If Ideas Had Shapes

A quoteblog ranging from philosophers in bathrobes to galaxy-rises

Kwame Anthony Appiah – The Honor Code (2010)

One day, people will find themselves thinking not just that an old practice was wrong and a new one right but that there was something shameful in the old ways. In the course of the transition, many will change what they do because they are shamed out of an old way of doing things. So it is perhaps not too much to hope that if we can find the proper place for honor now, we can make the world better.

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Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

Very few see science as the high adventure it really is, the wildest of all explorations ever undertaken by human beings, the chance to catch close views of things never seen before, the shrewdest maneuver for discovering how the world works. Instead, they become baffled early on, and they are misled into thinking that bafflement is simply the result of not having learned all the facts. They are not told, as they should be told, that everyone else–from the professor in his endowed chair down to the platoons of postdoctoral students in the laboratory all night–is baffled as well. Every important scientific advance that has come in looking like an answer has turned, sooner or later–usually sooner–into a question. And the game is just beginning.

“Humanities and Science”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

It is the very strangeness of nature that makes science engrossing. That ought to be at the center of science teaching. …

…Science, especially twentieth-century science, has provided us with a glimpse of something we never really knew before, the revelation of human ignorance. We have been used to the belief, down one century after another, that we more or less comprehend everything bar one or two mysteries like the mental processes of our gods.

“Humanities and Science”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

It is as important–and as hard–to learn when to use mathematics as how to use it, and this matter should remain high on the agenda of consideration for education in the social and behavioral sciences.

“Humanities and Science”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

The task of converting observations into numbers is the hardest of all, the last task rather than the first thing to be done, and it can be done only when you have learned, beforehand, a great deal about the observations themselves.

“Humanities and Science”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

Forget whatever you feel like forgetting. From time to time, practice not being open, discover new things not to talk about, learn reserve, hold the tongue. But above all, develop the human talent for forgetting words, phrases, whole unwelcome sentences, all experiences involving wincing.

“The Attic of the Brain”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

The human mind is not meant to be governed, certainly not by any book of rules yet written; it is supposed to run itself, and we are obliged to follow it along, trying to keep up with it as best we can. It is all very well to be aware of your awareness, even proud of it, but never try to operate it. You are not up to the job.

“The Attic of the Brain”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

And now, I think, we have a new kind of worry. There is no place for functionless, untidy, inexplicable notions, no dark comfortable parts of the mind to hide away the things we’d like to keep but at the same time forget. The attic is still there, but with the trapdoor always open and the stepladder in place we are always in and out of it, flashing lights around, naming everything, unmystified.

“The Attic of the Brain”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

We tend to accumulate and outgrow possessions at the same time, and it is an endlessly discomforting mental task to keep sorting out the ones to get rid of.

“The Attic of the Brain”

Lewis Thomas – Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983)

But what can be said about the future yields from basic research, in any field of science? No Science Adviser, nor any committee, has ever succeeded in forecasting the future outcome of this kind of scientific endeavor. It is in the nature of basic research that the future is unknowable until it happens.

“Some Scientific Advice”