Heard Ed Atkinson of Citizens’ Climate Lobby UK speak last night at Teesside “Skeptics in the Pub”. Although they’re already a decade old, and I have long-standing interests in the energy business and in climate change science and policy, it was the first time I had really been aware of CCL and their very specific climate policy.

It was a very impressive message.

Given my underlying epistemological scepticism – “Yeah, but how do we know?” and the fact that I am sceptical about both scientific & political climate-change predictions – particularly those that claim to be objectively evidence-based and quantifiable – many assume I must be a climate-change sceptic.

In fact the existence of Anthropogenic Global Warming and the need to do all we can to minimise CO2, volatile-hydrocarbon and low-grade heat emissions from our human activity has always been a no-brainer. Simply common sense. 1st and 2nd laws. As an engineer, where there’s a will, there’s a way. The problem has always been politics and political economics.

The beauty of Ed’s talk was that, whilst he did throw up a few graphs and numbers to illustrate the scale of what we’re dealing with, none of his conclusions – or the CCL policy recommendations – are particularly dependent on any actual numbers or calculations assumed. Basically, which things will drive the relevant factors in the right direction with greatest predictability & manageability and the least unintended incentives to corrupt & game the system.

It needs the caveat – all other things being equal – we’re talking about the carbon economy part of the whole global economic activity here, where businesses and governments will have plenty of other drivers and incentives in play. The point of the CCL proposal is to apply the economic controls at points where they are least in conflict with the other drivers on activity and investment.

Simply:

  • The Carbon Tax or “Fee”. Leave fossil fuel in the ground or, if you do extract it, tax it progressively at that point of extraction.
  • The Benefit or “Dividend”. Divide the tax take to be paid equally and directly to all individual participants in the economic and ecological environment through existing tax allowance and benefit payment schemes.

The beauty of this approach is that it addresses the tragedy of the commons directly by putting government taxation in the role of the common interest, and giving the individual interest – environmental and economic – directly back to the individual. The market looks after the rest. The individual makes the lifestyle choices as the consumer, and the whole supply chain for energy, goods and R&D is then driven from that end. If that’s not enough, governments (with public support) can still provide subsidies from general taxation to the development on alternative energy technologies, without upsetting the incentives in the main scheme.

Particularly encouraging is that the simplicity and predictability, the avoidance of regulatory bans and risk of market shocks, means that more conservative Republican political and big-energy big-business interests appear to see this as the best option of a set of worse taxation and regulation choices. It could be win-win.

Seems a no-brainer to support this recommendation.

Plenty of lively discussion from an audience committed to the issues and a talk that had inspired much interest. The big take-away, beyond the detail and mechanics of the policy scheme itself, was the realisation how much any such scheme would be dependent on global / international government agreement to implement. Particularly salient in our time of increased noise for nationalist interests. However with China already committed to massive alternative energy investment and other western trading blocks already collaborating, even if the global agreement can only ever be partial, we nevertheless all benefit as the major part of the “commons”.

It may be brutal, but it’s no tragedy.

Islamism – non-secular political aspirations of Islam – are a problem of Islam and a problem for all of us, but that problem is Islamism, not Islam per se. And, like any religion, interpretation and fragmentation mean Islam has plenty of other problems with tolerance and respect for individual rights and freedoms, but there can be no doubt Sharia represents some very particular problems of Islam also exploited by Islamism. Extreme Islamism, Jihadism and political terrorism & violence in-the-name-of Islamism are further problematic levels of complication, and an important part of my agenda is to avoid conflation in addressing these many – related, but distinct – things.

In fact my thesis is that life really is this complicated and that’s as true of science & rationality, politics & culture as it is of religion & faith, but I digress.

I’ve been a follower of Quilliam and a supporter of Maajid Nawaz’s position on Islam and Islamism for some years, but have only recently got round to reading his early autobiographical “Radical“. It’s the story of his journey from youthful irreligious ethnic-Pakistani Essex “B-Boy” gangsta to extreme Islamist radicalisation and torture, and back again to being the grown-up Muslim campaigner against Islamism, radicalisation and bigoted extremism in general. I found particularly scary, shared experiences of common locations and times in London, Pakistan and Egypt.

It is a very good read.

Sure, there is probably a little over-inflated sense of attributing his own actions and qualities to taking credit for the events described, it is after all only one person’s narrative of events as he saw it, but there can be no denying the story is a must-read lesson we all should understand. There may even be a little dramatic invention in the DNA of the number 42 and in his apologising to the door out of the torture cell? But he does also give generous credit to many others along the way; Peter Tatchell and Amnesty International for example, as well as a list of mainstream party politicians and civil servants that might surprise the more cynical.

