Maths Left Me Trailing

As an aeronautical engineer and an information modeller, I am more than averagely mathematically capable. Literate in the calculus and statistics of human-scale classical physics, natural science and business economics, including say, the compressible flow of Navier-Stokes for example.

Several years ago I wrote of Peter Rowlands (2007) “Zero to Infinity – The Foundations of Physics” ..

Maths Leaves Me Trailing

I could tell I was reading an important book, actually just the free peek at the introductory chapter(s) afforded by Amazon, but the maths of fundamental theoretical physics I found impenetrable as presented. I have the same problem with some of the more formal logical notations of pure philosophy, whilst we’re on the topic.

At that time, online correspondent Rick Ryals (since deceased) encouraged me by pointing out he had qualified in physics and been employed in science research, and yet in recent decades he too found it impossible to present his own latest thinking in the kind of mathematics expected. It was holding him back getting his own evolving ideas taken seriously.

I never did buy Rowlands 700 page tome, partly out of fear for the maths and partly because, as a hard-back text-book I would struggle to read, the price was scary too. Recently with all the renewed interest in the psychological and psychic aspects of fundamental physics, and the recurrence of my own informational foundations, I found myself re-reading that earlier post and moved to buy a second-hand copy of the 2008 hard-back reprint. Still expensive but reinforced by the original impression of its importance and value.

Recently, I had also been looking at good reviews of Jim Baggott’s latest (2020) “Quantum Reality” and Tweeted a quip about the sub-editor’s use of Schrödinger’s Cat in  the headline sub-title. Like Hawking did “I reach for my gun” whenever I hear mention.

I’ve not actually ordered it yet … because … well …

Imagine my surprise at following-up the renewed Rowlands interest and discovering he has written several books including (2015) “How Schrödinger’s Cat Escaped The Box” clearly described as a popular readership version of his more formal work.

But that meme of a title?

(Hat tip to @Katoi – from a project “about Dirac”, the only human face amongst the cartoon characters, with Schrödinger as Tom – the cat – from Tom & Jerry.)

Why had I never heard of Rowlands since? A professor of physics at Liverpool Uni, many publications including many books. Hmmm. His books published by World Scientific out of Singapore, few citations to be found, and most of those from his circle of collaborators. This is thought overlooked – or rejected – by mainstream physics?

Anyway, I’ve taken the plunge and acquired a copy of “How Schrödinger’s Cat Escaped The Box“, now reading the Kindle version in advance of receiving the hard-copy.

It is a wonderful read.

I’ve read a great deal of popular, and not so popular science, even more philosophy of science and the metaphysical foundations of its ontologies and epistemologies. As Rowlands points out is his aim, it is clearly written in such a way that the maths – yes there still is a lot of maths – is presented very simply. The simplicity comes from sticking with the abstractions symbolised in the mathematical relations and dispensing with the ubiquitous thought experiments as examples; Schrödinger’s cat-in-a-box for one (hence his title) but all the rubber sheets and bowling balls, clocks and astronauts travelling on trains, spacecraft and beams of light. Let’s escape from the box of conventional thought.

I’m only two chapters in so far, and I must have read the same content hundreds of times before – the particles and forces of the standard model(s), quantum mechanics and relativity, E=Mc2, you name it.

He does also of course make reference to his “Zero to Infinity – The Foundations of Physics” very early on. A second reason he is able to keep the maths simple in his popular work is that he is only presenting the equations that represent the model of physics. What he is not doing is presenting all the calculations that relate the model to the many physical properties, constants and observed values in the universe that lead to the current-day paradoxes, anomalies and gaps which still prevent any consensus on the unification of physics as a whole. You want that level of calculation, you go to his formal work.

If you really want to start from zero, you also dispense with the presumed realities of the human-scale physical world. It is these that make the fundamental quantum and gravitational relativity views seem weird. The only thing after zero are points of possibility, or conceivability as others have said.

“This book requires [no] prior knowledge of physics or mathematics beyond arithmetic and the simplest algebra … Trained scientist[s] will find this [not] easy. There is an immense barrier to be overcome. This difficulty is not intrinsic to the subject. Complexity has nothing to do with it. [The difficulty] comes from our own habits of thought … generations of conditioning which makes us want to see nature in a different way to the one in which it really acts.”

Nature repeats itself at different levels. Of course it’s not the actual structures and qualities that repeat, but the abstract patterns that underlie them.

[The] paradox of Schrödinger’s cat is symptomatic of our desire to compromise, to hold on to a view of nature which has some tangible connection to our ordinary world. However if Schrödinger’s cat is ever to escape from its box, we have to escape from ours.

Too true. Thinking outside the box.

Reading on …

Trump, the Cause of Forest Fire Carnage?

Is Trump right or isn’t he?

