Invoking Godwin’s Law Too Soon? Maybe.

Last week, on BBC This Week, Jonathan Powell ex PM Blair’s Chief of Staff did the round up of the week (intro from about 7 mins in) and was thoroughly bludgeoned for his efforts by Andrew Neil in his own inimitable and entirely effective way.

Several people re-tweeted Neil’s performance approvingly. I’m a big fan. He is by far the best political interviewer we have in the UK, always thoroughly prepared, unbiased in his targeting, and skilled at the critical questioning and the unflinching, holding-to-account style of interview.

In this particular case, I’m not sure it’s what the response to the round-up really needed. Powell’s was a warning about the potential impending rise of fascism. Sure, as Neil pointed out he didn’t have actual examples of actual fascism in actual political positions in UK politics, and certainly not in the sense of actual Nazism deeds in practice. To suggest so would be to demean the real suffering of those 20th century examples. Neil used Godwin’s Law at the outset in fact, to point out the absurdity of jumping to comparisons with Hitler, too soon, too casually.

Sadly Powell didn’t immediately defend his actual warning effectively. He clearly wasn’t prepared for being thoroughly “roughed-up”. In Brexit and Leadership, Labour and Conservative, pro and con examples, the rhetoric of individuals and party responses are starting to parallel the simplistic populism and mealy-mouthed denials of inappropriate language we’re seeing even more starkly the other side of the Atlantic. These are very relevant warnings. Especially at a time, as Neil’s introduction made clear, our democratic institutions appear to be floundering,  the warning and the need for an active response against the populist and demagogic language. Even if comparing individuals and situations to Hitler and Stalin are fatuous. Even if laying the misguided blame at our unwritten constitution. Who is the Hitler figure? We’ll only know that with hindsight.

Particularly scary given Neil’s demolition of Powell was #Choochoo’s dismissive “It’ll never happen here” commentary. As Powell said, the danger is complacency. Sure we have to be optimistic at our ability to respond, but to do that we have to face the issue.

To be fair, listening a second time, there is a good deal of intelligent dialogue after the piece, and the issues are fairly covered in the time available. Hard to shake off the impression for the Twitter sound-bite generation that Powell’s warning was demolished by Neil (?)The warning remains there to be heeded and responses agreed.


[Post Notes. First item in today’s Politics Live with Andrew Neil, Trump and the latest “send her back” #4Squad #SolidarityWoC story. Agreement that it’s base, nasty, ugly, racist politics, designed to divide approvingly and appeal only to populist core, not that far off here in the UK. To be condemned by all.]

By comparison:

Embedded video

And to bring it back to the current UK (Conservative Leadership) topic, Neil does a great job nailing a Boris aide over the not-UK-and-non-EU Manx fish troubled by the not-EU-but-UK trading rules, with which Boris doubly self-owned in his final hustings speech for the sake of a “kipper” gag. Shameless. (In the last few minutes of the Politics Live linked above. Brexit is based entirely on shameless lies about the EU, where Boris has taken a professional rhetorical interest for decades of media entertainment – but all shameless lies non-the-less, his stock-in trade, for laughs.

Talking of shameless lies. It’s the (lack of) shame, not the (lack of) facts that is the problem. Interesting piece also on BBC R4 this morning. Mariella Frostrup conducting a debate with experts about children’s education about (not) lying. Mariella more enlightened than most of the naive experts (bar one) in my view. Same as “truth” in more fundamental / abstract metaphysical circles, it’s ultimately about virtues (like Trustworthiness) not about factual objectivity. Even kids learn the value in factual lies with a rhetorical purpose, and a more enlightened idea than being shamed into some logical absolutism that “it’s wrong to lie”. The latter would suggest the answer to our problem is somehow controlling “fact-checking” when nothing could be further from the reality of virtue. Virtuous reality is more real and true than objective reality.]

