Interesting review of Carlo Rovelli’s latest “Reality Is Not What It Seems” by Michael Brooks in the New Statesman.

In my own review of Rovelli’s introductory work “Seven Brief Lessons, I felt compelled to add a footnote to ensure readers understood he was peddling a minority view in Quantum Loop Gravity. Interesting in Brooks’ review of Rovelli’s latest, he highlights the well understood paradox that Gravity and Quantum theories can’t both be right.

Both are right ….
in the sense that …. they’ve both
[made useful repeatable predictions].

And both must be wrong, too.
[Since neither supports the other].

Brooks takes umbrage at Rovelli’s dismissal of more “popular” current theories – eg String and SuperSym – that aim to provide more fundamental physics than the current combination of Gravity and Quantum. Rovelli spends the final third of his latest work promoting QLG.

Being right in this world is about being useful for two or three generations – Kuhn / Kondratiev – but that is hindsight of course. Those proven right – or consigned to obscurity – are always in a minority of one when they first point out the advantages of their alternative.

A minority view, but I think Rovelli is mostly right, however successful QLG proves to be. He’s right even if QLG is wrong. And right in a more fundamental sense than simply utilitarian. Consisent with Smolin and others there is a serious attempt to bring time and law-like causation within the explanatory scope of the model, not to mention a respect for the value that philosophy brings to fundamental thinking. And then there is that healthy scepticism of the celebrity status of heroic Galilean mythology.

I’m less inclined to follow fundamental physicists who are dismissive of time, causation and philosophy than those that are dismissive of popularity.


[Post Note : Another related review / book. Bell’s is another interpretation I have time for. Hat tip to Rick Ryalls on FB. Minority interests are not new, they just get trampled in the crowds following popularity contest winners, long before social media was invented. Same with science as any other topic of cultural interest.]

One positive thought coming out of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s second Reith lecture this morning is Civic Identity

As with the first lecture on Credo, this second installment on Nationality came across again as statements of the obvious on the broad difficulties in being “definitive” on such matters of Identity Politics. Mistaken identity for sure, but what about “appropriate” identities with values to support them?

The positive thought came up in one of the later questions on Civic Identity. Having thrown-away cheap-shots on philosophers wanting to be definitive, citizens of the world vs citizens of a nation, and his own father’s belief in “Unitary (National) Citizenship” one philosophy student raised the idea of Civic Nationalism.

There is always a question of “we”; a presumption that there is one that means anything. Obviously there are many that mean many things. Any identity chosen by multiple individuals for their collective identity is a statement of caring enough about that identity. (Whatever genetic or memetic, biological or cultural – familial, ethnic, religious or territorial “heritage” forms the basis of that identity. The issue is simply that we have many of these at many levels.)

National identity – a particular “peoples” collective as a nation – is a political identity – like all identities are in the final analysis. The suggestion is that this is a particular “Civic Nationalism” – one based on political principles AND narrative, existing alongside other affiliations with multiple constituencies of peoples. Broadly consistent and tolerant of difference and multiplicity, despite particular points of conflict, that we can agree to forget or give low priority in most practical situations of daily life. Again we (individually) must choose to self-identify our collective “civic” nationality as distinct from all other national and ethnic identities, the point being as a statement that we accept the practicality of the governance arrangements of that civic. We are nailing our colours to the mast of a civic identity – a nation – that we declare will be used as the basis of any significant governance of conflicts and inconsistencies arising with the many other overlapping identities. We are accepting this civic identity to handle changes and accomodations involving other identities. Choosing a civic identity in no way loses or ignores the existence of our other identities and narratives as people’s other than that civic identity.

Declaring citizenship of the world is fatuous as our civic identity until such time as there is a form of world governance “we” all genuinely share. It’s a fine identity many of us also have, and even an aspirational civic identity, but until then, governance is about jurisdictions and their borders.

I’m kinda hoping Kwame Anthony Appiah’s lectures will have some punchline in the fourth episode, to bring together practical necessities of identities which bind us for real world purpose. So far it’s all about how matters of identity are complicated and non-definitive. We already knew that.

It’s a common claim in some form, in many a situation, where were are in danger of confusing or conflating prejudice based on race with prejudice based on some other social construct. It works on the assumption that race is a naturally objective class about which an individual has no choice, whereas religion is a matter of individual choice in a cultural context.

