Too Blue For Logic

My axioms were so clean-hewn,

The joins of ‘thus’ and ‘therefore’ neat

But, I admit

Life would not fit

Between straight lines

And all the cornflowers said was ‘blue,’

All summer long, so blue.

So when the sea came in and with one wave

Threatened to wash my edifice away –

I let it.

[Marianne Jones]

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[First discovered and posted back in 2002, but oft quoted since.]

 

Post-Iraq and Afghanistan, with regime-change and support for Arab-spring events, the west and neighbouring governments made plenty of mistakes in the actions they actually chose to take and in how far they thought-through the immediate consequences and the longer-term stabilisation of Middle-East countries. Not to mention the running sore of the unfinished business in Israel-Palestine.

Which isn’t to say they / we were wrong to act, even to “go to war”, with good intentions for populations repressed by or at risk from dictators and ideologues. The complexity is always in the many parties with their own opportunistic agendas and scores to settle, and in the freely fragmented hearts and minds of our own populations that need to be brought along with any such actions and sustained attention to consequences. Even without traditional “imperial” aims, aspirations and the arrogance of knowing what’s best for johnny-foreigner, we all have many interests tied-up in these situations.

Crass with hindsight to be keeping score of numbers of bombs and countries involved – human casualties and cultural damage to “civilisation” for sure – but let’s not falsely objectify what is far more complex and complicated. Crass too to simply blame and vilify our individual leaders, with hindsight or even with I told-you-so slings and arrows of contemporary stop-the-war protestation.

One reason we need institutions like UN, NATO and EU to give us follow-through on policy and initiatives beyond single-national government cycles. Sure these institutions ain’t perfect, even highly flawed, in need of improvement, refreshment and re-commitment to such improvement and their longer term aims as well as learning from evident mistakes. But a rose by any other name would be as thorny.

Just a holding post of related links:

Recurring theme of mine – very smart, highly rational people converting to christian religion, even catholicism, as they grow older and wiser. Triple-first C S Lewis, Marshall McLuhan, inklings etc.

This piece on losing faith in experts includes a reference to C S Lewis Screwtape Letters. (Hat tip to @Contronline) Also Taleb’s IYI – semi-serious Intellectual Yet Idiot recurring theme.

Recent “Great Lives” on C S Lewis proposed by Suzannah Lipscomb (@sixteenthCgirl). Like Matthew Parris, I was always turned off by Lewis (and Tolkien) obviously allegorical yet sneakily preachy agenda, despite obvious clever qualities.

Fascinating.

The following is really only a draft (from 15th Dec 2016) but prompted to post after seeing this tweet exchange today:

I’ve reacted against this “post-truth” meme, that somehow we’ve morphed into a world where lies have replaced truth, where “fake-news” has displaced facts, and that this is something new and real.

In fact all that is new is that ever more ubiquitous media clamour for our attention by turning every topic into a battle between polarised opposites. Polemics have always been part of debate, but debate and reality have always been more than a choice between fact and fiction, and fiction has often contained more valuable truth that facts. As old as history in fact. All that’s new is the ever expanding ubiqity of media and the crowding-out all but extreme opposites and sensational interpretations. Memetic click-bait. There have always been headlines – the original marketing click-bait – but now some expect headlines and 140 char tweets to be a valid summary of the story or …. get out of my sight, scroll on.

Interesting how many “BTL” comments and social-media threads spend time debating “but that headline is false, it doesn’t reflect the content of the story and reference material”. Well no, but now you’ve linked to it, it’s the content we’re supposed to be evaluating. It’s the content the writer put their effort into. We’re increasingly meta about the motives in the media messages – second-guessing agendas than we are concerned with the content. We’re in danger of seeing the medium as the only message.

In fact we’re in a world where we no longer understand what truth and reality are. The only test being if it’s not a true fact it must be false. That’s never been true, except for abstract objects confined to some logical truth-table.

More truth in fiction, it has been said many times before.

