Observations on beetles:

It seems to me to be a remarkable co-incidence that the order of animals with the most species in the beetles, that the best-selling car of all time is the Volkswagon Beetle and that the most popular singing group of all time is the Beatles.

[I may not have been the first person to notice this.]

Observations on colours and tastes:

There is no evidence that other people experience colours and tastes the same as I do. In fact there is some evidence that they don’t. Some people choose to wear clothes in what seems to me to be a dreadful shade of mauve; some people choose to eat liver, which seems to me to have a terrible taste, but they must like the taste. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it tastes differently to them, but it suggests that this is likely. There is no way of finding out.

4th January, 2004

Observations on dreams:

Who decides what I dream about? I certainly don’t.

I can remember that when I am dreaming I believe that what I am dreaming is really happening to me. If I am capable of believing that something is really happening when it isn’t how can I be sure that what I believe is happening to me when I am awake is really happening?

More observations on dreams:

We have been programmed at birth to experience a particular range of emotions in our lifetimes. If life doesn’t provide us with the circumstances to produce a particular emotion we will experience it in a dream.

Observations on ethics:

Most people would agree that it is worse to kill your son when he is twenty years old than it is not to have any children, but if that is the case then it means that it is worse to give a person twenty years of life than to give him no life at all.

26th December, 2003

This is an illustration of a wider principle, namely that nothing matters. Over the door of Lawrence of Arabia’s Cottage in Dorset is an inscription in Latin that used to be translated as ‘Nothing matters’. Nowadays it is translated as ‘Why worry?’, a much less profound message. If Lawrence no longer has need of ‘Nothing matters’ perhaps he won’t mind if I claim it as my own.

15th October, 2005

When I say ‘Nothing matters’ I mean that nothing matters unless you can do some­thing about it (but it doesn’t matter if you could have done something about it in the past but can’t now).

27th November, 2010

Observations on ghosts:

Extra-terrestrial life is an interesting question because it is possible that it exists and it is possible that it doesn’t exist. Ghosts pose an even more interesting question because it is impossible that they exist and it is impossible that everyone who claims to have seen one is a liar.

25th May, 2013

Observations on life:

Animals are alive, which means that they are aware of their existence. We are told that plants also are alive. Does that mean that they also are aware of their existence? If not, where do we draw the line? I am sure that dogs and cats are aware of their existence, but what about tortoises? What about goldfish or earwigs or snails? What about microscopic animals that are virtually indistinguishable from plants?

A doctor was once asked if it was possible that plants feel pain, and he said that it wasn’t possible because plants have no nervous system, but surely you don’t need a nervous system to feel thirsty. If an animal feels thirsty when his body needs water, then why shouldn’t a plant do the same? And if it feels thirsty it must be aware that it feels thirsty and therefore aware that it exists.

Observations on mathematics:

If there were no people in the Universe there would be no art or literature, but there would still be biology.

If there was no life in the Universe there would be no biology, but there would still be physics and chemistry.

If there was no Universe there would be no physics or chemistry, but there would still be mathematics.

5th February, 2001

[Note added on June 10th, 2001: It might be said that there could be no mathematics if there were no numbers and that there could be no numbers if there were no material objects to count, but I believe that mathematics exists independently of the Universe because I can imagine a universe in which the mass of a proton is not 1836 times that of an electron, but I cannot imagine a universe in which 2 x 3 does not equal 6.]

Observations on money:

Money is a peculiar thing. People only want it because they can buy things with it. But the people they buy things from only want it so that they can buy things from other people, and so on. So how does it all start?

More observations on money:

There is no such thing as a waste of money. Even if the person who spends the money derives no benefit from it the person who receives it certainly does, and if he spends the money, the people who receive it from him benefit, and so on.

6th November, 1999

Observations on philosophy

Philosophy 1

In 1994 I tried to work out the odds against my having been born. In the past six hundred years I have had about a million ancestors. If the odds against two people meeting and deciding to have children are ten to one (a very conservative estimate) then the odds against a million couples meeting are ten raised to the power of a million to one. I found it impossible to believe that I had had that amount of good luck before I was born when I have had good and bad luck in roughly equal quantities ever since. I came to the bizarre conclusion that my existence cannot be just luck: it has to be inevitable. This is a philosophical point that turns science upside down and that, so far as I know, nobody else has ever thought of.

Supposing that my existence is the only inevitable thing. Then not only could I have been any one of the hundred million people who have ever lived, but I could have been born into any conceivable type of universe. It might have been a universe that only lasted for a few seconds; it might have been a universe in which nothing existed except myself: it would still have been a miracle. So it is an even bigger a miracle that I have lived for more than sixty years and been able to see and hear and find out about a universe that is enormously interesting and complex.

I could regard my own existence as luck and the nature of the universe as inevitable, or I could regard my existence as inevitable and the nature of the universe as luck;  either way I have been extremely lucky.

Philosophy 2

It should be possible to look at human civilization objectively: not just to know how remarkable it is but to feel it.

Imagine someone who lived a hundred thousand years ago and who was trying to build a primitive shelter and wondered if there would ever come a time when people lived in waterproof houses with transparent windows and lights you can switch on and off. You don’t have to wonder if it all came about;  you know that it did.

Now imagine that you were born in the twentieth century but had spent all your life in a box six feet square with plain walls and that a few seconds ago you walked out of that box for the first time. Imagine discovering that there are other people like yourself and that there are rows of houses and books and films and television programmes containing limitless information. We all know what there is to discover, but we are so familiar with it most of us take it all for granted.