Kastrup’s Mind & Body Revisited

From the Horgan / Katstrup “Meaning of Life” TV podcast, this is Katsrup’s elevator pitch, or breakfast TV interview response, to the request to explain his thesis in one minute:

(1) There isn’t really a mind-body problem and the hard problem of consciousness doesn’t exist. The problem is we corner ourselves in a impossible situation conceptually. The problem(s) exists only conceptually in our intellect.

(2) The origin of the problem is when we conceptualise the ontological category we call matter (body) which is supposed to be outside and independent of mind (consciousness). Matter is an explanatory abstraction of mind. We postulate it to explain the regularities of experience. The fact that I can change the universe by an act of volition. The fact that “we” seem to be separate minds inhabiting the same planet – we come up with this explanatory abstraction in mind as an attempt to reduce mind to an abstraction of mind. This cannot work, we are chasing our tails.

(3) What nature is telling us is that from the inside I experience who I am, what it’s like to be me. From the outside that thing that I am looks like a body. So, what we call a body is the extrinsic appearance of our conscious inner experience, and since my body is made of matter, I think that all matter is the outer appearance of inner experience.This doesn’t mean my inanimate (mobile phone) object is conscious in and of itself. The inanimate universe as a whole IS conscious and every living (sentient?) being is conscious. Living beings are disassociated complexes, disassociated outers of the universal mind. So, then there is only mind …

(4) … there is no “hard problem” of consciousness and there is no combinatorial problem of panpsychism … because (3) [the stuff of] consciousness is fundamentally unitary to begin with.

(1), (2) and (4) I agree with.
(3) I don’t, as I said when I reviewed the book.

Let’s unpick what I find wrong with (3). Basically two things.

Firstly, he is clearer that inanimate objects are not conscious in and of themselves, but that “living” things are. This places emphasis on life rather than sentience? This seems arbitrary and leaves some definitional questions?  In  the book he elaborates at length on independent alters – identifiable patterns of alterity, of inner experience. Here he’s distinguishing between those that are and are not conscious of their inner experience using life rather than sentience? The idea of unconscious inner experience sounds more like Smolin’s “views” from “here”.

Secondly, if the universe is conscious and living things are conscious, we seem to be using consciousness if different ways? And it seems the difference depends on the arbitrary boundaries we call self, that is me and not me? There are many “things” with nested and overlapping “outer” boundaries. Ontologies are arbitrary, but pragmatic.

[Aside – as well as the pan-psychic combinatorial problem he is using the hard problem two-ways – the subjective view of the inner experience and outer appearance – and the problem of how consciousness can interact with the outers in ways that are volitional and affecting physical outcomes.]

I still think he is missing a basic trick. That the fundamental patterns – the inner experience of objects – need not be consciousness, not being conscious of that knowledge, but the knowledge itself – the knowable pattern  of information that makes up me, the independent alter, the object. (Smolin’s beable views [and beable is so close to Deutsch / Marletto]).

And given this one additional conceptual slip, we are free to see consciousness itself in the aware, knowing sense as an evolved property from inanimate to living, sentient and highly evolved intelligence. An evolved property of information patterns, just like the material “model” (ie physics) is a conceived and  evolved pattern of information.

As I said in my earlier review if he’s using the word conscious – That Which Experiences – without awareness of that experience, it seems like word-play. I call those information patterns.


[Post Note: I keep forgetting that this early post on the disagreement between Kastrup and Pigliucci resulted in a very interesting discussion thread, with several older sources to follow-up.]

Playlist of listening & reading

Stocking up a few links I need to follow up:

This letter-based “friendly disagreement”  between Massimo Pigliucci and David Sloan (DS) Wilson on group / individual, bio / cultural evolution. I am more with the latter on a first skim, but I need to read more thoroughly.

This video interview of Bernardo Kastrup by John Horgan. I was ultimately not convinced by Kastrup’s Idealism, but Horgan is usually pretty good at getting into what his subjects subjects are.
[Viewed this one, and reported here: “Kastrup’s Mind & Body Revisited”]

This Guardian review by Philip Ball of Angela Saini’s latest. I get why it’s such a dangerous topic, but the dismissal of “race science” as meaningless always seems such a PC / orthodox science cop-out for not being as simple as most people would once have had it.

