Causation in Science

Expensive first release in hardback, so I will need some justification to buy, but clearly an important topic to me. Causation remains much weirder than everyday common sense. I am not aware of either author or any previous work, so the ” … in science, and the methods of scientific discovery” subtitle scared me a little, that it might be a bit scientistic – reductive and logical-positive.

This blurb, (courtesy of Amazon) …

“[They] propose nine new norms of scientific discovery. A number of existing methodological and philosophical orthodoxies are challenged as they argue that progress in science is being held back by an overly simplistic philosophy of causation.”

… starts with the subtitled focus on scientific methodology and orthodoxy, but does indeed give hope in the final clause:

progress in science is being held back
by an overly simplistic philosophy of causation

This really is a philosophical problem, as close to my agenda as I could expect. Their previous work is even more hopeful:

Rani Lill Anjum is Researcher in Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Applied Philosophy of Science (CAPS) at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU). She was postdoctoral fellow at the universities of Tromsø and Nottingham.  At NMBU, she then led the Causation in Science research project. She currently leads the research project Causation, Complexity and Evidence in Health Sciences (CauseHealth), funded by the Research Council of Norway (NFR). She has co-written with Stephen Mumford:

Getting Causes from Powers (2011)

Causation: A Very Short Introduction (2013) 

What Tends to Be: the Philosophy of Dispositional Modality (2018)

Stephen Mumford is Professor of Metaphysics in the Department of Philosophy at Durham University as well as Professor II at Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU). In addition to co-author of the above, he has written:

Dispositions (1998),

Russell on Metaphysics (2003),

Laws in Nature (2004)

Watching Sport: Aesthetics, Ethics and Emotion (2011)

Metaphysics: A Very Short Introduction (2012)

Glimpse of Light (2017) 

The Norwegian connection is particularly interesting to me, one reinforcement of my fear of an overly logical focus but also, more recently, some new positive connections. The sporting connection too – I often use sporting examples as a kind of “morality play” on the evolution of ethical rules through “gaming the system” – Rules for guidance of the wise and the enslavement of fools, etc. Law-like behaviour is evolved, like anything else. If nothing else, I need to do some reading of their existing works methinks.


[Post Note: I see now, the Durham Uni connection, I must have come across Mumford before. Followed by Anthony Gotlieb. And a Blades fan! I need to pay more attention.]

[Post Note: Intrigued by Mumford as the editor of the “Russell on Metaphysics” collection by Routledge, series editor Anthony Grayling. As a fan of the post-Tractatus Wittgenstein, I hold Russell-the-logician (hero of present day humanism and rationalism) as a kind of evil demon behind the persistence of the logical-positivism of analytic philosophy in the scientism and ever increasing simplistication (eg polarisation) of everyday discourse. Imagine my surprise, then:

Russell discussed many things, including politics, religion and ethics. He was, however, one of the greatest analytic philosophers of the twentieth century and this book includes some of the writings for which he deserves this status. Some of the ideas Russell discusses here may be difficult,  therefore. But Russell thought that in almost all areas of philosophy, clarity and simplicity was possible and that even very difficult ideas could be  stripped down to their easily grasped essentials.

He successfully demonstrates this in these papers […] it is the work of a prominent and important philosopher engaged in metaphysical study. […] To some who know a little of Russell’s philosophy, it might seem strange to speak of him being engaged in metaphysics. He is often depicted as standing squarely in the empiricist tradition that had, on the whole, rejected metaphysics […] If this book has but one aim, it is to relieve its readers of that misconception.

Russell was a metaphysician.

Still holds this clarification-by-simplification (by a logician) fear for me, so I shall be intrigued to see what subtlety I find here.]

A Rose By Any Other Name

The first half of The Bard’s quote is an adage I use frequently – in thousands of posts over two decades. The point of Juliet’s words lies in the second half. Umberto Eco wrote a whole philosophical novel riffing on it.

