Explain that to me again!” was the title of a talk I gave a couple of times recently, once to Teesside Sceptics in the Pub and once to Teesside Humanists, with an entirely new audience each time. The subject was Dan Dennett’s most comprehensive exploration of consciousness in his latest book “Bacteria to Bach and Back”. As with the previous occasion, when I gave a brief taster version which went as far as introducing Dennett on the topic of consciousness, both audiences gave me plenty of interaction with questions and ideas. Quite different audiences, with different starting points, each challenging in their own way. Thanks to Terry Waites for giving me the opportunities and to the audiences for their participation.

My main aim is to counteract the denial, by many scientists and more scientific philosophers, that Consciousness (and Self and Free Will) are somehow unreal or merely illusory epiphenomena. Dennett’s response to science’s (current) inability arrive at a well-formed watertight definition that explains this thing we call consciousness, let alone our subjective experience of it (the hard problem), is a plea to suspend disbelief and to go round his evolutionary arguments again, as many times as it takes.

Experience shows that new things, and entirely new types of thing, emerge from this strange-loopy thing we call evolution. They say “a good workman never blames his tools” but as Dan quotes “in the same way as you can’t achieve much carpentry with your bare hands, you can’t do much new thinking with your bare brain”. The inability of science to explain consciousness may be a failure of the tools of explanation, not a failure of scientists to use current scientific thinking tools. Consciousness and subjectivity are clearly – almost by objective definition – not the types of object current scientific thinking can get a handle on. By repeating the evolutionary synthesis – explain that to me again – science will not only continue to attempt new explanations with existing tools, but will find new thinking tools, new ways of scientific thinking, will also emerge. Only then can a definitive satisfactory scientific explanation of consciousness (and self and free-will) be found.

Thinking about thinking tools is the domain of philosophers, and Dennett’s Bet is that only if science suspends disbelief and engages with philosophers in the evolution of all our thinking, will new solutions be found. We will not find a solution to the hard problem of consciousness simply by assembling the objects we can currently define with the tools we already use.

[The (wordy) slide-deck is here – ExplainThatToMeAgainComplete – I used the same deck both times, with the introductory slides stitched-in, even though I presented a different selection first time through the formal part of the presentations. This is the whole deck used.]

I have many times left hanging the idea that causation is seriously weird, if you get down to looking closely at what we really mean or try to explain how it works.

“… important assumptions about time and causality at base – seriously weird concepts when you research beyond common sense – a recurring issue of mine …” [Already “recurring” back in 2006]

In fact it came up again just yesterday as I was giving my talk on the reality of our conscious will to the Teesside Humanists. (More on that later, but my topic has been Dan Dennett’s latest evolutionary explanations of consciousness in “Bacteria to Bach and Back”.)

Like many philosophical conundrums, what you mean and the definitions you use, leave you with choices but precious few firm conclusions. Here Stoic Massimo Pigliucci shares his (technical) slides on causation at the “Cause and Process in Evolution” 2017 conference at KLI Vienna these past few days. Massimo is providing the philosophical help to scientists in the same way I see Dan doing, though I don’t see any Dennett in Massimo’s paper or anywhere in #CAPIE2017 ?

Firstly I have to say I agree with Pigliucci that Philosophy and Science must be seen as “overlapping magisteria” – the essence of my “good fences make good neighbours” message – we can draw definitional lines in the sand around our fields of interest, but the boundaries have to be porous and flexible enough for proper collaborative progress. Scientists dissing philosophy and building defensive walls helps no-one. Philosophy has useful thinking tools, to use Dennett’s language.

Also agree with Pigliucci, after Ernst Mayr, that

“Ultimate” causes are no more ultimate than “proximate” ones. Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (*) is an expansion [dare I say, evolution], but not a radical revision or rejection, of the (so-called) Modern Synthesis [and (so-called) Deductive Nomological views?].

Can’t help thinking that controversy around group selection effects could also be resolved by such enlightened thinking. His list of (example) areas of debate where philosophy and science really need each other is also spot on:

  • Species concepts in biology
  • Definitions and uses of “gene” [and “meme” I’d say]
  • Discussions of the concept of race [and cultural / religious “tribes” I’d say]
  • Nature of evolutionary theory
  • Epistemic limits of evolutionary psychology, medical research, neuroscience, social science
  • Neuroscience of consciousness
  • (Metaphysical) interpretations of quantum mechanics
  • Desirability of “post-empirical” science (see string wars) etc., etc., etc. ..