Terry Eagleton “Taking Humour Seriously” from IAI / HTLGI
(also Samira Ahmed / David Baddiel interview?)

Rachel Suggs in Quanta on Symmetry in physics after Emmy Noether.
Strange? Several different quanta versions of this. This one by KC Cole. This one by Natalie Wolchover.

Amanda Getter in Quanta on “How to Understand the Universe When You’re Stuck Inside of It” – Review of Smolin’s latest.

Enforcement is Central to the Evolution of Cooperation” paper in Nature.


Serious Research?

Mentioned a couple of posts ago I was planning to read some Michael Gazzaniga after reading a couple of reviews that rang bells because he was one of the contributors to Iain McGilchrist’s Divided Brain film.

Wasn’t sure if I was ordering the right Gazzaniga book in his latest, so I’ve been digging. Basically, I wasn’t sure of he was worth reading from the philosophy of mind perspective, even though he’s clearly an eminent cognitive / brain / neuroscientist, philosophy being harder than either brain-surgery or rocket-science. There was already the suggestion in one of the reviews he was a more practical kind than one for abstractions. He’s written quite a few books in fact, as well of course, as many papers in the course of his scientific life. This from the front of his 2015 autobiography / memoir “Tales from Both Sides of the Brain”:

Still not sure, in fact, which to read. The autobiography already seems to cover much good ground – on brain and mind, on left and right brains – do I really want to read a later book by him on “Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind“? However, the earlier book being biographical, it also covers much of the politics of science. The latter being the main problem in most cutting edge science and/or philosophy as people protect convenient orthodoxies whilst promoting their own book sales under their pet “unraveling the mysteries of x” banner. Cynical, moi? Book sales confirm the basic memetic rule, they rarely equate to the quality of the content, more the fit with “what sells”.

Anyway, I digress. No sign of this with Gazzaniga yet, I haven’t actually read any other than the sub-title of his latest. Is that him or his publisher’s PR cashing-in?

Decisions, decisions.

Anyway, whilst deliberating, I went back to McGilchrist’s original book “The Master and his Emissary”. I’m always telling people that as well as being a convincing read on an unfashionable (ie non-PC) topic for a lay audience, it is based on decades of proper scientific research. Now, I’m the last to use numbers to support an argument (see memetics above) but I checked to see that McGilchrists book has 67 pages of bibliography on top of 55 pages of end-notes. Gazzaniga has 3 solo and 2 joint authored entries. That’s 5 amongst some 4000 individual references, only one of which is a book, the rest papers. I recall at the time being impressed with how well referenced Master and Emissary was, but I probably only skimmed the index looking for familiar sources, after reading the main text. Gazzaniga wasn’t familiar then. (No sign of Gazzaniga in Dennett so far as I can see, no reference in B2BnB for example.)

So is it

2017 – “The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind”

2015 – “Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience”

2011 – “Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain”

That earliest title has the Master & Emissary allusion already in “who’s in charge?” and it dives straight into the instrumental reality of free-will. Blimey, I fancy all three.

No Possibility is Inconceivable

Been distracted by other housekeeping tasks for several days but reacted to this on Twitter last week, and now bring it forward here:

As a fan and regular attender at the IAI’s “How The Light Gets In” festivals, I’ve met and talked with Chiara Marletto, but I’m not sure if this course and outline of Constructor Theory is from May this year or from a couple of years ago. However the summary reflects exactly what I’ve picked-up along he way, especially Deutsch’s original focus on the conceivable (*) in my more recent fundamental information-based metaphysics.

“… information, they say, is missing in the modern conception of science, but it is essential to a proper understanding of our universe and the laws of nature … and … the benefits of understanding physics in terms of the possible and the impossible … [the need for] information needs to be a part of the laws of physics …

The Limits of Possibility – Is information fundamental to reality? How do bits, evolution and life fit with the laws of fundamental physics?”

