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What Ashby Says... 

See also the following two web sites. 


W. Ross Ashby collected together a series of his own quotes, loosely based in Cybernetics themes, some of which he distributed to his students. This is the complete set taken from his card indexes in the Ashby Archive. 

    On Science

  1. Science is the Observer's Digest. [wrasa169.tif] 
  2. The Cyberneticist observes what might have happened but did not. [wrasa001.tif] 
  3. A System is a set of variables sufficiently isolated to stay constant long enough for us to discuss it. [wrasa002.tif] 

    On Man

  4. Division of the world's system into Natural and Man-made died with Darwin. [wrasa003.tif] 
  5. Man is not the measure: first comes the measure, then we see where he falls; so far the result has always been humiliating. [wrasa004.tif] 
  6. Man pays for his knowledge with humiliation. [wrasa005.tif] 

    On Self Repair

  7. The fault cannot be in the part responsible for the repair. [wrasa006.tif] 

    On Creativity

  8. The scientist does not believe in events without causes, not even when they happen in the brain. [wrasa010.tif] 
  9. Introspection is the output of the verbalising mechanism. [wrasa013.tif] 

    On Evolution

  10. The brain is merely Nature's latest means of self-preservation. [wrasa171.tif] 
  11. The goals of a species, such as Homo, are what natural selection has driven it to. [wrasa015.tif] 

    On Goals

  12. The goals in evolution are what a spicies has been forced to. [wrasa047.tif] 

    On Essential Variables

  13. 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. [wrasa018.tif] 

    On Psychology

  14. For two thousand years psychology was a simple description of Man's highest faculties--most of which he does not posses. [wrasa009.tif] 

    On Introspection

  15. 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. [wrasa084.tif] 
  16. 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. [wrasa011.tif] 

    On The Brain

  17. The brain is natures latest and feroucious instrument of self preservation. [wrasa017.tif] 
  18. The brain has no brain inside to guide it. [wrasa016.tif] 
  19. Remember: The brain has no brain inside to guide it. [wrasa012.tif] 

    On Thinking

  20. To think is to act--inside the brain. [wrasa024.tif] 

    On the Brain as controller

  21. The brain controls nothing--it transmits. [wrasa022.tif] 

    On Organisation in the Brain

  22. The brain organizes nothing--it acts. [wrasa023.tif] 
  23. The brain has no gimmick, just five billion years of research and development. [wrasa172.tif] 
  24. The brain knows nothing of how it ought to act; it knows only what it does. [wrasa031.tif] 
  25. The test of a brain is its achievement of a goal. [wrasa020.tif] 
  26. Note for the sociologist: [wrasa025.tif] 
  27. The brain uses compulsion throughout. [wrasa025.tif] 

    On the "absolute" Brain

  28. Every brain is also an anti-brain. [wrasa041.tif] 

    On the "brain-like" mechanism

  29. No system is brain like - every system is brain like - as you please. [wrasa043.tif] 

    On Neurophysiology

  30. Natural selection has insists that neuronic details shall be irrelevant for whole behavior. [wrasa026.tif] 
  31. Natural selection insists that the nature of the parts shall be irrelevant for the behavior. [wrasa173.tif] 
  32. 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. [wrasa027.tif] 
  33. 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. [wrasa174.tif] 
  34. No mammal will ever understand the mammalian brain completely. [wrasa029.tif] 
  35. 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. [wrasa028.tif] 

    On Learning


    On the unforseen

  36. No man knows what to do against the really new. [wrasa050.tif] 
  37. All wisdom is wisdom after the event. [wrasa051.tif] 
  38. When a machine breaks, it changes its mind. [wrasa049.tif] 
  39. Every system changes its mind by breaking. [wrasa175.tif] 
  40. The educated brain is the wreckage left after the experiences of training. [wrasa176.tif] 

    On Adult Adaptation

  41. The adult brain is the wreckage left by the experiences of childhood. [wrasa048.tif] 

    On Memory


    On the value of Experience

  42. Don't appoint, as the President's driver, an Englishman who has spent thirty years learning to drive on the left. [wrasa042.tif] 
  43. A system that stores its memories away from their site of action must do much work remembering where it put that memory. [wrasa177.tif] 

