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Aphorisms

Ross collected his own aphorisms in a card index. By the time we scanned them, the original cards were rather mixed up. We have done our best to regroup them into the following categories:

  1. On Science
  2. On Evolution
  3. On The Brain
  4. On Learning
  5. On Psychology
  6. On Intelligence
  7. On Computers
  8. On Organisation

In the following list, a blue box indicates that there is an index card for the aphorism, which in some cases contains a less refined version than the one from another source. Hovering the mouse pointer over the box or clicking on it will disply the original index card. Aphorisms without a blue box were collected from other sources, for example, from his students, these are often refined variations of a version on the cards.


    On Science Top

  1. A Cyberneticist observes what might have happened but did not.
  2. A "system" is a set of variables sufficiently isolated to stay [constant] long enough for us to discuss it.
  3. When we take the ordinates of a wave function and use them to compute their exact values a moment later, we are:
    (1) Demonstrating that the science of quantum physics use determinant systems.
    (2) Treating the system as determinate.
  4. Science is the "Observer's Digest".


    On Evolution Top

  5. The species is fundamentally aimless (it finds its goals as it goes along).
  6. By the time sexual reproduction has been achieved, the main difficulty of evolution is past.
  7. The brain is merely Nature's latest means of self-preservation.

    On Man

  8. Division of the world's system into Natural and Man-made died with Darwin.
  9. Man is not the measure: first comes the measure, then we see where he falls; so far the result has always been humiliating.
  10. Man pays for his knowledge with humiliation.

    On Goals

  11. The goals in evolution are what the species has been forced to.
  12. The goals of a species (such as Homo) are what natural selection has driven it to.

    Instincts of Homo

  13. This species is peculiar in that members make an ever-recurrent habit of attacking and exterminating weaker groups of their own species.

    On the evolution of Homo sapiens

  14. For ninety nine hundredths of this time (before any traces of town dwelling) he improved chiefly in his efficiency in killing big game and other branches of his own species.
  15. The specially human part of the brain has been evolved for the chase and for tribal warfare. The final evolution allowed armies of continental size to massacre on a continental scale.
  16. Is my/your life achieving the full potentialities of carbon ?

    On long-term planning in the brain and Man's ability to plan

  17. The brain is wholly opportunist, no less when it proposes a long term plan.

    On Prediction

  18. What Homo knows at any moment, of the actual future is absolutely nothing.
  19. Every prediction is an operation on the past (Wiener)

    On Essential Variables

  20. Poor M. Jourdain! He now has to understand that he has been behaving homeostatically all his life, when he thought he was merely minding his business.

    On adaptation

  21. In this universe, the life-time of a planet is only sufficient to allow its evolved life-forms to explore the possibilities of additive adaptation.

    On adaptation as a whole to a whole

  22. All our adaptations are collections of nearly independent bits; life is too short to allow us to explore the really holistic.

    On Progress in adaptation

  23. A brain can improve till it fits its environment:
  24. Man lives by surviving.
  25. Every operation seeks the state that makes it impotent.
  26. A "machine" is a shadow of simple succession.
  27. "The time it takes increases exponentially" is a mathematical way of saying it can't be done.


    On The Brain Top

  28. The brain is natures latest and ferocious instrument of self preservation.
  29. The brain has no brain inside to guide it.
  30. Every one of the faculties boasted of by Man can become a humiliating or fatal embarrassment when the environment is not the usual type.
  31. The man who speaks today of free will is merely a oratory confusionist.
  32. The man who talks of free will in the 60's is trying to pump fog into a situation that he fears is clearing.
  33. In the 60's, to introduce the topic of __ is to introduce fog into a clarifying situation.
  34. Man can remember only those things that natural selection has arranged that he should.
  35. A concept is that which which survives, is stable under a sequence of operations.
  36. The brain takes information from where it is useless and moves it to where it is useful.
  37. The heart is a mechanical pump — love lies else where; the brain is an information-processor.
  38. When the brain is a correction channel it is as selfish as the heart is unfeeling, when it pumps.
  39. The application of quantitative methods to the brain will squeeze the remaining superstitions from our ideas about it.
  40. As God has to monitor his actions ("And He saw the light that it was good"), so must the brain monitor it.
  41. The whole function of the brain is summed up in: error-correction.
  42. Functionally, the behaviour is the brain.

    On the brain's secret

  43. The secret of the mammalian brain is that it has long and slavishly fashioned itself to its environment.
  44. To refer to the head-ganglion of Homo sapiens as "Man's brain" is to appeal to our lowest prejudices.
  45. Only the incorrigibly sentimental speak of "Man's brain". Those who wish to stay clean-headed speak of the "head ganglion of Homo sapiens".
  46. The liver is the brain of the inner world. Brain to the inner world is the liver.