[That “post empirical science” already in there. It’s my agenda. And – Backward / Top down causality also in there. This has to help with strange-loopy explanations of subjective consciousness level objects (ie subjects) supervenient / arising on the stack of materialist physical science. Dennett again. And – Functional (what for) explanation of why?!? Dennett again. And lots more good stuff in Massimo’s paper. As he says many accounts of causation are themselves confused. I need to understand “Conserved Quantities Theory” of causation. Later (below).]

Question – there must be some good reason why Massimo Pigliucci doesn’t see Dan Dennett as part of this story?


[Post Note – Riffing on Pigliucci’s words on causation as exchange of conserved quantities.]

OK I think I get it. At the smallest reductive (irreducible) levels of physics, this is the model in use. Gluons and gravitons etc as the transferrers of force between the massive particles, and the same force as the transfer of momentum between larger Newtonian billiard-ball objects. Reductive science would have ALL causes – chemical, biological, mental – built on top of physics as aggregations of forces between particles. But these force and particle models are themselves simply analogies to predict and explain observed behaviour.

Some of us (eg Rovelli) would contend that information – any significant difference in potential – is the fundamental particle underlying the standard model anyway, whether you’re into strings or quantum-loop-gravity or whatever. Causation as transfer of conserved quantities > Collier’s transfer of information, same thing. Information is simply a difference in some property.

The example of the plant dying “because” I didn’t water it? It DOES fit the same model. Obviously there’s a complex string / stack / network of irreducible causes between me, the water and the plant and its life, where the mass of water is a conserved property being transferred through the chemical and biological processes. It’s clearly short-hand to reduce to a single causal statement, but it’s not of a fundamentally different kind, simply a higher aggregation of the same kind. Proximate or Ultimate (or First even?) is a matter of reductive choice of metaphor. Of course this throws up that at all levels, above some irreducible one – even Newtonian billiard balls above the standard & quantum models – it’s a metaphorical aggregation.

What this throws into question is more the issue of whether there is really ANY (real) irreducible level – other than information, the epistemic one – and that we are in practice always using an aggregated metaphor at ANY level. In causation, we have something that would remain the same unless some “event” exchanges a quantity. Feels almost tautological, or circular, in that we simply shifted the problem of causation to what causes the exchange event. [End riff.]

(*) EES (Extended Evolutionary Synthesis) would appear to be Templeton funded. The religious connection always causes some people a problem, but it’s just another good-neighbour / good-fences case to me.

[Post Note: And here are Massimo’s summary notes of all the CAPIE2017 (Cause and Process in Evolution) conference presentations.]

Part of my agenda is being honest about the limits to science. Some parts of the Science-PR machine will defend to their death, that no such limits exist, but in fact such dogmatic defence in itself shows up these limits, is one of the limitations.

I haven’t fully unpicked these recent stories yet, but wanted to capture them as part of the bigger story.

Pop Goes the Universe – A Feb 2017 SciAm article on alternative interpretations of CMB observations.

A Cosmic Controversy – Response to the above signed by 30-odd scientists, defending the empirical scientific nature of existing accepted theories.

33 Physicists Sign Angry Letter – 11th May Gizmodo article about the controversy (hat tip to Sabine Hossenfelder).

What If Cosmic Inflation Is Wrong? – 11th May Forbes piece by Ethan Siegel, also shared and discussed in this FB Thread.

Is Inflationary Cosmology Science? – Sean Carroll’s blog on 10th May asks the question I’m asking; the implied question that drew the defensive response to the original piece.

Big Bang as in something from nothing, and Big Bang in the sense of its particular inflationary explanations are separate questions but are connected by ignored limits to science and self-imposed limits to scientistic thinking. Both these are metaphysical issues, or theological ones if you prefer. Matters of politics rather than science or rationality.

Something from “literally” nothing is not a scientific question and by definition can never be amenable to testable and falsifiable science. Some scientists get angry at that suggestion. The Science-PR machine (eg Dawkins) sticks its head in the sand even though Krauss (author of “Something from Nothing”) is honest enough to back off from the literal, absolute view.