    On Intelligence

  44. Today, those who don't know what "intelligence" means must give way to those who do. [wrasa032.tif] 

    On the "brain like" control mechanism

  45. A mechanism is "brain-like" so far as it is effective: there is nothing more. [wrasa034.tif] 
  46. The only people who talk today of "real" intelligence are those who hope to find a meaning for the adjective later. [wrasa033.tif] 
  47. Intelligent is as intelligent does. [wrasa035.tif] 
  48. The drive to equilibrium forces the emergence of inteligence. [wrasa036.tif] 
  49. That the brain matches its environment is no more surprising than the matching of the two ends of a broken stick. [wrasa037.tif] 
  50. Change the environment to its opposite and every piece of wisdom becomes the worst of folly. [wrasa178.tif] 
  51. For every bump of the phrenologist there exists an environment that demands a depression. [wrasa039.tif] 
  52. Everyone is World Champion at some game (although some of the games have not yet been recognized). [wrasa045.tif] 
  53. An Intelligence Test measures the degree to which Tester and Subject think alike. [wrasa179.tif] 
  54. Is there a general intelligence? A universal weapon is as likely. [wrasa180.tif] 

    On Wisdom

  55. Every piece of wisdom is the worst folly in the opposite environment. [wrasa040.tif] 

    On IQ

  56. The test mesures only the degree to which Subject and Composer think alike. [wrasa044.tif] 

    On Logic

  57. A man can be a pure logician only if it makes him feel good. [wrasa158.tif] 
  58. Every skilled dramaticist understands the inexorable logic of the emotion. [wrasa182.tif] 

    On Artificial Intelligence

  59. He who would design a good brain must first know how to make a bad one. [wrasa072.tif] 
  60. Pattern-recognition is a throwing away of information. [wrasa071.tif] 
  61. Any device that can lose information can generalize. [wrasa070.tif] 

    On Deduction

  62. Deduction is the running-down of a determinate mechanism. [wrasa060.tif] 
  63. Newton arrived at F = ma after a part-random search; the apple arrived at the ground by pure deduction. [wrasa184.tif] 

    On Computers

  64. The general purpose computer is freer than the trained brain. [wrasa055.tif] 
  65. Whether a computer can be "really" inteligent is not a question for the philosophers: they know nothing about either computers or intelligence. [wrasa054.tif] 
  66. Today's digital computer is organized like an army of a million men that can only get two into action at a time. [wrasa056.tif] 
  67. Today's digital computer has a group velocity that is about a millionth of its wave velocity [wrasa058.tif] 

    On Organization

  68. It is an open question which has the richer organization: a living cow or a working silo. [wrasa065.tif] 
  69. Which biological organization proved more resistant to the Spaniards: the Aztecs of Mexico or the jungle of the Amazon? [wrasa066.tif] 
  70. Can a system be self-organizing? No system can permanently have the property that it changes properties. [wrasa185.tif] 

    On Requisite Variety

  71. Man adapts by conquering the reducible; the irreducible is impregnable. [wrasa186.tif] 
  72. 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! [wrasa073.tif] 

    On Localisation of Memory

  73. Any system that stores its memories away from the site of action must do much work in remembering where it has put that memory. [wrasa063.tif] 

    On "Genius"

  74. A magician is a man who does not show all that is significant. [wrasa074.tif] 
  75. Every prediction is an operation on the past [wener] [wrasa075.tif] 
  76. A "Genius" is a man who shows the public only the results of his labours. [wrasa076.tif] 

    On Things

  77. To be a thing is to behave in a certain way when explored with mechanical forces. [wrasa077.tif] 
  78. No man knows what to do against the purely new. [wrasa050.tif] 
  79. A long sequence of symbols each form a [wrasa053.tif] 
  80. No the self-organising system. [wrasa067.tif] 
  81. 1 No locomotive can be self-pushing, 2 No cat can be self-washing, 3 No animal can be self-observing, 4 No man can be self-punishing, [wrasa067.tif] 

    On Intelligence

  82. Fro every faculty there is an environment that pessimises it. [wrasa083.tif] 
  83. We cannot read the book of God, only the observer's digest. [wrasa078.tif] 
  84. Random choice is an abrogated choice. [wrasa079.tif] 
  85. "Random" means "you do the choosing". [wrasa080.tif] 
  86. We show only the inteligence there is in the environment. [wrasa081.tif] 
  87. The computer can do more than the trained brain. [wrasa082.tif] 
  88. The rule for decision is: Use what you know to narrow the field as far as possible: after that, do as you please. [wrasa085.tif] 
  89. Any system that acheves appropriate selection (to a degree better than chance) does so as a consequence of information received. [wrasa087.tif] 