    On making an artificial brain

  47. Man's brain contains no blue print for brains against non-human environments.

    On Thinking

  48. To think is to act — inside the brain.

    On the Brain as controller

  49. The brain controls nothing — it transmits.

    On Organisation in the Brain

  50. The brain organizes nothing — it acts.
  51. The brain has no gimmick, just five billion years of research and development.
  52. The brain knows nothing of how it ought to act; it knows only what it does.
  53. The test of a brain is its achievement of a goal.
  54. Note for the sociologist: The brain uses compulsion throughout.

    On the "absolute" Brain

  55. Every brain is also an anti-brain.

    On the "brain-like" mechanism

  56. No system is brain-like — every system is brain-like — as you please.

    On the "brain-like" control mechanism

  57. A mechanism is "brain-like" so far as it is effective: there is nothing more.
  58. For every bump of the phrenologist there exists an environment that demands a depression.
  59. That the brain matches its environment is no more surprising than the matching of the two ends of a broken stick.

    On decision processes

  60. The brain decides nothing — it acts.
  61. of what use is the brain? — "To think with" is to reveal oneself as medieval and pre-Darwinian.

    On memory

  62. The brain knows only the present and what it can construct from the present.
  63. There is no memory in the present — only a state of affairs.

    On Localisation of Memory

  64. Any system that stores its memories away from the site of action must do much work in remembering where it has put that memory.

    On the mystery of the brain

  65. "But that", said Mr Hick contemptuously, "can't be the explanation — there's no mystery in it."

    On the laws of thought

  66. The machine that can produce all trajectories has no laws.
  67. The product set has no constraints.

    On Brain processes

  68. Life-processes (in species or brains) use only the additive methods — for the combinatorial there has not been time enough.

    On Neurophysiology

  69. Natural selection has insisted that neuronic details shall be irrelevant for whole behavior.
  70. Natural selection insists that the nature of the parts shall be irrelevant for the behavior.
  71. No mammal will ever understand the mammalian brain completely.
  72. The man who talks today of probability in the brain is usually trying to return to the days when everything in the brain was so delightfully vague.
  73. The neurone is the one unit that, in psychology, is quite devoid of interest, it is too small to be visible in the man's action, and too large to be sufficient in memory.
  74. The neurone is the one unit that, in behaviour, is quite devoid of interest today; it is too small to be noticeable in a man's action, and too gross to carry a trace of memory.


    On Learning Top

    On Adult Adaptation

  75. The adult brain is the wreckage left by the experiences of childhood.
  76. The educated brain is the wreckage left after the experiences of training.

    On the value of Experience

  77. Don't appoint, as the President's driver, an Englishman who has spent thirty years learning to drive on the left.

    On the unforseen

  78. No man knows what to do against the purely new.
  79. All wisdom is wisdom after the event.
  80. When a machine breaks, it changes its mind.
  81. Every system changes its mind by breaking.


    On Psychology Top

  82. For two thousand years psychology was a simple description of Man's highest faculties — most of which he does not posses.

    On Creativity

  83. The scientist does not believe in events without causes, not even when they happen in the brain.
  84. Introspection is the output of the verbalising mechanism.

    On Introspection

  85. That homo has a brain no more entitles him to assume he knows how he thinks than possession of a liver entitles him to assume that he knows how he metabolises.
  86. A man no more knows how he thinks, just because he has a brain in his skull, than he knows how he makes blood, because he has marrow in his bones.
  87. A man can report what happens in his brain only so far as the events reach the verbalising center.
  88. Every dramatist knows the inexorable logic of the emotions.
  89. Disorder never proceeds to order so milk can never separate into buttermilk and cream.

    On the subjective

  90. How to test whether you're dreaming — kick the fellow in front of you and see who feels the pain.
  91. I am; therefore I think.

    On Generalisation

  92. To recognise a class is to throw away information.

    On Sympathy

  93. If my sympathy with another's sufferings proves the reality of the other's feelings then the pattern of light and shade that I call a "weeping heroine" on the cinema screen is genuinely feeling.

    On Altruism

  94. "Help one another" is the selfishness of the species.
  95. "Logic" and "logical" are so degraded today that they convey no useful information. They are still used chiefly because they look well, either by the cynic or by the unthinking.

    On the ethics of a system

  96. A computer knows no ethics, only its set goal.
  97. It is only within the memory of living men that psychology turned from studying how man ought to think, to how he does actually think.
  98. Any gibbon, as it throws itself on parabolic arcs from branch to branch, demonstrates its knowledge of Newtonian dynamics.