Reconstructing Reality – How does abstract information take hold of the physical world?

This is exactly the point I was making in an epistemological ontology in the Huw Price piece. It’s not a matter of taking an epistemological or an ontological view, it’s a matter of ensuring knowledge is part of your ontology of the real world modelled by physics – a very fundamental part it turns out.

(*) (2005) “Didn’t I also recall something in both Chalmers and Deutsch (quite separate work in separate fields) about nothing being possible in a “virtual” world that wasn’t also possible (ie didn’t violate fundamental physics / metaphysics) in the real world ? As if impossible and inconceivable were really the same thing. Am I digressing ?”

Seems I wasn’t.

No possibility is inconceivable.
Fundamental reality is conceivable possibility.
Nothing in physics without information – the knowable.

Michael Gazzaniga

I’m reading up on Michael Gazzaniga in anticipation of receiving his latest book which I was thinking of ordering:

“The Consciousness Instinct:
Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind”

He narrowly missed out on the Nobel Prize for Physiology &  Medicine on his split-brain work from the 1960’s but he crossed my path as one of the neuroscientists involved in the film of Iain McGilchrist’s “Divided Brain”.

McGilchrist takes his theories beyond individual brain and mind behaviours to wider “western” cultural consequences but in that film Gazzaniga distances himself from that step whilst nevertheless supporting the rest of the left-right brain and mind story. Like all sensible scientists both pull back from the simplistic pop-psychology that divides function and behaviour between left and right, yet they both clearly identify the different roles of the two halves in overall behaviour. Interesting reading this review of his autobiography, that Gazzaniga definitely subscribes to the idea that, left to its own devices, the left brain does dominate mind behaviour, and that the right brain (when connected) has a more permissive moderating influence on the left. Exactly as McGilchrist. Exactly as my own summary.

The right brain has a view that understands why it needs to work with the left, but the left brain doesn’t know why it needs the right.

McGilchrist’s second step shows – as seems intuitively obvious – that if culture encourages left-brain views and behaviours, there is a tendency that reinforces that cultural drift to that left position of not appreciating and valuing the right. Master and emmisary, where the emmisary goes rogue.

Also by Douwe Draaisma, this review of Gazzaniga’s latest, starts with the oft quoted Cartesian position:

“How can soul and body affect each other, given their fundamental difference? Descartes pointed to the evidence that they do. The mystery lies in the mechanism, and this, Descartes confided, was perhaps best left to theologians.”

Descartes, like Newton back in the day, was deliberately leaving room for God in that dualism. It is much easier now to point out that mind and body are NOT fundamentally different. They are simply different aspects of the same fundamental monist reality. But that’s another story.

I shall be interested in Gazzaniga’s more general brain <> mind take.

Gender Dysphoria and Trans-Activism

This is my third piece in a month on these topics, though my written interest goes back four years to Alice Dreger and her “Galileo’s Middle Finger”. It’s highly recommended as an introduction to the politically-motivated disfigurement of a very complex technical and cultural topic with serious consequences for the individuals affected. (Hence the Galilean analogy. Hence my more general interest in the corruption of discourse on even the most basic of scientific topics in public consciousness.)

[Not visible in my public writings are also private attempts to get some public education going involving UK expertise from The Tavistock, as recommended by Dreger, but so far unsuccessfully. (See their C4 documentary.) And in the footnotes, the saga continues … three so far and counting. There is no “right to be whoever you want to be”.]

In the original Dreger work, the disfigurement was one of politically interested attacks on the careers and livelihoods of erstwhile colleagues and collaborators over and above any technical issues with the content of the subject. Recently it’s become a one-dimensional binary transactivist vs transphobic / feminazi / terf trolling war of insults. Who gets to call who a bigot the loudest, and worse, career and personal threats.