Significant, I think, that Mid-East historian Tom Holland is one of those providing a cover blurb recommendation. An important book as well as being an un-put-downable read.

Chapter 16 “Polemic” provides probably the most comprehensive statement and rationalisation of the reactionary Islamist agenda – radically political before it is remotely religious, essentially “our” self-identity politics with a vengeance. I was reminded of my own readings of Anders Breivik in the objective logic behind misguided determination behind the appalling actions.

Initially, I made many notes, quotes and connections from that polemic chapter, but thought better of presenting them all here. Just go read it.

The final redemptive section of the book starts with Chapter 24 and I was moved to share these:

[On “No Platforming”] [Hall’s summary of Voltaire]
‘I disapprove of what you say,
but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ […]

Any other stance makes a mockery of the universality of human rights. Even now as I spend and expend my life campaigning against extremism, I would still want Amnesty to protect prisoners in a similar position to the one I was in. [Guilty in actions, but nevertheless actually imprisoned for belief.] […]

But the devil is in the detail. Where I disagree with not just Amnesty but with many other human-rights groups is in their failure to highlight a clear and obvious distinction between a victim of human rights abuses, and a champion of human rights causes. […]

I will campaign against anyone who would want to torture Mubarak, for he remains a human being, but I would never want to extend to any one of the Mubarak regime’s men a human rights platform from which to address a young, impressionable crowd of student volunteers …

[Many groups sadly blur the distinction in who they platform.]
Life is more complicated than that.

And

The rehumanisation Amnesty had helped kick-start [in me] was furthered by others in prison too. […]

‘So, why did you leave the cause?’ I asked, genuinely interested.

And as we walked across the desert sand of Mazrah Tora’s prison yard, [he] looked at me a simply said, ‘I grew up.’

The way he said it caught me completely off guard. I grew up. The phrase made me pause. I had been expecting a long pseudo-theological justification [… but … H]e was too smart to get into that. Instead, he just left that phrase hanging there, and left me to think about it. Which I did.

And

Reading classic English literature did for me what [only recently] studying Islamic theology couldn’t; It forced my mind to grapple with moral dilemmas. Upon our request, the British Consul would regularly send us books from the embassy library.

I devoured the classics ….

Those of us with over-zealous adherence to our logic of life – even those of us who would claim entirely undogmatic rational logic – have a lot of growing-up to do. Nawaz eventually comes to reflecting on Breivik in his epilogue.

“Much remains to be done.”

#Solidarity

I’ve expressed my views on Assad’s chemical weapons specifically and previously on (chemical weapons generally).

Even if the recent awful events weren’t caused by Russian supported Syrian forces using chemical weapons – Boris quite carefully suggested absence of any evidence they weren’t – but were collateral damage due to ISIS / rebel or even circumstantial stockpiling locally, then Assad is still guilty.

Assad is responsible for the stockpiles being in his country and for agreeing to manage their disposal safe from use, deliberate or accidental. If there are Syrian chemical weapons unaccounted for, Assad needs to apply caution in any Syrian / Russian military action in his own country.

Exactly what is or isn’t “anti-semitic” is getting pretty blurred and it’s getting pretty hard to follow when and why Ken Livingston keeps mentioning his pet theory on Hitler and Zionism.

If he is genuinely raising it himself – out of the context of any actual debate on the history of Jews in Germany, or rather simply answering provocative questions – then the question has to be why? What point is he making and why? That might be anti-semitic, even if it is a fact in historical context that Hitler did for a while conveniently support the idea a Jewish homeland outside Germany. The fact – even if it isn’t one – is plausible but it isn’t anti-semitic. A fact isn’t anti-semitic simply because Hitler was.

The real issue is that the UK Labour party is dealing with a persistent anti-semitism “taint” to which their response seems to be some PC variation on “Don’t mention the Jews” … just in case. The furore becomes almost self-fulfilling between accusation, defense and victimhood and, of course, Corbyn / Chakrabarti Labour has enough management leadership problems right now.

EITHER WAY – Ken is clearly no longer an astute enough politician to know how to avoid a “scandal” or has a hidden agenda that benefits from his continually stoking one. He really needs to be retired from any party involvement, whether he is anti-semitic or not.

[And I say this as a big fan of Ken back in the 1970’s when his GLC gave us students practically free 24 hour travel in London.]

