A Second Kick in the Nads

I keep finding myself in these gender / trans / terf threads on Twitter , and am constantly amazed by the range of misunderstandings and poorly conceived freedoms and rights agendas (and viscious discourse, do I need add?)

Without any research, off the top of my head …

Sex is biological. Gender and sexual-orientation are physio-socio-cultural expression of the biological.

Sex, in sexually reproductive species, is about gonads producing eggs or  sperm primarily. Apart from neither or both possibilities, rare in humans, that’s pretty binary. BUT there are many other sex differences caused by individual development genetic, physical, hormonal and psychological, and many of these interact causally two-way with each other and with the primary sex features. These are sexual differences which individually may be indeterminate, ambiguous or intermediate, but they are NOT different sexes even if we classify the sets of cases with different names. By this biological convention, sex is binary (or ambiguous). Intersex isn’t a third sex.

That is already complicated enough beyond the normal binary cases(*). Gender and sexual-orientation adds another layer of complexity, which cannot be summarised in a single paragraph. Sexual-orientation is about preferences for sexual relations between individuals, not about the sex of the individual. Gender is about wider roles of sex differences in society. Suffice to say gender variations, fixed or fluid are (a) not independent of sex differences, and (b) not unilaterally defined by individual self-identification. Society also cares about those differences, physiological and psychological and cares enough to have expert – biological and psycho-social – opinions as well as individual personal preference.

It is asserting (b) that gets branded as extreme, that gets feminists of either sex or gender labelled as TERF’s by trans-political activists. But it’s pure common sense.

(*) We need to rehabilitate “normal” as a useful word. It’s not being normative to use it, it’s not a value judgement about individuals. It’s a classification and like all such we may need PC considerations where and when we use the term, but it’s real and useful. All variations and differences from the normal are to be respected and addressed accordingly.

[My go to on these issues is Alice Dreger “Galileo’s Middle Finger”. Though in recent days her focus is more family and local journalism, than fighting the big fight. She did her bit. Respect. See also identity-politics and single-issue-politics referenced and linked in that post.]

A World With a View – A Kick in the Nads for Physics

As I complete his concluding chapters, I’m taking three themes from Lee Smolin’s “Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution” only one of which is the science.

Political Priorities:
Science is contingent and always evolving – that’s its main distinguishing feature. But the revolutionary (Kuhnian) and/or evolutionary (Darwinian) nature, as well as the pace and direction, of change in science matter to us all. So, I share in Smolin’s plea that more effort be spent on necessary alternatives than on digging ourselves in deeper with the orthodoxy of current “models”. And this requires some positive counter-balancing of what those alternatives are and could achieve. Smolin achieves this aim. There are activists within physics, like Sabine Hossenfelder, banging this drum to reign back on ever more energetic particle colliders and sensitive cosmic detectors testing current models and hypotheses if it displaces major resources from the alternatives, theoretical and empirical. This is a political – ie moral – rather than a scientific question. The human consequences of a revolution that digs us out of our potentially misguided orthodoxy is ever greater the longer and deeper we dig ourselves in.

So, don’t believe the hype.

Science Appreciation:
Science is a lot more complicated than its popular metaphors. Principles, models, theories, hypotheses, observations, interpretations, explanatory metaphors and complete theory interact constantly in many feedback loops on many different timescales. But they can be all too easily conflated in one catchy metaphor – an erstwhile thought experiment that comes to represent the whole, (naming no-one’s cat or god-particle in particular). So again, more a moral question of information and communication than the content of science per se. It’s at least partly about the memetics of communication within and beyond science – which is my own primary agenda. So not just about how imaginative scientists’ models and metaphors are and how explanatory and representative of reality they are, but their ever more ubiquitous, immediate and sophisticated rendition and distribution in electronic media. A virtual reality ever more virtual and ever more detached from reality, despite appearances. So much science news is fake news, like everything else, these days. But don’t take my word for it, read Smolin’s book. It’s complicated, that’s the point, but very readable for a lay audience. It can’t be fit into a single sound-bite.