Of course the form “a religion is not a race it’s an idea?” is invoked when it’s the religious (cultural) identity that is the main topic at issue – to put some clear water between that and other issues of race. Particularly in the case where the religion is Islam, where there are strong associations with ethnic and cultural identities, it somehow seems important to maintain the distinction between different issues.

But if our topic were a racial or ethnic identity in the first place, we might have “ethnicity is not race” and “neither is race a meaningful biological thing”. In fact if we get deeper into biology we also find that even species are definable only by convention and the appropriate conventions vary enormously with context and purpose. How many scientists are keen to emphasise how flimsy are the actual differences at the mental and cultural levels between humans and our kindred species.

Down with this sort of thing. We humans ain’t so special. This is very much about identity. And, for thinking beings, identity is very much about personal identity politics, and our conformity or reaction to our cultural context.

If we add the religious angle to this, we find that which binds people is only in very small part specific ideas and beliefs that are held in common. So much did Kwame Anthony Appiah remind us in the Credo part of this year’s Reith Lectures. In fact this take on Mistaken Identities was so underwhelming, that he was seen by many (in my twitter feed anyway) to be merely stating the obvious and missing the opportunity for any important insight [Refs].

When talking race and attempting to get a grip on what we really mean, any measure we choose – skin colour – is as good and imperfect as any other [Refs]. Even when talking genetics, as scientifically rigorously as you like, it’s ultimately about statistical distributions of many possible combinations and patterns, whose own boundaries are scarcely definitive.

Some conventions are deeper in accepted science, but pretty much all the objects we are talking about and the classes to which we assign them, depend for their identity on social constructs and our (pragmatic) acceptance of these.

This is not an excuse for an anything goes – w’evs – cultural relativism. Quite the opposite. Simply a reminder that we’re not going to solve any complex issue by being precious about a specific choice of words having hard and fast objective definitions. Islamism in its political and violent extremes, has a wide range of religious and racial, extrinsic and behavioural aspects, each themselves involving cultural patterns of identity over and above anything intrinsically objective in our individual biology.

You might be tempted to the easy conclusion that biology is our racial marker, distinct from religion. Sure an individual may generally have no choice about their biological make up, but how that particular biological entity is assigned to a class – even a biological one – is a cultural choice.

We’re always ultimately dealing with individuals. Prejudice against the freedoms and free-thought of individuals is still prejudice whatever class of race or religion we’ve assigned it to. From the individual’s immediate perspective it matters little whether the constraints on their freedoms are biological (genetic) or cultural (memetic), they’re still constraints, and at the individual level both are intertwined with each other and with collective group effects.


[Post Note: Reference for social constructs and political theory around race in particular. Falguni Sheth – book and blog. Hat tip @contronline.]

One current Brexit / Corbyn / Trump meme – the disaster that is 2016 politics the world over it seems – is the whole Citizen of the World vs Nationalism polarisation. It is perfectly reasonable to have national pride and interest whilst participating individually, collectively, actively, rationally and ethically in our environmental cosmos of course. Nothing to do with any fatuous post-truth meme, simply more of the needless polarisation of fictitious choices. A middle-way scarcely does justice to the infinity of alternatives beyond the two offered.

In fact when writing previously on identity politics I concluded, that it ultimately comes down to how we choose to self-identify across multiple “constituencies” and, of course, those many overlapping constituencies run across many dimensions on many scales from “me, myself, I” to …. well, the cosmos itself and all points between.

I’m looking forward to this year’s BBC Reith Lectures by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, covering colour, culture, country and creed under the series title “Mistaken Identities”. Sounds like pretty much my own agenda in the Identity Politics post above.

One reason I’ve been looking forward to it is some earlier tweets by @TheosElizabeth who attended the recordings. Today she made it the topic of her @BBCR4Today “Thought for the Day”

The full (brief) text captured below:

Elizabeth Oldfield – 11/10/16 – Good morning.

