Top Tips from the ProTruthPledge

A current focus of my ongoing agenda has been “proper dialogue”. That is that “critical argument” is extremely limited when dealing with anything other than simple black and white situations. Reducing complex situations to simple arguments is usually the greater evil and often a direct consequence of PC avoidance of even mentioning the real knottier aspects of some important issue.

I’ve written many times on rules of engagement, most recently consolidated under my general collaborative outreach pages. I often characterise all the human interaction aspects of such rules as love & respect – or simply R.E.S.P.E.C.T – for the other party and their position. Some simple tips for civil discourse is another way to elaborate on that idea – as presented here by “ProTruthPledge” – though even here  it can be reductive of the many subtleties of rhetoric in real human communication. Basically some of the rules always need to be broken – using irony and humour, in good faith – in order to highlight points and make progress. Tips are OK, provided we are wise and don’t treat them as dogmatic rules.

One simple way to signal this kind of
collaborative truth-seeking commitment
is the ProTruthPledge.

Ever since Terry introduced me to it, I’ve been a little more sceptical of the ProTruthPledge per se, even though I’m happily signed-up to it myself. It’s about being civil as Gleb Tsipursky’s project emphasises, but civil in good faith that is, not as a matter of box-ticking. That is, if it comes to mean anything authoritative, it will inevitably be gamed by hollow commitment of those who stand to gain from arguments.

[See Rules of Rhetorical Engagement.]

Science is Only Human #2

I mentioned I’m reading David Deutsch “The Beginning of Infinity and as it happens I’m reading it in that way where I can’t decide whether to crash on through or to pause and annotate, and as a result am doing neither. If I were to make a note of every point where his words resonate with my own thoughts, it would be longer than the book – a book I could have written myself. Yet at the same time, even though there is a temptation to skim across stuff that seems familiar, it nevertheless feels significant that it is so familiar. Having felt that, I am instantly regretting not making notes of each specific.

He said something significant about X, now where was that exactly? Lose-lose, except for the fact each chapter has its own summary.

Neither the title nor the subtitle “Explanations that Transform the World” convey the wealth of content – until you feel you understand his point. This is particularly disconcerting since, as I already noted in Science is only Human, I was really only intending to read one chapter – the one on cultural evolution. It’s not the book I was expecting from a quantum physicist, despite how much I identified with his explanations in The Fabric of Reality.

I find he has no qualms whatsoever talking the language of memes, and in pointing out that many criticisms of their misconceived objectivity and definitiveness apply equally to misconceptions about genes. He’s only the third person after myself and Dennett I’ve heard express such opinions.

Also, the powers and dangers of abstraction and the perils of reductionism. Causal relations really do exist between different higher-evolved levels of entity, that do not benefit from further “atomic” explanation. Not only that, they disbenefit since such attempted explanations are literally intractable. Information and knowledge processing are key.

The point of memes (and genes) is to maximise their spread relative to their alternatives throughout a population not to optimise the benefit of either individuals or population. Bad (easy) memes really do spread further and faster than good (optimal) information from our perspective. Rules of thumb can be “better” that objectively accurate information when it comes to humans optimising our objectives.

He ultimately debunks the reasoning of anthropic principles, as misconceived non-explanations. Good explanations are characterised by their reach in the sense that the more they hold for more variable conditions, including unpredicted ones, the better they are, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Things that can conveniently explain anything, explain nothing. Physics did it, is no more an explanation than God did it.Despite this he takes the significance of anthropic perspectives pointed out by Brandon Carter to be worth serious explanation. Fine tuning explains nothing other than to serve as a reminder that our physics really does have an anthropic perspective, one that so many scientists deny for political reasons. Rick Ryals is the only other person I’ve seen push that point after Brandon Carter. (Must check – I know Sabine Hossenfelder has written something on this recently).

Science is only human.

[And, surely Deutsch’s work must fit the EES (Extended Evolutionary Synthesis) and IIT (Integrated Information Theory) agendas?]

 I’m only just starting Chapter 6 of 18 – Reading on.