The Fundamental Science:
What follows is neither a comprehensive summary nor a critical scientific review – of Smolin’s science. What I’m doing here is relating what I hear him saying to many things I’ve already come to believe.

(I’ve never read his “Trouble With Science” and, from his work with Roberto Unger “The Singular Universe”, I picked-up his view of time and causation as fundamental, with everything else, space, matter and physical laws included, evolving from there. But he covers a lot more here. Pre-empting later conclusions, I see our subjective view of time as psychological, but the reality of time – as causal relationships between states –  as fundamentally real, and the rest evolved, as he suggests. So I suspect I’m agreeing with him, despite some differences of preferred terminology.

Adding to the irony, it must be two decades since I concluded on my own epistemological journey, that time and causation as currently reflected in accepted scientific knowledge were “too weird” to possibly be real. They have always been “the problem” for me too. )

There are also several very important ironies in views communicated between the moral and political issues above and the scientific content. And when I say scientific content remember, at this level, this is inextricable from philosophical thinking and metaphysical choices inherent in fundamental scientific principles and models.

(And again, this is part of the hype infecting the political priorities and sales-pitches for funding and resources above; that orthodox science denies the value of philosophy and claims some privileged position in our quest for knowledge of the world.)

Technically, Smolin takes a real ensemble formulation of quantum level physics that nevertheless seeks to maintain a realist view of all the individual quanta – quantum particles and quantised events – we posit. Once we settle on an explanatory model of these elements, representing reality, we can’t then say it’s just a mathematical abstraction, that it’s not what’s really happening. The “view” in this sense is Smolin’s conscious subjective preference. Mine too. Too many accept “it’s just a model but it mostly works so far” as something other than a pragmatic statement of policy (which it is) but as an assertion that –  somehow – that’s just how things are. It can’t be so.

Smolin’s main thesis he calls “A Causal Theory of Views“. Although Smolin rejects more fundamental informational and computational models he is here in fact using “view” in exactly the way I and any computer scientist would. Clearly we don’t mean view in the subjective sense above. We mean a structured collection of information locally related to our current object of interest. A physical network view from that object. Nothing to do with anyone needing to be an observer of that view, even though our tools of analysis may include taking the intentional stance, to put ourselves as an intelligent agent in the place of that object. Asking ourselves what would the world look like from here. Again – like quantum mechanics itself – it’s about maintaining that distinction between reality and the tools we use to manipulate our understanding of it.

He starts with five fundamental principles to guide and test the consistency of all further steps in building his models, hypotheses and theories. In a world where empirical falsifiability is everything too many scientists might reject the validity of such a-priori reasoning. Usually this is a matter of honesty as Dennett often points out, there is no metaphysics-free science, just science that is in ignorant denial of its own implicit metaphysical choices.

No need for a spoiler that lists the five principles, the book needs to be read. I’m only going to dwell on one of them. What is especially encouraging, along the lines of this being a continuation of the project of fundamental physics reset back to Einstein’s doubts, is that the principles build on Leibniz, Mach and Maxwell, (and again without any reference getting very close to Boscovich ideas).

The principle I’m going to dwell on here is “The Identity of Discernables” which starts with a definition that states “any two objects with exactly the same properties are the same object”. There are several consequences, but one that interests me is a kind of corollary – “so what’s the smallest significant difference that would constitute something being an adjacent thing?” Smolin is inspired by Leibniz “Monads” to refer to these distinct things – with only their intrinsic properties and relations to others – as nads.

(Titter ye not, I know it’s common parlance for testicles, male gonads.)

So if we’re pursuing this Democritan atomic aim towards the smallest indivisible elements of reality, what is the least property / relation set, to be the smallest distinct nad? What if the smallest nad had no (significant) intrinsic properties and all was defined by its relations with the rest of the world. The network “view” seen from this nad, to all other nads via its neighbouring nads. What if closeness was simply a matter of first, second, third order relationships, and so on? Space (distance) is this emergent network property. Time is simply a matter of historical precedence in the changing states of this network view- the set of causal relations. The world is the set of relations up to this point in time.