[Post Note: My point, the historical Hitler / Zionism point is nowhere near Holocaust-denial. It’s only a step on the slippery slope to anti-semitism if you are a peculiarly PC version of “zero tolerant”. Jeez!]

[And here the full Facebook version of the David Baddiel piece in the Guardian. As he says, it’s the tone of what Ken is (may be) trying to say with his interpretation of historical facts and how he comes to be saying it – with PC avoidance of the word “Jew” – that’s the real problem, as I said. Think it’s more the lefty / liberal / PC commentary that is being “anti-semitic” with the conflation of all things Jewish / Zionist / Israeli. Hard to say whether Ken is or not, given his unclear message But as I say, as an experienced politician he’s either lost it or is exploiting the lack of clarity for an implied message or hidden agenda. Either way, as I said, Ken is in the wrong, anti-semitic or not.]

Is he a scientist or is he a philosopher? He’s a philosopher. His contributions to science (and anything else) are philosophical. He’s learned a great deal from science and is very pro-science. Some, but not so many, scientists appreciate philosophical input or explicitly concern themselves with the philosophical underpinnings of their subject.

Is he a “four horsemen” atheist or not? Yes, he is an atheist, but unlike most others, he’s not against religion per se, it has value in love and belonging (religiare – that which binds us culturally) and sees an entirely naturalistic explanation for religion. He’s against dogma and fanaticism – he certainly would “cage and/or disarm” extremists.

Does he believe consciousness is an illusion or not? No and Yes. It’s real and natural, but our typical view of it is illusory. It’s really a user interface behind which actual causality is quite different to the objects we can perceive in the interface. (How else would we / nature / god “intelligently-design” a supervisory dashboard for a complex system? – it’s a bag of tricks – The “mind” doesn’t need to know everything the “brain” is doing. See machine view.)

Does he explain or explain-away consciousness? Yes and Yes. Everything he has done has been of a piece attempting to explain and understand consciousness but, in “Consciousness Explained” and since, he has certainly been explaining away – pointing out an illusory idea – the “special” nature of consciousness – beyond natural evolutionary explanation. It’s a wonderful bag of natural tricks.

Does he believe in human exceptionalism? Yes and no. Human consciousness, intelligence and culture is the most wonderful bag of tricks we know about so far, but it’s no exclusion from natural evolution in any exceptional way.

Is he just a “materialist”, are minds just “machines”, can “culture” just be a product of the mind as materialist machine? Yes, but not “just”. Dawkins and Turing both showed us that evolution and computation are algorithmic, competence without comprehension, leading eventually to comprehension of competence. Robots made of robots made of robots made of robots made of robots made of …. Requires a stranger (loopy) version – an inversion – of reasoning more than mere greedy reductionism, reducing the “wonderful bag of tricks” to a direct chain of causation between the objects we choose to define (*). Always need to see big historical (evolutionary, fluid) picture as well as isolated local and temporal detail. [Post Note: ie Compatibilism is not simply (need not be) a fudge – after Julian Baggini on Freedom Regained. (*) This “shifting the basis of the argument” point is key to “Dennett’s wager.]

Critics in both the Humanities and the Sciences need to shift their (appreciation of) materialist (naturalist) thinking away from that kind of objective reductionism. Neither need have anything to fear except dogmatism in what may or must be explained in any particular way.

Hat tip to Jim Al-Khalili and the “Life Scientific” of  Dan Dennett this morning.

Still not quite finished my final thorough read of Dennett’s Bacteria to Bach and Back (“B2BnB”) and, apart from his focus on “words” in linguistic development, I’d still say the whole is an improvement – a consolidation, clarification and most importantly an evolution – of his life’s work. Highly recommended for that reason, as I’ve said.

How much it actually advances his thesis – on the evolved reality of conscious self – in the wider world of “accepted fact” is of course a wide open question.

Julian Baggini is one of many published reviewers of B2BnB and one for whose philosophical intelligence I have a lot of time, and I was moved to add this comment to his Prospect review:

I think the following is key when it comes to those critics who demand an answer to their “hard question” – how to explain “subjective experience”.

You quote Dennett’s response: “if you debate on your opponents’ terms, you have already lost. To win, you must set the agenda. His bet is that if you understand consciousness in the right way, the Hard Problem will be exposed as an artefact of an outmoded way of thinking—a pseudo-problem”

Yes he uses the throwaway “life’s too short” response in his conclusions, but the real answer is in the quote above. Notwithstanding the need to (eventually) have agreed, documented versions of Dennett’s ontology of consciousness – to satisfy the expectations of rational philosophy – I’d be interested in your own view of his speculative bet?

