Paul Mason’s book “PostCapitalism” is out this week, but has been previewed in talks and articles.

Lots of material I’ve used here. Schumpeter and Kondratiev waves of economic cycles. Freeman and Perez “Techno-Economic-Paradigms” building on Kuhn. Drucker, the guru of management gurus, standing on the shoulders of Parker-Follett. The 5th wave is clearly the information driven wave – the Information TEP – products (even physical products) whose value largely comprises or depends on information. The point is that information (like love) increases in value when shared and isn’t made scarce by copying – that’s quite a shift in capitalism’s foundation. The only scarce resource is the creativity of new patterns, tools and uses. The information itself and the knowledge in people is in connected networks and therefore non-hierarchical. Again, a change affecting the established capitalist model. In many ways the thesis so far is not new – we’ve been working on it for 25 years already.

Personally, I think other aspects of markets will retain scarcity and hierarchy. Knowledge is more than information, in the same way information is more than data and wisdom more than knowledge. Mason’s thesis seems to be that the flattening of the network will destroy pricing mechanisms. Perversely, as Kevin Kelly also predicted, even where hierarchical market power remains, even if only legally enforced, it will tend – has already tended – to monopolies. When one source is easily shared, why create a second source? Hence my point, the real value-add will be beyond the content simply as shareable information.

A network of connected “individuals” – connected but independent, not a monolithic collective – will seek something different from post-capitalism. This much is true. Looking forward to reading.

I had to capture this one for posterity

[Post note to state the obvious. Obviously there is no either/or conflict or choice to be made, each has their own place in the scheme of things, and each should recognise the place of the other. The point of the rhetorical quip is that in general many scientists are “philosophy deniers”. I’ve yet to meet a philosopher who would “deny science”, even when aiming to point out flaws, questions and alternatives. In my experience many self-identifying as scientists are “dogmatic” about the primacy of their (contingent) science and disingenuous when it comes to proper scepticism. Scientists will (scientifically) claim lack of clarity and empirical objectivity, and even intentional obfuscation, by the philosophers, but in general the philosophers (if they’re any good) will argue more carefully and respectfully.]

Interesting piece in the Grauniad today by Karen O’Donnell (a student of Prof Francesca), particularly interesting for the (male) responses in the comment thread.

At the outset, I should say I’ve no idea why it is cast as a response to (the media myths of) the Jeremy Hunt debacle, other than the Grauniad audience-attention-grabbing motive, because it obscures an important gender issue. Pity. However, that said, the point is worth making.

One of my agenda threads is “Vive La Difference” – not to deny important gender differences, differences that mean the female view has advantages that we would lose from the meme pool.

The problem here is casting the difference as “emotion” vs “objectivity” – let’s face it, an argument as old as philosophy itself. But, continuing with that language for a moment, even emotion is a valuable part of academic, research and/or (any) discourse – scientific or theological – it takes thinking to places it might not otherwise reach. In the investigative, hypothesis-seeking, exploratory, creative process passion is a powerful force. And it’s an engaging and motivating force as Karen says. Sadly as well as the gender agenda, some of the commenters have the science vs religion agenda in mind too – missing the point of Francesca’s school of theology. As one of the commenters points out arguments involving passion are every bit as important in the history of science as anywhere else.

Obviously, documenting an “argument” in support of a testable proposition – in whatever academic field – will typically require objectification of the story and, since that may include topics whose subject matter includes human psychology, objectification of the subjective content too. But this is the point where contrasting the passion with the objectivity misses the real gender point.

The point is really about how narrow and broad thinking are joined together in the human mind.

I’d recommend Iain McGilchrist’s Master and Emissary. After Nietzsche’s phrase, he is pointing out that narrow objectivity, and the logical rationale that manipulates such well-defined objects, is the emissary, the servant of our wider senses. Something Einstein understood. The constant focus on objectivity – a fetish I consider it – shuts out half of our brains. In women the halves appear to remain better connected. [Lots of left-right brain myths and men vs women myths – male inability to walk, talk and hold two thoughts at the same time, etc – arise from these differences. The myth is that these are due to differences between the halves of the brain, whereas reality is more to do with how the two halves communicate with each other permissively.]

Speaking archetypically, women are – fortunately – more in touch with their wider senses than men are. A quality we’d do to cherish. If that broader range of sense and emotion, the passions, also have motivation and engagement benefits, we’d do well to cherish those too.

See here for Master and Emissary.

See here for Vive La Difference.

See here for Left-Right Brain Myths.

There is certainly a coming together of many related ideas which is very exciting, but there are some implicit assumptions in that “convergence” that blur some details that may not actually be right in any of the three fields.

This post is to record a position. The linked paper ….

“CONVERGENCE of Neuroscience, Biogenetics and Computing
– a convergence whose time has come.”
by Dr Michael Brooks

… is part of a series linking the work of Dan Dennett on the computational aspects of evolution, Craig Venter on the digital informational aspects of genetics and David Deutsch on the fundamental nature of information in physics. I’m a fan of all three, and have referenced their works multiple times in this blog, but I believe there are a couple of traps to avoid in the rush to converge:

Information & computation – the manipulation of information with other patterns of information, in real or virtual “machines” – is a very fundamental process. Information is simply “significant difference”. Possibly more fundamental than physics itself as currently understood in the standard particle model(s).

Mind & brain – cognitive sciences generally are right to see Mind & Brain as a “computer” – that is as a “machine” that does computation, but clearly it’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking of machine here as a physio-mechanical device. Computation is a many layered process, and when it comes to the computer itself, distinctions between hardware and software need not map simply to the brain and the mind. Information and computation processes are fundamentally independent of any physical substrate in which they may be represented. Independent of the substrate notice, not just independent of their representation.

At that level, avoiding the trap of over-simplifying the hardware-software view, there is lots of scope for careful work to bring these ideas together. But there is a second trap to be aware of before looking at the convergence with Genetics. That trap is accidentally assuming the digital nature of what is being considered. And there are two sides to this trap, both to do with digital objectification – one that genetics is necessarily digital, two that the computation is necessarily digital.

Genetics – is real, and it really is about information encoded in molecular patterns of bases in DNA. However, the objectification of those significant patterns as “genes” with distinct boundaries and clear definitions is part of the ontology of bio-genetic science. Useful to the science but not fundamental to the information patterns – there are a lot of fuzzy edges and apparent trash in between. We have a useful digital model of genes, but the genetics – the significance of and manipulation of the information – are not necessarily digital.

Furthermore, this same trap also exists in the Mind-Brain convergence too. There is nothing above that says either of these concern digital information. We tend to think of physical world computers as familiar digital computers, and whilst there is excitement about potential growing realisation of quantum computing, non-digital computing is actually as old as analogue computation – I know, many years ago I used to do it for a living.

In the famous Registry Assembly Programming case, the exercise is indeed fundamentally digital, and yes, it does illustrate the fundamental nature of computation. How can computation not be fundamentally digital?

What that exercise does show is that basic computation steps lead to complex processing – any unlimited sophistication – only by their combination. The underlying processes remain very simple, even when higher level languages and tools are used. The integer registries in the RAP case are themselves a representation of the information, which further represent (human) semantics. The model – the ontology – is a digital abstraction, but the information need not be.

You might argue that even in analogue computing, there are still digital particles involved – individual electrons in the electrical currents and voltages, or water molecules in the physical flows and levels – but as already noted above the information is (may be) more fundamental than even the particle physics.

Food for thought and a fascinating topic.

I’ve made an issue several times before of ensuring we are careful to use the term Islamism when we ought to, and given today’s upcoming announcements by the PM, I thought I’d make a brief summary of my position now:

  • Problem of Islamism – A security problem. A policy of hatred of others. Jihadism. Promotion of Islamic rule (hence a so-called Islamic caliphate) by any means at the expense of the freedoms and rights (and lives) of other Muslims, sects and non-Muslims. Solution involves both inter-national political effort and lethal force.
  • Problems of Islam – Cultural issues. The source of Islamist ideology (see above). But, also some imposition of repressive, irrational, patriarchal, discriminating and even barbaric practices on other Muslims, even where those same individuals are also members of free democratic and/or secular states. Some problems shared with other religious practices. Solutions involve intra-national political effort and legal force.

ie in taking care to target Islamism when that is what is at issue, is not to say Islam itself is without problems or that the two are unrelated. Indeed thoughtful Muslim commentators see the role of the Islam in Islamism, whilst demanding care in addressing both issues. Care that recognises that the political and cultural freedom issues also have quite independent ethnic and nationality dimensions.

Both Islam and Islamism represent problems, but different problems with particular relationships, each with different solutions and each requiring care to avoid conflation of issues and tarring all with the same brush.

A couple of readings and conversations – face-to-face and social-media – recently, that play directly into my agenda of keeping science and humanism honest, and expose where I’m at odds with received wisdom. I’m used to it after 15 years of blogging and, of course, countering with alternatives to received wisdom is the point. I’m not simply being contrary, there are important alternatives being overlooked. Received wisdom is simply a tyranny of the majority.

