Idealism & Russell’s Metaphysics

Part of my slow working through Mumford’s “Russell on Metaphysics“, I have flipped back to recap the first 5 chapters. Having been left with even deeper nagging doubts that I was right to leave Russell behind after all, I need to check my thinking by capturing the key thoughts. A sanity check.

To be clear, I can summarise already that, having now read a lot more of Mumford’s collection and commentary than just that noted above, I can see how Russell did indeed engage in metaphysical thinking along the way to his analytic philosophy founded on realism. That is NOT at issue.

What I’m suggesting is that the philosophical position he arrived at is flawed – detached – metaphysically. In fact my main thesis is that this realist analytic philosophy – what I’ve variously referred to as a logically, materially and empirically objective positivism or scientism in my own mental travels – is more problem than solution to the big questions of our time. And, as I’ve said I’m less concerned with definitions of isms and what they are called (after say Feynman and Dennett), than I am with understanding specific sets of assumptions and assertions.

Hence my unpicking particular problematic assertions below.

Background note:
This exercise started here – A New Leaf
And continued here: Pan-Psychism
Here: Doubts on Russell & Idealism
And here: Dual Aspect Monism

Although I’m focussing on Part 1 (the first 5 chapters), most (but not all) of what follows for now actually uses Mumford’s introductions – to the whole book and to the specific chapters.

Firstly I need to say that Mumford’s little introduction to Metaphysics is itself tremendously valuable. To recognise the distinction between the metaphysical aspects of philosophy and the empirical aspects of philosophy and the sciences. In many ways it is this central issue that most concerns me here. Recognising their distinct natures is fundamental, but having used one to establish the other doesn’t mean we can thereafter dispense with the former – throwing the metaphysical baby out with the scientistic bathwater. The real world still cares about metaphysics and relationships with the physical, recognising the proper value in the relationship of the non-empirical alongside the empirical.

“Russell’s major and lasting contribution to metaphysics has been hugely influential and his insights have led to the establishment of analytic philosophy as a dominant stream in philosophy.”

Mumford’s editor.

“Contribution to metaphysics”? Sure, but it just seems to have been a means to his end: the “[dominance] of analytic philosophy” – precisely the problem that concerns me.

His later

“Starting with papers from his pre-analytic period, the volume collects Russell’s main realist accounts, his discussions of the problems of universals, and his writing on causation and the laws of nature. The final part covers Russell’s thoughts on diverse questions of metaphysics that occupied him later in life, including his classic paper on vagueness.”

Mumford’s editor

OK, fair enough. I’m focussing on his pre-analytic metaphysical journey here, to realism from idealism. Causation, free-will and the laws of nature (and time) are also fundamental to my own interests (See Unger & Smolin and Rovelli and many others cited here.) Ditto language and vagueness – I’m a fan of Wittgenstein, Dennett and more after all – all covered elsewhere and no doubt further in future, but not mentioned explicitly again in this post.

“Russell achieved public fame – often enough, notoriety – because of his engagement in social and political debates, becoming known to a wide audience as a philosopher in the popular sense of the term.”

Grayling’s introduction to the Russell series.

Again I mentioned in the preamble posts, I really do appreciate Russell as a fully engaged public intellectual – campaigning in skeptical, secular, rational, humanist areas of life, like myself I like to think. My issue with Russell is his flawed metaphysics, which obviously informs the detail of some of his ideas in real life.

[Meta – internal referencing of Mumford’s book can be a little confusing. As he acknowledges, many of the Russell papers and extracts are taken from “The Collected Papers”, so we have the book with it’s own chapter headings and numbers, the papers as numbered in the source collection, and the references Russell used withing the selected writings. It’s complete and thorough, just keeps you on your toes in following the journey.]

“[Russell was] one of the greatest analytic philosophers of the twentieth century”


Not in doubt. It’s the analytic philosophy that is the problem (for me).

“there is no better introduction to metaphysics”


Yes, as I say above, that has real value here in its own right.

“To some who know a little of Russell’s philosophy, it might seem strange to speak of him being engaged in metaphysics. He is often depicted as standing squarely in the empiricist tradition that had, on the whole, rejected metaphysics and was concerned primarily with the theory of knowledge or epistemology. If this book has but one aim, it is to relieve its readers of that misconception.