All too easy to predict his (existing) critics view, he does it himself. A large part of his book is in fact a plea to suspend disbelief on that bet. So, in that spirit …. are you a critic or a betting man?

He does of course address many of his critics points in B2BnB as well as in much previous work, but he makes no apology here for sticking to his own agenda to work through his arguments his way. A strange loopy journey to evolve our understanding of our evolved conscious self, rather than fit simple syllogistic logic to the arguments of others.

So no prizes for spotting that there is more work to be done before his critics can be satisfied and brought on board, but I tend to agree with Dan, that this is work for the rest of us. It cannot be a criticism of his omission in B2BnB.

Lots of positive philosophical pieces on Martin McGuinness trajectory from murderer to peacemaker. R.I.P. The realism expressed simply by Tony Blair “You only make peace with your enemies” speaking on BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning.

With ever more conflict and potentially conflicting views on any number of issues swirling around us the lesson is important.

It’s about balance.

When the conflict is based in real significant difference – Secularism vs Islamism say – then the balance has to be between drawing attention to the need for the root difference to be addressed, and the need not to turn the topic into a dividing issue in which the entire population must declare itself to be “with us or against us” in some universal campaign.

For mainstream media, like the BBC, the editorial balance is between not to overly publicising the difference, creating distorted or exaggerated impressions, whilst nevertheless reporting key examples in the process of debate needed to support constructive public action.

UN freedoms of thought and expression, includes rights and tolerances for different religious and non-religious positions. It supports secularism, that people may hold and express multiple religious and non-religious positions, but that these positions must not form the legal basis of social arrangements.

Like many Arabic / Muslim / Koranic terms “sharia” means many different things, but put simply:

Sharia “law” can never be tolerated in a free secular democracy.

Sharia “counsel” could be a valid part of community governance, provided all participants understand and have access to their secular rights, freedoms and responsibilities.

It’s the difference between democracy and populism. We need a few key credible commentators to tirelessly point out the difference and abuses to the media and the rest of us. What we don’t need is a growing mob using the (real, factual) difference as a rallying cry. The “we vs other” narrative. Populism wants to use abuses of the underlying factual difference as a weapon to win against the other, the would-be losers. In a democracy, the prevailing majority cares about working with the interests of the minority.

It’s not about denying factual truths, it’s about recognising their significance and understanding how to achieve the best outcome.

[PS BBC Radio 4 Jonathan Freedland’s “Long View” on William of Norwich and the Jews … same story … nothing new under the sun.]

I mentioned Dan Dennett’s latest book a couple of posts back, expressing some slight reticence that, having read and appreciated pretty much everything else he’d written, I might not find much satisfyingly new in his latest. I shouldn’t have worried.

If his last work Intuition Pumps was a greatest hits collection of the many individual Thinking Tools he’s developed and worked with, his latest is a consolidated restatement and evolved update of the overall message of his life’s work to date.

Having first skim read, to get a feel for the contents, index and references, I’m now around one third through a careful read of the whole. So, whilst indeed little is entirely new, the careful organisation of what we’ve learned in clear and witty language, stripped of errors and distractions is immensely valuable and readable. And it is equally clear that this was his explicit objective.

He makes no apology for the “strange loopy” nature of his story, with no simple linear narrative, and the need to suspend disbelief and rehearsed objections, as we start somewhere in the middle of his story and cycle several times, on multiple levels, through the topics that make up the biological and cultural evolution of mind. Like Darwinian evolution itself, our understanding of of what consciousness is, must cycle through the process of understanding how understanding works. Living is how life works.

Reclaiming “intelligent design” from the supernaturalists, and reclaiming “teleology” for what purpose intelligent designs evolve naturally, have long been central to Dennett’s agenda. The attack-being-the-best-defensive nature of so much science vs faith debate means it has become taboo to even countenance such thoughts. But think them we must, it’s only natural. Science’s own position on such topics have themselves become politicised dogma. Suspending knee-jerk objections is essential to making progress and Dennett pulls no punches in demanding the space needed to develop his story free from all dogma.

I can safely say From Bacteria to Bach and Back is the book for anyone yet to get to grips with Dennett’s explanation of how mind has evolved to understand what it is to be conscious. There can scarcely be a higher agenda. Highly recommended.

[More later.]

[Many good reviews, critical and otherwise, of B2B&B in every credible publishing outlet since its US release late last year. This in the New Yorker is particularly fine for its angle on the quest of Dennett’s life.]

[Prospect Interview and Julian Baggini review, which I may use as a sounding board for my own review.]