There are many corollaries for other as aspects of physics as we currently appear to know them. Irreversibility (causal precedence) at the fundamental level (ie not just in thermal / entropic / probabalistic / non-ergodic ensembles) is but one example.

Smolin provides a single sentence statement of his Causal Theory of Views:

“The universe consists of
nothing but views of itself,
each from an event in its history …

… and laws act to make these views
as diverse as possible.”

Things that are not diverse are the same as themselves. Self-similarity in patterns of precedence are those things we typically call the laws of physics, but they are emergent and evolving according to the underlying meta-law(s).

That last quoted clause in Smolin’s summary is intriguing and takes me beyond the aspect I was focussing on here. Namely the world as a network of points (nads / events) whose sole property is the local and historical view of that network from that point. If we strip out all presumptions of what that nad might be in itself, other than the minimum conception of such a point in relation to all other such points in the universe, we get to my own earlier description:

The smallest conceivable significant difference between points – the smallest single bit of Shannon information – is one relation to one neighbouring point. Everything else is composed of these bits in networked historical patterns – views if you will. As with Kastrup’s idealist (as opposed to realist) conception it hardly matters what we call these fundamental points and their networked views, other than the baggage that comes with whichever name we choose. “Ideas” come with a lot of pan-psychic baggage.

But, points, nads … atoms ….
Democritan atoms that is …. ?

You choose.

Smolin – Hoping for the Reality of Particles?

I’m into the final third of Smolin’s “Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution” – his summary of lessons learned from his thesis.

As Sabine Hossenfelder’s review points out, scientifically, the tone is speculative, suggesting more work and experimentation needed to complete the job. That’s true, he’s not making wild claims.

“He deserves applause for also mentioning the Montevideo interpretation and superdeterminism, though clearly he doesn’t like either. I have found his evaluation of these approaches overall balanced and fair.”

There are really two strands to Smolin here:

One is the “plea” for realism in science in the face of so much mathematical abstraction – in say Copenhagen quantum mechanics – that works but doesn’t even attempt to explain what might be real. (He calls it a monumental scandal that the unreality of this choice simply became the accepted orthodoxy – for many decades of science teaching and practice.)

The second thread throughout is positing Bohmian pilot-wave mechanics, Einstein, deBroglie, Wheeler, Bell (ie Paris) as an alternative to the Bohr / Heisenberg (ie Copenhagen) fan club. An alternative that is more “realist” in the sense that both wave and particle manifestations are “beable” rather than any uncertainty about one or the other. (Smolin – and Hossenfelder in her review and comments – dwell at length on the and/or both/either interpretations of superposition and wave-particle duality, location / momentum uncertainty.)

But he points out that both theories come with the baggage of infinite decision-forks of every possible evolutionary history somehow being “real”, not just the actual path(s) taken. If the Everett “many worlds” take on Copenhagen is just a fudge that permits anything and everything conceivable and therefore explains nothing real, then the Paris take on forking paths of pilot-waves might seem very similar.

“A perceptive reader might be troubled by this similarity”

Yes, I was well ahead of him before we got to this sentence. And also in the metaphysics of our demands for “reality”. Smolin clearly yearns for primary reality to be particulate matter with the wave functions simply as guides (pilot waves).

“This brings up a hidden, perhaps unconscious assumption made by adherents of pilot-wave theory [ie himself here] which is that the reality that we observers perceive and measure is composed of matter constructed from the particles [in this theory].”

“To make sense of pilot-wave theory we must privilege the particles and postulate that the world we perceive consists of the particles.”

Smolin has already dismissed epistemic models based on what we can “know” in favour of ontologies of what really exists “out there”. But this is where I still believe he is missing a trick.

The knowledge model is still about “knowables” in the same way as his “beables” – there is no subjective observer involved in making them real, there is no measurement problem, no distinction between detector ensembles and otherwise real ensembles. “Detection” is simply the relations of significant points of “knowable” information being new interactions / arrangements / patterns of information – whether the participating object is a detector / observer or not. They’re “interactables” maybe?