Russell was a metaphysician.”


Yes, I quoted this already in an earlier post. I am Mumford’s target audience and I consider myself having been relieved of that particular misconception. My problem now is not whether he engaged in metaphysics, but that his eventual metaphysics was flawed.

“British Hegelian idealism [had evolved by inheritance from Kant > Hegel > Green > Bradley]. Russell [and G. E. Moore] rejected idealism for metaphysical reasons.”


Fair enough. What is therefore crucial to my thesis is what was Russell’s understanding of idealism at the time and where was his basis for rejection, and his adoption of realism, flawed in the long run.

“Thought is a pre-condition of knowledge in the way Kant set out.”


Oh boy. This is a definitional, almost tautological statement, but whilst I don’t deny Kant said this – as we’ve discovered before – words and concepts like knowledge don’t travel well in translation [see summary from French for example, below in final paras]. To be known requires some mental activity or state. To be knowable requires some information (or disembodied pattern of significance) to exist. Knowledge requires both. This will recur, and it’s why I shift my metaphysical and epistemological focus to information. [And obviously this is already a lead-in to idealism as something maybe, kinda, sorta pan-psychic, if we were to somehow privilege the mental over the (otherwise real) physical.]

“‘Appearance and Reality’ (Bradley 1893) [was described positively] by Russell [and Moore] as ‘epoch-making’ in 1895. By 1897 both had come to reject [the whole idealist tradition].

Bradley had argued that neither immediate experience nor relations are real, and from the latter we can infer that no ordinary phenomena are real and that there is no absolute truth or falsehood. Reality is a single togetherness rather than being many distinct, related things. The things that appear to us as distinct individuals are actually aspects of the comprehensive, concrete individual, which Bradley calls the Absolute.

In rejecting Bradley and idealism, Russell and Moore came to be realists. They accepted as real all the everyday, common sense, things that Bradley had told us were mere illusions. Whereas Bradley wanted to push appearance and reality apart, Russell and Moore sought to bring them together.”


It’s easy to reject this version of idealism, described as Bradley’s here, that’s for sure. The whole Appearance vs Reality saga is long-established and my readings made good use of Owen Barfield’s “Saving The Appearances“. But the point is what about it is being rejected and what makes realism better in those particular respects?

[Could already say a lot more here: The “real” of realism indeed sounds a lot more like common sense, but that would be to ignore the definitions of the real and ideal (and their relations) actually being used here. But the idea that there might be something more fundamental – more absolute – than either physical reality or the appearances experienced is not necessarily what is wrong. What is wrong is the idea that it must be one or the other – the suggestion that this is all there is. The pushing apart vs pulling together difference is key – without privileging either – we are dealing with at least both and a relation. My position is there is a third kind, more fundamental than either and the two kinds being debated here are both evolved from this – a dual-aspect-monism. I’ve been calling it pan-proto-pscychism as a reaction to the prevailing (dominant) paradigm to restore the mental to the same level as the (physically) real, but in fact the proto-component (information, “res informatica”) underlies both real/physical and ideal/mental, so I can see why people reject privileging the psychism as the name of this position in a non-reactionary sense. Will read on before coming back to unpick this.]

What is interesting, in Mumford’s overall introduction from this point onwards, is how quickly Russell moves from rejecting Bradley over 2 years and need to refute his idealism, leading him in only 3 further years to developing his new Principles of Mathematics using the new logics of Frege [and Cantor].

It’s as if having refuted idealism, realism must be right, so without further ado let’s construct our new ontology of existence.

“The new logic had a metaphysical basis, however. It assumed all sorts of things that Bradley had rejected. It assumed certain objects such as real and mind-independent propositions. It assumed objective truth and falsehood, regardless of belief. It assumed the existence of relations with an independence that was external to their relata. It also assumed a plurality of objects. Russell discussed some of these questions of ontology in the papers collected in Part II. An ontology is simply an inventory of what there is. For a metaphysician, this will be a list of the categories of things that exist, such as propositions, properties and relations.”


Telling is that Mumford’s example ontological categories includes neither real/physical nor ideal/mental stuff? Particularly scary is the idea of “mind-independent propositions” – proposed by who? I ask. But this introductory stuff if getting beyond the Part I on the idealism > realism turn.