“There’s No Faith Without AI” – Please God, No!

As an atheist who believes in the fundamental nature of information and meaning this episode of Future Proofing on Faith – “how the functions of religion could be taken over by technology” – I found very hard to listen to.

Great conclusion from Timandra Harkness, despite some awfully confused content contributors. Good in parts, but where to start, so much wrong?

Congregationality beats mindfulness? Well OK, but how about both, time and a place for each? Some seriously confused secular spirituality. Sacks wins hands-down as usual, but Pinker is so weak anyway. Harkness even quotes Gödel back at Pinker – priceless – wonderful irony given Rebecca Goldstein is a Gödel authority. Yuval Harari and Giulio Prisco – gimme strength. And only the unreconstructed Pastor invoked God. We’ve barely scratched the surface. [Lots of previous links to add.]

Saved for another day when I have the will.
Hat tip to Elizabeth Oldfield. Grrr.


So responding to a programme that covered so much ground from so many perspectives is a frustration but what if we focus on the question posed by Elizabeth Oldfield?

My original statement of interest as an atheist humanist and a believer in the fundamentals of information crosses this automation of human value premise. We need to tease apart these two aspects:

Do we define human value by intelligence? Actually, I do, but clearly hat depends on what we mean by (human) intelligence and that’s more than simply a definition.

Whatever it is it’s more than some narrow “new atheist” view of rationality where all emotion and subjectivity can – or should – be reduced to some sort of dispassionate objective logic. That’s scientism. There are whole libraries of books on what more that is. Metaphysically, ontologically and above all epistemologically – what it means to be human over and above any other known sentient being in the cosmos. For example, something like problem solving creativity – being a universal constructor to use David Deutsch’s term. The ability to automate the problems we’ve already solved, to build them into the mundane workings and technological tools of everyday life so that, free from unnecessary drudgery, we can seek out new unsolved, misunderstood  and even unknown future problems. To imagine and create new meanings and new explanations for new things. For our futures.

Can we invent AI to be something more intelligent? No. By definition.

It’s a wonderful irony that information seems to be a fundamental component of the mix of chaos and order we see in the entire life history of the cosmos at all scales. That really is a creative source of new meaning and explanations of things even as yet undreamt.

The conflation however is to see applied information science – in big data, AI, patterns and algorithms, you name it – as a replacement for human creativity when it is in fact a tool. Tool use, exploiting technology, is fundamental to human creativity. However advanced AI gets it will always be an automation tool for actual intelligence, at least until it takes on a transhuman life of its own, but that will require not just AI but A-Life and actual life to outgame humans (and other as-yet-unknown intelligent beings) for cosmic resources and creativity. If we value humanity we should always plan to keep humans ahead of this game, it’s what we do naturally. And, sure, we could fail to spot a catastrophic error in executing our plans, but we’ve not yet identified any entity more creative than ourselves in dealing with that problem when it arises.

Our dignity – our value and meaning – is in being good at being human. That’s what we should value – even worship and have faith in – above all. If we ever do meet a being we genuinely consider more human than ourselves, only then would we have more faith in that.


Previously on Psybertron:

[David Deutsch on meaning as the unending quest for explanation.]

[Andy Martin and Kenan Malik on Transhumanism and Yuval Harari.]

[Dan Brown (yes, seriously, that Dan Brown) on AI and Religion and on Move over God?- I think not.]

Writing Your Book, with Jamie Bartlett

Bookmarked this Twitter thread back in February, but was reminded of it again over the weekend, so I thought I’d capture the content once and for all here:

Think this is true of all creative writing, even code and databases. In fact what you need is a flexibly linked system, where random and structured stuff hangs together. (eg see Scrivener link below, but anything with extensible mark-up and content searching.) That point about remembering old deleted lines in new contexts is something that happens to me ten times a day!

Everyone needs a schema, even a stream of consciousness where the characters lead the narrative. (Your schema can be minimalist of course, or just a seed if you have no preconceived story or message, see Lee Child as described by Andy Martin in “And Reacher Said Nothing”. For the other extreme see J K Rowling. Most of us will need something in between.)