“A rose by any other name …
… would smell as sweet.”

One word – one name for a thing – is as good as another once you’re experiencing the real thing.

I’ve written at length on “Identity Politics”, that naming things for “tribal” reasons – even unconscious ones – is an unhealthy aspect of discourse (even scientific discourse – climate change anyone?) and one good reason some words are controlled for Political Correctness in some contexts. But it’s important to understand how that’s different from language fascism, prescribing and proscribing word-use in general – banning and demanding, through expectation and reaction if not by formal ruling. Rules are for guidance of the wise and the enslavement of fools anyway.

In fact this issue is a technical ontological error that infects epistemology. We refer to individuals (people and things) using the names of their classes all the time. But it’s at our peril if we use that class naming to suggest identity and/or definition of the individual. In a world where linguistic symbols confer massive advantage to promulgating information – as opposed to the individual contact of “knowing biblically” – we have little choice but to use words or other portable metaphorical representations of them. Catch-22 – We must use them but beware their limitations in becoming too attached to them individually.

I often defend Wittgenstein from those who take too narrow and reductive a view of his early phase Tractatus work. Inferring that he believed the logical positive objectivity of his austere aphorisms with their neat logical joins of thus and therefore somehow described all that could be said about the world. Kinda – “I’ve completed the job, if you want more, go whistle!” It was simply all that could be said with that world view. His later work showed he understood the need to make the altogether more mystical linguistic turn.

I felt that same defensive emotion this morning, reading Giles Fraser posting his memories of Mary Midgley who died a couple of days ago. (I’ve also defended Midgley who despite her sharp and subtle understanding wasn’t quite up to the “banter” of mediated conference dialogue when I last saw her.) Anyway, fascinating because I’ve come to treat Giles as a professional contrarian who’s wheeled out, or dives in, to every public moral debate, without ever appearing to hold a single intelligible view IMHO. To the point I’ve given up attempting any dialogue. Imagine my surprise to find he not only benefitted from Mary Midgley in his philosophical (and theological and pastoral) education but that he seems to genuinely appreciate the fact. Touching. Hope for the old polemicist yet.

His only black mark was that having appreciated the philosophical subtlety of Midgley, he simply dismissed Wittgenstein as the opposite archetype – standing for reductive objectivity – whereas, he absolutely detested and ridiculed the school that adopted him.

Words matter not because of which words – in which disembodied logical and grammatical order – but because of “how we” use them in the problem-solving game we (universal constructors) call life.


[Post Note: Holding Stub – Part of a dialogue with David Harding on choice of words, but coincidentally also relevant to his post of Sophistry. I’m defending Rhetoric, more than Sophistry. The former is necessary – see above – the latter is deliberately mis-leading, even if Machiavellian intent is overall positive. All more evidence for “the Wittgensteinian word game.]

Zen and the Art of Philosophy

A review of:

“How The World Thinks
– A Global History of Philosophy”
by Julian Baggini

All my reviews are done in the context of my own philosophical journey and often, like this one, a review done very early on in the reading, so that my own prejudices are laid bare for later analysis and a later review if I sense I learned something new worth sharing. And since “nothing new under the sun” – a perennial philosophy – is a recurring adage of my own, success in this may boil down to a pithy restatement – or aphoristic restatements – of long established wisdom for current and future times.

“Intriguing and illuminating”, as a description of what the book is, the review by Simon Blackburn in the Literary Review says it well enough. Baggini is filling a hole in his, and many a western philosopher’s, grounding by exploring in a descriptive, historical and comparative way a range of Asian and African philosophical traditions. He’s doing so in a laudably naive way by identifying this gap in the current state of his own education. And he’s proceeding to explore by reading and interviewing and by physically travelling to conferences of these non-western schools of thought. The content is therefore as substantial as that recent research exercise, which is naturally pretty thin. As I say, that naivety laid bare is laudable since he is claiming little more than a prerequisite first step towards a mere introduction to the topics.