A number of campaigns I support, many of which fall under Sense About Science, make a lot of sense (obviously) and their intentions are laudable. Laudable enough to actively support as immediate if temporary measures, efforts to get the topics on the public agenda, curb current excesses and abuses of what passes for scientific knowledge. Starting from a ground zero of ignorance and denial, then all progress is positive. But …

But, there is a kind of arrogance that says being right follows from making progress. That’s evolution, innit? And there is a valid line of thinking that says so long as we make progress, who cares about being right. That’s politics, but it’s not science. In politics there will be values, but rarely any concept of ever being fundamentally right. Science on the other hand, whilst knowing it is never right, always contingent, does care about approaching knowledge as truth. If it doesn’t it’s just politics. And this is the Catch-22 again, when you have a political agenda around science we have to be careful to distinguish the politics from the science.

One of SAS campaigns is “show me the evidence” and a corollary of that one is “show me all the evidence” including the null and negative indications, particularly in (say) Ben Goldacre’s #AllTrials demand for publication of all clinical trials, including the failures. Who could argue with that?

Me actually. This is a political extension of the openness and transparency of all considerations and communications. Leaving aside any issues of privacy and security, this may be pragmatically fine from a freedoms and rights perspective, but what is completely impractical is that we all need to consider all available evidence and information. At some point we have to trust the knowledge we’ve got so far and trust the people with & sources of that knowledge. Asking to be shown the evidence is a statement of mistrust or a default to zero trust in the absence of evidence. So it is clearly a judgement where the process stops – when you have enough evidence to trust. That clearly depends on context.

So for the #AllTrials case, where the responsible and expert licensing authorities are in the loop, it will probably be practical to set some rules about disclosure to those bodies (transparently available to anyone, too)(*). The evidence of trust shifts to our relationship with the authority. In the more general “show me the evidence” case, the practical limits will always be a matter of judgement. Evidence that is easily available – and intelligible in all its subtle nuances to whoever is interested – should never be ignored, but we should not expect to see scientifically objective intelligible evidence to support every judgement. (This is Dick Taverne’s argument, and in fact he is a founder of SAS.) The need to trust judgement never goes away, it just gets pushed around. Trust is inevitable and it is where the science and the application of science must part company. Trust, like scientific knowledge, is something we should work to maximise, we cannot entirely replace one with the other.

And there are other competing factors that mean it is counterproductive to pursue the objective evidence line exclusively. One is we will never succeed in achieving watertight definitions of all the objective evidence needed for all situations. And the tighter and more comprehensive such attempted definitions become the more unlikely the nuances will be understand by more people. Simpler communications may give the illusion of wider understanding, but that understanding will be at the expense of actual scientific truth. It may be politically sound to pursue that kind of science communication, be we must be careful not confuse it with the actual scientific knowledge. At some point we always need to trust that the specialist scientists, like the responsible politicians, know better. It’s an illusion to believe we can drive trust out of the system.

Definitions and objective evidence are part of science’s model of the world, and the human world is more than that.


(*)Note: Though even here, where management of the rules and their application has clear authority, it is already possible to predict gaming of the system, whereby potential failures are tested under the radar before bringing into the regulated environment. Rather than selective publication of results we get selective “official” testing. Unintended consequences. ie the devil is in the detail of the execution and management, not in the definitions of the rules and processes. Definitions don’t solve the problem.

Dick (ie Baron) Taverne came along to the CLHG book club discussion of his “March of Unreason” last night. Interesting to meet and spend time talking with him.

Since his book is now 10 years old he gave us a 10 minute update on how he saw things different now. I actually thought all his main points were valid anyway – clearly his focus on topical issues was of its time, and limited by the evidence then available – that’s the point – but the underlying points are really unchanged for me. Perhaps because we were an atheist / humanist audience the politician in him gave us what he thought we wanted to hear – rising theistic religious fundamentalism as the main dogmatic threat to rational science (though he cited Pinker’s Better Angels to remind us to keep a sense of proportion and progress.) In his book the rising fundamentalists were the back-to-nature eco-warriors – those who saw science as either unnatural or driven by big business or both. Some so-called “science” is alien to humanity – feeding ground-up animals to herbivores in the BSE scandal for example, though the risks were always tiny and managable when it came to empirical evidence.

I have a counter point to the Sense About Science “show me the evidence” campaign. It’s an error to think everyone should be informed on all the technical nuances of every science-based issue affecting life enough to actually recognise good evidence and spend the time to consider it. We have lives to live. The mantra should be show me the evidence that you have considered enough evidence that I should trust you. If you’re selling “scientific” cosmetics products – I already know you’re selling product. I’ll find my own evidence thanks, by trial and error, if I care. If you want funding for a multi-billion particle physics project, I want to know I can trust who is advising you. Outside of laboratory conditions, evidence is about trust; trusting authority. After the size of the human population of the planet, trust is the no.2 issue for us all. Risk aversion (Taverne’s take on the stultefying “precautionary principle”) is a part of the optimism / pessimism balance of trust. – Nuclear Power, GM crops / technologies, Animal testing. etc.)

Interestingly Taverne is a staunch supporter of the BBC, as I am, and cited recent improvements – whether as a result of “Sense About Science” or otherwise – one example being that the meaningless idea of having balanced reporting by simply giving equal time to any counter spokesperson on every issue was a thing of the past. Based on a recommendation from Prof Steve Jones, it was now normal for producers and editors to take scientific advice on the “weight of evidence” before deciding on balance. Simple but effective stuff. Again it may be a right, but shouldn’t be a necessity, for the public to assess all evidence, when there is an authoritative institution we can trust. We should focus on building trust. Confidence. Living.

I’ve used the idea of focussing on demands for quantifiable objectivity as a fetish previously, akin to autism in economics. Taverne referred to Merkel as a deficit fetishist (quoting another source) in the Grexit saga, focussing too narrowly, applying a rule, without vision or imagination. Rules being for the guidance of wise men, and the enslavement of fools. It’s obvious to anyone that the Greek situation is not really about the debt as a number – some large proportion of it will obviously be written-off – once the fuss dies down. Hands-up anyone who conceived it would ever be repaid. The negotiations should be a game to encourage tackling of previous productivity and corruption problems in public services, with the threat of a little austerity as an incentive. It’s not about using austerity as a punishment, a big stick to achieve a zero deficit. That’s dumb. Wiser and less-public negotiations would achieve the right result. Public pronouncements on numbers are mere hostages to fortune. Naive. Autistic. Counterproductive.

Some discussion on Daniel Kahneman followed; the psychologist with the Nobel prize for economics. Economics has always been about psychology to its practitioners; about perception, sentiment and confidence. I think this was confirmed for me back in my 1980’s MBA days, budgetting and accounting as psychological games. The simplistication (dumbing down) in the media, and thence in public pronouncements by the politicians and Robert Pestons of this world, create a focus on numbers we can fight about – wars make for media-selling headlines (see “fuss” above). Someone also previously coined the idea of “autistic economics” for this problem. We can all do arithmetic, right? Jeez. Come back Stephanomics.

Finally, joining up the German and Greek dots with a conversation about Egyptians specifically and Africans generally, leading naturally to Scots and Brits, Taverne reinforced his aversion to “national” identity and support for the “federal” post-WWII European project – powers delegated upwards by member agreement –  notwithstanding massive problems with the current EU arrangements. The US wants, we and the world need, us (all) to be bigger than little-Englanders.

A man after my own. A fascinating evening.

(Will add more links to the implied references in due course if asked.)

Identity Politics

It is increasingly topical that names used to identify “groups” become contentious topics. Muslim vs Islamist, Humanist vs Christian Humanist, Race vs Ethnicity, Ukraine vs Crimea, Greece vs Europe, UK vs its parts, Locations vs Communities, even species of Monkeys vs Humans. And once you want to tie any of these to actual ethical policy you’re into the minefield of identity politics – “bogus identity politics” some would say. A topic I’ve been promising to say something about for some time.

Choosing which group to talk about is a political choice; what is the point I want to make and why? And this becomes one of the reasons why not only the group chosen as your subject, but its relationship to the name you use for it also becomes so contentious. That names come with baggage is the passive, relatively innocent end of the problem, but such choices carry intentional rhetorical force too – as a means of isolating or uniting one kind of identity from or with another. We all have agendas beyond our immediate point. Naming is politics.

As with the causes, responses to the problem come on a wide spectrum too, from the careless calling of a spade a spade or tarring all with the same brush, to efforts to create tight definitions and carefully chose labels or neologisms to support the particular issues and conversations. Further extreme is the adoption of particular terms, that may once have been carefully thought out names and definitions, but whose original purpose becomes lost in the paralysing euphemistic short-hand of political correctness. Both extremes – careless and PC – are effectively ways of ducking or ignoring the problem. The illusion is that careful use of terms with sufficiently tight definitions is the only real solution – it’s certainly the “scientifically rational” solution. But, as I said recently, that’s actually a fools errand.