It was a huge privilege to be at the recording of this year’s BBC Reith Lectures last week, the first of which will be aired on 18th October. Given by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, the four lectures will cover colour, culture, country and creed. His overarching title is ‘mistaken identities’- the implication is that these identities are not and should not be absolute.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Globally, we are seeing a resurgence in strong shared identities, most visibly nationalism, but also class, region, race and religion. This has prompted many an anguished comment piece on the crisis of liberalism.

In *very* simple terms, the liberal project sought to make the individual more important than these shared identities. This has delivered a huge amount of good stuff- it’s rightly credited with much of our peace, order and prosperity, as well as personal liberation.

However, it has weaknesses. We know from wellbeing research that the ability to be a free individual isn’t all we need. We also long for community, for a meaning and purpose bigger than ourselves, for some kind of hope. Liberalism alone can’t provide these. Maybe we do need shared identities after all.

The need to find a way to acknowledge these longings, while also holding onto the good things liberalism provides, is now an urgent project for our best thinkers.

And Many of them, not necessarily religious themselves, are acknowledging that Christianity might have something to offer. Between tribal and divisive shared identities on one hand, and disconnected individuals on the other, there might be a third choice. Christianity provides for believers belonging, purpose, meaning and hope. We know this does have a positive impact on wellbeing. Crucially though, Christianity is not a shared identity that should allow you to retreat into tribalism. These positive benefits should instead be used to serve, not attack, those outside the group. None of which is to say that the church has anything like a perfect record on these things. Far from it. But for those seeking a new way forward, the ideal of an identity that’s both shared *and* outward facing might well be worth a look.

Tribalism tramples on the idea that good fences make good neighbours, the idea that “identities are not and should not be absolute”.

Ha, and completely unrelated, but somehow also apposite this morning from Julian Baggini.

When I talked about the strategic significance of losing British steel-making back in March this year, this week is exactly what I had in mind.

National defence is not merely business.


[Post Notes:]

I’m regularly “guilty” of this, referring to Corbyn/Trump (delete as inapplicable), so I thought I’d make a point.

Sure, they are apparently at opposite extremes of the right-left spectrum, but as is often pointed out historically fascism has existed at both extremes. The tendencies to fascism are the same however; demagoguery appealing to prejudice, personality cult, appealing to the kind of motherhood and apple-pie that you know your audience likes and demonising your opponents:

Despicable Blairites/Tories/Mexicans/Democrats/Media/Conspiracies
(delete as inapplicable).

Tendencies notice. Demagogical tendencies to fascism. Not calling Corbyn/Trump a fascist.


[Post Notes]

An extensive post-note here picking-up on a Twitter dialogue in response to the original post above. Take note:

90% Preamble and Meta-Content – NOT THE POINT OF THE POST

10% Actual Content – THE POINT OF THE POST


My interlocutor here is @contronline – a young fella I happen to have met, a human individual for whom I have empathy, but he plies his trade anonymously on-line with zero bio & opaque identity.

I’m picking on him here as my example – a stereotype to exemplify my argument. I can’t fail to offend/patronise (delete as inapplicable) but this is pre-amble/meta – ie not my point or intent. As Leibnitz was to Voltaire he’s just the unfortunate that put his head above the parapet and became a target. Good news is we ended our twitter dialogue on friendly respectful terms – and that is very much part of the actual content / point / intent below.

The whole twitter dialogue is captured below in posted order reading from the top, but I’m quoting from it in the order logical to my case.

He may have misunderstood the point of my post? Sure, that’s a given for any interpersonal communication that doesn’t already have a shared history of understanding. Understanding is about dialogue. “Critical thinking” moves too quickly beyond this, into the scientific realm of finding fault. [Dennett / Rappaport] We actually had a pretty good dialogue; as good as 140 chars permits anyway. These notes re-cast / continue that dialogue I hope.

Why did I choose the word fascist? I didn’t really. Obviously it’s there because that is the implied target of the objection in the Corbyn original “don’t compare me to Trump (who is a fascist and I’m not)” and in the media traffic on that topic. It’s why “don’t compare me to Trump” is a thing. @contronline objecting to my use of the word is simply the same as the point I was questioning – a re-statement of where I was starting “don’t compare Corbyn with a (despicable) fascist”.