I believe that my sense of wonder is greater than that of the average person, but I know that it is nothing like as much as it should be. Every moment of every day I should be thinking things like ‘Isn’t it incredible: that electric light really works!’, or ‘Water really does come out of that tap!’ or ‘That amazing adventure that began in 1942 really is still going on!’

Philosophy 3

I have always believed

(1) that the mind is explainable by the arrangement of atoms in the brain, and

(2) that a computer cannot have a mind.

Then one day I realised that these two opinions are inconsistent. The second must be right.   Therefore the first must be wrong.

Philosophy 4

We are led to believe that there is nothing special about the world: it’s just an ordinary planet going round a typical star in a typical galaxy. In the same way it might be said that there is nothing special about the present time:  the earth has been going round the sun for thousands of millions years, and it will continue to do so for thousands of millions of years to come. On the other hand it could be said that there has been as much progress in the last hundred years as there was in the previous thousand years, and that there has been as much progress in the last thousand years as there was in the previous ten thousand years, and so on. Surely this can’t go on for ever. So we must be living in a special time.

Philosophy 5

Written on September 3rd, 1993:

The earth is a planet 8000 miles across in a universe that extends for millions of millions of miles in all directions. It therefore could be said that nothing that happens on that planet can be of any possible significance, but it is of the greatest significance to the people who live there.

In the same way it may be said that in a world inhabited by five thousand million people nothing that happens to one individual can be of any significance, but it is of the greatest significance to that person; and if you believe that the human race is important, then you should also believe that your own life is important, even if your rôle in the world is a very small one.


On September 9th, 1993 I wrote much the same thing under the heading ‘A message from me to everybody else’:-

Because you hear so much of people who are more famous and successful than yourself you tend to feel that your own life is insignificant and unimportant. But if you believed that you were the only person in the world you would not consider your life to be so insignificant. And if you then discovered that there were millions of other people in the world your life would be greatly enriched, and if it were greatly enriched it could hardly be regarded as being less important.

Philosophy 6

Galaxies, quarks and so on are important to the human race because they provide an endless supply of interesting things for people to discover and for each individual to discover again for himself.

Philosophy 7

If I had never been born, would I have been someone else?

What on earth do I mean by ‘I’ in this context?

Philosophy 8:

Written on November 30th, 2001:

Supposing the day I was born my mother had had twins. One of those twins would have been me. The other would not have been me. Now suppose that she only had one child. It might have been me that was born and my twin that was not born, or it might have been my twin that was born and me that was not born. It is therefore possible that my mother could have given birth to a child who looked exactly like me and had my personality, but who still wasn’t me.

Observations on the extinction of the dinosaurs:

When I read that the extinction of the dinosaurs had been caused by a collision between the earth and an asteroid I thought that it was nonsense because the impact would not affect animals on the other side of the world, and, if it did, the mammals would be killed off as well.

Then I watched a television programme in which it was explained that the impact raised a cloud of dust that covered the whole world and blotted out the sun. The green plants died and then the animals that fed on them and then the animals that fed on those animals. The mammals survived because they lived in the leaf litter and ate grubs. The plants died, but their seeds survived. For once in my life I was able to experience the rare pleasure of being proved wrong.

It is an interesting thought that while the dinosaurs were alive there were no mammals larger than a mouse. If that asteroid had been deflected from its course by one degree there would be no large mammals today: no rabbits, no dogs, no elephants, no people. [This has been mentioned by other people.]

Observations on the planet Uranus:

(added on 12th October, 2014)

It is generally thought that, apart from the earth, there are five planets that are visible to the naked eye, but there is one more, Uranus, that can sometimes be seen by people with exceptionally good eyesight.

There is a well-known song that begins ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night …’. Those words would never have been written if there hadn’t been thousands of people engaged in a similar activity for hundreds of years. Apart from watching their flocks there wasn’t much for these people to do except to study the stars. No doubt most of them concentrated on the brighter stars, but there must have been some who preferred to study a small area of sky, and surely a few of these would have noticed a very faint star that changed its position over time and must therefore be a planet. There must have been many arguements over the years between people who claimed that there were six planets and people who thought that there were only five because they couldn’t see the sixth and because ‘everybody knows’ that there are only five. Perhaps one day an ancient letter will be found in an archaeological site in which this question is discussed.

Observations on the rotation of the earth:

When I was very young I took part in a lot of discussions about whether people were animals. I would argue that people must be animals because they had the same number of limbs, the same arrangement of facial features and so on. Other people would say that we are not animals because we have a greater intellectual ability and so on. At the time I was convinced that I was right, but now I can see that we were both right. The question of whether people are animals is not a matter of fact, but a matter of the meaning of words. When people say that ‘animals take in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide’ they mean animals including people. When it says in the Y.H.A. handbook that ‘no member may bring an animal into a hostel’ it means animals excluding people.

In the same way when people argued in the sixteenth century about whether the sun goes round the earth or whether the earth rotates on its axis, they were not disputing a fact, but looking at the same fact in two different ways. It’s not incorrect to say that a car that is waiting at traffic lights is stationary just because the earth is travelling through space. It’s simply a matter of what you choose to regard as stationary. It is convenient to regard the earth as stationary when dealing with the traffic in a town, but it is inconvenient to do so when studying the motion of the planets.

5th November, 2003

Observations on wave-particle duality:

If you float a beach-ball on the sea when there is an off-shore breeze the ball will go up and down with the waves and move away from the shore at the same time. So why do some people have difficulty in visualising a photon as a wave and a particle at the same time?