[And … adding Frank Ramsey / Wittgenstein linguistic turn to this. Not forgetting Grayling’s reminder on Ramsey himself.]

“Metaphysics then endeavours to bridge the chasm between physics and psychology. Seeing that the objective reference of an idea is known as intuitively and immediately as its subjective nature (if not more so), it frankly accepts both; it allows a world other than the individual mind, concerning which we have knowledge and desire; its criticism is not of these them selves, but of a world concerning which they are possible: given Self and the world in relation, the problem is to make each term and their relation intelligible; and Self and the World are given, because the only alternative is blank and absolute scepticism.”


Seems fair enough. Particularly like the suggestion of the alternative as a “blank and absolute scepticism” – a recurring “scientistic” problem of everything being open to doubt if no metaphysical bootstrapping is accepted. A world of only empirically objective evidence is …. dead.

Finding it hard not to jump straight to my own position again, which I’m guessing turns out to be Russell’s once I get it. What I’m finding is that the either/or debate between Idealism and Realism is “fake” – neither can exclusively be the case in any narrowly defined sense. What matters is how they are related, and whether either has priority in any useful sense. In fact the Foucault triad seems the most sensible conclusion [See later].

That is: We can postulate a real-world “out there” – objective and mind-independent “facts”. But there are only two things we can actually deal with and that isn’t one of them. They are (1) Our empirical experience of it, and (2) the conceptual model of it (and our psychology) which we construct and revise as we evolve.

That fact we can never get a handle directly on the out-there real-world, is no reason to say it doesn’t exist and that only the ideal world exists. Idealism is clearly wrong, defined that way, but literal realism can never be be any use either, without accepting that we can only ever deal (in practice) with our experience of it and our model of it. A kind of pragmatic realism.

Everything else – the linguistic turn – says we might choose a limited (say, predicate) logic for our formal model of supposedly real-world facts, but in fact (a) we can choose (and evolve) the set of rules, logics (and exceptions) for our model (ontology), and (b) the relationship between our experience and our model cannot in fact be limited by arbitrary linguistic rules imposed by the model anyway (Russell’s paradox and Godel’s incompleteness, etc). Information and communication are rhetorically creative mental gymnastics – word games – between our experience and our model. And, it is almost impossible in the normal course of life to keep these two entirely distinct. The absolute – radical empirical – experience is ephemeral and almost immediately interpreted through our psychological model – the imperfect, incomplete and necessarily biased version of the formal model held in our minds, both conscious and subconscious.

Ha, right on cue. Russell attempts to impose formal rules on Wittgenstein’s language of reality. (Everything I see confirms my own take on Wittgenstein – the frustration that Russell never got the point of his Tractatus. Also neatly sums up my problem with modern scrabble as an “evolved game”):

I’m not sure labelling this ability to mentally hold both a model and an experience of the real world as compatibilist or reconcilliationist really helps. It’s not a problem to be reconciled, but a fact of life that the three-way relationships need to be acknowledged and understood pragmatically.

[Going to cut and run from this post …. with some final draft thoughts for now. Not a proper review, needs some significant editing.]

“Trialism” – a triad view of reality, or dual-aspect monism (after Foucault). A proper resolution of idealism (pan-psychism) and realism (physicalism), not simply a compatibilism?

Any one of the nodes is a view of the whole, but depends on the other two perspectives. The arrows are two-way interactions.  The axes are spectra, convenient dividing lines, but largely gradual “more or less” scale – which means the physical includes the pan-proto-psychic (everything is a combination of both). No reason to pick sides between physical reality and pan-psychism.

[Convenient dividing lines on gradual scales? = “good-fences”.
See also defining “identity”.]

Suffer the Little Children

We were living in Oslo when Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and turned out to wish him well at the balcony of The Grand Hotel along with the rest of the crowds on Stortingata. At that time he’d written a hopeful book and won and election and he was clearly one of the good guys we could get behind. But Nobel Peace Prize? That always seemed premature; a triumph of audacity over reality.

