his boots on.

Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Oxford, 1958, p. 56

May 29th, 2017

[Freud] always stresses what great forces in the mind, what strong prejudices work against the idea of psycho-analysis. But he never says what an enormous charm that idea has for people, just as it has for Freud himself. There may be strong prejudices against uncovering something nasty, but sometimes it is infinitely more attractive than it is repulsive.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, quoted in Normal Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Oxford, 1958, p. 39

May 27th, 2017

Formal theorizing in the social sciences is today in some danger of becoming baroque. A frequent scenario seems to be the following. In a first stage, there exists a theoretical problem with immediate economic, social or political significance. It is, however, ill-understood, perhaps even ill-defined. In the second stage, a proposal is put forward to conceptualize the problem in a way that dispels confusion and permits substantive conclusions to be drawn. In a third stage the conceptual apparatus ceases to have these liberating effects, and becomes a new, independent source of problems.

Jon Elster & Aanund Hylland, ‘Introduction’, in Foundations of Social Choice Theory, Cambridge, 1986, p. 1

May 23rd, 2017

Since so much of Bentham’s critique of European colonial policies remained unpublished or difficult of access until recent times his contribution to the evolving debate on them has been seriously underrated. His Spanish writings were published only fifteen years ago and have yet to be properly evaluated: but, as this article has tried to show, they took his own earlier analysis of the roots of policy, and that of his predecessors, much further than before. Indeed, […] in many ways, these writings, especially those that give a close analysis of the benefits that elites received from colonialism, represent the most acute and innovatory aspects of his thought in this field. When they are added to his better-known economic analyses of colonialism written between the 1780s and early 1800s, and set against the broad currents of liberal and radical questioning of the causes and consequences of empire across two centuries, it would be no exaggeration to say that Bentham made one of the greatest contributions to anti-colonial literature anywhere in the Western world and one which in some ways was never improved upon in Britain. His work has much to offer historians in their quest for a better understanding of Europe’s imperial past.

Peter Cain, ‘Bentham and the Development of the British Critique of Colonialism’, Utilitas, vol. 23, no. 1 (March, 2011), p. 24

May 19th, 2017

In early youth I knew Bennet Langton, of that ilk, as the Scotch say; with great personal claims to the respect of the public, he is known to that public chiefly as a friend of Johnson; he was a very tall, meagre, long-visaged man, much resembling, according to Richard Paget, a stork standing on one leg, near the shore, in Raphael’s cartoon of the miraculous draught of fishes. His manners were, in the highest degree, polished; his conversation mild, equable, and always pleasing. He had the uncommon faculty (’tis strange that it should be an uncommon faculty), of being a good reader[.] […]

I formed an intimacy with his son, George Langton, nearly of the same age as myself, and went to pay him a visit some years later, at Langton, where he resided with his family. and went to pay him a visit at Langton. […] After breakfast we walked to the top of a very steep hill behind the house. When we arrived at the summit, Mr. Langton said, “Poor, dear Dr. Johnson, when he came to this spot, turned back to look down the hill, and said he was determined ‘to take a roll down.’ When we understood what he meant to do, we endeavoured to dissuade him; but he was resolute, saying, ‘he had not had a roll for a long time;’ and taking out of his lesser pockets whatever might be in them–– keys, pencil, purse, or pen-knife, and laying himself parallel with the edge of the hill, he actually descended, turning himself over and over, till he came to the bottom.”

Henry Digby Beste, Personal and Literary Memorials, London, 1829, pp. 62, 64-65