Particular explanations of the progress of universal evolution involve adding fudges (like particular values for the cosmological constant, or the existence of dark matter and energy) to make the equations fit the observations. That’s not wrong in itself. It’s how science often proceeds, with explanations that are ultimately proven wrong, but which allow understanding to evolve as observation and revised theories are developed and justified. It’s a holding pattern.

But part of the holding pattern is to circle the wagons in defence of all suggestions otherwise.

The reason these two issues are connected by a common problem is the fear of a “god of the gaps” being conveniently invoked to explain not only the primary gap (something vs nothing) but some of the other inconvenient gaps in fundamental and near-bleeding-edge science – the “standard” models of both particles and cosmology – where even such everyday things as mass, gravity and rules of causation remain seriously weird, for want of a better word. Nothing important then? Something worth defending?

But dogmatic defence can hide genuine non-scientific issues with the processes of science. The politics of defence is not itself scientific.

I’m an atheist. Science moves in mysterious ways, there is no god of the gaps, in fact no god of supernatural causation and purpose. The natural world is driven entirely by natural processes amenable to natural explanation. But science is not only the sum total of our scientific knowledge of the world it is also the meta-science of how science proceeds as a human endeavour. Science can only ever be the sum of this human product, however carefully we eliminate extraneous subjective influence and use the empirical tests of falsifiability of objective observation.

The thing is we can never entirely remove the human perspective from the whole stack of knowledge and processes. It’s an anthropic effect, not the anthropic principle, simple a perspective. Our observations from our evolved position in our universe, and theories built on them, are anthropocentric. The ultimate subjectivity of science. Our natural rationality is more than the strictly objective, causally reductive science that science would will it to be.

As well as glossing over the necessarily fundamental gap in cosmic knowledge, this anthropic ignorance has also air-brushed out of the picture, in the name of politically defensive warfare, perfectly valid alternative theories for the evolution of the cosmos and its properties. It’s highly probable the 33 scientists rejecting the alternatives suggest by “Pop Goes the Cosmos” misunderstood the suggestions actually being made against the status-quo of science. We’re only human after all, but can we ever learn to compensate for our anthropic perspective?

[Refs to be added. Brandon Carter / Rick Ryals.]

Skin in the Game (SITG) is the 5th Volume of @NNTaleb’s Incerto (work in progress), Incerto being the umbrella name for the @NNTaleb books, another “trilogy in five parts” it seems:

Fooled by Randomness
– The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2004)
The Black Swan
– The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007)
The Bed of Procrustes
– Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (2010?)
– Things that Gain from Disorder (2012)
Skin in the Game
– (Work in progress) (Some chapters available.)

Taleb makes you work for his value – skin in the game – so, whilst he makes it clear it’s not necessary to read them in order, they do each have subtitles, and I found it useful to unpick which was which in what order. There, done.

This is what prompted me to check:

Yes indeed. And very apt in the week many of us are remembering the lessons we learned from #Pirsig.

Larry Krauss giving BHA Darwin Day 2017 Lecture
(From 10 or 11 Feb, Euston or Camden)

[These are just contemporary notes recorded whilst watching the video. Not edited into any coherent piece in sentences.]

Dawkins intro too flippant about “something from nothing”. Krauss actually no better than “all things complex from almost nothing”. (Empty space ain’t so empty, as Krauss himself says later. His previous book admits as much, but the “Science-PR-Machine” doesn’t.)

Hmmm, “illusion of design is an accident of our (particular) existence” …. anthropic perspective is therefore real, man!

However, proper scepticism – not over-claiming here. That’s a good sign. (He is a good communicator, so long as he reigns in his arrogance about what is known, and people understand his barbed asides simply as gags for a laugh and not to be taken as valid arguments against the things he attacks or dismisses.)

Anyway: Evolution requires a “population – a population of galaxies in his case”. Good, some hope of an evolutionary explanation to come.

And “Goldilocks / Fine Tuning” – anthropic again. Not special in any privileged sense, but specifically real in terms of it actually being our perspective. Not merely a trivial or tautological statement.

“The kind of nothing that is not nothing. Space and time themselves – and even the laws of physics – are emergent and quantum variables” of this not-nothing.

“Redefinition is simply learning.” OK, it’s why Dennett says hold-off on your definitions while you can (and science generally says always be prepared to change them).