Defining Identity

The underlying problem whether identifying some topic with or beyond yourself is just that; using a subject-object basis for identity (objective things distinct from each other and your subjectivity). Whether you are identifying with a group to make a point about its distinction from other groups, or identifying another group distinct from yourself or your chosen group, you are objectifying both subject and object. Me / We as opposed to You / They / Other as opposed to Another.

In science, or any endeavour blessed with scientific endorsement, it is pretty much essential that objects and terms are so defined. Repeatability by anyone, anywhere, anytime, with all extraneous effects accounted for, subjectivity specifically excluded, and amenability to mathematical and logical manipulation demands well formed objects and evidence. Even if their definitions are statistical or stochastic, are all fundamental to conventional scientific endeavour. Even when “being objective” in a non-scientific context, it’s about recognising your (subjective) position in relation to the object (subject matter), however much you try to discount it. The concept of knowing a truly neutral god’s-eye view from nowhere really only exists in an abstract model, not in the real world.

This is true of any model of reality, if it is to be amenable to rational analyses.

And science, the body of knowledge and its processes, is exactly that – a model of reality. The best model we have for extending rational objective knowledge of natural reality. There are two points to note. Firstly, the model is not the reality; the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. Secondly, the model chosen is abstracted for a purpose; it’s a political choice based on the ends you’re aiming for, and in that way science is the model chosen to extend knowledge of the natural world. A good choice for science, and for the most part non-contentious.

A model of what exists is an ontology, and it’s normal for such a model to use classification, usually a hierarchical taxonomy to define all the things and groups or sets of things that make up your world model. Since the groups may be overlapping and nested hierarchically, things may be members / instances of more than one group / set, but each set is defined by its membership. Meet the definition and you’re in, fail to meet it and you fall outside that set. By definition (literally, by means of definition) the model cuts the world into useful pieces distinct from one another; definitively distinct. It’s what analysis means, it’s more ancient than Aristotle and it’s the old battleground of the romantic poets taking issue with classical science. It’s not new that we “murder to dissect”. Even contemporary philosopher Dan Dennett is at pains to urge his scientist friends, amongst whom he has many, to delay establishing definitions. Hold your definition, he says. Your definitions are not a fundamental aspect of the world, but an emergent part of the scientific model you are developing and extending. Accept that definitions are loose until fitted into your model, only then when usefully forming part of your model are they definitive. Though even there, they’re also contingent of course – they are definitive only for the purposes of the current model, until you find a better one.

If you’ve spent significant time in business and technology, as I have, working on information models, you’ll also realise that even in good functional models, definitions used to identify “business objects” are much less definitive than they might appear. The more you broaden the model to cover wider and wider contexts of life, the closer you get to a generic dictionary of terms independent of context, the more such definitions either include terms like typically or usually used for, or terms that contrast the definition of one object with another. Calling a spade a spade? Try defining “spade”. Seriously if you doubt me, try that exercise before googling or wiki-ing it. You won’t find a comprehensive one that doesn’t say what it’s usually used for, or contrasts it with not being a shovel, nor recognises that the name applies to many unrelated objects from which it has inherited the same name by metaphorical association. If you turn up to work and simply have to choose between a shovel and a spade, the problem is trivial. Then imagine the kind of definition you might need if you had to frame a piece of legislation or policy on what a spade can or cannot be used for ever, anywhere, by anyone? Inconceivable? Don’t even think about it.

Definitions are only definitive within the limits of some model – an abstraction – fitted to a specific purpose. The defined objects are certainly not a fundamental aspect of reality.

The “aha” moment?

So how are we to “discern” different things of different “significance” in the real world, if we accept that objective distinction and definition are simply artefacts of our model, not the world itself? A two-pronged answer. Firstly until people reach an “aha” moment in recognising how significant this objectification problem really is, and how a fundamentally different model might look like and how it would improve life, the answer is one of guidance only.

So, for now, beyond the confines of science, and even within it, don’t get too hung up on definitions as the means to identify your objects of interest. Certainly in human situations beyond scientific contexts or specific applications, don’t be fooled into thinking you can solve your problem by seeking more definitive definitions. That’s the fools errand. In “identity politics” where waging rhetorical arguments on behalf of or against groups of humans, accept that no such definition can get beyond being a “working definition” for the current conversation. The only reliable identification of a group is self-identity. What does the individual identify as? Even then, there are extreme subjective cases. The individual who refuses any (useful) labelling in order to reject or game the system you’re suggesting, or the individual who chooses perverse identity either for the same reasons or (say) to play the victim card, in order to pursue some other rhetorical or political agenda.

In identity politics, definition of ones identity is political, subjective, and psychological. It won’t fit your objective definitions usefully for long, no matter how carefully you work out such definitions.

Is there a better solution for identity?

For a more comprehensive and fundamental solution if, as I do, you believe the problem is real (see “aha” above), real in the natural world described by science, then I’m guessing you’re going to need a better solution than a science based on politics and psychological games. You’d also have to believe a little metaphysical consideration is worth the effort. Ironically fundamental physicists, imagining some as yet unknown particle or field underlying their model-so-far are doing exactly that. It was Max Born no less who said “theoretical physics is actual metaphysics”. Sure, they will want to turn their imaginings into definable and testable components of their scientific model of physics but, until they do, such imaginings need not be limited by their existing models. The what-if’s can be as creative and imaginative as you like.

There is nothing supernatural in reality; that’s a naturalistic definition of reality. Anything imagined must be naturalistic and expected to stand the evidential tests of empirical experience. However, in order to have even a conversation about a world model with alternatives to objects (defined objectively, distinct from subjects and from each other), it’s going to be a struggle to fit existing language and rationale and remain intelligible. I’ve many times referred to this as the Catch-22 of making any progress here.

Identity and definition and the idea of identity as something objectively definable (or not) is a long-standing issue here, and the growth of this as a political topic in both the party-political sense, and the wider ethical sense of freedoms and responsibilities, are not new either. What may be new is the increased topicality of free-thought vs religious extremism. In fact the prompt for this longer post arose from a conversation a couple of weeks ago with one scientist friend, a mycologist, who has his own very particular take on a solution to the problem that the real world is not as definitely objective as our traditional scientific models have led us to accept.

A natural solution – an inclusive and informative view of identity.

Alan Rayner’s metaphysics (or his “non-definitive physics” as he would have it) is called “Natural Inclusion” (NI). Not exactly a monism, since it doesn’t even recognise a single “substance”, but like many monisms it starts with the idea that the subjective (me and my mind) stuff must comprise the same as the objective (other, out there, physical) stuff. That’s a view not inconsistent with scientists who would hold that me and my mind stuff are the “happenings” of my brain and bodily systems and energy stuff; not something else, not fundamentally distinct, and certainly not “woo” or supernatural. However, NI goes further and says even space and stuff are not a fundamentally different presence. Like a number of metaphysics, it uses the language of flow and dynamic patterning as more fundamental than any of the objects we consider significant, but since space itself is included in the flow, rather than flows of stuff contained in space we get flow-forms in and of the space-stuff.

And the language becomes – distinct but mutually inclusive presence, receptivity and permeability, separation as abstraction, dynamically distinct manifestations of informative energy flow …. and so on …. natural inclusion. The language is necessarily alien – unintelligible – if your mind-set is the traditional objective rationality, and I do not attempt to provide a full description of NI here, just a flavour. And, as I say, there are alternative flavours of metaphysics if you prefer. The only sin here would be to assume a metaphysics based only on your existing physics.

No, my purpose here was to illustrate a point about identity without definitions.


Think of two entities A and B, which we can clearly discern (you can see them, right?) as two different things from their (fuzzy red shape) appearance of “space-stuff”, even though their boundaries may appear confused and dynamic. In our “model” – necessarily an abstract model remember – we might choose to define B narrowly or A more widely (say) but equally tightly definitively (blue dotted circles) or we might simply need to draw a line D that clearly distinguishes the spade (A) from the shovel (B). But note that however we might choose to make the distinction between A and B definitive in our model, we can still discern our experience of A from that of B quite independently from those definitions, however narrow, wide, tight, loose, specific or generic.

In the NI approach the space-stuff (natural-flow-forms) that are A and B are “mutually inclusive of receptive space and informative energy”. They don’t “occupy” space as mutually exclusive objects. And note the word “informative” – it’s the information that gives them “form”. Inform as a verb, not just to communicate, but to give form energetically. I believe this is a powerful idea. Another good reason to investigate NI in particular, though as I say I’m not particularly holding up NI here as the solution.

The bottom line?

For now however, whether the idea of a non-definitive physics of “natural flow form” – or any metaphysics – is something that turns you on or off, my point here has been very straightforward:

It is perfectly possible to imagine a world model that does not depend on objective definitions, and if your current context demands definitions, remember not to get too attached to them. If you get to feel that definitive identity of our objective world is a fundamental part of our problem, then there are alternatives that would re-pay your investigation.