The point, of course, is to cultivate sufficient interest in, and recognition of the significance of, the parallels and differences between alternatives to western received wisdom when it comes to ways of looking at the world. In that, I believe, he succeeds.

And for me, he also succeeds in some interesting new summary statements of what it is about non-western world-views he wants to bring to our attention. Which is good because, if nothing else, Baggini has his own way of engaging with”intellectual and spiritual generosity” which is essential “for our fractious and dangerously divided era” as Richard Holloway’s cover-blurb comment attests.

All those people out there who believe real world progress depends on pursuing critical debate to its natural conclusions between objectively well defined options or, god forbid, between partisan identity-politics positions, would do well to savour Baggini’s more generous style.

Personally, as someone who came into philosophy late in life via Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and as someone who only noticed any need for philosophy at all after decades of perceiving an ineffable incompleteness – something’s missing that I can’t put into words – in the received wisdoms of everyday western techno-socio-economic business life, I don’t need the gap pointed out. The gap is where I started. I do however appreciate Baggini’s summary restatements of lessons learned.

He quite comfortably uses Karl Jasper’s idea that classic traditions of philosophy arose independently in parallel in Greece, India and China in the 500 years or so up to around 300 BCE, the so-called “Axial Age”. I say comfortable because, as I learned from hearing reaction to the same concept used by Rebecca Goldstein (an influence Baggini and I both share), it’s controversial to reduce so much complex history to a single idea. But then as Baggini points out the need to generalise common aspects whilst taking account significant differences is a fundamental philosophical – human – trick in any tradition. That’s material for a whole text by itself.

Having started there, not surprisingly the Indian and Chinese classics behind the subsequent histories of eastern philosophies and religions are a focus of the work. Despite a richly documented heritage, both place much lesser emphasis on words – spoken or written – than the western tradition. With even less documented traditions, African references are of course much more sparse, and so far as I can see there is no reference to any native American traditions, north or south.

This is part of what I call the Catch-22 of philosophy. Thanks to Gutenberg, not to mention modern electronic and social media, any ideas that can be – and are – represented in symbolic language, have a natural memetic advantage in their spread and adoption over those that are nevertheless lived by all humans around the world. That advantage says nothing about how good the world-view is, simply that it is easy to represent accurately, which is only fine if you believe transportable linguistic representation is the most valuable measure of a philosophy. Catch-22 as I say, or Procrustes bed if you prefer.

Anyway, Baggini notes that before he (and Pirsig), plenty of western philosophers have noted and grappled with this. It takes the nuanced readings of Spinoza, Kant and Wittgenstein to appreciate workable ways of fitting the omission of eastern ideas to western thinking to create any truly integrated global world-view. I say integrated because holding onto the idea some single monolithic world-view – the one true metaphysics – might result, is part of the problem.

Baggini obviously chooses the sources he references and anyone reading could choose their own preferred alternative sources of similar if not much the same content. But, beyond critical debate on exactly what P meant when they wrote X and whether that might be true or not according to which arguments, the real value here is in identifying the ongoing significance of the classic east-west gap to a global philosophy for modern life. Baggini’s specific contribution – beyond his generous and readable style – has to be the neat taxonomy of the subject matter in his (mostly) one word choices of chapter headings; Insight, Logic, Tradition, Time, Unity, Self, Harmony and Virtue; to name just a few examples.




It’s Now Illegal to Mock Fruit

We live in a world hemmed-in by PC rules. When I started this post about 5 tweets ago, it was about the latest “Sokal” prank poking satire at gender-based social-science research. Of course, being PC rules, they are broken ironically all the time, so the levels of irony – odd or even – become crucial to working out who the good guys are.

Apparently we have to respect dogs whilst inspecting their genitals. Moving on ….

in fact just 2 tweets after I started, the title of the post was:

“Truly, we live in shrunken times.”