    On Evolution

  90. The species is fundamentally aimless (it finds its goals as it goes along). [wrasa089.tif] 

    On Generalisation

  91. To recognise a class is to throw away information [wrasa091.tif] 

    On"Brain-like" mechanisms

  92. Some say that a first requirement is that it shall weigh 45 ounces. [wrasa092.tif] 

    On adapting to a changing world

  93. No system adapts to the changing: it can adapt only to what is constant. [wrasa093.tif] 
  94. To speak of human behaviour, & then to speak of the neuron, is to show that one has not yet developed a sense of proportion. [wrasa094.tif] 
  95. Only the environment can design a brain. [wrasa095.tif] 

    On making an artificial brain

  96. Man's brain contains no blue print for brains against non-human environments. [wrasa096.tif] 

    On the brain's secret

  97. The secret of the mammalian brain is that it has long and slavishly fashioned itself to its environment. [wrasa097.tif] 
  98. To refer to the head-ganglion of Homo sapiens as "Man's brain" is to appeal to our lowest prejudices [wrasa098.tif] 
  99. Only the incorigibly sentimental speak of "Man's brain". Those who wish to stay clean - headed speak of the "head ganglion of Homo sapiens". [wrasa099.tif] 
  100. The liver is the brain of the inner world. Brain to the inner world is the liver. [wrasa100.tif] 

    On the ethics of a system

  101. A computer knows no ethics, only its set goal. [wrasa101.tif] 
  102. 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 [wrasa102.tif] 
  103. Any gibbon, as it throws itself on parabolic arcs from branch to brance, demonstrates its knowledge of Newtonian dynamics. [wrasa103.tif] 

    On Prediction

  104. What Homo knows at any moment, of the actual future is absolutely nothing [wrasa104.tif] 

    On Selection

  105. As every machine goes to equilibrium, it selects [wrasa105.tif] 
  106. Functionally, the behaviou is the brain. [wrasa106.tif] 

    On Altruism

  107. "Help one another" is the selfishness of the species. [wrasa107.tif] 
  108. "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 **** or by the unthinking [wrasa108.tif] 

    On Music

  109. Every dynamic system has its preferred modes of vibraiton, perhaps simple, perhams complex. [wrasa109.tif] 
  110. Rhapodise as you will, a law of nature is just a constant. [wrasa110.tif] 
  111. Instincts of Homo [wrasa110.tif] 
  112. This species is perculiar in that members make an ever-***** habit of attacking & exter*** weaker groups of their own species. [wrasa111.tif] 

    On the evolution of Homo sapiens

  113. For ninety nine hundredths of this time (before any traces of town dwelling) he inproved chiefly in his efficency in killing big game & other branches of his own species. [wrasa112.tif] 
  114. 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. [wrasa113.tif] 
  115. Every one of the faculties boasted of by Man can become a humilating or fatal embarassment when the environment is not the usual type. [wrasa114.tif] 
  116. The man who speaks today of free will is merely a ***** confusiounist [wrasa115.tif] 
  117. The man who talks of free will in the 60's is trying to pump fog into a situation that he fears is clearing. [wrasa116.tif] 
  118. Man can remember only those things that nuatural selection has arranged that he should. [wrasa117.tif] 
  119. A concept is that which (which) survives, is stable under a sequence of operations [wrasa118.tif] 
  120. The brain takes information from where it is useless & moves it to where it is useful. [wrasa119.tif] 
  121. The heart is a mechanical pump - love lies else where; the brain is an information - processor. [wrasa120.tif] 
  122. When the brain is a covection channel it is as selfish as the heart is unfeeling, when it pumps. [wrasa121.tif] 
  123. In the 60's, to introduce the topic of is to introduce fog into a clearifying situation. [wrasa122.tif] 
  124. The application of quantitative methods to the brain will squeeze the remaining superstitions from our ideas about it. [wrasa123.tif] 
  125. The whole fuction of the brain is summed up in : error -correction [wrasa124.tif] 
  126. As God has to monitor his actions*, so must the brain monitor it. *And he saw the light that it was good. [wrasa125.tif] 

