Tag Archives: self-reference

Scott Aaronson

Quantum Computing since Democritus is a candidate for the weirdest book ever to be published by Cambridge University Press. The strangeness starts with the title, which conspicuously fails to explain what this book is about. Is this another textbook on quantum computing—the fashionable field at the intersection of physics, math, and computer science that’s been promising the world a new kind of computer for two decades, but has yet to build an actual device that can do anything more impressive than factor 21 into 3 × 7 (with high probability)? If so, then what does this book add to the dozens of others that have already mapped out the fundamentals of quantum computing theory? Is the book, instead, a quixotic attempt to connect quantum computing to ancient history? But what does Democritus, the Greek atomist philosopher, really have to do with the book’s content, at least half of which would have been new to scientists of the 1970s, let alone of 300 BC?

Having now read the book, I confess that I’ve had my mind blown, my worldview reshaped, by the author’s truly brilliant, original perspectives on everything from quantum computing (as promised in the title) to Gödel’s and Turing’s theorems to the P versus NP question to the interpretation of quantum mechanics to artificial intelligence to Newcomb’s Paradox to the black hole information loss problem. So, if anyone were perusing this book at a bookstore, or with Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, I would certainly tell that person to buy a copy immediately. I’d also add that the author is extremely handsome.

Scott Aaronson, Quantum Computing since Democritus, Cambridge, 2013, p. ix

Ben Garfinkel

Another simple search cost, which we might regard as something of a fixed cost, is the cost of learning about smart contracts and how to use them. As the length of this report may help to demonstrate, this cost should be regarded as non-trivial.

Ben Garfinkel, ‘Recent Developments in Cryptography and Potential Long-Term Consequences’, sect. 4.5

Miguel de Cervantes

Pero ¿qué libro es ese que está junto a él?

La Galatea de Miguel de Cervantes—dijo el barbero.

—Muchos años ha que es grande amigo mío ese Cervantes, y sé que es más versado en desdichas que en versos. Su libro tiene algo de buena invención; propone algo, y no concluye nada: es menester esperar la segunda parte que promete; quizá con la emienda alcanzará del todo la misericordia que ahora se le niega; y entretanto que esto se ve, tenedle recluso en vuestra posada, señor compadre.

Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, Madrid, 1605, pt. 1, ch. 6

Jon Elster

For a writer it is not easy to resist the desire to go down in posterity as a diary writer of unrivalled sincerity, a project as confused as the wish to be well-known as an anonymous donor to charities. The terms of sincerity and authenticity, like those of wisdom and dignity, always have a faintly ridiculous air about them when employed in the first person singular, reflecting the fact that the corresponding states are essentially by-products. And, by contamination, the preceding sentences partake of the same absurdity, for in making fun of the pathetic quest for authenticity one is implicitly affirming one’s own. “To invoke dignity is to forfeit it “: yes, but to say this is not much better. There is a choice to be made, between engaging in romantic irony and advocating it. Naming the unnameable by talking about something else is an ascetic practice and goes badly with self-congratulation.

Jon Elster, ‘States that Are Essentially By-Products’, Social Science Information, vol. 20, no. 3 (June, 1981), p. 440

Quentin Smith

Most of the time, we live in an illusion of meaningfulness and only some times, when we are philosophically reflective, are we aware of reality and the meaninglessness of our lives. It seems obvious that this has a genetic basis, due to Darwinian laws of evolution. In order to survive and reproduce, it must seem to us most of the time that our actions are not futile, that people have rights. The rare occasions in which we know the truth about life are genetically prevented from overriding living our daily lives with the illusion that they are meaningful. As I progress through this paper, I have the illusion that my efforts are not utterly futile, but right now, as I stop and reflect, I realise that any further effort put into this paper is a futile expenditure of my energy.

Quentin Smith, ‘Moral Realism and Infinite Spacetime Imply Moral Nihilism’, in Heather Dyke (ed.), Time and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection, Dordrecht, 2003, p. 53

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Dans un Etat bien gouverné il y a peu de punitions, non parce qu’on fait beaucoup de graces, mais parce qu’il y a peu de criminels : la multitude des crimes en assure l’impunité lorsque l’Etat dépérit. Sous la République Romaine jamais le Sénat ni les Consuls ne tenterent de faire grace ; le peuple même n’en faisoit pas, quoiqu’il révocât quelquefois son propre jugement. Les fréquentes graces annoncent que bientôt les forfaits n’en auront plus besoin, & chacun voit où cela mene. Mais je sens que mon cœur murmure & retient ma plume ; laissons discuter ces questions à l’homme juste qui n’a point failli, & qui jamais n’eût lui-même besoin de grace.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du contrat social; ou, Principes du droit politique, Amsterdam, 1762, bk. 2, chap. 5