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[Post Note: This piece from Peter Pomeranstev writing at Granta on “Why We’re Post Fact”. Hat tip to Terry Waites posting on Agora Critical Thinking’s Facebook page.

It’s a good piece, a good summary of the situation we’re talking about, and Pomerantsev draws heavily on Svetlana Boym’s work amongst others. Reinforces my view that what’s changed is the technology, which is not to blame the technology, but recognise that the technology exposes the underlying human reality. As he says in conclusion “an audience which has already spent a decade living without facts can now indulge in a full, anarchic liberation from coherence.”

I might reword “a decade living without facts” as “decades forgetting what truth is” – losing our grip on the necessary balance of facts and stories that make up truth. All truth is made up?]

Doumentary Series – Why Are We Here? In four parts.
Blog background info here.

Hat tip to David Morey for the links.

The following is simply raw running notes of content topics.

Almost whole scope of my own agenda and writings. David Malone has pretty much the same rational-atheist position as myself, though I didn’t know that when I reported on being impressed with him at Hay on Wye 2016 and 2014.

Think the series loses its way a little in episode 3 and parts of 4, arguments less coherent either way, and maybe loses the focus on the question in the title. Becomes much more focussed on the existence and/or necessity of God or not.

But overall very good. Recommended and a useful resource for all the contributing talking heads from science and philosophy.

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Part 1 – Meaning Seeking Beings – with or without “God”.

(David Malone and Ard Louis with many sources who have been speakers from Hay on Wye / How the Light Gets In : Marcello Gleiser, Alex Rosenberg, Peter Atkins, Denis Noble, George Ellis, Simon Conway Morris, John Cottingham, Roger Penrose, Frank Wilczec, Semir Zeki, Gregory Chaitin, Ben Okri, Sunetra Gupta, Frans de Waal, Jane Goodall, Martin A Novak, Molly Crockett, Gwendolyn Patton, and maybe a few I missed?)

Reductionism > success in science > Scientism – determinist bottom-up causation explains everything real, exclusively, end-of. No free-will etc.

Emergence > the whole is more than sum of the parts > evolved patterns and systems causally effect their component parts.

Illusion of Self

Fine Tuning – for life and intelligent human life – anthropic

The Multiverse – more “universes” than “particles” in this universe

Universe(s) from Nothing

Evolutionary Layers – Physics > Chemistry > Biology > Cognition different “laws” in each phase of evolution of the universe. (Cf Physical / Living / Social / Intellectual after Pirsig?)

Convergence – evolutionary recurrence of patterns & forms – directionality in results of increasing complexity.

Neo-Darwinists’ fear of Creationists – throwing out babies with the bathwater

(The sneering arrogance of Rosenberg and Atkins!)

Objective data vs relationships

Part 2 – The Reality of Ideas

True empirical knowledge through sensory perception – all our “objective” knowledge of reality is filtered through our lens of consciousness.

Mathematical Absolutes – beyond physics of reality – just as real, but a deeper “degree” of existence – after Plato effectively

Abstract “imaginary” mathematical concept like “i” > even basic QM depends on it.

Dirac Equation > Eugene Wigner

Truth & Beauty – scientific truths appear to be related to elegance – simple beauty and symmetries – of some kind. Beauty that “rewards” the subject.

Creativity – stuff emerges from asymmetry or broken-symmetry – the asethetic of imperfection.

Randomness – creation is “sexy” – randomness – unpredictability – is possibility of / opportunity for creation. (Not the religion of randomness – everything is chance – of the scientistic atheist.

The Sublime – true beauty is close to terror, where angels fear to tread – “awe” response to transcendence. Religious “sentiment” at peace with science.

A Different Kind of Narrative Truth – stories, narrative – making sense of reality. Even science has narratives and imagination. Stories of the facts, or stories as tempting illusions that we understand the facts.

Truth as more than those things that can be “proven”? Can narrative contain more “profound” truth than explicit content.