Information is itself the fundamental reality behind BOTH particles and waves (in my book).

[He makes much positive reference to erstwhile colleague Carlo Rovelli, though ultimately disagreeing with his conclusions – which, as I’ve reported before, seem much closer to mine. Like Rovelli he uses “atom” in the intended Democritan sense, not the unfortunate consequence of the last century of unreal physics. All good.]

Smolin is railing at the right problem and he’s so close to the right solution, but maybe missing a trick. Reading on …


Graham Farmelo’s review in Nature.

Smolin Completes Einstein?

Mentioned in the previous post that I had ordered Lee Smolin’s “Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution” and today I picked it up.

Posting just some initial thoughts from the blurb and the preface, so that my prejudiced position is transparent.

“Humans … confuse our representations of the world with the world itself.”

Good to see this statement of the problem right from the off. The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. Our model (ie physics) is not reality.

Part 1, the first 6 chapters, is entitled:

“An Orthodoxy of the Unreal”

Again, this is my position. Scientists often reel at the suggestion they are following an orthodoxy, but many (most) really are despite their protestations of scepticism and empiricism. He goes on to invoke Feynman …

“I can safely say that no-one understands quantum mechanics”

… and points out the the orthodox descriptions and functional mathematical formulations of quantum physics have too many unexplained and inexplicable mysteries to count as reality held in any common sense “view” in the mind of anyone, scientist or otherwise. (He also points out that there has been since Einstein’s time, an alternative neglected formulation that holds out greater hope of instrumental realism, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I recall Goldstein pointing of that fundamental physics remains incomplete until hypotheical rubber hits the road of reality.)

He “tiptoes” past the hard problem of consciousness to establish his focus on realism. He makes the distinction between realists believing that the world out there exists objectively (ontologically) and those “anti-realists”  believing reality can only ever be what we can know about the world (epistemologically) and declares himself a realist at the outset. I personally don’t need this distinction – have the same criticism of idealists, like Kastrup. Given a metaphysical ontology whose fundamental quanta underlying physics are information itself, the two views merge to be the same in my book (*).

I’m not sure exactly where Smolin ends up yet, though obviously by hanging onto realism he is more likely to bring his scientific audience along for the full ride. I seem to recall from my previous Smolin read “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” that he was / is much closer to my position.

Let’s see.


[(*) It’s a pretty basic text so far – the orthodoxy – low on maths. He even explains that “>” means greater-than. After many allusions to cats, he eventually spend 3 pages explaining Schrodinger’s thought experiment? Interestingly he explicitly discounts fundamental-informationists like myself as anti-realists. But a good summary of the Solvay and Copenhagen sagas (see also Huw Price article in previous post, and I must digest Sabine’s review …]

Superdeterminism Sucks

Fascinating Aeon article from 2016 by Huw Price (someone I really ought to read more) and Ken Wharton. (Hat tip to Judy Stout for re-sharing and editor Corey Powell.)

I’ve probably read and been influenced by this piece before, but it’s fairly long (5300 words) and I did a thorough read through this morning.

First off, before we get to the point of the piece, the first half is an excellent, readable summary of the whole quantum vs relativity story, from all the usual new physics suspects at Solvay conferences, via Copenhagen and Bell’s inequality to the present. The story I tend to summarise as:

“Einstein was right
when he thought he’d been wrong.
But he failed to convince
enough of his colleagues
in the remainder of his life.”

[Post Note: Something Lee Smolin calls “Einstein’s Unfinished Project” – the title of his latest book, which I acquired since this post and will review shortly. Meantime I think Sabine Hossenfelder has already reviewed?]

And we’ve never really recovered from mathematical conventions that work at the human scale, but cannot possibly bear much relation to reality at any fundamental level. (Collapsing wave functions, entanglement, the shut-up-and-calculate Copenhagen meme, the lot.)