I feel the same seeing Greta Thunberg being nominated for that same prize, and lauded for all the hullabaloo behind the global series of school strikes for climate change. As a “grown-up” it’s good to see the younger generation getting passionate about a real issue, though I can’t help feeling some of the enthusiasm might be better spent getting educated about what it is and about the consequences of actions and solutions. Setting-up the rest of us – and yes, fossil fuels and plastics – as the bad guys and turning it into a crisis, is setting themselves up as populist fodder a la Pol Pot. Careful what you wish for.

When it comes to climate change, I feel I’ve been there for decades along with plenty of other adults, so it’s good to get some “support” for the efforts that custodianship of Planet A will take to get right. I’m more Bjorn Lomborg and Hans Rosling (RIP) (and Nassim Taleb and Anders Sandberg) than say “Extinction Rebellion” or “Mr Compost”. Good for sound bites and populist support, but not for any sound plan for humanity and the planet. In my case, knowledge & understanding of decision-making & leadership in complex situations are my personal focus. That’s my main contribution to the jig-saw, but the puzzle is much more complex that two dimensions on a single time-scale, so we’ll need many other contributions, leadership being one of them.

I tweeted my negative opinion of Thunberg’s Nobel Peace Prize nomination a la Obama a couple of days ago, and it got a lot of approval – which was slightly scary. It shows how the social climate is profoundly negative, so easy to support disapproval – of anthropogenic climate change. Down with this sort of thing, etc. It’s the inevitable memetic effect, that disapproval of bad stuff is dead easy, creative solutions are much harder. What we need are collaborative real world behaviours.

Nuclear Can Be The Future Of Green Energy

A survey of the history of nuclear power reactors [by Anna Kucirkova writing in the IQS Industrial Directory] concludes that, despite a checquered history, newer designs can and should be part of a low carbon future. I agree and have said so.

As I’ve written before, it’s not just the technology and the inherent risks in its processes and by-products, but the whole investment scale and timescale in design approvals and construction that dog nuclear power projects and magnify their public risks.

The fact is that newer, proven and approved technologies, are not only inherently safer but also lend themselves to much smaller-scale and/or modular implementations. With fewer risky eggs in any one basket, there is opportunity for a portfolio of mixed technology projects where all risks can be spread and public confidence re-built.

Not coincidentally, the new article above reports on the real progress of the specific modular Chinese “PBMR” reactor projects I had recommended earlier. Nuclear progress. Far from having had their heyday, I suspect nuclear has a bright future if prejudice gives way to reason.

It’s Not About The Numbers

One in an endless series … Clive is “not biting” which is the equivalent of not getting to first base … but worth recording anyway:

Leaving aside the inconsistency that the headline refers to a speed camera, whereas the event suggests jumping a red light, it’s a thought experiment … that goes on after the snipped section … but the actual context will always matter. The given point is a speed camera is a “cash cow”.

The sarky response, the original not Clive’s, very explicitly suggests the point has something logical to do with nine crimes vs a tenth. No sign of that in the actual letter, and I have no knowledge of the writer’s point other what we see here, but THE important point is clear to me.

Easy beats good. Standard rule of tech enforcement of rules – root problem with AI for humanity at large. We have a situation where an inhuman system can enforce one rule, but several (nine if anyone is counting, but who is ? the point is about the human quality of the crimes) that cannot be enforced without human involvement, so the one that can – easily – is enforced. It’s algorithmic tyranny. We are already regretting it everywhere we look.

Rules are for guidance of the wise and the enslavement of fools. By choosing to enforce easy rules, we are foolishly taking the wisdom out of life.

Speakeasy – Dialogue is Dirty Work

Two topics came together over the weekend. I’ve been reviewing the recent UK Human Rights Commission guidelines on freedom of expression (FoE) in higher education, and this morning I picked-up on a piece by Jacob Kishere reviewing his Rise of the Intellectual Dark Web a year on. Coincidentally the latter edited by Angelos Sofocleous who himself “fell foul” of use of free-speech recently and has been talking on the topic.

