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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:
On The Brain
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.
Top █ A Cyberneticist observes what
might have happened but did not.
█ A "system" is a set
of variables sufficiently isolated to stay [constant] long enough for us to
█ 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.
█ Science is the
█ On Evolution Top █ The species is fundamentally aimless (it finds its
goals as it goes along).
█ By the time
sexual reproduction has been achieved, the main difficulty of evolution is
The brain is merely Nature's latest means of
█ Division of the world's system into Natural and Man-made died with Darwin.
█ Man is not the measure:
first comes the measure, then we see where he falls; so far the result has
always been humiliating.
█ Man pays for his
knowledge with humiliation.
█ The goals in
evolution are what the species has been forced to.
█ The goals of a species (such as
Homo) are what natural selection has driven it to.
Instincts of Homo
█ This species is peculiar in that members make an
ever-recurrent habit of attacking and exterminating weaker groups of their own
On the evolution of Homo sapiens
█ 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.
█ 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.
█ Is my/your life achieving
the full potentialities of carbon ?
On long-term planning in the brain and Man's ability to plan
█ The brain is wholly opportunist, no less when it
proposes a long term plan.
█ What Homo knows at any moment, of the actual
future is absolutely nothing.
█ Every prediction is an operation on the past (Wiener)
On Essential Variables
█ 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.
█ 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
█ All our adaptations are collections of nearly
independent bits; life is too short to allow us to explore the really
On Progress in
█ A brain can improve till it fits its
█ Man lives by
█ Every operation seeks the state that makes it
█ A "machine" is a shadow of simple
█ "The time it takes increases
exponentially" is a mathematical way of saying it can't be done.
█ On The Brain Top █ The brain is natures latest and ferocious
instrument of self preservation.
█ The brain has no
brain inside to guide it.
█ Every one of the faculties boasted of by Man can
become a humiliating or fatal embarrassment when the environment is not the
█ The man who speaks today of free will
is merely a oratory confusionist.
█ The man who talks
of free will in the 60's is trying to pump fog into a situation that he
fears is clearing.
█ In the 60's, to introduce the topic of __ is to
introduce fog into a clarifying situation.
█ Man can remember only those
things that natural selection has arranged that he should.
█ A concept is that which which survives, is
stable under a sequence of operations.
█ The brain
takes information from where it is useless and moves it to where it is
█ The heart is a mechanical pump — love lies
else where; the brain is an information-processor.
█ When the brain is a correction channel it is as selfish as the heart is unfeeling, when it pumps.
application of quantitative methods to the brain will squeeze the
remaining superstitions from our ideas about it.
█ As God has to monitor his
actions ("And He saw the light that it was
good"), so must the brain monitor it.
█ The whole function of the brain is summed up in: error-correction.
█ Functionally, the behaviour is the brain.
On the brain's secret
secret of the mammalian brain is that it has long and slavishly fashioned
itself to its environment.
█ To refer to the
head-ganglion of Homo sapiens as "Man's brain" is to appeal to our lowest
█ Only the incorrigibly sentimental speak
of "Man's brain". Those who wish to stay clean-headed speak of the "head
ganglion of Homo sapiens".
█ The liver is the brain
of the inner world. Brain to the inner world is the liver.
On making an artificial brain
█ Man's brain contains no blue
print for brains against non-human environments.
█ To think is to act — inside the brain.
On the Brain as controller
█ The brain controls nothing — it transmits.
On Organisation in the Brain
█ The brain organizes nothing — it acts.
The brain has no gimmick, just five billion years
of research and development.
█ The brain knows
nothing of how it ought to act; it knows only what it does.
█ The test of a brain is its achievement of a goal.
█ Note for the sociologist: The brain uses compulsion throughout.
On the "absolute" Brain
█ Every brain is also an anti-brain.
On the "brain-like" mechanism
█ No system is brain-like — every system is brain-like — as you please.
On the "brain-like" control mechanism
█ A mechanism is
"brain-like" so far as it is effective: there is nothing more.
For every bump of the phrenologist there exists an
environment that demands a depression.
That the brain matches its
environment is no more surprising than the matching of the two ends of a
On decision processes
█ The brain decides nothing — it acts.
█ of what use is the brain? — "To think with" is to reveal oneself as medieval and pre-Darwinian.
brain knows only the present and what it can construct from the present.
█ There is no memory in the present — only a state of affairs.
On Localisation of Memory
█ Any system that stores its memories away from the
site of action must do much work in remembering where it has put that
On the mystery of the brain
█ "But that", said Mr Hick contemptuously, "can't be
the explanation — there's no mystery in it."
On the laws of thought
█ The machine that can produce all
trajectories has no laws.
█ The product set has no constraints.
On Brain processes
█ Life-processes (in species or brains) use only the
additive methods — for the combinatorial there has not been time enough.
█ Natural selection has insisted that neuronic
details shall be irrelevant for whole behavior.
Natural selection insists that the nature of the
parts shall be irrelevant for the behavior.
█ No mammal will ever understand the mammalian brain
█ 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.