[Post Note : I mentioned earlier in the piece some basic concepts around models and ontologies, taxonomies of sub-classes where parent classes are being selected as significant – every two things have “a” parent class, so simply having a unique parent is rarely the point when it comes to distinguishing identity between any two related things. An interesting article here – about WordPress and WP-Theme code and licensing dependencies – that raises the exact same issues. Distinguishing or establishing a clear relation between two different pieces of code is fraught. In some sense whether one is literally (historical process-wise) derived from the other, they will share some common derivation, and however packaged and distributed, the real-time function of two pieces of code can be inextricably intertwined. Even in software, “identity” is political, subjective, beyond objective. Only case law can resolve the legalities of which definitions rule, not the definitions themselves.]

There’s a research avenue I keep mentioning but still haven’t followed-up closely; that of “intellectuals” adopting Catholicism late in life. Some kind of dawning of “wisdom”. I think I last mentioned it when I (again) noticed this Francis Bacon quote in Nick Spencer’s book:

“a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism;
but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

My original connection to the Catholicism theme came many years ago when reading biographies of The Inklings (at Oxford) and others at Oxbridge (J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis, Marshall McLuhan, and more … I need to assemble source links.) Two things prompted me to post this morning:

One was Stephen Law at CFI making a simple statement in a Facebook comment thread around his latest piece on “God” – which “obviously” doesn’t exist, yet apparently demands yards of screed?

“The atheist agrees belief is not a kind of knowing.”

Well this atheist doesn’t. Unlike many other rationalists, I can see rationalism (humanism, atheism, secularism) as a belief system. A pragmatic one based on scepticism, where what is believed as knowledge is always open to challenge. Belief only ceases to be a kind of knowing when it is “blind faith” or dogma. Knowledge is never dogmatic; honest scepticism is the antithesis of dogma, not belief. Belief is sufficient trust or “faith” in what you know, and the soundness of its basis, to act on it in the here and now. Always open to challenge, analysis and reflective questioning, but where justification and reconstruction of what is known is not a necessary part of the action itself. We would be inefficient and ineffective – paralysed – without belief. The problem even has a name – “analysis paralysis”.

Secondly, and thirdly, alerted by a couple of tweets this morning one to this guest post by Joe Landi on Godless Mom’s blog: “From Catholicism to Unbelief … and Back” and another to this “Einstein quote” (*) from David Gurteen:

(*) Of course, most Einstein quotes aren’t. But anyway, as Landi says, his post on rediscovering Catholicism is not semantic or dialectic, no “reasoned” argument, simply a statement of all the things he “loves” about Catholicism. Apart from this:

As Camus said, no one has ever died for the ontological argument …

The Trinity secures an epistemological position where love, not the intellect, is what will truly lead us to the truth. It, so to say, levels the playing field, putting us in a world where an uneducated cloistered Carmelite can know just as much as, lets say, Aquinas. As the proverb says: “wisdom is easy,” in the sense that you don’t need a P.H.D. to attain to it. And this is precisely what puts the “catholicus” in Catholic.

ie “And the greatest of these is Love”

And for my fellow atheists, note that there is no “god” in this – no supernatural causal agent, omnipotent, omniscient or otherwise.

I responded in two immediately previous posts to stories of (or about) mis-representation of science. Most directly in response to Jon Butterworth’s Guardian piece on science crying wolf (or not).

Listening to Dorothy Bishop this morning with Jim Al Khalili on BBC R4 The Life Scientific, we discover she has campaigned against over-hyped scientific reporting – the “Orwell Award for Scientific Journalism”. Ostensibly, for journalists mis-representing science “news”.

Of course, as Jim and Dorothy go on to discuss, it’s not just the journos and their editors egging them on with briefs designed to sell copy. The scientists themselves hype and mis-represent their findings, exaggerated further in press-releases from their institutions and of course. So many applications start with “impact statements” to justify work to managers and funders, who then want to see the evidence reported.

BUT the key point as Dorothy says scientists should not want to attract attention to all their potentially valuable results – not when it’s part of the scientific churn, work in progress or blue-sky research. Sure some potential, contingent work – eg in Jim’s quantum physics – is tremendously exciting to those close to being “in the know” – but that doesn’t make it newsworthy. ie scientists (and journalists) need to be sensitive to different sorts of science and scientific knowledge. Hear Hear.

[Post Note : Interesting take on Science 1.5 – internal publishing for wider science community reviews – before 2.0 “public”-ation of wider public significance.

This is not a journal publication, it’s a “preliminary” measurement, to be presented at conferences. Hence the 1.5 in my title – we are working on 2.0, which is intended for a paper. But it is public, and it is useful to put it out there so it can be discussed by physicists who are not on ATLAS. And it does tell us something new.

From John Butterworth in 2010, but linked in July 2015 LHC news. My sense is no science should make mainstream media news before it’s “Science 4.0″. John, a scientist first, journo second, is OK publishing 1.5, 2.0 stuff, and previews of 3.0 stuff, but journo’s – selling media – should keep out of it. Anyway, I was following-up the “minimum-bias” topic. One of my main scepticisms of LHC work is the “selection” of significant results being biased by what they’re looking for – potentially self-fulfilling.

[And in Minimum Bias 1.0] “But you can’t possibly be truly unbiased.” “This means that what you are measuring is only defined within a theory.”

Not sure if “minimum bias” is really addressing this issue. Interesting admission of selection bias in measurements and results, given the SAS #AllTrials “show me the evidence” campaign, No?]

In the words of Adam Rutherford, Linnaeus was a twat.

Well I’ve got news for Adam; Rutherford is a twat. The standard of BBC science journalism and broadcasting has come to this. Adam previewed and then followed-up after his broadcast of BBC R4 Inside Science with smart-arse quips about no such thing as a species and “Chimps are monkeys, so suck on that.” And a few people picked up on the new “factoid”. Mercifully few so far. 

This is just so much politically motivated bollocks. Science is everything so we can say what we like and you can’t touch us. We don’t really care about the consequences, evolution will take care of things, we’re all dead, ultimately extinct, in the long run. Oh, how we laughed, not.

It’s not news that biological species are not what they appear. Scientifically speaking it’s about choosing your definition(s) and there are plenty to choose from. And, more and more genetic indicators give us more possible definitions, not fewer. And that blurring is compounded by the fact that the genes we are using as indicators are less and less objectively defined the closer we look too. More information equals less definition. Get used to it.

Moreover, choosing definitions is a political act. Always driven by your purpose, and how useful a given definition is to your purpose. This is Modelling 101. Taxonomy 101. Science is no different. Science’s models of life are just that. Models, not real life.

Biological species? Whether you look at inherited aspects at the DNA patterning or expressed physical properties and appearances level, most useful working definitions of species involve gene transfer processes – schoolboy tittering, you know – “shagging”. Jeez, gimme a break BBC.

Reproduction. If two individuals are able to successfully reproduce fertile offspring they must be the same species is how the common definition goes. But there are statistics and time and geographical population movements involved in that success. How many pairs of individuals in the population(s) and how far diverged from common ancestry are those individuals and the population averages, in both time and space. It’s easy to say “if they are able to reproduce”, but much harder to model that success meaningfully, and there are many variations in how that is done too (eg so-called circle species). ie not only are there other bases of definition besides reproductive capability, but even that definition has many variations in how it might be interpreted.

Common shared genes, or genetic content, is all the rage of course – but how much is just a number, the significance of which is chosen with statistical relevance to other numbers. And a common shared-ancestor gives a basis on which to make relative comparisons on shared genetics.

You could say (Taxonomy 101): “we are all members of the class (clade) we share in having a common hierarchical parent” – a common heritage. Using that heritage as the basis for membership of the class (set). In fact every two living things shares a common ancestry with at least one other earlier living thing. It’s as meaningful to say Humans are the same species as Neanderthal as it is meaningless to say Chimps are Monkeys. Oh, you’re 5% Neanderthal, well I’m only 2%. That may tell us something about our different lineages since the ancestor we share with Neanderthals, and thence about evolutionary genetic similarities and differences – ie useful science for explaining and understanding the processes involved.

In the programme, when Adam actually says “Chimps are monkeys” he does briefly qualify it with “kinda, but not really”. This is choosing the species definition in terms of sharing a common parent. And as the expert  @PaoloViscardi points out picking the (remote) common parent as your definition isn’t right, you should always talk just one-level down as the class, or in general taxonomy a more significant “Ur-Class” or “archetype” class. It’s just not useful, outside philosophical ontology, to say everything is a thing – even though it is trivially true in real life too.

All this is lost in the takeaway one-liners. Ultimately every two living individuals – however diverse their current species – share a common parent, a representative of a third extinct species, and one that’s pretty hard to pinpoint in most cases. A useless means of classifying individuals now.

Of course, these problems with the apparent meaningless of species are as nothing compared to narrower human concepts like race, and one reason why we ultimately learn that even with ethnic classifications, it’s about self-identity with groups that matter to us as individuals, not about immediate objective definitions of groups with well-defined boundaries. That’s a fools errand.

We are all monkeys? Yeah, and in the long run we’re all dead.


[Post Note:

Sadly, turning Adam’s “mocking twat” accusation back on himself elicited only the denial and blocking response. Public scientist, in public broadcasting, publishing his opinions and conversations on public social media, in order to promote his media output, can dish it out but not take it apparently.