Part 3 – Moral Absolutes (?)

Part 3 – The Animal Within – a moral animal – a sense of knowing right from wrong

Genes – The Science of Morality? Morality as the ultimate emergent property of genes. I’m thinking what you’re thinking – Game theory compromises?

Red in Tooth & Claw? Science too narrow and pessimistic to tell us what is morally right or good.

Our chimpanzee brother. Ard Louis’s own story.

Cooperation – Evolution’s Missing Law?

Fairness & Empathy – our better nature – the Capuchin monkey unfair reward experiment.

The Moral World – religious belief?

Differences of degree and/or kind? Degree evolves to be kind – “new species”

Knowing Good – Choosing Bad – The Milgram experiments – Moral uncertainty, can’t really get inside the other person’s head.

Is ought ever a scientific question? Instinctive empathy is real. There really is a moral compass. Are they fundamental aspect of reality, like mathematical laws?

Part 4 The Moral Compass

Nihilism – A world without values. Cooperation, coordination and division of tasks (and empathy & altruism) are things that evolved by necessity at stages in our social evolutionary history.

Liberation theology of MLK

Instinctive emotional tendencies that are post-rationalised.

Moral Decisions – Emotions vs Ideas – or more like a mixture / balance of the two? The motivation comes from the sentiment before cognitive rationalisation.

More rational to believe in god? Sure, more than to be sure there isn’t. Like David, nothing I believe requires existence of a supernatural omniscient agent. My kind of atheism.

The Case Against Godscientific standards of logical argument and evidence. Leaves possibility of a god outside of physical science – transcendent god.

Unfinished Business – An afterlife? Undecided questions of how we came to be?

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Plenty of respectable people this morning pillorying The (socialist Daily Worker) Morning Star for seeming to “celebrate” the “liberation” of Aleppo by forces led by “fascist” Assad and supported by Iran and “imperialist” Russia and – whilst many of said forces now reported to be slaughering innocents.

(Note that Tatchell was probably also reacting to their criticism of his recent “stunt” – on that same front page.)

Slaugher is never to be celebrated, even if capturing the regional capital represents some kind of success in the strategic picture. Honestly have no idea what particular information the Star’s journo’s thought they were commenting on at they time they prepared the story. (Lyse Ducet reporting from Aleppo on @BBCR4Today this morning conveyed the awful facts amid the confusion.)

More significantly, we’ve no idea how much we can expect such forces to be led and coordinated given the context, but I’d presume there were plenty of opportunists tagging along to fight against … their enemies … whatever, terrorists, rebels. What’s in a label?

One thing is sure there can be no shortage of “sectarian” scores to settle on arrival. Expressing outrage at the needless killing is one thing, but choosing who to target for blame is a bit rich coming from Westerners who had no stomach to intervene.

We have responsibilities for (and interests in) the mess known simply as “the Middle-East situation”. No coincidence Aleppo was one of T E Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom long before Sykes-Picot.

And George Osborne agrees.

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[Post Note: Balanced piece from Robert Fisk in The Independent.]

[Post Note: And another balanced and typically blunt piece from Nicholas Taleb with a hat-tip to Fisk.]

I always class myself as a rationalist-atheist-humanist-secularist, and support as many such-minded organisations through subcription, membership and participation as practically possible. Sometimes I can come across a bit luke-warm when the campaign of the day is explicitly anti-theist, anti-religion, preferring to consider more nuanced arguments and to remind humanists that religious theists are humans too. I tend to reject the binary received-wisdom of critical-thinking focussed on finding fault with what we’re against. I’m defined by what I’m for.

So let me say without qualification that the Freethought Report 2016 is an unmitigated good. Now in it’s fifth year, it is a tremendous piece of work to compile and publish in collaboration with all manner of international organisations through the UN.

It’s all too easy to abbreviate the applicable UN rights as freedom of religious belief, an impression compounded in acronyms, handles and hash-tags with variations on “FoRB”. The full UN mandate covers freedoms of expression, thought, religion and belief, including non-religious belief. The shortest possible form being FoRoB or FoR&B maybe, that is

Freedom of Religion and/or Belief.

