Quotations about   reality

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Freedom does not always win. This is one of the bitterest lessons of history.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
(Attributed)
Added on 2-Aug-21 | Last updated 2-Aug-21
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Divine reality is not way up in the sky somewhere; it is readily available in the encounters of everyday life, which make hash of my illusions that I can control the ways God comes to me.

Barbara Brown Taylor (b. 1951) American minister, academic, author
“Material Faith,” interview by Meghan Larissa Good, The Other Journal (19 Dec 2013)
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The true foundation of theology is to ascertain the character of God. It is by the aid of Statistics that law in the social sphere can be ascertained and codified, and certain aspects of the character of God thereby revealed. The study of statistics is thus a religious service.

Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) English social reformer, statistician, founder of modern nursing
(Attributed)

Attributed in F.N. David in Games, Gods, and Gambling: A History of Probability and Statistical Ideas (1962).

There is a related variant of this quote: "To understand God's thoughts we must study statistics, for these are the measure of his purpose." This appears to be a paraphrase by Francis Galton of her beliefs (in full in Karl Pearson, Life of Francis Galton, Vol. 2, ch. 13, sec. 1 (1924)). While Galton is describing her beliefs, the quotation is often rewritten from third to first person, as though it were something she said.
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While it is easy to lie with statistics, it is even easier to lie without them.

Frederick Mosteller (1916-2006) American statistician, academic
(Attributed)
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What egotism, what stupid vanity, to suppose that a thing could not happen because you could not conceive it!

Philip Wylie (1902-1971) American author
When Worlds Collide (1933) [with Edwin Balmer]
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History is not another name for the past, as many people imply. It is the name for stories about the past.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
(Attributed)
Added on 14-Jun-21 | Last updated 14-Jun-21
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The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.

Theodore Isaac Rubin (b. 1923) American psychiatrist and author
One to One (1983)
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I think that it is a relatively good approximation to truth — which is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations.

John von Neumann (1903-1957) Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, inventor, polymath [János "Johann" Lajos Neumann]
“The Mathematician” (1947)
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A censor is a man who has read about Joshua and forgotten about Canute. The censor believes that he can hold back the mighty traffic of life with a tin whistle and a raised right hand. For, after all, it is life with which he quarrels.

Heywood Broun (1888-1939) American journalist, author
“Nonsenseorship” (1922)
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You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual — and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism.

Timothy Snyder (b. 1969) American historian, author
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017)
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Added on 28-Apr-21 | Last updated 28-Apr-21
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Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) German-American philosopher, political theorist
“Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture,” Social Research (Fall 1971)
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Referring to Adolf Eichmann's use of "cliché-ridden language" as a sign of his "thoughtlessness." Reprinted in The Life of the Mind, Part 1 "Thinking," Introduction (1974).
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The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about
them. […] In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
“Notes on Nationalism” (May 1945)
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Added on 16-Mar-21 | Last updated 16-Mar-21
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Few are those who wish to be endowed with virtue rather than to seem so.

[Virtute enim ipsa non tam multi praediti esse quam videri volunt.]

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) Roman orator, statesman, philosopher
“Laelius De Amicitia [Laelius on Friendship],” ch. 26 / sec. 98 (44 BC)

Common translation. Alternates:

  • "For not so many desire to be endowed with virtue itself, as to seem to be so." [tr. Edmonds (1871)]
  • "For there are not so many possessed of virtue as there are that desire to seem virtuous." [tr. Peabody (1887)]
  • "For many wish not so much to be, as to seem to be, endowed with real virtue." [tr. Falconer (1923)]
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One of the most troublesome things in life is that what you do or do not want has very little to do with what does or does not happen.

Lemony Snicket (b. 1970) American author, screenwriter, musician (pseud. for Daniel Handler)
The Carnivorous Carnival (2002)
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The problem with evidence is it doesn’t always support your opinion.