A couple of ironic tweeted responses to Adam’s reaction. “Capitalist conspiracy theory” particularly hilarious and wide of the mark. Do I not like conspiracy theories. No just the root issue here – the careless “arrogance” of scientific received wisdom.]  

Jon Butterworth in the Grauniad yesterday asks “Has physics cried wolf too often, or do false alarms help build understanding?“.

If you want a working understanding of the universe, which gives you the best chance of health for you and your loved ones, a stable environment to live in and cool gadgets to play with, science is absolutely the best we can do. But that doesn’t mean it is infallible. Particle physicist Brian Cox, much more of a logical positivist than a postmodern relativist, went so far as to say¹

“Science is never right.”

and he’s correct, in the sense that it is always provisional, and is never, or at least never should be, dogmatic.

The main line of the piece is the balance between over and under claiming the significance – or more often potential significance – of reported science. It is one of my recurring complaints – and the reason I’m a fan of Jon – that too many reports are over-hyped (#), for attention-and-budget-claiming reasons, particularly at the speculative boundaries of “known” science.

Cox on the other hand is reprehensible. This constant lip-service to contingency, whilst using this stuff that’s never right to take the piss out of anyone who disagrees. Cynically dishonest egotism of the logical positivist.

“I suppose the most important defect was that nearly all of it was false.”
A J Ayer erstwhile doyen of Logical Positivism.

Anyway, back to Jon and science being the best we can do?

  • Best working understanding of the [physical] universe? – check.
  • Best chance for our health? – check sorta – but medicine is not science (*).
  • Best for a stable environment? – not even close.
  • Best chance for cool gadgets [and even useful technologies]? – check.

2.5 out of 4 for science. Better science than not, but it’s not the best answer to everything.

And back to the issue of hype in science reporting. Clearly news, even of possibilities, is tremendously exciting at the cosmic and quantum boundaries of known science, but of course at these boundaries closest to the unknown, the science is at its most speculative and least accepted by scientific authority beyond the particular specialism.

Saying “science is never right” disingenuously blurs an important distinction. Sure all science is ultimately contingent, even the greatest and longest established knowledge, but there is a difference between science accepted non-contentiously as “knowledge” by scientific authority, and knowledge accepted as valid theory and significant evidence by specialists, but still considered as speculative by wider scientific authority.

Some things “deserve” to be believed, for now, by the non-specialist, as knowledge about the natural world. Others deserve to be recognised as valid theory, scientific work-in-progress, but not as knowledge. The speculative stuff helps build understanding amongst the specialists, but does not contribute directly to wider knowledge. Knowledge is never dogmatic; honest scepticism is the antithesis of dogma. Meanwhile, knowledge is useful stuff we can believe. It is cynical rather than sceptical to treat all science as falling into the same category of contingent knowledge.


Note (*) Using science here as both the biology & chemistry-based knowledge, logic and technologies, and the mathematical and statistical analysis of objective evidence of medical conditions and outcomes, it is these “sciences” that make medicine distinctive, but do not wholly define it. Medicine would be sadly limited without love and the art of caring, not to mention the politics and economics of its organisation and provision. [Note this is quite different for the wider technology and gadget exploitation in society. If the politics is maintained to be free-market, organisation and provision can be driven entirely by objective logic, maths and stats. Customers buy it in numbers, or they don’t. Neither medicine, nor science for that matter, are free-markets, or even wholly objectively scientific.]

[Post Note : (#) Listening to Dorothy Bishop with Jim Al Khalili on BBC R4 The Life Scientific. Scientists (and journalists) need to be sensitive to different sorts of science and scientific knowledge. Hear Hear.]

I was going to say “to all humanists” but you’d have to be something other than human not to be moved by Bonya Ahmed, the person and her story, speaking to a live public audience for the first time last night at the British Humanist Association 2015 Voltaire lecture in London.

“Wife of” murdered atheist blogger Avijit Roy is how most of us will have first come across Bonya, but she is very much all of atheist, secularist, rationalist, humanist thinker, writer and activist in her own person. A full transcription of her talk last night is already available on the English-language version of the Mukto-Mona rational free-thought blogging platform they set up with other Bangaldeshi bloggers. Giving free-thought a voice in the Bangla language was fundamental to their project. But the words of her talk were only the half of it

At pains not to be drawn into simplistic responses to complex questions, she emphasised the historical perspective of all human situations. And whilst thoughtfully researching the philosophical and historical underpinnings, she also emphasised that this had limited value without political action. It takes all of us to do all of this – we each must do our part of the whole. We can’t fight machetes with pens alone. In that striving for careful thought and balanced effective action, I personally couldn’t help but see a fellow-traveller. A fellow-traveller, in my case, in the comfort of a western secular democracy as chair Jim Al-Khalili pointed out. It was all I could do not to participate whilst she was talking.

Whatever the careful content of her messages, the passionate yet slight, unassuming individual shone through. Shining through, you kept having to remind yourself, not just the horrific death of her husband and father of their daughter, an attack in which she too was savagely maimed, not to mention already under treatment for existing cancer, debilitating personal experience few of us could even imagine. Only 4 months after that event the emotion was visible, yet contained, and the humour and humanity only ever one shyly unassuming smile away.

No wonder so many Tweets used awe-struck language. Courageous and inspiring to all of us it seemed. And a spontaneous emotional standing ovation that died only when Jim persuaded her to step down and leave the stage. The effect summed-up in Phil Walder’s tweet:


[Post Note : Video of full event and talk online at BHA You Tube page.]

Interesting post from Morgan Giddings, with a Facebook response from Sabine Hossenfelder:


I have mostly maintained a façade of being that “rational, materialist scientist” most of the time …

… it was always unsettling to think that consciousness is just some byproduct of what is a random universe made up of a bunch of bouncy-balls. I had read Roger Penrose’s books such as The Empror’s New Mind more than a decade before, and that had provided some powerful arguments against this view. But I had put that aside to pursue my “practical” ego-led science career.

I found God, by another name … I found that deep power within me – and within everything.


I think I went down the same rabbit hole but came out in a slightly different place. See, as a theoretical physicist there’s no way to deny we are fundamentally “just” elementary particles and of course there isn’t any such thing as free will. Interestingly, this isn’t entirely incompatible with what you write. In any case, I have been avoiding the topic in my writing. I’ve written about the non-existence of free will several times, and I get a lot of responses from people who are seriously bothered. (And never read far enough to get to the point where I explain it doesnt matter.) In any case, thanks for this interesting blogpost.


Sabine – “as a theoretical physicist there’s no way to deny that we are “just” elementary particles” – of course there are theoretical physicists that have different viewpoints. Read about David Bohm’s work, among MANY other alternative views.

You state with confidence that free will doesn’t exist. When you can actually show me those “particles” you think are so deterministic as to be predictable in the way you think – yes, those same ones like quarks that nobody can actually measure in a deterministic fashion – then you may have some evidence that there’s no freewill.

However, smashing particles together in a collider and then seeing various random blips, and somehow concluding from that that there is no freewill is bogus. There’s still more that we don’t know than we do about those things.

The Seth books are better than any physics book is on this subject. Especially see the Unknown Reality, Volumes I and II by Jane Roberts.

And, yes, it IS incompatible with what I write. I won’t go into why, here. But the absence of free will misses the whole point, entirely.


Morgan: This isn’t the point. To begin with quantum mechanics isn’t deterministic, but that doesn’t mean there is free will. (Atoms decay unpredictably, but if you’d make your decisions in that random fashion you wouldn’t call that free will either.) The relevant point is that we do not know of any example in which a macroscopic (“emergent”) theory comes about in a way that is not fully derivable from the constituents’ theory.

Now note that I carefully said “we don’t know any way in which”. This doesn’t mean there is none. (We can discuss this.) But the point is that according to our best present knowledge of the laws of nature there isn’t any such thing as free will. And unless you demonstrate to me exactly in which way you think you can avoid what is a consequence of effective field theory I’m not going to buy anything to the contrary.

Sure, I know there are some physicists who deny this too. It’s kind of interesting in a sense. Also, entirely unnecessary.

PS: I wrote a paper about this at some point here:

I’m actually writing another paper about this…

I pick up on the same point of Sabine’s as does Morgan

“there’s no way to deny
we are fundamentally “just” elementary particles and
of course there isn’t any such thing as free will”.

The breathtaking arrogance of the materialist scientist – “we are just …” – “of course there isn’t …” That’s the ego driven error – that given no alternative explanation of the standard model, it’s the world that’s wrong, not the model. And it’s ego-driven because it makes the mistake of seeing “me” and the particles as distinct objects.

Even though Sabine clearly includes the force-exchange particles in that “just elementary particles” claim, it’s the “just” that’s the problem. The world is far more than particles. It’s arrangements and flows of such particles. But since we objectify only the particles, we see the arrangements and flows – dynamic patterns – as “just” properties of the particles. ie it’s “just” the particles we treat as objects of reality. In fact it’s the other way around. The flows, dynamic patterns, are reality, and the particles are the pragmatic objects of our (current) model.