[PS Mexican journalists agree …]

Media preview

@contronline responded with a definitional objection, and provided his own preferred definition. Slippery “semantic” road here, I suggested. Incidentally I disagree with his suggested definition, it’s closer to Nazism than Fascism, the latter being a superset of the former (IMHO), BUT definition should be retrospective to any dialogue. Sure we have working understanding of words in mind whilst communicating, but they are loose working definitions to work around, until we can document tightly in shared agreement. [Dennett, again] Labelling is always political – identity politics – except in truly “objectve” contexts.

I could have chosen a different word – it was only the implied idea I was using, after all – the “despicable” qualities of “the other guy (not me)”. In fact I tried substituting fascism with purpleness and the point still makes sense, only one clause becomes meaningless and could be deleted. (NB Swift chose little-enders, Orwell chose pigs).

So the idea I’m talking about, the idea about which we are disagreeing a definitive word for is maybe “despicable-otherness”? (I’m not of course interested in agreeing dictionary definitions, at least it is not the point of my post – hopefully obviously so even without all this clarification.)


The point still is:

Corbyn gets compared to Trump because they share some of the same …

… tendencies to “despicable otherness”;
demagoguery appealing to prejudice, personality cult, appealing to the kind of motherhood and apple-pie that you know your current audience likes, demonising your opponents (and established predecessors) – those despicable Blairites/Tories/Mexicans (delete as inapplicable).

If @contronline really does agree with that, because Corbyn and Trump are both politicians, and such general statements are true of all politicians as he suggested, the we do indeed have my point. A really important point. We need politics (and governance generally) that doesn’t have those qualities – whichever “side” you’re on in any disagreement or difference of opinion.

Of course you or @contronline may not agree with that entirely either, but let’s make sure we synthesise the content of the actual ideas, not the labels.

[Response from @contronline (also in comments below).
Seems we achieved common understanding. Thanks.]

[Post Note – Piece from Jess Phillips earlier in the year. The Drip, Drip, Drip of Otherness.]


All this “antisemitism” (or is it anti-Zionism) swirling around Labour and lefty politics again is utterly crass – pure PC perversion.

Look, the word “holocaust” was in the Jewish lexicon as a sacrificial burnt offering long before the Nazis came along. Given the nature of the gas-ovens “final solution” meted out to enormous numbers of Jews in Germany and German-occupied Poland during WWII, it makes perfect sense to accept it having been branded “The Holocaust” – and worth remembering why.

And, sure even “The” holocaust involved significant numbers of Roma being conveniently dealth-with, we know that too.

But to dilute the particularly Jewish gas-ovens rememberance of The Holocaust with anything simply branded “holocaust” since, is to disrespect that memory and devalue the word. We are, sadly, not short of other state-sponsored human disasters, with or without “genocidal” political intents and/or actual results – lest we forget. It does those victims a disservice too, to simply lose them under a generic label. We might as well have a rememberance day for anything politically considered evil.

Effectively, Holocaust denial, remembering nothing in particular. All labelling is “identity politics” and self-identification is ultimately what matters.

Apart form all the other excellent reasons to recommend Anthony Gottlieb’s “Dream of Enlightenment it was fair to say, as I predicted, that the content of the chapter on Leibnitz was largely new to me. Apart from the mythologised legacies of Voltaire vs Leibnitz and Newton vs Leibnitz I really was pretty ignorant of his work. I’m now a little more educated.

The two chapters remaining after my review the other day, on Leibnitz and Hume respectively, I am reading and gutting as individual exercises.

So, today Leibnitz in the style of Gottlieb:

The story of my life, to find myself between a rock and a hard place, pointing out to people seemingly disagreeing vehemently with each other, that in reality (IMHO) they are pretty much agreeing. Leibnitz too it seems.

Synchronicitous to be writing this review the same morning as my exchange with @TheosElizabeth, where my secular reading of her biblical “Thought for the Day” on @BBCR4Today was to emphasise our common ground. The point in Mary Parker-Follett’s work being that progress in conflict resolution, or any kind of disagreement, is about integration and synthesis based on true inter-human empathy (ie love), rather than accomodation based on compromise and concession of object(ive)s.

“Truth [Lebnitz said] is more widespread than people think.” Almost everyone manages to get hold of some of it, and most schools of thought are “right in a good part of what they propose.”

In place of [the] emphasis of putting up with others even if you disagree with them, Leibnitz wanted to convince people that they didn’t really disagree in the first place.