The main thesis is that all these fudges miss what is blindingly obvious, that there is retro-causation – a kinda reverse causation. Really. I say kinda (sorta, after Dennett) because it sounds bonkers with a too physicalist view of the fundamental reality of action-at-a-distance coupled with the undoubtedly psychological construct we call time. Information precedes all else and what is known in advance affects what happens in future.

Lots of confirmation bias in my agreeing with that, given my informational metaphysics. Doubly so in the fact that this piece also de-constructs superdeterminism – the prevalent scientistic idea that determinism is so physically embedded that our free-will is also pre-determined or epiphenomenal – hence bogging us down in observer and decidability effects (*1).

“Three decades of worrying about free will
turn out to have been a complete red herring”.


[Post Notes:

(*1) Knowledge doesn’t come from observation. Information processing is creative, everything comes from processing information, including the stuff we eventually observe. (Science itself is merely 20:20 hindsight – Pirsig.)

Great little video from Carlos de la Guardia reading Hofstadter’s seminal “Gödel, Escher, Bach” in an Artificial General Intelligence context where it is often presumed that new knowledge comes from algorithmic empirical feedback (*2).

Counterfactuals – alternative future possibilities – are created not observed. Put me instantly in mind of Hofstadter’s conceptual slipping, much documented in his Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies particularly Chapters 8 & 9.

Much referenced elsewhere in this blog – here specifically on this topic. And of course Hofstadter was famously critical of AGI hype when many of its prime movers, including Kurzweil, were present.]

[(*2) of course it does come from real algorithmic processing of feedback – but many many layers of algorithms over evolutionary time. The evolved intelligent mind involves creative slipping beyond blind causal processing – that’s THE point.]

Social Media in Moderation

All things in moderation?

When I say social media, I mean all media, since in the 21st C all media even long-forms depend on eyeballs and clicks for audience engagement. The issue I’m focussing on is the rapid and ubiquitous transmission of information, independent of its “honesty” or its content quality in general. (I call that memetics, but what I call it doesn’t really matter. It’s an ancient concept that bad information travels faster and wider than good information – rabbits run before common sense gets its pants on. If it bleeds it leads, you name it. Fake News is the catch-all term for the problem.)

Similarly, I’ve often suggested what we need in this frenzied information free-for-all is “moderation”, some management and control of information flows. As soon as I do, most people point out why they don’t like censorship and how it’s the thin end of some slippery slope to totalitarianism. Yeah, we know, none of us likes censorship.

And often it’s the same people who “wish” political messages and information communication generally (*) were all honest.

The slippery slope is no argument of course, since information flows have always been managed. In professional journalism it’s what journos and editors do. In any board or committee, minutes of meeting selectively publish what is considered significant and appropriate. As well as control arrangements on appropriateness, public interest, decency, incitement, etc on the publishing side, there are also public legal sanctions that transgressors might face. The slippery slope is a fear that control (censorship) falls into the wrong bad / state actors’ hands. But all social controls, not just informational media, are managed by our governance arrangements – the checks and balances of a functioning multi-layered democracy of some sort, we hope.

The management arrangements matter, we care what they are. How they are organised and in which bodies the responsibilities are vested.

If you’re going to reject all forms of moderation on the publishing side you are relying only on legal redress, so far as I can see. Slow, after the event, processes will never be the solution to problems with rapid universal “social” media. (See rabbits and pants and stable doors, and … nothing new under the sun.)

And it’s not just the speed mismatch that makes it fundamentally impractical, there are well-founded arguments why the law is the wrong solution to political and social behaviour. Recall that even Boris’ claim of £350m/day to the NHS on the side of a bus (ie a clear political lie) was thrown out of court. Read Kenan Malik on this, (on Fake News generally) (specifically on the Boris / £350m case and the ills of legal interference in politics) or more generally listen to this year’s BBC Reith Lectures by high-court judge Jonathan Sumption on legal interference in political life.