I’ll come later to some specifics in the Human Rights guidance. But for now, I welcome it, if only for the fact it turns out to be a quite large and complex document – 54 pages as a PDF. It’s consistent with the fact that the comments I’ve seen from the free-speech zealots complaining that it’s unclear, despite all the verbiage, when it comes to detailed rules beyond the basic freedom. But this is my recurring point, that the rule may be simple, but the exceptions are neither simple nor objective. No amount of logically objective detail resolves the fact and that makes the exceptions more important to understand than the basic rule. Rules are for guidance of the wise, not for application by logicians 😉 So as I’ve said, that’s promising.

As well as the subjectively indeterminate complexity of valid limitations to free speech – of which I’ve written much more – the key problem boils down to “offense”. No-one has the right not to be offended, and anyone may offend by their free-speech, but there is no open-ended obligation-free right to offend. Apart from the enormous upsides of communication of and about any and all ideas, the negative aspects boil down to this issue, and the fact it can never be definitively defined.

When causing offense, you need to be seen to care about the offended, and you inherit a duty to resolve any offence. Which is where, however self-aggrandising the name, IDW comes in. Life’s too short to conduct every dialogue in public, with the maximum potential for uninvolved bystander offence – or misunderstanding – to be clarified, justified and resolved. Sometimes you have to be able to “speak-easy” with people who already understand the context of, and have skin in the game of making progress in, the particular discussion being had. This way progressive dialogue is possible. Conducting dialogue in controlled circumstances is caring about those potentially affected by it. Reassuringly Jacob’s latest piece is entitled “IDW – A Prelude to the Future of Dialogue” and right from the off is identifying the lack “willingness to do the dirty work of dialogue” amongst those who lament limitations to progress in their SJW agendas.

Pretty much everything I’ve written under my “Rules of Engagement” banner is about achieving constructive dialogue. Anyone providing a platform or a “safe space” for conversation has the right – an obligation – to enforce such rules, though as ever, every decision to enforce is balance of values between the upside and the potential offense and limitations. No matter how much we emphasise the upside, it never gets any easier than that. Totally open and transparent platforms – like social media – are distorted by no end of psychological games, bubbles and biases, as Kishere notes.

Reading the whole of the FoE Guidance, I find only mild disagreements of emphasis. One quirk, for example, is that for the overarching principle it refers to the European Court of Human Rights, where I would have though the UN Declaration would have carried more universal weight and less irrelevant European distraction.

Whilst it correctly and repeatedly identifies the values of respect and tolerance at the root of handling exceptions, all the explicit guidance on limitations are legal references. In a sense, I guess they would have been criticised as overstepping their authority if they weren’t, but these legal instruments arose from cases being set by judgement. Since the rules (laws) covering exceptions can never be definitive, it is important that the principles are understood. All future cases will depend on judgement and meta-judgement – judging whether judgment had been applied by organisers, speakers and participants.

Dialogue is dirty work and we need people prepared to do it. It comes with rules that require effort to understand and apply. Opinions are ten-a-penny, but progressive dialogue is a precious commodity.

Consciousness – a Conversation

Started a short conversation with Steve Turnbull after I responded positively to a tweeted question from Martin Robinson on whether mind could be explained by “materialism”. (The conversation follows in the embedded twitter thread below:)

I’m not one for “isms” but definitions aside, it remains clear that mind is a naturally evolved part of the physical world – its not supernatural or in any way “independent” of physical nature. There are plenty of modern (ie 21st C) thinkers who support that and I’ve explored them at length here in forming my “res informatica” view – a (kinda) pan-proto-psychism, a dual-aspect-monism or a trialism. Anyway Steve pointed to a short essay he’d done.

After the all usual arguments referring to all the usual suspects – [including my pet hate, a 30 year old (!!!) reference to Dennett’s “Consciousness (not) Explained”, the height of ignorance IMHO for not having read his later “B2BnB” – he’s a living philosopher FFS!] – we get to his conclusions. Let’s focus on some wishful aims we can agree on, rather than the – difficult – rational arguments:

“[I] sense that consciousness may be the bridge between science and the kind of ‘post-religious’ spirituality envisioned by Einstein through which we are able to experience a deep sense of interconnectedness between ourselves and the wider universe, the space remains open to build this. But if we think we can do so on the ‘sure’ ground of materialism I suspect we may have to think again.”

Steve Turnbull

Me too. I agree. Absolutely.
And I have thought, again (and again)(and again).