I don’t take sides in such “extremism” – a pox on both their houses – I simply attempt enlightened dialogue towards solutions we can all accept.

The temperature rose last week when the UK Times published a story on “4000%” increases in gender dysphoria referrals to the Tavistock, the majority “girls” (misgendered say some). And also last week, Martina Navratilova aired her thoughtful documentary on the “fairness” of intersex and trans-women in competitive sports, where her conclusion was fairness is a complicated concept despite her original “anti” intuitions and public statements.

In the two previous posts my point is pretty straightforward – it’s not helpful to reduce the complex technical – scientific and cultural – topic to a question of whose individual rights trump whose.

Things took a turn on two counts this morning when I saw from a couple of days ago:

Firstly, above, Alice Dreger posted on the topic for the first time in a while, about a crowdfunding campaign by the “villain” of her original Galilean story. A scary project about sharing public identity of “transphobes”. Madness she called it. An orchestrated pile-on campaign of abuse I call it.

Secondly, in a number of exchanges, various threads originally commenting on the “4000%” story, I made an observation about the “extremism” of one transphobic (sic) campaign being in reaction to transactivist (sic) campaigns. @HPS_Vanessa took exception to my implied accusation of her being an extremist, and followed-it up with the suggestion that branding any “rights” campaign extremist was a nonsense.

The latter accusation I will continue to defend – here – but on implicitly accusing her, it’s a fair call. I apologise. She’s a professional with an interest here, that’s why she’s on my timeline, and she’s no more extreme than the binary campaign is itself extreme – the polarisation of a complex topic – in the terms I’ve already described.

My ears pricked-up when she also made a reference to Transactivism being a multi-billion dollar funded campaign (?!?). But having offended her, I’ve not got any elaboration on what she meant by that.

So, Transactivism vs Transphobia ? It’s what the social media discourse has (largely) become, but it’s not what gender-dysphoria, intersex and gender-reassignment are about.

Reducing any campaign
to a pro<>phobic rights caricature
is the extremist nonsense.

[The same being true incidentally with (say) Islamaphobia vs LGBT education “rights”, the same with freedoms of expression “rights” on (say) taboo topics in the context of potentially offensive humour, and so on.]

In that vein, as well as the “trans” topics we could unpick “phobia” accusations in general. Tends to be used to signify active “hatred” working against verbally and physically. I’ve never witnessed a “transphobe”. But we need to go back to it’s meaning as “fear” where only a small – but maybe significant – part can be rational. Also, however, see the evolutionary cultural assimilation footnote in the previous post.

[HOLD – more dialogue offerred.]


[Post Note #1:

I’ve said in pretty much all of these posts, including this one, that the problem is reducing a complex topic to an individual rights and freedoms issue. In fact it was my suggesting the idea of “rights extremism” that got branded as nonsense and me as a bigot for my efforts.

This key message is entirely counter-intuitive to “liberal” campaigners and abusing it is destructive to civil democracy. Hat tip to @nathanmladin for tweeting his summary of this John Gray piece in UnHerd.

“Cracking piece from John Gray
on how rights have swallowed up politics
and why this is bad news for democracy”

I had in fact already noticed the piece, but have to admit to some prejudice against UnHerd contributors and, although I am a fan of Gray, I hadn’t read it until now. He also leans on the same angle as this year’s BBC Reith lectures by High Court judge Jonathan Sumption, that resorting to law to uphold such rights is compounding our problems. These are such counter-intuitive messages to any kind of liberal democrat, that they really need shouting (and patiently explaining) from the rooftops.]

[Post Note #2 – this tweet counter to a thread with transactivist bent:

Good sense to notice the balance of unintended consequences. Always a question of timing and appropriateness – (exactly, as I said with the Muslim / LGBTQ+ Education case in Birmingham.) Seen many statements like the one above –  education about a topic inculcating misleading values for the content of the topic. Again the rights half of the story is always easy, the practical constraints and the complex reasoning behind them less so.