Which has nothing to do with the Trumpian mushrooms bandied about by Jimmy Kimmel but, 3 tweets in, David Deutsch provided the alternative title.

I liked Timandra’s line – which she had already stolen without attribution, so it’s already now officially an anonymous aphorism – because in form it rang with a T E Lawrence (of Arabia) line – conflating the “it is written” sentiment with the relative obesity of British and Arab culture at the time.

But notwithstanding it’s ring, the rhetorical content is clear. Objectivising everything and recognising the politics in identifying objectschoosing one identity in relation to others – is sorely cramping the space for human manouevres – if we let them.

McLuhan had it right. Confusing the medium with the message shrinks the global village available to operate in.

Truly we live in shrunken times.


And there’s more:

Jazz hands instead of applause, anyone?!?

And Haidt’s coddled mind?!

[The original social-science prank has become tagged “Sokal-squared” which helps its circulation, but it doesn’t free it from its deficiencies:

The key words in the Venn diagram are “prove” and “because” – clearly only divisive idiots would form those views, so the joke works. What’s needed is the measured approach to recognising what is the point of an ironic attack of the Sokal kind (And I’m no fan of S J Gould). The attackers derived plenty of amusement as can be seen in the early videos. Humour is the point. And the point of the humour is to make the target – and audience – think. Nothing about the content proves the cause of anything.

Fortunately, plenty of “measured” responses.]

[Oh my god, more forbidden fruit. When will it ever end. And now because Churchill wasn’t morally perfect apparently, it’s a no-no to quote anything positively inspiring he might have done or said. Even if you’re an astronaut.]

[No, it is never ending. Apparently everyone has to drop their interest in #Strictly to write about the latest climate change warnings.]

Statistical Addiction by Stealth

Added quite a few post notes to my recent post on the problem with the pace and immediacy of social media. Today Myriam François posted this Jaron Lanier interview with Martin Bashir of Channel 4

Lanier calls it statistical addiction by stealth. No-one with a rational mind is being directly manipulated – we would all reject that, wouldn’t we – in terms of modifying our own behaviour over time. We’re all “gaming the system” (see game theory point later). What is happening is that this long-run learning is being short-circuited by the real-time algorithms modifying what the technology presents to us and the “bubble” around us. It’s the mismatch of timescales that’s the problem. We’re all – in general, in the statistical long-run – being manipulated in directions that we are not noticing and that are not good for us (in general).

This prompted me to join up the recent post on social media ills with an early addiction driver to this blog back in 2006 if not earlier. Originally, before social media, the addiction  was basically to logical positivist objectivity in everything gradually crowding out more subjective wisdom for want of any better terminology. There are many alternative world-views, but the point is they are less amenable to simple logical manipulation, so logical positivism has an inbuilt advantage when it comes to the memetic battle of ideas. Any algorithmic automation of this advantage reinforces and accelerates the problem, a problem we already had in spades, already accelerated by the god vs science wars, and ever more accelerated. It’s a kind of degenerate cultural evolution – a natural process that demonstrates the naturalistic fallacy that nature is not necessarily progressive. Natural processes that are simply accelerated and reinforced by tech implementations.

Lanier’s point is that with the right designs – the right algorithms and incentives and time-bases – tech and social media can be used to solve the problem – but that involves a conscious design decision that is not simply a reflection of received wisdom left to its natural devices. (As I’ve said, and Lanier, reinforces even the tech media business people are already ringing this alarm bell. This is not idle speculation.)

Jamie Bartlett (whose “People vs Tech” I’ve still not yet read) tweeted a couple of things that also point out the problem. Jamie uses “utilitarianism” for what I’ve called “logical positive objectivism”, but we mean the same and it’s a habit we have to shake off:

Banning anonymity is part of that same disaster that says do stuff that is amenable to banning (sounds bad / simple to check) but ignore harder-to-process-and-justify qualities & virtues. @JamieJBartlett

Perversely, a Level Playing Field is the Problem

On a level playing field where no-one is dogmatic about what is “appropriate” – but chooses what is appropriate from available tools & methods sounds like a healthy state of affairs, no? Free and democratic, what’s not to like?