See also first comment on flexible, extensible mark-up process. Need a low-tech way of capturing (and finding) thoughts that “feel” relevant in the moment at any time – and crash on with drafting when the muse strikes.

Copyright acknowledged.
If and when Jamie collates and publishes, I will delete and link.

I think here the message is variety and horses for courses. As Jamie says there are in fact many different tasks besides “writing” you need to make space(s) for all of them.

And as Jamie notes, plenty of side-branches with additional thoughts from others – that’s extensible mark-up 😉

Science is Only Human

Few days without any posting thanks to several glorious days in the mountains of UK Lake District (Facebook album here.) Never seen such conditions for hiking and views in dozen or more trips over 40 years. As usual I’m using down time to read, two books this time.

I mentioned Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c already, but I also started on David Deutsch’s Beginning of Infinity.

Loved Deutsch’s Fabric of Reality some years ago, but despite a common Information Quanta thread, I largely lost contact with his Quantum Computing and Constructor Theory work, except for brief interest in his colleague Chiara Marletto. [Links]

I’m reading Beginning of Infinity primarily for a single chapter referred to in a Twitter thread about the evolution of culture, but in fact from the off, it is a fascinating book. Several threads right on my own agenda, as well as more of what I liked in Fabric of Reality on the power of explanation as the core (if not the distinguishing feature) of scientific enlightenment. His Infinity refers to the basic principle that good explanation covers not just a rationalisation of experience in a falsifiable form and open to critique, but a potential infinity of not yet even conceived future experiences.

How else could we know what is really happening in stars? This statement comes very close to where I’m at on the anthropic significance of humanity in the grand scheme of reality:

Base metals can be transmuted into gold by stars,
and by intelligent beings who [unlike the alchemists]
understand the processes that power stars
and by nothing else in the universe.

And more generally:

In this book [he argues] that all progress, both theoretical and practical, has resulted from a single human activity: the quest for what [he calls] good explanations. Though this quest is uniquely human, its effectiveness is also a fundamental fact about reality at the most impersonal cosmic level – namely that it conforms to universal laws that are indeed good explanations. This simple relationship between the cosmic and the human is a hint of a central role of people in the cosmic scheme of things.

Levels of Ethical, Social, and Cognitive Competencies

Another holding post – simply to capture this Buddhistic David Chapman piece on Robert Kegan and Lawrence Kohlberg’s models of developing (evolving) intellectual competencies. (Hat tip to @MimeticValue for the link.)

They look very much related to sorting out the missing aspects of Pirsig’s Social-Intellectual levels as I’ve tried to do here. (Three aspects within what Pirsig characterised as only two, and left many confused.) Foucault-Pirsig related versions here. And more generic triads here. And of course Trivium 21c.

And “fluid” identity of subjects and objects at the most enlightened level, reminds me of this – my take on Rayner.

Love the dismissal of Trolleyology – they were of course only ever thought experiments to show how ridiculous objective treatment of ethics can get.

Transposing view – Objects > Relations > Systematically-Meta and of course that Eastern (Buddhist) perspective of Western blind-spots. Excellent.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

This is just a placeholder / outline / draft post.

#IdentityPolitics are everywhere this morning.

Labour on Windrush, Kanye on slavery and his #takedown, and his clarification, Peterson on Kanye, David Boston offensive posts as Tory candidate.

Each is struggling to articulate an identity politics point which I “suspect” is valid but which is hard to tell on the surface, because the communication is offensive and the reactions invariably pile on the (presumed) bad intent, bad thinking and/or bad character of the individual and their (actual) bad communication. Communicating about identity politics is a PC problem in terms that get attributed to Peterson.

Inevitably such communications get totally polarised, (a) because there is an identity politics at issue where people might tend to take sides anyway, and (b) the “risk” of giving any credibility to (any valid point in) the offensive position is so great that everyone chooses to dissociate themselves from it, often by way of mocking humour or by supporting the rhetorical “takedowns”, and (c) these are all public parties, so the “power” in the misconstrued and inadequately-conceived messages is enormous, further multiplying the (a) and (b) effects. [And (d) as I keep saying all these effects are ramped-up even further by the immediacy of social media speed and access.]