    On decision processes

  127. The brain decides nothing - it acts [wrasa126.tif] 
  128. of what use is the brain? - "To think with" is to reveal oneself as mediaeval and pre-Darwinian [wrasa127.tif] 

    On memory

  129. There is no memory in the present - only a state of affairs [wrasa128.tif] 

    On the mystery of the brain

  130. "But that", said Mr Hick contemptuously, "can't be the explanation - there's no myster in it." [wrasa129.tif] 

    On the laws of thought

  131. The machine that can produce all trajectories has no laws. [wrasa130.tif] 

    On the laws of thought

  132. The product set has no constraints [wrasa131.tif] 

    On Brain processes

  133. Life-processes (in species or brains) use only the additive methods - for the combinatorial there has not been time enough. [wrasa132.tif] 

    On adaptation

  134. In this universe, the life-time of a planet is only sufficient to allow its evolved life-form to explore the possibilities of additive adaptation [wrasa133.tif] 

    On adaptation as a whole to a whole

  135. All our adaptations are collections of nearly independent bits; life is too short to alow us to explore the really holistic. [wrasa134.tif] 

    On Man's God-like intelligence

  136. Intelligence is a specialisation to the environment that is (?) complexly / aggregately. [wrasa135.tif] 

    On Man's God-like intelligence

  137. An organism should be as intelligent as its environment, - no more, no less. [wrasa136.tif] 
  138. Every mechanism generates improbabilities (Not only natural selection) [wrasa137.tif] 
  139. The M.S. [wrasa138.tif] 
  140. Amoung systems in a net, the struggle for existence is inevitable [wrasa138.tif] 
  141. The law of the brain is : What will be, will be. [wrasa139.tif] 

    On long-term planning in the brain


    On Man's ability to plan

  142. The brain is wholly opportunist, no less when it proposes a long term plan. [wrasa140.tif] 

    On Progress in adaptation

  143. A brain can improve till it fits ints environment: [wrasa141.tif] 

    On Organisation

  144. Organisation exists mostly in the eye of the beholder. [wrasa142.tif] 

    On Memory

  145. The brain knows only the present and what it can construct from the present. [wrasa143.tif] 
  146. Slogan [wrasa144.tif] 
  147. Man lives by surviving. [wrasa144.tif] 
  148. Which showed the best power of survival when attacked by the Spaniards: that bio-organisation calle the amazon jungle: or that bio-organisation called the Aztecs? [wrasa146.tif] 
  149. Which out-fought the Spaniards - the Aztec civil organisation, or that bio-organisation called the Amazon Jungle ? [wrasa147.tif] 
  150. 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 on e pair at a time the whole animal is easily outrun by the tortoise [wrasa148.tif] 
  151. When we take the ordiantes 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. [wrasa150.tif] 
  152. Every operation seeks the state that makes it impotent. [wrasa151.tif] 
  153. A "machine" is a shadow of simple succession. [wrasa152.tif] 
  154. "The time it takes increases exponentially" is a mathematical way of saying it can't be done. [wrasa153.tif] 

    On Evolution

  155. By the time sexual reproduction has been achieved, the main difficulty of evolution is past. [wrasa154.tif] 

    On Sympathy

  156. If my sympathy with another's sufferings proves the reality of the other's feelings then the pattern of light & shade that I call a "weeping heroine" on the cinema screen is genuinely feeling. [wrasa155.tif] 

    On In****strospection

  157. A man can report what happens in his brain only so far as the events reach the verbalising center. [wrasa156.tif] 
  158. Every dramatist knows the inexonable logic of the emotions. [wrasa157.tif] 
  159. Disorder never proceeds to order so milk can never separate into buttermilk and cream. [wrasa159.tif] 

    On the subjective

  160. How to lest whether you're dreaming - kick the fellow in front of you and see who feels the pain. [wrasa160.tif] 
  161. I am; therefore I think. [wrasa161.tif] 

    On error controlled servo

  162. The error controlled servo - mechanism is a brain without eyes. [wrasa162.tif] 
  163. Whatever vibrates is a musical instrument: whatever is stable is a mechanical brain - the difficulty lies in making a particular one. [wrasa163.tif] 
  164. Is your life achieving the full potentialities of carbon ? [wrasa164.tif] 

  165. NOTES. 
    Some checking remains to be completed. [wrasa001.tif - wrasa164.tif] taken from Ashby's card index. [wrasa168.tif - wrasa217.tif] from Internet sources.