Ahmed Shaheed’s foreword highlight’s this point that we do the non-religious a disservice if we overlook the inclusive nature of the freedoms defined.

The positive side of what we non-religious might believe has been fraught with the fact that the word belief is itself contingent. Saying the contingencies are in science and objective evidence is fine for 20:20 hindsight, but can’t fully do justice to all our human futures. The blurrier contingencies of more subjective beliefs and values are often left unspoken but in any event, intellectual debate is no substitute for committed action.

The Freethought Report is unflinching in documenting all cases of abuses of free thought and expression and, by totting-up scorecards, presents national governments and local activists with clear and inescapable evidence in a public UN context. It takes a great deal of bravery and determined effort to produce.

The report has previously been available electronically, but now Freethought Report 2016 is fully indexed and searchable on-line. There is no hinding place for delinquent governments. Well done to Bob Churchill, the IHEU team and all their international collaborators.

In between writing, reading and filleting good books on topics of the day as far as my social-knowledge and decision-making research agenda is concerned, I like to catch up on the great books. They’re great books for a reason, and the reason is often timeless.

It’s three weeks since I posted for some reason. I cleared my decks in order to attend the Meaning 2016 conference in Brighton, drafted a very long post of reflections of that. Good, positively recommended, but at the same time disappointing. Needs a bit of editing before I post publicly. See, the new business and economic models are genuinely exciting, yet nevertheless timeless. Innovation is overrated – there’s really nothing new under the sun. The excitement is that pockets of people pick-up on their value and resolve to work towards them, not that they’re new.

In fact, my main agenda is to address why pockets of goodness do not generally spread. The memetic effect, that simplified “received wisdom” spreads much quicker and more easily than good ideas.

Even behind the great firewall of China again, as I was on business earlier this week, I had full VPN access to the rest of my world this time, but still barely posted, even on social media. Didn’t even snap and share any selfies walking around the old town parts of Chengdu, all bejazzled for the Christmas tourists. Pandas anyone? When I wasn’t being over-fed by the hospitality of my hosts, I was reading.

Anna Karenina is one of those great works, like Tolstoy’s other magnum opus, that I must have started, even read up to a handful of chapters, half-a-dozen times. Already familiar with his “unhappy families” and even Vronsky at the horse race – but always too distracted to read on through the patronymics, familials and informals to actually get the point of greatness. And of course I must have seen two or three film and TV dramatisations over the years, not to mention the meme of recalling Anna everytime I’ve set foot on a snowy windswept railway platform, typically for some reason at Slependen, Oslo, in my memories. Meme upon meme.

I’ve just finished reading the Penguin Classics Pevear & Volokhonsky translation, whose cover blurb includes:

“[T]he vividly observed story of Levin, a man striving to find contentment and meaning to his life – and also a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself.”

We probably all know Tolstoy as a “devout Christian” and of course I’m an atheist, rationalist, humanist, so it would be easy to be prejudiced against Levin’s (ie Tolstoy’s) enlightenment. But it’s an enlightenment I feel I share.

I know in fact.

The word may translate as God, but it is God as in “the good” – no superhuman, supernatural, omniscient, omnipotent, causal agent here. Church too, but not as organised religion or ritualised superstition, simply as socially shared knowledge of the good. And knowing that it is good in the collective action of individuals and not in any disembodied rational conception of scientists and philosophers. Beyond words. Rationality is our most powerful tool, but love is greater, being neither thing nor tool.

Good philosophers know this. Good people enact it. The good man Jesus and Christ the scoundrel anyone? Jeez – even good humanists know this.

A lot of agriculture and “what about the workers?” Oh, and – spoiler alert – sadly, Anna doesn’t make it through her paranoia. Too great to do justice in any actual review or selection of quotes.

Simply, a great book.