But what if some tools & methods – and worldviews – have advantages that have nothing to do with their appropriateness?

This is the root of my 20 year agenda here, from before tech (ITC – information and communications technology) became as ubiquitous as it has, though the urgency has always been because the rise in both tech and the problem have been equally predictable. That’s the “I told you so” dealt with. What about the problem.

In that time the problem has escalated from being simply a threat to good order in technical circles, in business cost-benefit analyses and the like, to being a threat to the whole of free democratic society. I used to think I might be exaggerating until Jamie Bartlett came along ringing the same alarm bell. In fact as recently as my previous post, I tagged Jamie in to a longer-running dialogue about moderating the “pace” of social media dialogue. As well as this his succinct Medium blog post “The War Between Technology & Democracy” his most recent book has the similar but slightly longer title: “The People Vs Tech: How the Internet is Killing Democracy (and how We Save It)” (And I’ve still not read it!)

The specific (part of the) problem today arose from a Twitter exchange. This tweet from Jamie and the thread of dialogue below it:

Including this:

The problem is as old as philosophy, effectively the choice between (objective) facts vs (subjective) values. The objective side can be cast any number of ways from logical positivism to greedy objective reductionism – or plain “scientism” in my word of choice. The subjective or qualitative ethical (“what’s best?”) side varies enormously in expression, all taking the focus away from objective measurable outcomes – even those weighted with fuzzy risk factors – towards qualities of people and processes. Deontological in the sense of not driven by the existence of objective outcomes but by harder-to-grasp and harder-to-ground qualities or virtues and the like.

As I say none of this is new, and even here I must have hundreds of posts on the topic, the point is why this philosophical issue is so problematic in our times of ubiquitous tech.

It’s very simple – in my tweeted response above – this entirely objective vs at least partly subjective choice is about one being much easier than the other. Easier to define, easy to model, easy to … program, easier even when that programming involves communication-algorithms, data-gathering and machine-learning. The less clearly defined subjective stuff is almost a non-starter for programmable models, unless it is modelled using objective analogues for the real (subjective) thing.

For short:
Objective = easy.
Subjective = hard.

So then the competition for the communication of ideas takes over.

Memetics is a word I’m happy to use for it, many are not, but it’s just a word. Whatever the word, and whatever the content of the ideas, decisions, justifications, it’s the easy stuff – the easy to grasp, the easy to fit, the easier to use, the easier to communicate – that has a distinct advantage. All other things being equal, on a level playing field – it’s only natural – that the objective stuff of utilitarian philosophy wins out. Automation by algorithms – without qualitative moderators – simply reinforces that natural process.

The naturalistic fallacy accepts that natural is necessarily good. It’s not.

“A level playing” field is part of the problem, reducing a complex field to a single easy to visualise variable. “It’s complicated” always loses out to a simple justification.

The Problem is the Unmoderated Pace of Social Media

There are lots of problems with social media, blamed for so much fake news and the like, undermining everyday politics one way or another.

I’ve been warning about parts of the problem for almost two decades, as a memetic phenomenon, and in the last couple of years – aside from the explicitly political commentaries – even the execs and ex-execs of the various social media companies have been bemoaning the monster they had unwittingly unleashed – previously: Ripping Society Apart“.

[Post Note: See also Jaron Lanier picking up on this industry reaction – statistical addiction by stealth. There is no “evil genius” here, no “creator”. Lanier is right, but strangely Martin Bashir doesn’t get the point – focussing on technical differences between the products, not on the core problem – see additional post-notes below.]