I have my own ideas on Moderation, expressed various places, avoiding institutional censorship except as a last resort in the process. Moderation by platforms themselves is clearly inadequate. Detail aside, I’ve yet to hear any other solution suggested by anyone, that doesn’t involve management & control arrangements on the publishing itself and/or legal redress after the event?

Shout up if you have alternative ideas, OR would like to explore next level of detail from the above.

[Like so many things aimed at improving democratic management of society, information moderation is another topic for Citizens’ Assemblies.]

(*) ALL information flows are political – communicated for a reason.

A Life of Maximum Mattering

In the previous post and the links within, it is pretty obvious that I love Rebecca Goldstein and her work. I’ve read (and loved) pretty much everything she’s published and I’ve seen her in person a couple of times. I watched a video of a second talk of hers at this year’s recent HTLGI2019 at Hay-on-Wye after the one I reviewed earlier, though I suspect the two were delivered in the opposite order.

I suspect that because in the one I reviewed first she makes a crack about the difficulties for women in philosophy, especially with a high voice in her case. In this one, despite the fact this is material she knows well, the delivery is indeed quite annoying in terms of the tone of voice and breathless pauses.

As far as the content is concerned, as well as her oft repeated references to the Axial Age rise of philosophy’s normative questions, she is right that in the same way today’s new science tends to look like magic until absorbed invisibly into tomorrow’s familiar technology, philosophy’s questions of the time tend to get taken-up empirically by the science of tomorrow, philosophy still has a purposeful future. The normative and existential questions never go away, they just turn up in guises of the new day. The fact the questions never go away doesn’t mean philosophy doesn’t make progress any more than science doesn’t make progress. For both, the answers change to address the prevailing problems of the day even if the underlying form of the questions barely change.

How do I / we matter once we’ve satisfied those basic Maslow needs?

I am a full-fledged, grown-up adult.
I’m tryin’ make a dent, tryin’ to get a result.
I’m holed up in a Hollywood hotel suite.
Tequila to drink and avocado to eat.

I can imagine anyone not already in love with her finding this not the easiest talk to listen to and pick-up on her message, but she’s worth it.

Navigating Tribal Truth

I’ve been a regular at the IAI’s “How The Light Gets In” (HTLGI) festival at Hay-on-Wye in recent years, but was unable to attend this year (though I may make it to the London event later in the year). They’ve started putting-up the video recorded sessions since the May bank holiday weekend event.

As a fan of Rebecca Goldstein, this is one I was looking out for, with Hilary Lawson (an integral part of IAI and HTLGI) and Homi Bhabha hosted by Rana Mitter.

After Post-Truth
How do we navigate a world where truth is tribal?

Apart from a slight blip (where Mitter raises a rhetorical question about Heisenberg and Nazism!) and a digression (on whether to “blame” post-modernists), it’s a very good session. Proper dialogue closing in on points of agreement, so much so that Lawson is required to add some disagreement barb for effect in his own closing remark.

I have lots of notes on what each says, but just watch it. Summarising the overall discussion:

All assertions are somewhat “tribal” from a position of identity of the person making the assertion, even a scientist making a would-be scientific assertion or a philosopher analysing its truth value. That’s nothing new, even if the social-media “post-truth” world seems to exaggerate and more transparently expose such tribal positions.

We shouldn’t abandon capital-T objective Truth of the real world out there as a concept that is the focus of science, but we should abandon it as the privileged form of truth in human discourse in general. In discourse all truths are in some sense perspectival and metaphorical, and the focus should be the process of the discourse. Rather than the objective truth, the focus is epistemological; how we get to know. The process must include looking and listening with respect for the other and giving credit for some recognisable version of their position (some minimum form of Rappaport or Steel-Man). Part of what Homi Bhabha calls “Interpretational Good Practice” (and I call Rules of Engagement). Even as a philosopher of science, defending the objective truth of realism in science, Rebecca Goldstein the fiction author majors on affect and love in human relationships. Attention to the other in the moment.

(Aside – tickled to notice that Lawson tags himself PoPoMo, exactly as I do.)

Watch this one, here.