“Plato is his favourite philosopher(!) – really the cave”. (I think this may be the limit of Krauss philosophical knowledge, apart from his “sex with small boys” joke.)

(Aside – This scientist says and does – “apocryphal stories useful even if not true”.)

(Why is he describing Faraday / Electrical & Magnetic fields / Maxwell / Speed of Light / Einstein / Relativity / Time-dilation / Space-time / Feynman / Quantum-mechanics / Fermi / Standard-model-forces-and-particles / If-it-works-copy-it? Ah – increasingly not mental crutches in Larry’s opinion, unlike Faraday’s pictures of rays?!? OK progress is finding two things explained as manifestations of some same new underlying physics and so on. Honestly no difference in the nature of explanation between Faraday and Feynman’s diagrams – both models (crutches of some kind) on which to hang stories of what’s going on.)

Progress – “evolution of physics” (our physical understanding actually – see anthropic) is where “two correct but mutually inconsistent statements brought together by a better statement”. OK, but that’s anthropic. But where is he going with this in terms of cosmic evolution? Ah “the Muon experiment” – OK proves relativity time dilation – OK “Herman Minkowski – unification of explanation of time and space as one thing”. But why is he telling us this whole story?

Ha! He notices that implicit question.
“don’t worry I am leading somewhere”.

“Myopia” (anthropic perspective). Ah. He’s selling superconductivity “spontaneous-symmetry-breaking” as a “Higgs explanation of the particle appearance of mass. So now even EM and weak nuclear forces are unified as electro-weak”, etc. “Accident of the Higgs field frozen in the state it happens to be in our universe. LHC proof of these Higgs postulations. LHC engineering stats.”

“Humanity searching for reality” (evolving better models of reality, I’d say). He’s giving Darwin credit for this process – greatest observing and explaining scientist. Hmmm. I’d agree about the status of Darwin, but not that Krauss story is demonstrating this, he simply states it (in the context of this Darwin Day audience).

“We, and the universe that supports us, are simply a Cosmic Accident. The one we’re in is a natural selection – Cosmic Natural Selection.” Hmmm. Using Darwin’s words doesn’t make this true or explain why.

He even says it himself. We ARE choosing to believe this universe was made (evolved) specially for us. Pure accident it was this one, sure, but Higgs values and the particular set of standard model and cosmological constants are precisely why this is the one we’re in. That’s no accident.

As Dawkins says, great science communication, but like “Something From Nothing”, “Greatest Story Ever Told (So Far)” seems to be a fraud, a denial on this evidence. Great rhetoric and a great potted of the history of the evolution of “our model” of fundamental physics in there, but.

He knows his physics, but no evidence he knows Darwin (or Dennett or metaphysical underpinnings of his physics). A very entertaining “act” nevertheless.


[Post Note: Here, an antidote to that negative opinion, when he writes at length his rhetoric can afford to be more honest than the “Science-PR-Machine”:

“So this is where we are. Are great new experimental insights just around the corner that may validate, or invalidate, some of the grander speculations of theoretical physicists? Or are we on the verge of a desert where nature will give us no hint of what direction to search in to probe deeper into the underlying nature of the cosmos? We’ll find out, and we will have to live with the new reality either way.”

Hat tip to @ChrisOldfield and @LogicalAnalysis.]

It was cringeworthy that so many obituaries, and one-line social-media quotes linking to them, chose to lead with the quote that “121 submissions of ZMM were rejected by publishers before William Morrow’s single acceptance”.

Cringeworthy because it’s not at all relevant to Pirsig’s work, simply part of #TheOutsider mythology created as a continuing part of the marketing of ZMM, quoted from a jokey aside in an interview, about only needing one acceptance for publication.

It was for rhetorical purposes, like most of Pirsig’s presentation of his own work. It’s written to be read and shared.

For a fact-checking generation (*), the facts are obviously more complicated than that simple statement, as already noted in my own #Pirsig biographical timeline. (The timeline benefitted from clarifying correspondence with Bob, and my biographical resources were shared with Mark Richardson when writing his own book, who further corresponded with Jim Landis, Bob’s original editor and champion at Morrow. The facts are as clear as they’re ever likely to be. Roughly – Proposal and sample chapters mailed to 120-odd publishers > addressed to pre-researched named-individual publishers where possible to get attention > 20-odd expressions of interest > one ~$3000 dollar advance made by Morrow / Landis to secure deal and …. the rest is history. And note that most of that happened before the ZMM Road Trip itself; the writing of the book for publication was long term, pre-meditated and planned project. Bob’s a writer, not a prophet of a moment of revelation.)