“What’s the harm … If it’s explained simply?” is the fallacy. It’s complex. If treated too simply we get the active <> phobic polarisation.]

[And, Post Note #3

To which I already replied:

I’m a big fan of Khan, but THERE IS NO “right to be whoever you want to be”. There is freedom of thought, but physical expression has physical and cultural constraints driving civil and legal arrangements in society. Need I go on?]

[Post Note #4 – Not properly read yet, but … in the Guardian “How can we end the current impasse over transgender athletes?” by Sean Ingle. Any side that thinks their argument trumps any others has missed several points.]

Realism at a Price?

I mentioned Huw Price in a footnote to my first recent post about Lee Smolin’s “Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution”, having mentioned Lee Smolin as an aside in blogging about a 2016 Huw Price article, where I’d noticed that quantum mechanics errors remaining unresolved post-Einstein was the key topic of both with time and causation being a common focus. Someone I ought to read more, I commented. So having bought and read Smolin’s latest, I had also ordered and now received Huw Price’s “Expressivism, Pragmatism and Representationalism”, it being the book referred to in his bio against the Aeon article.


No, thought not. With a title comprising a mouthful of isms it’s clearly a technical text for professional philosophers rather than a popular text, like the Aeon article, for amateurs such as myself.

As ever, at this stage I’ve only read the introduction and earlier sections so far, but I’m already glad I did.

As well as being right smack in the middle of the age-old realism <> idealism debate that’s been concerning me and my writings for some time in the last year or so, it leads on some of the problems I have with isms generally.

Firstly that, except by agreement between experts using such terms in current genuine, constructive dialogue(*), it is all too easy to flip between narrow basic conceptions – almost tautological definitions – and broader conceptions – working definitions intended to be of practical value, and find yourself talking at cross-purposes. (* Obviously in critical adversarial debate as opposed to collaborative dialogue, it’s a standard deplorable tactic to misrepresent your “opponent’s” understanding, a kinda deliberately ad-hominem but plausibly-deniable-accidental strawman. “You know that’s not what I meant, but who cares, now that you’ve said it publicly?” style of political gamesmanship designed to confound and defeat. Think populism, think multiculuralism, say in today’s Trump / Putin exchanges! But I digress.)

Secondly, sticking with the meta topic, the rules of discourse, this is one of the reason’s for Dan Dennett’s “hold your definitions!” advice. Sure, declare your understanding of key terms at the outset, but don’t pretend, or accidentally presume, that these are hard and fast definitions throughout the dialogue. There’s always more than one way to skin a cat. The primary purpose of any dialogue is to increase knowledge, to permit definitions at the start to evolve into better understandings at the end – more useful knowledge. And, since all discourse has to fit in the available gaps of real life, rather than “agreeing to disagree” at inevitable pauses, instead “agree where we’ve got to with whatever it is we do understand” – mutual steelmen if you will.

I do like Huw Price’s writing. (And the other treat I’ve not reached yet is that this book involves four other thinkers / writers as well as Price, and one of those is Simon Blackburn another favourite of mine.)

OK, so we’ve not got to the Expressivism and Representationalism yet, but we’re right in the ontological reality of science space and its proper relationship to/with philosophy both ontolological and epistemological. Again, as ever, I’m finding myself jumping straight to my kind of naturalism: All of reality is natural, there is no supernatural. The objective “out there” physical and the subjective “in here” psychological are equally real and natural. The “problem” described here is resolved by accepting that science is not the only kind of knowledge, and it’s the true relationship between science and other knowledge that is at issue. Our ontology includes “places” for epistemology – in fact in my model the ontology is epistemological, even physics is about information (knowable, even when there’s no subjective knower involved).

This is the exact same sense I came to after Smolin, so it’s clearly no coincidence these two sources became linked for me. I wonder where Price and the rest end up in resolving the problems he’s set out so far. It’s great to be dealing with science-friendly philosophers and philosophy-friendly scientists. Reading on with interest.