It doesn’t require any “woo” or “super-natural-entities” to see alternative entirely naturalistic ways of looking at reality.

Having denied all but particles and their determinism via laws, even statistically random laws, the materialist physicist is unable to explain subjective consciousness and free-will and therefor must deny the existence of the most basic empirical evidence we have available to us. We and our will.

God by any other name? The pantheistic view is a common solution, since Spinoza, and metaphorically it’s as good as any to explain the “vital” ingredient missing from the dead model, a model without evolving will or purpose, but where these are illusory epiphenomena. This doesn’t mean that the vital agency exists as a separate god-like entity beyond the standard model, it simply confirms the standard model is more fundamentally in error.

The rabbit-hole is the standard model itself.

(I’ll come back with more when I’ve read Sabine’s referenced papers, and with better reference sources – Dennett & Baggini from mainstream philosophy; Pirsig & Rayner scientists who saw the error of their earlier ways; Nagel, Unger, Smolin, Goldstein … and many more.)

[Post Note – looking at Sabine’s paper:

The Free Will Function – Free will from the perspective of a particle physicist. It is argued that it is possible to give operational meaning to free will and the process of making a choice without employing metaphysics.

Of course these examples are arbitrarily constructed and are certainly not meant to describe actual reality. Their purpose is merely to show that it is possible to have a mathematical description of reality that does allow for free will to exist and give operational sense to the act of making a decision in a world that is determined but not deterministic.

Two immediate observations:

“Without employing metaphysics” – possibly just a classical scientist’s aversion to philosophy that is not considered to be scientific. In practice, this says, “without fundamental revision to my existing physics.”

The “arbitrary construction” says it is not really an explanation in terms of existing physics, it is speculative, and doesn’t suggest a testable physical hypothesis (yet). It also places strong reliance on the physical possibility according to mathematics, as if maths were some fundamental test of reality – see Unger & Smolin.

It confirms why I have time for Sabine. She is honestly addressing – attempting to address – the issue, even if she adopts the throwaway denials of received wisdom in her professional field. That’s a tough job. Appreciated.]

In my last post – about the BHA 2015 Conference – I noted that listening to Dr Phil Hammond had put me in mind of Dr James Willis.

Although the former is now more famous than the latter – stand-up entertainer, TV-panelist, etc – they represent two generations of medical doctors warning against the damage being done by successive top-down re-organisations of the National Health Service. Dr Phil’s latest book “Staying Alive – is about exactly that and how personal love and individual evidence-based care can save us, and it. Dr James’ wrote two successful books in the same vein, Friends in Low Places and The Paradox of Progress, both still recommended because clearly the situation hasn’t really changed.

One of James’ targets is the “evidence-based” concept itself – something of a mantra for a certain kind of top-down managerialism, but it’s the classic evidence as bean-counting in situations where not everything that counts can be counted. Their common message is that a large part of the value of health care experienced empirically and personally is down to qualities like love and compassion and …. personal care of the individuals involved – the art of caring. Hard to account for objectively in top-down management target-setting and the like, but clearly most meaningful at the inter-personal work-face encounters – the “low places” of James’ work. As Dick Taverne notes evidence must not be ignored, it must always be taken into account when making decisions, but it is totally wrong to assume such evidence is always of the objectively scientific kind, or to ignore the kind that isn’t. What counts as evidence in ethical and political decision-making?

Anyway, that’s a recurring theme in this blog too, so it was interesting to re-connect with Dr James Willis. As well as his original “Friends in Low Places” web-pages as a vehicle for his books and numerous other articles and references – his The Monster and the Whirlpool (Scylla and Charybdis) keynote to the Royal College of GP’s is a personal favourite – he is now active on both Twitter ( @JARWillis ) and his own “Generally Speaking” blog. But I had forgotten what first created the contact between us.

I note here that Robert Pirsig has been a source of inspiration for me to investigate philosophical grounding of the kind of knowledge that really should count as evidence, the very point of my Psybertron blog. It was of course James’ own reading of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) that first brought him to my attention. Both being people with scientific underpinnings to our professional lives, medicine in James’ case, technology and engineering in mine, we both shrank back at the Zen, hippy lifestyle aspect of Pirsig – too “woo” in the modern rationalist vernacular – and were reluctant late readers of Pirsig. However as James puts it:

“Pirsig convinces, utterly, that in motorcycle maintenance, of all superbly-chosen examples, the art is more fundamental than the science. It’s having the right attitudes that matters. So, we must ask ourselves, how much more must this apply to medicine! How could we ever have been so blind as to think otherwise!”

Perhaps in my case it was perhaps less a case of being blind, as not having any language to get a grip on the issue of art being more fundamental than science, but the effect has been the same. Coincidentally talking with Julian Baggini the evening before hearing Dr Phil Hammond, Pirsig may still fail to “utterly convince” philosophers that he has the metaphysical solution, but it’s clear he has provided many of us with a useful insight.

BHA2015 Conference – Bristol, Grand Hotel, 19 to 21 June 2015 (~400 delegates)
Not detailed notes, just rough for-the-record of my own. Will use some to create constructive feedback.

Friday afternoon started with a so-called “Ethical Jury” list of suggested ethical dilemma topics from which to discuss 2 or 3 in round-tables of 8 or so. Worked as an “ice-breaker” to start conversation with the table of fellow attendees with whom you found yourself thrown together. (Clearly with enormous personal context differences in starting points, pretty random which topic examples were meaningfully discussed and how much progress even agreeing the issues is pretty minimal – except to note that even the simplest stated issues were complex on many levels and connected to all the others.)

Next was a Meet the BHA session – by popular request apparently. Not sure best use of time for delegates, since many will already know many. Perhaps more use with 3 or 4 sentences of self-introduction each from the front better that attempt at hot-dating moving desk to desk – at least not without a little more preparation and facilitation.

Evening session started with Julian Baggini – ostensibly showing the value of philosophy by taking basic philosophical questions of real life from the floor as part of a stand-up routine. Actually very good from Julian’s perspective in handling it with entertainment value but slightly let down by mixed audience input, initially not getting the point of the level of questions to make it work. Too many men with their hands up making too complex philosophical points to start with – though the “I have a friend who …. What would philosophy advise” format did catch-on.

Headline was Kate Smurthwaite doing a slightly cut down version of her stand-up show. Excellent performance level; pace, energy and passion. One of the highlights of the conference.

Saturday morning started with Dr Caroline Watt of the Edinburgh Koestler Parapsychology unit standing-in at less than 24 hours notice for Prof Francesca Stavrokopolou‘s advertised talk. Dr Watt gave an accomplished and entertaining talk on aspects of their work on paranormal beliefs that “might be of interest to Humanists”. Ghostbusting myths and creating normal hypotheses to test paranormal claims. Psychic claims, near-death (NDE) experiences and out-of-body (OBE) experiences, ghostly sightings, and so on. Many good psychological and neuro-scientific reasons to understand why people do sincerely believe the impressions they appear to experience. Seeing ghosts driven largely by Paraedolia – the naturally evolved tendency to seek out faces, human and animal forms in our environment. Understanding paranormal claims is part of the science of understanding actual normal psychology and neuro-science.

Next up was Prof Tim Whitmarsh, on his Deep History of Atheism. Despite parts of the delivery being read presumably from his book or prepared lecture based on it, the content was for the most part informative. Apart from a little too materialist / atomist philosophical foundation reading from Democritus onwards, Whitmarsh demonstrably knows his Greek and Roman history of daily life, politics and empire. Clearly details affect the narrative you draw from such history and a 40 minute presentation can only hit the highlights, but the main message was clear enough – the atheism of times where what gods there were, were all too human and not supernaturally powerful – indeed heroes were those humans who fought against the fates and the gods. Blasphemy would have been a meaningless concept. The transition via Mosaic invented interpretation of monotheistic religion, to become dominant as it was promoted for imperial political ends most notably by Constantine. That narrative is well enough established, even if details are up for debate. Perhaps most interesting, after Daedalus and Icarus, Dionysus and Demeter, Belerophon and the rest Whitmarsh did approach a surprising conclusion, that religion probably did have a future, religion redefined with some form of tolerant polytheism, loosely federated across global communities. A conclusion very similar to that of Jonathan Sacks last week.

[The morning closed out with a discussion between the Specialist Sections of the BHA (Young Humanists, Prison Humanists and Defence / Armed-Forces Humanists pastoral support groups and LGBT sections), chaired by Andrew Copson. The afternoon session opened up with The Greater Manchester Humanist Choir renditions of their selection of secular hymns and protest songs.]

The highlight of the weekend entertainment-wise had to be the next session by Dr Phil Hammond, ex-GP, Private-Eye writer, and stand-up comedian. Serious and strongly delivered messages about health and NHS priorities – Love and Clangers, but told with anecdotes that had the audience rolling with laughter and, in my case, unable to laugh for crying. Humanist message, apart from the love obviously, was believing evidence, and not falling for the myths of management. Beautifully done. Reminded me personally very much of the work of Dr James Willis.