Dan Bloom has done his own fact-checking blog and checked his story with Jim, Mark and myself. He’s right that too many journos and social-media pundits have use the apocryphal quote in ignorance of the detail, and in doing so helped reinforce the mythology. In context that’s no bad thing, in fact given the quality of Bob’s work it’s a very good thing, but it does show how easily “false” facts become fake-news when unchecked. In that Dan is right and I have myself chastised a few on Twitter who should know better than doing so without checking. One journo simply quoting another is not a fact check.


(*) People who believe the world is (should be) made (solely) of objective facts. A topic highly relevant to Pirsig’s work.


[Post Note, and another myth. That as a result of his IQ rating, Pirsig was a “genius”. As Bruce Charlton’s post suggests, he was intelligent and creative and he may have been a genius, but IQ tests don’t really tell us such things. That Pirsig was advanced schooling years more than once, and had his IQ tested several different ways over many years, are not in doubt – recorded in my own timeline (1938 entry referring also to 1949 and 1961) is the reference to the same Minnesota Institute of Child Development testimonial that Bruce uses – but that doesn’t necessarily make him a genius. Hat tip to Sam for spotting Bruce’s post. At the time I created the timeline, I had a paper copy (shared with Mark Richardson) but there was no on-line copy of the testimonial letter, now on Wikipedia (?) though I can’t see it.]

Many tweets and memorial pieces coming in, still every 20 seconds or so via social media – most “so long and thanks for all the …. fish” one-liner memories, linking to some already published mainstream obituary. Some like SeymourBlogger @AbbeysBooks (followed by Jim Landis) have their own very specific “learnings”.

Re-reading ZMM (Part 1)
Re-reading ZMM Part 2

Seymour has clearly read more of the “Foggy Froggy” Post-Modernists than I have. I’ve read enough (mainly Foucault) to appreciate what I think I need to know – always dangerous – but have always since branded myself as a “PoPoMo” if I ever need to claim a label in response to some pejorative “PoMo” criticism. After Radical Empiricism, we have Speculative Realism, and more. But I digress.

No detailed review of Seymour’s thesis is possible here – I don’t actually know what it is – but several points to note. Like any of us with very specific reasons to hang our hats on what we learned from journeying with Pirsig, the writing and presentation is a bit idiosyncratic – “crowning” Pirsig – breathless, weird even, but with good reason.

Alterity – what Pirsigians call SOMism or Subject-Object-Metaphysics, what I simply call “identity politics” – the simple fact that by long established convention (an evolved cultural memeplex) all objects (even ourselves) are defined and identified in relation to us as subjects, however arrogantly we “greedy-reductionists” continually claim “evidence-based” objectivity.

Irreversibility – In “Quality” thinking there is a very important distinction to be made in the way things evolve through time. Pirsig’s MoQ (Metaphysics of Quality), contrasted with SOMism, is a framework of evolving Cultural (Intellectual and Social) layers built on top of Life, built in turn on the Physical. The contrast is simply that in this framework there are no fundamental objects other than the “quality” of interactions dynamic or static patterns. Lower (older evolved) static patterns and layers become latches for higher (newer) ones. Pirsig actually influenced many in the Total Quality Management business during the 1980’s; the big name gurus, like Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence with Bob Waterman) as well as many pragmatic individuals directly or indirectly. Anyway, there is something in Pirsig that highlights the 2nd Law, that reverse entropy gradients can only ever result from localised intentional processes, and furthermore, only a subset of this “constructive” activity occurs in ways that are reversible. My original (engineering) mentor, worked with a welding guru, known as Tad Boniczevski who was forever warning us in our engineering specifications to be careful in applying quality management processes and checks to recognise those where “parts become irreversibly incorporated into the whole” as opposed to those that didn’t. Different rules must apply in practice. Reversibility is very much the exception, one of ingenuity.

There is a lot more to recommend in Pirsig; too much to mention again here and many people have thanked Pirsig for many different kinds of inspiration but the technical philosophical and quality stuff is a rich seam.