Stephen Colbert (b. 1964) American political satirist, writer, comedian
Interview with Ron Suskind (13 Jul 2006)
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Added on 10-Feb-21 | Last updated 10-Feb-21
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Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing wrong with this, except that it ain’t so.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Mark Twain’s Notebook (1935) [ed. Albert Bigelow Paine]
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With an entry for 4 Jul 1893. The core phrase, from the Latin "Magna est veritas et prævalebit," was first formulated in English by Thomas Brooks. An earlier variant can be found in Cicero, Pro Caelio Rufo (56 BC): "How great is the power of truth" [O magna vis veritas].
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If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie — a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days — but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) German-American philosopher, political theorist
Interview with Roger Errera (Oct 1973), The New York Review of Books (26 Oct 1978)
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We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.

Douglas R. Hofstadter (b. 1945) American academic, cognitive scientist, author
“The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Herbert Spencer Lecture, Oxford (Nov 1963)
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Reprinted in Harpers (Nov 1964).
Added on 30-Dec-20 | Last updated 30-Dec-20
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By convention sweet is sweet, by convention bitter is bitter, by convention hot is hot, by convention cold is cold, by convention color is color. But in reality there are atoms and the void. That is, the objects of sense are supposed to be real and it is customary to regard them as such, but in truth they are not. Only the atoms and the void are real.

[νόμωι (γάρ φησι) γλυκὺ καὶ νόμωι πικρόν, νόμωι θερμόν, νόμωι ψυχρόν, νόμωι χροιή, ἐτεῆι δὲ ἄτομα καὶ κενόν]

Democritus (c. 460 BC - c. 370 BC) Greek philosopher
Frag. 0 (Diels) [tr. Bakewell (1907)]
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Cited to Tetralogies of Thrasyllus, 9; Sext. Emp. Math VII 135. Alternate translations:

  • "Sweet exists by convention, bitter by convention, colour by convention; atoms and Void (alone) exist in reality ... We know nothing accurately in reality, but (only) as it changes according to the bodily condition, and the constitution of those things that flow upon (the body) and impinge upon it." [tr. Freeman (1948), frag. 9]
  • "By convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void." [tr. Durant, from Bakewell]
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From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened. Then again, every major change in policy demands a corresponding change of doctrine and a revelation of prominent historical figures. This kind of thing happens everywhere, but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
“The Prevention of Literature,” Polemic (Jan 1946)
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If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Guards! Guards! (1989)
Added on 22-Sep-20 | Last updated 22-Sep-20
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ANGEL: Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It’s harsh, and cruel. But that’s why there’s us, champions. Doesn’t matter where we come from, what we’ve done or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be.

Steven S. DeKnight (b. 1964) American television screenwriter, producer
Angel, 4×01 “Deep Down” (6 Oct 2002)
Added on 24-Aug-20 | Last updated 24-Aug-20
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There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. Since the first two pass our comprehension, we must do what we can with the third.

Aubrey Menen (1912-1989) English writer
Rama Retold (1954)
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An artist’s job is to make order out of chaos. You collect details, look for a pattern, and organize. You make sense out of senseless facts. You puzzle together bits of everything. You shuffle and reorganize. Collage. Montage. Assemble.

Chuck Palahniuk (b. 1962) American novelist and freelance journalist
Diary (2003)
Added on 27-May-20 | Last updated 27-May-20
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The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) German-American philosopher, political theorist
The Origins of Totalitarianism, Part 3, ch. 13, sec. 3 (1951)
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You are right in assuming that I am indifferent to the pattern of things. I am. I have never liked stale phrases and bodyless courage. I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) American writer, folklorist, anthropologist
Letter to Countee Cullen (5 Mar 1943)
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I make this distinkshun between charakter and reputashun — reputashun iz what the world thinks ov us, charakter is what the world knows of us.

[I make this distinction between character and reputation — reputation is what the world thinks of us, character is what the world knows of us.]

Josh Billings (1818-1885) American humorist [pseud. of Henry Wheeler Shaw]
Everybody’s Friend, Or; Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor, “Lobstir Sallad” (1874)
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The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded forever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these, the spirit blooms timidly, and struggles to be a light amid the thorns.

George Santayana (1863-1952) Spanish-American poet and philosopher [Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruíz de Santayana y Borrás]
Platonism and the Spiritual Life (1927)
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Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.

Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930) French-Swiss film director, screenwriter, critic
(Attributed)
Added on 11-Mar-20 | Last updated 11-Mar-20
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In art as in politics we must deal with people as they are, not as we wish them to be. Only by working with the real can you get closer to the ideal.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
In Her Day, Preface, “A Note to the Feminist Reader” (1976)
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There is a contingent of the digital-effects community to whom that is the holy grail — to create photographically real humans. To me that is the dumbest goal that you could possibly have. What’s wonderful about the medium of animation isn’t recreating reality. It’s distilling it.

Brad Bird (b. 1957) American director, animator and screenwriter [Phillip Bradley Bird]
“How Pixar Conquered the Planet,” The Guardian (12 Nov 2004)
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We give the highest and the most peculiar praise to the precepts of Machiavelli, when we say that they may frequently be of real use in regulating conduct — not so much because they are more just, or more profound, than those which might be culled from other authors as because they can be more readily applied to the problems of real life.

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) English writer and politician
“Machiavelli,” Edinburgh Review (Mar 1827)
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Review of Œvres complètes de Machiavel, J. V. Perier ed. (1825). Quotations of Machiavelli can be found here.
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Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America — not the battlefields of Vietnam.

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) Canadian philosopher, communication theorist, educator
In the Montreal Gazette (16 May 1975)
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There are few of us who are not protected from the keenest pain by our inability to see what it is that we have done, what we are suffering, and what we truly are. Let us be grateful to the mirror for revealing to us our appearances only.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) English novelist, satirist, scholar
Erewhon, ch. 3 “Up the River” (1872)
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Reason allows us to determine when our wishes are in irrevocable conflict with reality, and then bids us to submit ourselves willingly, rather than angrily or bitterly, to necessities. We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them, and it is in our spontaneous acceptance of necessity that we find our distinctive freedom.

Alain de Botton (b. 1969) Swiss-British author
The Consolations of Philosophy, ch. 3 “Consolation for Frustration”(2000)
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BOB: You know I’m retired from hero work.
EDNA: As am I, Robert, yet here we are!

Brad Bird (b. 1957) American director, animator and screenwriter [Phillip Bradley Bird]
The Incredibles (2004)
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What Mr. Howells said of the American theater is true of the whole American attitude toward life. “A tragedy with a happy ending” is exactly what the child wants before he goes to sleep: the reassurance that “all’s well with the world” as he lies in his cozy nursery. It is a good thing that the child should receive this reassurance; but as long as he needs it he remains a child, and the world he lives in is a nursery-world. Things are not always and everywhere well with the world, and each man has to find it out as he grows up. It is the finding out that makes him grow, and until he has faced the fact and digested the lesson he is not grown up — he is still in the nursery.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) American novelist
French Ways and Their Meaning, ch. 4 “Intellectual Honesty” (1919)
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Commenting on William Dean Howells' comment to her on American taste in theater and drama: "What the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending."
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The validity of an idea or action is determined not by whether it is widely believed or widely reviled but by whether it obeys the rules of logic. It is not because an argument is denounced by a majority that it is wrong nor, for those drawn to heroic defiance, that it is right.

Alain de Botton (b. 1969) Swiss-British author
The Consolations of Philosophy, ch. 1 “Consolation for Unpopularity” (2000)
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I believe that you can reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing.

Umberto Eco (1932-2016) Italian semiotician, essayist, philosopher, novelist
Foucault’s Pendulum, ch. 87 (1988) [tr. W. Weaver (1989)]
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See also Hawthorne.
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It was always my hope in writing novels and stories which asked the question, “what is reality?”, to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories and I still couldn’t figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) American writer
“How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” (1978)
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Although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
“Notes on Nationalism” (1945)
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Added on 3-Aug-18 | Last updated 3-Aug-18
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Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

Timothy Snyder (b. 1969) American historian, author
On Tyranny, ch. 10 (2017)
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Added on 7-Jun-18 | Last updated 7-Jun-18
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Though the terrain of frustration may be vast — from a stubbed toe to an untimely death — at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality.