    On Intelligence Top

  99. The only people who talk today of "real" intelligence are those who hope to find a meaning for the adjective later.
  100. Intelligent is as intelligent does.
  101. The drive to equilibrium forces the emergence of intelligence.
  102. Today, those who don't know what "intelligence" means must give way to those who do.
  103. Everyone is World Champion at some game (although some of the games have not yet been recognized).
  104. For every faculty there is an environment that pessimises it.
  105. We cannot read the book of God, only the observer's digest.
  106. Random choice is an abrogated choice.
  107. "Random" means "you do the choosing".
  108. We show only the intelligence there is in the environment.
  109. The computer can do more than the trained brain.
  110. The rule for decision is: Use what you know to narrow the field as far as possible: after that, do as you please.
  111. Any system that achieves appropriate selection (to a degree better than chance) does so as a consequence of information received.
  112. Is there a general intelligence? A universal weapon is as likely.

    On Man's God-like intelligence

  113. Intelligence is a specialisation to the environment that is (?) complexly/aggregately.
  114. An organism should be as intelligent as its environment — no more, no less.

    On Wisdom

  115. Every piece of wisdom is the worst folly in the opposite environment.
  116. Change the environment to its opposite and every piece of wisdom becomes the worst of folly.

    On Logic

  117. A man can be a pure logician only if it makes him feel good.
  118. Every skilled dramaticist understands the inexorable logic of the emotion.

    On IQ

  119. The test measures only the degree to which Subject and Composer think alike.
  120. An Intelligence Test measures the degree to which Tester and Subject think alike.

    On "Genius"

  121. A "Genius" is a man who shows the public only the results of his labours.
  122. A magician is a man who does not show all that is significant.

    On Artificial Intelligence

  123. He who would design a good brain must first know how to make a bad one.
  124. Pattern-recognition is a throwing away of information.
  125. Any device that can lose information can generalize.

    On Deduction

  126. Deduction is the running-down of a determinate mechanism.
  127. Newton arrived at F = ma after a part-random search; the apple arrived at the ground by pure deduction.


    On Computers Top

  128. The general purpose computer is freer than the trained brain.
  129. Whether a computer can be "really" intelligent is not a question for the philosophers: they know nothing about either computers or intelligence.
  130. Today's digital computer is organized like an army of a million men that can only get two into action at a time.
  131. The digital computer of today is like a centipede with a million legs, each of which can go forward in a microsecond; but as it can move only one pair at a time the whole animal is easily outrun by the tortoise.
  132. Today's digital computer has a group velocity that is about a millionth of its wave velocity


    On Organisation Top

  133. Organisation exists mostly in the eye of the beholder.
  134. It is an open question which has the richer organization: a living cow or a working silo.
  135. Which showed the best power of survival when attacked by the Spaniards: that bio-organisation called the Amazon jungle: or that bio-organisation called the Aztecs?
  136. Which out-fought the Spaniards — the Aztec civil organisation, or that bio-organisation called the Amazon Jungle?
  137. Which biological organization proved more resistant to the Spaniards — the Aztecs of Mexico or the jungle of the Amazon?
  138. Can a system be self-organizing? No system can permanently have the property that it changes properties.

    On the self-organising system

  139. No locomotive can be self-pushing.
  140. No cat can be self-washing.
  141. No animal can be self-observing.
  142. No man can be self-punishing.

    On Self Repair

  143. The fault cannot be in the part responsible for the repair.

    On Requisite Variety

  144. We have broken into the Aladdin's cave of brain-like mechanisms; we find we can have anything we like — provided we pay for it!
  145. Man adapts by conquering the reducible; the irreducible is impregnable.

    On Things

  146. To be a thing is to behave in a certain way when explored with mechanical forces.

    On"Brain-like" mechanisms

  147. Some say that a first requirement is that it shall weigh 45 ounces.
  148. Every mechanism generates improbabilities (Not only natural selection).

    On adapting to a changing world

  149. No system adapts to the changing: it can adapt only to what is constant.
  150. To speak of human behaviour, and then to speak of the neuron, is to show that one has not yet developed a sense of proportion.
  151. Only the environment can design a brain.

    The Multistable System

  152. Among systems in a net, the struggle for existence is inevitable.
  153. The law of the brain is : What will be, will be.

    On Selection

  154. As every machine goes to equilibrium, it selects.

    On error controlled servo

  155. The error-controlled servo-mechanism is a brain without eyes.

    On Music

  156. Every dynamic system has its preferred modes of vibration, perhaps simple, perhaps complex.
  157. Rhapsodise as you will, a law of nature is just a constraint.
  158. Whatever vibrates is a musical instrument: whatever is stable is a mechanical brain — the difficulty lies in making a particular one.

Note: These still need a bit of sorting, so the order and numbering might change in the future.


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