We have a communication problem-to-the-power-of-four.

To some extent the takedown of Kanye is making the same (valid) point that the problem is in the power of communication, but still nevertheless attributes thoughtless intent to Kanye himself. It leaves no crack for there being any valid point, it’s a total takedown, armed explicitly by objective history, especially in the form edited / circulated.

Reality is complex, and despite best efforts of some analysts and historians, that complexity includes subjective positions as well as objective facts. Articulating specific points within that extended issue is tough because of the complexity, requiring careful nuance AND because – even if ultimately reducible to objective facts – the complexity includes subjectivity, the rules of communication are more than the logical grammar of dialectic and must include rhetorical skills. The rules of fact, thought and speech are different. As well as avoiding conflation in nuanced content, the communications (channels) need to be kept distinct too.

We are free to choose what to say, but choosing how much of what to say when and how and in which context is at least as important as the objective truth of anything thought or said. We really do need space for thinking out loud in dialogue. Transparency of public debate crowds this out. Transparency is ultimately opaque to nuanced reality.

There is (needs to be) a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in.


Post note: Even intelligent comics (Romesh retweeted by Baddiel) …

… and the whole thread – Gervais etc – oh how we laughed. Funny how these (genuinely) enlightened comedians were only last week applying nuanced thinking to free-speech in the #dankula case, jump straight to one-line mockery in the Kanye case.]

[And Scott Adams agrees it’s about the rhetorical use of metaphor.]


Trivium 21c – First Thoughts

I’m reading Martin Robinson’s “Trivium 21c” – apparently propounding adoption of the classical Trivium for the 21st century, so far anyway.

As is my wont, after a scan of contents and a read of introductory chapters I’m posting my early thoughts, so I can more honestly talk about new learning vs existing reinforcement later.

First impression is the parallel to Pirsig’s journey again. A schoolteacher who despite early obvious intellect was a misfit in their own schooling and early career, before becoming a teacher – Drama in Robinson’s case, Rhetoric in Pirsig’s – went on to deploy methods considered radical in their approach to teaching. In both cases they went back to school and wrote an archeology of their journey involving going back to basics with the ancient Greeks.

In fact the subtitle of Trivium 21c is “Preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past”. Very personal lessons.

The second aspect I like is the content-process split in thinking, and the emphasis on the process and action side of the balance. How we think, learn, know and do being more significant than what. What I learned here is the split of the classical “seven liberal arts” constitutes a quadrivium of what and a trivium of how.

  • Liberal Arts 7
  • Quadrivium – 4 kinds of content
    (originally arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy)
  • Trivium – 3 ways of using content
    (originally grammar, dialectic and rhetoric)

Now in terms of definition and understanding these classical liberal arts are already evolved from – not the same as – ancient Greek equivalents, and clearly we need to update what we mean now in the 21st century. Presumably that’s what the rest of the book is about, certainly as far as the process Trivium is concerned. We can take it as read that the content Quadrivium of human knowledge has evolved..

I’m already pushing rehabilitation of the value of rhetoric and dialogue to offset the destructive effect of dialectic and argument. Nothing metaphysical so far in terms of how this ontology of “the arts” relates to fundamentals, but early days. The “rt” in art and in craft is another fundamental aspect of Pirsig. Any way, for now, interesting to scan the references and index:

The bibliography is huge and full of many usual suspects.

Love the fact that Douglas (DNA) Adams features very early on. Despite the Pirsig parallels, no reference to Pirsig but Mortimer Adler, Pirsig’s nemesis, and Matt Crawford, one who picked-up Pirsig’s baton are intriguing. David Deutsch but no Dan Dennett. Dawkins but no Pinker. Toulmin but no McIntyre. McGilchrist, McLuhan, Haidt, (Allan) Bloom, fascinating, though no sense of positive or negative references yet.

I’m looking forward to this.