As I say, there are many ways of slicing and dicing the problem, and things like the anonymity vs the humanity of our sources is one dimension, but I believe the one factor that is the multiplier of all others is its pace. The speed and ubiquity of communication. Rather than caring about the humanity of content there is a kind of instant gratification in the recognition and interaction.

This is a clear example of the former with a quote directly about the latter:

It bears repeating – it’s the dopamine buzz:

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we [at Facebook] have created are destroying how society works—no civil discourse, no coöperation, misinformation, mistruth”

As I keep saying, this loop is pure memetics. Stuff that is “catchy” spreads faster and wider than stuff that is “good”. This is why. Being exceptional / reactionary or ironic / funny at the expense of established wisdom becomes received wisdom because it’s less boring. Boring is the opposite of dopamine. Inhuman – uncivil – extremes always win.

In order to care about the humanity and reality of a communication beyond the buzz – it is necessary to pause, check and ignore if it looks inhuman, as I try to do with anything suspiciously anonymous or bot-like. But that pause is boring compared to the buzz available.

I’ve written on moderation before, and it sounds like restricting freedoms of communication, but we really have to dampen down the buzz, moderate the pace. Avoid short-termism writ large. You can say anything you like, so long as you   s  a  y   i  t    s  l  o  w  l  y   and in moderation.

Lots of other good stuff in the New Yorker piece on Zuckerberg.

[Post Note: Great piece also from Jamie Bartlett
– still not actually got his book, but must do –
here on his Medium blog:
The war between technology & democracy

[And two more post notes re Jamie: Let’s not ban anonymity. And let’s recognise the disaster of automating the “objective” content.]

[The “addiction” to easy objectivity was an original driver here. Social and other electronic media simply reinforce and accelerate the process. Janier too, picks up on the fact that the novelty is not the algorithms themselves, but the rapid reinforcement. Frankie Boyle gets the addiction aspect here in 2015, and I include my original 2006 reference.]

Myles Better

Myles Power is an “internet nerd” with a real job.

By day (or night, depending on his shifts) he’s a chemist working in an industrial lab (taking money from big business – yeah, he knows). In his spare time his podcast battles conspiracy theories on all fronts with the best research and analysis he can dig up.

Me, I often think too much effort spent debunking conspiracy theories is part of their perverse attraction. The memetic effect that helps spread them. But hey someone has to notice and point out that they are politically motivated conspiracies in the first place, so it’s better the debunking is done carefully and thoroughly.

By way of a change his latest podcast is short (<5 min) piece – sponsored by Merck’s 350th anniversary – about acting on curiosity based on vaguely noticing “something’s not quite right”. Even when a scientist’s job is explicitly directed research, it’s these anomalous moments that provide the greatest inspiration towards a new solution or development. Notice these moments and “stay curious” is his message.

Rang bells with me for two reasons.  Not least because my own epistemological trajectory started with exactly that “hang on, how can that be” feeling in a mundane industrial business context. (I’ve written about that most recently here, referring to this thought journey.)

More importantly, this whole drive to solve anomalies is very much the fundamental “meaning of life” – effectively what it means to be human, as Myles points out. Whether this is seen as the peak of Maslow’s “self-actualising” motivations, or Deutsch’s universal constructor theory – humans as highly evolved problem solvers, after Popper. It looks like “curiosity” but it is a drive to compress knowledge – to make anomalies fit in a broader understanding with greater explanatory reach.

To know more for less. An evolutionary drive for efficiency and effectiveness. Curiouser and curiouser.


[Post Note: An even better fit:

The David Deutsch post linked above, referring to constructor theory, also refers to his belief that “creativity kills innovation”. Obviously depends on what you mean by these two similar terms, but the point is clear here. Trying new stuff for its own sake is counter-productive. The real value is in anomalies as exceptions to the otherwise familiar. My usual “we need conservatism” mantra that progressive evolution requires fecundity and fidelity as well as mutation. The new makes no sense – has no meaning – without the context of the established.]