Alain de Botton (b. 1969) Swiss-British author
The Consolations of Philosophy, ch. 3 “Consolation For Frustration” (2000)
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Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits — and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

Omar Khayyám (1048-1123) Persian poet, mathematician, philosopher, astronomer
Rubáiyát, 99 [tr. FitzGerald]
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A wise man weaves a philosophy out of each acceptance life forces upon him.

Elizabeth Bibesco (1897-1945) Romanian-English writer
Haven (1951)
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Perhaps a man’s character is like a tree, and his reputation like its shadow; the shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) American lawyer, politician, US President (1861-65)
(Attributed)

In Noah Brooks "Lincoln's Imagination," _Scribner's Monthly (Aug 1879).
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Life is not made up of dramatic incidents — even the life of a nation. It is made up of slowly evolving events and processes, which newspapers, by a score of different forms of emphasis, can reasonably attempt to explore from day to day. But television news jerks from incident to incident. For the real world of patient and familiar arrangements, it substitutes an unreal world of constant activity, and the effect is already apparent in the way which the world behaves. It is almost impossible, these days, to consider any problem or any event except as a crisis; and, by this very way of looking at it, it in fact becomes a crisis.

Henry Fairlie (1924-1990) British journalist and social critic
“Can You Believe Your Eyes?” Horizon (Spring 1967)
Added on 31-Mar-17 | Last updated 31-Mar-17
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Nature is more subtle, more deeply intertwined and more strangely integrated than any of our pictures of her — than any of our errors. It is not merely that our pictures are not full enough; each of our pictures in the end turns out to be so basically mistaken that the marvel is that it worked at all.

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) Polish-English humanist and mathematician
Science and Human Values, Part 4 “The Abacus and the Rose” (1956)
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Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) Danish philosopher, theologian
(Misattributed)

Misattributed to Kierkegaard by Cyril Connolly, Horizon, vol. 11 (1945). More properly attributed to Jacobus Johannes van der Leeuw (1893–1934), The Conquest of Illusion, ch. 1: "The mystery of life in not a problem to be solved, it is a reality to be experienced."
Added on 8-Dec-16 | Last updated 11-Dec-16
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In effect what Luther said in 1517 was that we may appeal to a demonstrable work of God, the Bible, to override any established authority. The Scientific Revolution begins when Nicolaus Copernicus implied the bolder proposition that there is another work of God to which we may appeal even beyond this: the great work of nature. No absolute statement is allowed to be out of reach of the test, that its consequence must conform to the facts of nature.

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) Polish-English humanist and mathematician
Science and Human Values, Part 2 “The Habit of Truth”, §11 (1956)
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It remains true, however, that an inconveniently placed railing or sharp corner will not remove itself from the path of a drunkard, even if that drunkard is unaware of the obstacles on the path he has set for himself; in other words, no matter to what degree we are oblivious to the world, it makes its own choices as to how oblivious it will be to us.

Steven Brust (b. 1955) American writer, systems programmer
The Phoenix Guards (1991)
Added on 23-Nov-16 | Last updated 23-Nov-16
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DRUMLIN: I know you must think this is all very unfair. Maybe that’s an understatement. What you don’t know is I agree. I wish the world was a place where fair was the bottom line, where the kind of idealism you showed at the hearing was rewarded, not taken advantage of. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.

ARROWAY: Funny, I’ve always believed that the world is what we make of it.

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) American scientist and writer
Contact, film (1997) [screenplay by J. Hart and M. Goldenberg
Added on 11-Nov-16 | Last updated 11-Nov-16
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It is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.

Douglas Adams (1952-2001) English writer
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, ch. 19 (1980)
Added on 19-Sep-16 | Last updated 19-Sep-16
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The difference between life and the movies is that a script needs to make sense, and life doesn’t.

Joseph Mankiewicz (1909-1993) American screenwriter, director, producer
(Attributed)

See Twain.
Added on 15-Sep-16 | Last updated 15-Sep-16
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Reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them.

Verne - facts so romantic - wist_info quote

Jules Verne (1828-1905) French novelist, poet, playwright
The Fur Country (1873)
Added on 9-Sep-16 | Last updated 9-Sep-16
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