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.
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
adult brain is the wreckage left by the experiences of childhood.
The educated brain is the
wreckage left after the experiences of training.
On the value of
█ Don't appoint, as the President's
driver, an Englishman who has spent thirty years learning to drive on the
On the unforseen
█ No man knows what
to do against the purely new.
wisdom is wisdom after the event.
█ When a machine
breaks, it changes its mind.
Every system changes
its mind by breaking.
█ On Psychology Top █ For two thousand years psychology was a simple
description of Man's highest faculties — most of which he does not posses.
█ The scientist does not believe in events without
causes, not even when they happen in the brain.
█ Introspection is the output of the verbalising
█ 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
█ 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.
man can report what happens in his brain only so far as the events reach
the verbalising center.
█ Every dramatist knows the
inexorable logic of the emotions.
█ Disorder never
proceeds to order so milk can never separate into buttermilk and cream.
On the subjective
█ How to
test whether you're dreaming — kick the fellow in front of you and see who
feels the pain.
█ I am; therefore I think.
█ To recognise a class is to throw away information.
█ 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.
█ "Help one
another" is the selfishness of the species.
█ "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
█ A computer knows no ethics, only its set goal.
█ It is only within the memory of living men that
psychology turned from studying how man ought to think, to how he does
█ Any gibbon, as it throws itself on
parabolic arcs from branch to branch, demonstrates its knowledge of
█ On Intelligence Top █ The only people who talk today of "real"
intelligence are those who hope to find a meaning for the adjective later.
█ Intelligent is as intelligent does.
█ The drive to equilibrium forces the emergence of
█ Today, those who don't know what "intelligence"
means must give way to those who do.
█ Everyone is
World Champion at some game (although some of the games have not yet been
█ For every faculty there is an environment that
█ We cannot read the book of God,
only the observer's digest.
█ Random choice is an
█ "Random" means " you do the
█ We show only the intelligence there is
in the environment.
█ The computer can do more than
the trained brain.
█ The rule for decision is: Use
what you know to narrow the field as far as possible: after that, do as
█ Any system that achieves appropriate
selection (to a degree better than chance) does so as a consequence of
there a general intelligence? A universal weapon is as likely.
On Man's God-like intelligence
█ Intelligence is a specialisation to the
environment that is (?) complexly/aggregately.
█ An organism should be as intelligent as its
environment — no more, no less.
█ Every piece of
wisdom is the worst folly in the opposite environment.
Change the environment to its
opposite and every piece of wisdom becomes the worst of folly.
█ A man can be a
pure logician only if it makes him feel good.
Every skilled dramaticist understands the
inexorable logic of the emotion.
█ The test measures
only the degree to which Subject and Composer think alike.
An Intelligence Test measures the
degree to which Tester and Subject think alike.
█ A "Genius" is a man who shows the public
only the results of his labours.
magician is a man who does not show all that is significant.
█ On Artificial
Intelligence █ He who would design a good brain must
first know how to make a bad one.
█ Pattern-recognition is a throwing away of
█ Any device that can lose information
█ Deduction is the running-down of a determinate
Newton arrived at F = ma after a
part-random search; the apple arrived at the ground by pure deduction.
█ On Computers Top █ The general
purpose computer is freer than the trained brain.
█ Whether a computer can be "really" intelligent is
not a question for the philosophers: they know nothing about either
computers or intelligence.
█ Today's digital
computer is organized like an army of a million men that can only get two
into action at a time.
█ 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
█ Today's digital computer
has a group velocity that is about a millionth of its wave velocity
█ On Organisation Top █ Organisation exists mostly in the eye of the
█ It is an
open question which has the richer organization: a living cow or a working
█ 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?
█ Which out-fought the Spaniards — the Aztec civil
organisation, or that bio-organisation called the Amazon Jungle?
█ Which biological organization proved more
resistant to the Spaniards — the Aztecs of Mexico or the jungle of the
Can a system be self-organizing? No system
can permanently have the property that it changes properties.
On the self-organising system
█ No locomotive can be self-pushing.
█ No cat can
█ No animal can be self-observing.
█ No man can be
On Self Repair
█ The fault cannot be in the part responsible for
On Requisite Variety
█ 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!
Man adapts by conquering the reducible; the irreducible is impregnable.
█ To be a thing is to behave in a certain way when
explored with mechanical forces.
█ Some say that a first requirement is that it shall
weigh 45 ounces.
█ Every mechanism
generates improbabilities (Not only natural selection).
On adapting to a changing world
█ No system adapts to the changing: it can adapt
only to what is constant.
█ 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.
█ Only the
environment can design a brain.
The Multistable System
█ Among systems in
a net, the struggle for existence is inevitable.
█ The law of the brain is : What will be, will be.
█ As every machine goes to equilibrium, it selects.
On error controlled servo
█ The error-controlled servo-mechanism is a brain
█ Every dynamic
system has its preferred modes of vibration, perhaps simple, perhaps
█ Rhapsodise as you will, a law of nature is
just a constraint.
█ 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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