The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

“The Institute is, from the standpoint of organization, the simplest and least formal thing imaginable. It consists of three schools-a School of Mathematics, a School of Humanistic Studies, a School of Economics and Politics. Each school is made up of a permanent group of professors and an annually changing group of members. Each school manages its own affairs as it pleases; within each group each individual disposes of his time and energy as he pleases. The members who already have come from twenty-two foreign countries and thirty-nine institutions of higher learning in the United States are admitted, if deemed worthy, by the several groups. They enjoy precisely the same freedom as the professors. They may work with this or that professor, as they severally arrange; they may work alone, consulting from time to time anyone likely to be helpful. No routine is followed; no lines are drawn between professors, members, or visitors. Princeton students and professors and Institute members and professors mingle so freely as to be indistinguishable. Learning as such is cultivated. The results to the individual and to society are left to take care of themselves. No faculty meetings are held; no committees exist. Thus men with ideas enjoy conditions favorable to reflection and to conference. A mathematician may cultivate mathematics without distraction; so may a humanist in his field, an economist or a student of politics in his. Administration has been minimized in extent and importance. Men without ideas, with- out power of concentration on ideas, would not be at home in the Institute. I can perhaps make this point clearer by citing briefly a few illustrations. A stipend was awarded to enable a Harvard professor to come to Princeton: he wrote asking, “What are my duties?” I replied: “You have .no duties-only opportunities. ”


We make ourselves no promises, but we cherish the hope that the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge will prove to have consequences in the future as in the past. Not for a moment, however, do we defend the Institute on that ground. It exists as a paradise for scholars who, like poets and musicians, have won the right to do as they please and who accomplish most when enabled to do so.”

Abraham Flexner


The Meaning of Masonry

“This – the evolution of man into superman – was always the purpose of the ancient Mysteries, and the real purpose of modern Masonry is, not the social and charitable purposes to which so much attention is paid, but the expediting of the spiritual evolution of those who aspire to perfect their own nature and transform it into a more god-like quality. And this is a definite science, a royal art, which it is possible for each of us to put into practice; whilst to join the Craft for any other purpose than to study and pursue this science is to misunderstand its meaning. Hence it is that no one should apply to enter Masonry unless from the deepest promptings of his own heart, as it hungers for light upon the problem of its own nature. We are all imperfect beings, conscious of something lacking to us that would make us what, in our best moments, we fain would be. What is that which is lacking to us? “What is that which is lost?” And the answer is “The genuine secrets of a Master Mason,” the true knowledge of ourselves, the conscious realization of our divine potentialities.”

Walter Leslie Wilmshurst

The Need for General Principles: Software Explanation

“If we look far into the future of our science, what will it mean to say we ‘understand’ the mechanism of behaviour? The obvious answer is what may be called the neurophysiologist’s nirvana: the complete wiring diagram of the nervous system of a species, every synapse labelled as excitatory or inhibitory; presumably, also a graph, for each axon, of nerve impulses as a function of time during the course of each behaviour pattern. This ideal is the logical end point of much contemporary neuroanatomical and neurophysiological endeavour, and because we are still in the early stages, the ultimate conclusion does not worry us. But it would not constitute understanding of how behaviour works in any real sense at all. No man could hold such a mass of detail in his head. Real understanding will only come from distillation of general principles at a higher level, to parallel for example the great principles of genetics— particulate inheritance, continuity of germ-line and non-inheritance of acquired characteristics, dominance, linkage, mutation, and so on.

Of course neurophysiology has been discovering principles for a long time, the all-or-none nerve impulse, temporal and spatial summation and other synaptic properties, y-efferent servo-control and so on. But it seems possible that at higher levels some important principles may be anticipated from behavioural evidence alone. The major principles of genetics were all inferred from external evidence long before the internal molecular structure of the gene was even seriously thought about. Three computers with the same programming instruction set are in an important sense isomorphic in principle, even though their wiring diagrams may be utterly different, one employing valves, another transistors and the third integrated circuits; how all three work is best explained without reference to particular hardware at all”

Richard Dawkins

The Behavior of Organisms

“The important advance from this level of explanation that is made by turning to the nervous system as a controlling entity has unfortunately had a similar effect in discouraging a direct descriptive attack upon behavior. The change is an advance because the new entity beyond behavior to which appeal is made has a definite physical status of its own and is susceptible to scientific investigation. Its chief function with regard to a science of behavior, however, is again to divert attention away from behavior as a subject matter. The use of the nervous system as a fictional explanation of behavior was a common practice even before Descartes, and it is now much more widely current than is generally realized. At a popular level a man is said to be capable (a fact about his behavior) because he has brains (a fact about his nervous system). Whether or not such a statement has any meaning for the person who makes it is scarcely important; in either case it exemplifies the practice of explaining an obvious (if unorganized) fact by appeal to something about which little is known. The more sophisticated neurological views generally agree with the popular view in contending that behavior is in itself incomprehensible but may be reduced to law if it can be shown to be controlled by an internal system susceptible to scientific treatment. Facts about behavior are not treated in their own wright, but are regarded as something to be explained or even explained away by the prior facts of the nervous system. (I am not attempting to discount the importance of a science of neurology but am referring simply to the primitive use of the nervous system as an explanatory principle in avoiding a direct description of behavior.)”

Skinner (1938)

Ernest Hemingway – Nobel Prize speech

“No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.

It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with good luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.

I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.”

Ernest Hemingway