(Also weirdly coincidental that I had just used the “standing on the shoulders of giants” line in reviewing Gottlieb, as I had done previously reviewing Pauline Graham on Mary Parker-Follett and her relationship to 20th and 21st century management gurus. I digress, but less than might first appear.)

And, back to Dream of Enlightenment, the tone is set in Gottlieb’s opening line on Leibnitz, quoting the encyclopedic Diderot:

“When one compares one’s own talents with those of Leibnitz, it is tempting to throw away one’s books and go off to die in some quiet corner.”

And that from someone with much disagreement with, and surprisingly little knowledge of, his subject’s work. Sounds familiar? And even now a large part of Leibnitz work still “languishes in the archives“.

“At the present rate … it will take two more centuries before his complete works are published.”

“Little is known about the success or otherwise of Leibnitz’s myriad of inventions and proposals [beyond natural philosophy, “bouncing ejector-escape boots” amongst them], many of which probably never progressed beyond the vast drawing-board of his mind.”

“[Still the greatest polymath since Aristotle] … One of the few things he did not do was write music”

Unsurprisingly, his real legacy is therefore largely a trail of unfinished projects – “a perpetual jumble“. (Who, me?) The fact that his monad metaphysics is hopelessly confused – confusing anyway, a “fairy tale” according to Russell – shouldn’t detract from the quality of his thinking on so many important ideas.

Dream of Reason“, Gottlieb’s first work in his putative trilogy in four or more parts, already drew the accolades of being a 21st century successor to Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy“. My own philosophical impressions of Russell were that he’s generally over-rated; a philosophologist sure, but limited and narrow as an actual logical positivist scholar, until his regrets in later life. Gottlieb’s put down and Russell’s own self-damning quotes concerning Leibnitz are therefore sweet to my own taste:

Leibnitz chose a courtly existence [as opposed to a purely academic life], Russell wrote, which led to an “undue deference to princes, and a lamentable waste of time in the endeavour to please them.”

Russell did not need the patronage of aristocrats – he was one himself.

[Russell] seems not to have appreciated that Leibnitz was more civil servant [and lobbyist] than sycophant. Leibnitz himself wrote:

“[The] most efficatious means of augmenting the general welfare of man [is] to persuade great princes and their ministers.”

Queen Sophie-Charlotte of Prussia [one of Leibnitz’z aristocratic patrons] remarked “Leibnitz was one of the few intellectuals who did not stink.”

The “appearances” is a long-standing topic of philosophical debate and one 20th century source for me has been Owen Barfield, so it was interesting, amongst the confusion of Leibnitz’s monad metaphysics, to find him using the “strained analogy” of rainbows and similar “virtual” phenomena. Strained was exactly my view of Barfield’s use of the analogy, even though I have much time for Barfield’s work.

[More precursors to Gödel and Wittgenstein – for later.]

Anyway, to finish off Gottlieb on Leibnitz for now, most of us haven’t got much beyond Voltaire’s Candide caricature of Leibnitz as Dr Pangloss, so there is of course much of Voltaire presented by Gottlieb. There are several sections comparing the Panglossian take on Leibnitz “best of all possible worlds” with the Polyanna “good to be glad” optimism concept from US children’s literature.

[Voltaire’s caricature popularised an extreme version of “optimisme”, but it is more than  parody:]

A closer look suggests that Voltaire did in effect succeed in highlighting fatal flaws in Leibnitz’s position, even if he made jokes while he was about it.

[But there’s nothing new under the sun – Plato and the Panglossian Stoics – “optimism”, like the Hobbesian version of the do-as-you-would-be-done-by “golden rule”, pre-date even Christianity, nineteen centuries before Hobbes and Leibnitz.]

It was only Leibnitz however who had the bad luck to attract the contemptuous wit of Voltaire.

One might believe that the world is mostly bad, but still be inclined to play the “just being glad” game, in order to make life more bearable. Jewish humour can have a strain on pessimistic Pollyannaism.

Always look on the bright side of life? Did I mention a great read, recommended again, but a missed second Pythonesque opportunity methinks. [Just Gottlieb’s take on Hume to go …]


[Post Note:


and surprisingly relevant too.]