Follow that Helen Lewis, Sarah Ditum, and Nimko Ali in conversation on feminism, culture and belief. A tough act to follow and somewhat understated staging (low stage for seated discussion, light, sound and inadequate introductions) but some interesting content – particularly on patriarchal cultural drivers quite independent of their specific religious or racial contexts. The necessary paradox of rejecting any form of segregation whilst nevertheless providing women-only-spaces in such cultures.

Last session of the afternoon was another top-quality stand-up routine from Prof Richard Wiseman. Less uproarious laughter than Dr Phil, more understated self-deprecating meta-jokes, but very cleverly done. A major part of the routine was really about illusions – where Prof Richard has conjuring skills, in fact the main objective was to use known science of sleep and dreams to establish most effective and healthy sleep routines and habits.

[At the Gala Dinner Prof Alice Roberts was awarded British Humanist of the Year. Jim Al Khalili’s introduction to the award struggled to maintain the suspense as Alice’s achievements were already recognised by all and hence well deserving of the award. Most notable in the conversations afterwards, was the highly personal and committed tone of Alice’s acceptance speech – true emotion, very real – moved many of us grumpy old gits. Edinburgh fringe award winning Jay Foreman provided the after dinner entertainment of musical humour.]

The Sunday morning, kicked-off with what was really the only deeply technical session of the weekend from Jim Al Khalili. If you’ve seen the TV programmes and read the book, the new stories of the quantum effects at bio-chemistry levels of life are no longer new. Brave to attempt to present to a mixed, captive, lay audience, but nevertheless both fascinating and, as Jim honestly admits, downright weird. Quantum mechanics just is – trust me I’m the BHA President! Gratifying for me was the reference to the personally inspirational “What is Life” by Erwin Schroedinger – much maligned after WWII thanks to the associations with those with Nazi agendas. Biggest disappointment – Jim mentioned his damned cat, Schroedinger’s that is, after managing to avoid doing so in the TV programmes 😉

The much anticipated interview of Prof Alice Roberts by Samira Ahmed followed, though with time-pressures it ended all too soon as the dialogue started to get interesting. Alice agreeing in response to an audience question, that the future probably depended on collaboration between Humanists and the faith-based churches. They do say, leave your audience wanting more.

To round off what was for the most part an entertaining but much lighter-weight conference than last year’s World Humanist Congress – intellectually and politically – I’m sure neither Alice nor Samira would begrudge ceding the stage to Leo Igwe for our final session. As well as highlighting the inhuman irrationality around beliefs in supernatural witchcraft – mainly against women and largely supported by local the evangelical African churches – Leo was able to make a passionate case for the real value in British humanists actively supporting African humanism. There were local activists and latent sympathisers even if they couldn’t always maintain a visible profile without support, and there were real achievements in setting-up secular schools. Funding and resources to support such activities were essential, and that included follow-up resources. No point funding the building of a secular school as a physical building, only to leave it to the mercy of local extremists to turn it into a madrassa of indoctrination.

Support does work and is a multiplier in the message it gives to encouraging local initiatives.

Thanks to all the BHA staff and volunteers, and the hotel & catering staff for a successful weekend.

I promised a fuller review of Nick Spencer’s “Atheism – The Origin of the Species” when I’d completed it. It’s a rather long review with plenty of spoilers and quotes here, since I’m gutting it for content I find useful, but a recommended read for anyone from Mrs Angry Atheist to Mr Tolerant Apologist and all considered points between. All human life is here, and a witty delivery makes it a good read.

Before we start, an observation, there’s a lot of “which came first” debate around when it comes to the the content of religions and their holy books. It’s trivially true that atheism preceded theism – the latter’s a thing believed, a situation that came to be, so clearly the absence preceded the existence. This is also true independent of any debates about whether world views could be characterised as humanist without or within theistic religion. So it makes perfect sense to start a history of atheism after the height of theistic belief. How theistic religious beliefs came to be is itself interesting of course – and coincidentally has been a topic of several talks and conversations recently – but it’s seems wishful thinking to believe pre-theistic belief has much to do with our current state of post-theistic atheism and humanism.

Interestingly one talk at this weekend’s BHA 2015 conference is advertised thus:

The Deep History of Atheism – Prof Tim Whitmarsh
It seems to suit everyone to agree that atheism began with the European enlightenment. The religious can treat it as a symptom of modern decadence; the new atheists can present it as the result of science and progress. But neglecting the deeper origins of atheism not only distorts history, it also denies atheists their roots, and so in a sense their very humanity. (It is, after all, easier to persecute people with no past.) In this talk, Professor Whitmarsh shows that atheism is at least as old as monotheism itself, and was treated as largely unproblematic in the pre-Christian Mediterranean world; it was the Christianisation of the Roman Empire that shunted it off the European mental map.

My point – obviously – atheism is at least as old, if not older than theism …. Both histories are informative, before and after theism; As I said in the intro, the debate over which came first is appears trivial, but it will be interesting to hear what Tim has to say about the nature of the atheism in the context of modern humanists – “their very humanity” – since humanism by any other name also preceded theism. (**)

So, to  Nick Spencer’s book. I already said I consider it an excellent read, brilliant in fact, after just a couple of chapters, and as well as the post 1500 historical content, the selections and witty, laconic turns of phrase make it thoroughly readable. Put me in mind of Gibbon at times. I’ll not repeat the quotes from previously, but take the story up in 1697.

In that year, the 20 year old Thomas Aikenhead was the last person to be hanged for blasphemy in the UK under the 1661 Blasphemy act, enacted the year after restoration of the monarchy. He was certainly “pugnacious and contemptuous” in his criticism of both the old and new testament stories of the Bible though, allegedly going to the gallows with his bible, it’s not clear he was actually atheist; However, quoting from Hunter and Wooton:

“A year before, the [Privy] Council had heard the case of one John Frazer, who made similar claims. An immediate and fulsome recantation saved him from the gallows. Aikenhead had either been less penitent or just one atheist too many.”

But the real point, being the last execution for blasphemy didn’t appear to make him a British martyr. Inns, taverns, coffee houses and restoration drama playhouses were already “dens of unregulated wit, levity, mockery [and worse] that undermined all that was serious and godly” to the puritan. “Theatre became the epitome of practical atheism.”

There follows comparison and contrast of not only the differences but the connections between French and British intellectual contributions through the ensuing periods leading to revolution, centered particularly round Baron D’Holbach’s salon table:

The list of attendees reads like a Who’s Who of eighteenth-century European radical intellectual life. In addition to Diderot there was [D’Alembert, Rousseau, Condorcet, de Condillac … [and more] … Smith, Hume, Gibbon and Wilkes.] Not all these stayed at D’Holbach’s table for very long. Some left quietly …. Others fell out spectacularly … Not all were materialists and not all were atheists, but …. the group shared an antipathy towards Christianity, particularly the authoritarian and royalist form it took in France.

There is the fascinating story of the rise and atheist nature of the various ethical & rationalist unions, societies & associations from Robert Owen’s ultimately unsuccessful 1810’s Benthamite New Lanark Mills project via the South Place Ethical Society and the Rationalist Press Association(*) to the modern-day inheritors of their traditions and agendas.

Relevant philosophical and intellectual movements and schools of thought are also reviewed. So, for example we get another example of Spencer’s turn of phrase rounding off this quote from Owen Chadwick on German scientific materialism:

“[N]othing represents better the temporary phase of popular philosophy which combined the contradiction of lowering man to the dust by showing him to be nothing but another animal, while lifting him to the skies and singing his praises as the ruler of the world.”

It was a sage observation, except for the word temporary.

Echoing sentiments I last read in Rebecca Goldstein’s “Incompleteness – the Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel” Spencer describes Russell’s bewilderment late in life, quoting from his autobiography:

“Having for years cared only for exactness and analysis, [Feeling the unendurable loneliness of the human soul, impenetrable to all except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached] I found myself filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty … and a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable.”

Whilst acknowledging Russell’s support for atheist, secular, rational and ethical projects, I’ve always been baffled at the high regard in which he is held, given that he was philosophically undermined by the first published work of his own student Wittgenstein and totally demolished by Gödel within ten years of publishing Principia Mathematica with Whitehead. Spencer spends further pages on Wittgenstein, and the Vienna Circle that practically worshipped him despite his contempt for them – again all echoed in Goldstein, as is Wittgenstein’s own debt to Spinoza, another of Goldstein’s specialities. [My personal pet theory is that the reason Wittgenstein stepped out of philosophy – before coming back to fix the damage later – was because his Tractatus was always intended as one long joke at Russell’s expense, which was unfortunately taken-up as sincere. Like something straight out of Douglas Adams or Monty Python, but I digress.]

Quoting A J Ayer, who was very influential in popularising the Vienna Circle and Logical Positivism, asked when interviewed late in life what he now thought were the defects of Logical Positivism:

“Well, I suppose the most important defect was that nearly all of it was false.”