After much deep consideration I do consider the hard-problem to be a non-existent pseudo-problem and that natural explanations do exist. The hard part remains getting more people to see that. And the reason for that is a kind of prejudiced expectation about the “materialist” (empirical) nature of the explanation. The physical (material) has exactly the same relationship with the metaphysical as does the mental (spiritual); neither is privileged. EXCEPT we experience subjectively. We obviously experience BOTH subjectively however, with the material, we – deliberately – discount our subjective experience in the model we’ve constructed – called physics. For the mental …. we don’t …. there’s no reason to, we already experience it as it is.

The ground of materialism is no more (or less) sure than the ground of the spiritual. They’re equally sure. Equally grounded. Thereafter they have co-evolved and are causally intertwined. Where’s the mystery? Where’s the conundrum?

That gap being bridged, I tend to call the “humanity of the gaps”. It’s humanity that has created the empirical discount between the world and our experience of the world. Thereafter it is simply become widely accepted received wisdom to focus on the physical model of the world as if it were the world. No mystery. The conundrum lies with regular good-old-fashioned materialists.

[More reference links to be added, if the conversation progresses? Need also to finish and publish my draft on idealism-materialism-panpsychism following Mumford on Russell’s metaphysics. Include Kastrup refs if it helps?]

[PS – also listened to the Nous podcast of Ilan Goodman interviewing Ray Tallis, suggested by Martin. Also falls into the “more of the same old arguments by the same old suspects” for me, sorry. Not remotely “leading edge”.]

Housekeeping Progress 2019

I rather grandly announced some housekeeping on my on-line activities back in September 2018, partly to clear some space for some new commitments, and partly because I had escalating ongoing costs for all sorts of things I’d set-up for various projects over the years, now in various states of redundancy.

It’s been quite painful disentangling dependencies between different server and domain, contents and functionality, particularly since the Psybertron content represents something very important to me and I needed to proceed very cautiously so as not to accidentally do something I couldn’t fully restore from.

Quite a lot of the housekeeping has been at pretty high-level, disentangling dependencies and synchronisations between Google and Windows systems, email, apps and desktops, all of which incur costs. That is almost complete.

So far so good at lower levels too. Last night I migrated all(!) mySQL databases to a cloud-shared server space – and it looks like functionality and performance have been maintained. Tonight I will be migrating all other blog, mail, archive and static content on all domains – which use those databases to navigate and manage – to a single new more compact virtual server. I’ve taken back-ups, obviously, but fingers-crossed for a smooth transition.

Mentioned before that I remain sold on WordPress for content management even if for primary blog-posting I may switch to something like Medium for their enlightened rewards model. (So far I’ve never made or sought to make any income out of my writing, I should add.)

Anyway, big shout out to Dreamhost who continue to provide absolutely top-notch service for my mix of main publishing and assorted prototyping projects, from mainstream dashboard functionality of WordPress and Dreamhost to my uncertain dabblings at PHP, MySQL, FTP and BASH command-line admin levels. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

I’ve been running servers at Dreamhost for 13 years and, whether through their ticketing or chat systems, they have never let me down. I’ve even set up and managed additional servers and users for third-party projects in that time. Any actual outages of their systems affected me maybe 2 or 3 times in that period but there’s never been a problem they couldn’t help me solve inside half-a-day. In almost all cases issues have been software conflicts at the WordPress Plugin level or my own uncertainties at lower system levels. No problem too small, no question too dumb. 10/10 top notch service as I say.

Check-out Dreamhost and wish me luck for tonight’s migration.

[UPDATE 31 Jan 2019: Success. All running smoothly on a new slimmed-down server arrangement. Not without a major scare along the way.

I have 8 or 10 domains of which is the largest, most active and most important to me content-wise. After migrating all my content, all domains, all directories, it takes a while for the updated DNS (web addressing) to propagate out across the internet but all domains except psybertron seemed to up and running within half an hour. Was the larger domain with the most global web links simply taking longer? No, it was simply that one helpful tech had renamed the main psybertron directory whilst diagnosing why I was getting server errors. The original directory was itself entirely empty – 18 years of investment in content nowhere to be seen! Heart attack averted by simply renaming the directory where the content – hundreds of thousands of files and sub-directories – was in fact safe. Phew!]