Later, bringing us up to date commenting on New Atheism passing its peak, indeed “dying with a whimper […] Richard Dawkins [having] discovered twitter” Spencer quotes the editor of New Humanist (*) in 2013

“Dawkins provided a case study in how not to do [atheism].” Blanket condemnations of religious groups [are] morally dubious [and counter-productive]. Religious believers [are] no less intelligent than non-believers [and no less human, I say]  and secularism [does] not mean excluding religious believers from public life. The tone and arguments could hardly [be] more different from those of the New Atheists.

After a passage highlighting more subtle intellectual contributions to the current atheism debate, highlighting John Gray and Tomas Nagel, Spencer quotes a remark by Simon Blackburn, exemplifying how such atheist “heretics” are predictably “eviscerated” by their more “orthodox” atheist critics: (I cite all four positively in these pages, Gray, Nagel, Spencer and Blackburn.):

“If there were a philosophical Vatican, [Nagel’s] book [Mind and Cosmos] would be a good candidate for being placed on the index [of banned books].”

Spencer’s final observations are true enough that humanism these days – in the sincerest form of flattery – offers naming, marriage, funeral ceremonies, but not before remarking :

Alain de Botton [who pointed the way to a New Atheist church] had suggested “atheists were better stealing from religion than mocking it”.

Religious believers debated whether it was better to be patronised or ridiculed.

Nick Spencer “Atheists – the Origin of the Species” – a recommended read.


[(*) Declaration of interest: New Humanist is the title owned by the Rationalist Association, also the owner of the legacy of the original Rationalist Press Association of publishers. I’m currently a serving member of the RA board of trustees.]

[(**) Post Note: Whitmarsh arguments are primarily from non-contentious atheism contrasted with the “human” polytheistic gods of Greek and Roman antiquity. His conclusion however is pretty much identical to Jonathan Sacks the other night: In order to fix conflict between monotheistic imperialisms we need a new form of “shared belief” which is polytheistic, federal, inclusive. A redefining of religion. More later.]

So, the same morning Prof Cox attempts to enlighten the perpetually perplexed John Humphrys @BBCR4Today with his pride in being wrong, Forbes highlights the cost of working on only what evidence can demonstrate you know for sure – 7 months loss of Rosetta / Philae data. No coincidence in the banner ad headline EY (the business consultants Ernst and Young) piece is on the need for good judgement about what you might not know for sure.

Being honestly sceptical about the contingency of “known” science and open to new evidence is great for the self-correcting nature of scientific knowledge itself – but being exclusively concerned with hard evidence-based logic is a fetish real life can do without. Being overly cautious where evidence is doubtful – the cautionary principle – is irrational. Don’t ignore hard evidence and watertight logic, but don’t deny decisions we need to make without it, as we must. Ethical and political decision-making – value judgements – should not be reduced to science or the scientific method.

Science is the best method we have – for advancing scientific knowledge of the natural world. That doesn’t make it the best method for making value judgements, or mean we should attempt to replace all value judgements with a scientific model. The aims of a multi-billion space research project may be scientific, but the project is not.

Refreshing piece in New Humanist from scientist Mark Lorch, about whom I know no more that this piece. I could have written the conclusion myself:

Basically, there’s no single logical explanation for why induction works: it just does. Which means I’m left with the belief that induction works without the sound evidence to support it, i.e. I have faith in the scientific method. This realisation made me stop worrying about how people can hold religious faith and scientific beliefs simultaneously. It demonstrated to me that faith and evidence-based beliefs coexist in my mind, so in a way, I am no different from my fellow scientists who have faith in the miracles of theologies. This realisation has made me no more inclined to believe in a god. But it has given me a better understanding of religious beliefs by demonstrating that, without ever realising it, I too have a deeply-seated faith in my own (scientific) belief system.

Naturally it has sprouted a thread of predictable responses. Problem for archetypal scientists is acknowledging the concepts of faith or belief. Notice no-one said “blind-faith” – this is very much eyes-open faith, the best kind. It’s really not difficult to recognise science as a (very good and very powerful) belief system and move on to more important questions and dialogues.

Noticed the expression “Rush to Judgement” in Grauniad Higher Education piece on Tim Hunt’s resignation following the reaction to his ill-judged sexist jokey remarks and equally clumsy apology. Already much twitter backlash to the reaction – few actually wished him ill or wanted him hounded out of his job, on the whole our sisters had great fun poking creative fun at the remarks. It was a silly mistake, point made – but turns out he was effectively forced to resign by his employer UCL.

I’ve long known this expression as the title of lawyer Mark Lane’s original book on the J. F. Kennedy Assassination / Warren Commission Report (*), but felt it might have Shakespearean origins? Well no actually, it was originally recorded concerning the 1800 James Hadfield assassination attempt on George III, used by his defense lawyer Thomas Erskine, then Lord Chancellor.

James Hadfield – knew the name rang a bell; no not the space-station astronaut – when found insane, he became a famous inmate of Bethlem Royal Hospital. [Follow the Wikipedia links.] Recently opened to the public and which we visited earlier this year. Small interconnected world?

[(*) Long-standing fascination of mine; read every book, seen every film or documentary – not because I’ve ever been a conspiracy theorist, but because it is a classic example of how difficult it is to establish what is known – after the event without first-hand experience. Hence Psybertron Asks – “What, why and how do we know?”.]

The evolutionary scientists and philosophers (say, Dawkins & Dennett) seem to be predicting religion is steadily on its way out, quite independently of any immediate ills and conflicts laid at its door, people are finding less reason to believe.

Actually I think they may be wrong, but let’s hold off thinking about what might be meant by religious belief in such a future. Suffice to say for now, [after Nick Spencer] think of scepticism as the antithesis of dogma, rather than as the preferred alternative to faith.

Philosopher, theologian and ex-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks certainly begs to differ and, interestingly, bases his argument on Darwinian evolution. Listening to him last night at Spectator Events, talking and then answering questions with Andrew Neil, made it two nights in a row I heard the human social evolution story from animism to monotheism by way of Robin Dunbar. However you treat the ideas of an actual Dunbar number being meaningful, and the realities or otherwise of group selection, that story always sounds reasonable and I’ve never found reason to challenge it. And notice it’s an entirely naturalistic view. Let’s call it the “Dunbar Cycle”. The point is if those evolutionary processes and pressures are real, where are they leading now? History is one thing but prediction, especially about the future (as the saying goes) is much less certain.

Sacks picks one line of reasoning that has been central to my agenda here since the start – communication of information. Evolution is fundamentally about transmission and replication of patterns of information, including those patterns of information we use as thinking tools to interpret and manipulate information further. Major revolutions in the Dunbar Cycle are attributable to step changes in communication – physical exploration and movement of peoples, the advent of printing, and now the ubiquity of the internet and social media.

“Of course current violent climate ‘has to do with’ religion
but no point setting one religion against another or against none.”

Long story short, there is a string of tweets (linked below) summarising my highlights of Sacks thesis. Just a couple of the less obvious points I’d like to further record here, before we get to the conclusion.

After psychoanalysing the psychoanalyst, Sacks concludes Freud denied his own sibling guilt, when he placed Oedipus’ maternal relationship at the core of human conflict. Sibling rivalry is the real culprit. The Abrahamic monotheisms are frankly siblings of each other. Their closeness makes the conflicts over differences all the greater.

Secondly, monotheism has evolved dualistically, if that’s not an oxymoron.

“Dualism could be the most murderous doctrine ever thought up by human-beings”

Whatever god is in these religions, it’s one good version set against an evil other. An otherness all too easily transferred to problematic rivals in any context, common enemies counter to internal group cohesion. Sacks sees this as a perversion of what monotheism originally evolved to be, a truly inclusive and receptive – loving – monism.

Again, whatever values of living stem from such a monotheistic monism, and however they are either codified in moral law of that religion, or as transferrable parables in their good books, mass communication has taken the mediation of scholars and shamen and elders, and “authoritative” spokespeople and commentators out of the loop of interpretation. Unmediated freedom of thought and communication  – totally free at point of evaluation – inevitably leads to a subjective form of moral relativism – one thing Neil did take Sacks to task over in the interview.

This is a particular problem for Islam, which has not yet had its “30 years war” to settle once and for all which internal differences to leave behind. 9/11 was one of the symptoms of suppressed conflict, but the war itself has started with the “Arab spring” and the Islamic civil war is now playing out around us. Despite the speed-of-light communications, you’d need to be an optimist, said Neil, to predict Islam reaching its “Westphalia” deal anytime soon. In fact despite highlighting the accelerated pace of (potential) evolution, Sacks himself saw this as something that will take “a generation” to reach a conclusion. [Something very reminiscent here of Thomas Kuhn and Kondratiev cycles of change in science, technology, economy and society.]

Sacks’ prediction that truly monotheistic religion will be the conclusion – some totem against which to nail our flags of value. Whether it’s called a religion, and whether it features anything recognisable as a supernatural god is of course moot. So far as “we” will need a recognisable set of values, however captured from best available interpretation and maintained conservatively as “moderator rods” in the reactionary cut and thrust of democratic freedoms of thought, expression and action – I agree already.