As I say, even a fuckwit is right half the time, but the “cause” of forest fires isn’t a simply binary (political poll) question.

Forest fires are natural, a natural part of the cycle of change that brings us evolution over time. The planet needs them.

The reason we’re having more forest fires, and more in previously cooler regions, is almost certainly to do with climate change. How much of that is a natural cycle of climate change (see above) and how much is “AGW” exaggerated by human activity is scarcely debatable. Whatever the proportion or form of human effects, it’s in the interests of “our” planet to work against them, to reduce and reverse our negative effects. They’re not negative because they’re human.

The reason we’re having more serious, more continuous, forest fires spreading closer to human populations more often, is almost certainly down to “light touch” eco-friendly forest management, choosing to do less maintenance for the benefit natural forest flora & fauna inhabitants  instead of the neighbours. The eco-warriors have a lot of human suffering to answer for.

These are not mutually exclusive positions. Both are likely true.


Post Note:

Later the same day 75/25 (usual 80/20 in my book) relative contributions:

It’s perfectly possible to think differently and not be in denial. The activists are fucking it up for all of us. As a spokesperson for XR said the other day it’s not contradictory that they are climate activists and a good old fashioned anti-establishment anarchists. Don’t be fooled into thinking they care more about the planet than they do about their anti-human, anti-establishment credentials.

And there’s more Mon 21st Sept, here in The Spectator

“How environmentalists destroyed California’s forests – Short-sighted eco-measures helped cause the devastation we see today”

“We couldn’t have created better conditions for devastating fires if we’d tried. ”

“Even if every single thing that [eco-warriors] claim about climate change were to be true, it wouldn’t undo the consequences of decades of mismanagement driven by their ‘advocacy.’”


Relational Triad

2020 update to my Epistemological Ontology from 2017/18
(Minor change of wording to emphasise the ontological reality.)

Ontology because it’s a world-view of what is deemed to exist.
Epistemological because it is based on knowledge.
Metaphysical monism because the stoff of knowledge is information.

Last formed part of a description of the informational monism here. First version published here.

Informational Panpsychism – a Dual-Aspect Monism

In many discussions of the work of the modern panpsychists (eg Goff and more recently (Bollands) a universal-lifer who posits no distinction between the actions of living and conscious things), I have pleaded for a pan-proto-psychism / pan-proto-living world-view where the proto-stoff is information.

One obvious reason is that information exists non-contentiously at all levels in the cosmos. No reason to posit that life and/or consciousness as we know them literally exist at fundamental physical / metaphysical levels.

The second reason is that it’s possible to construct both physical and (living) conscious things from that monist stoff and in doing so not give priority to either physicalism or psychism in the language of our metaphysics.

(I use information in specific ways – both ontologically syntactical form and epistemologically semantic or significant informing way – also in an entropy-complementary / information-theoretic Shannon way – and importantly in a process / active-verb-noun way, information as the act of informing one thing of another.)

Another feature of not having to make a physical / psychical choice at the outset is we can apply quantum (Democritan atomic) thinking to the smallest “particles” of this information stoff. With an information model these can be conceived of as small as possible. That is by definition it is not conceivable to posit or discover any smaller component. (I’ve always assumed that’s what Democritus intended a-tomically before physicists decided to give smallest chemical element particles the name atom.)

In this formulation the smallest things, the smallest (conceivable) difference (on any arbitrary dimension) between any two things (this-thingy and not-this-thingy) is a bit of information, smaller than which it is not possible to be. A good candidate for the ultimate atom if ever there was one?

Since I last wrote up my most comprehensive version of the above (presented here in 2019), several things have happened. I’ve made more considered readings of Whitehead’s Process Ontology concerning the coming together nexus of awareness between one thing and another (mirrored also in Smolin’s nads.) Pre-conceptual (qualitative) awareness & response – the conscious-and-life-like behaviour – is core to radical empiricisms. Also, in evolving my thinking along with Dennett, I recently discovered I’d forgotten earlier Chalmers ideas on information underlying consciousness.  (And a zillion other references in the blog.) However …

… this morning , I read a 2016 MPhil thesis by Nino Kadić, a student of Goff, who had also positively reviewed Bollands. A paper which so far as I can see on a first reading comes very close – in much more formal philosophical discourse than I – to the metaphysics I’m suggesting above.

Rough Notes:

Phenomenal Bonding – Goff’s idea as used by Kadić – seems to be very much the solution to new objects emerging supervenient on others without direct (conventional) causal link. Always key to patterns emergent upon patterns. (Sure, the information patterns must always have an embodiment but the new patterns emerge independent of the embodiments. A car / motorcycle is not the sum of its parts, it’s the arrangement. ‘Twas ever thus, just ask Theseus (or Trigger).)

(And many more notes of Section 4 Phenomenal Bonding, Information and Panpsychism.)

The Review at the End of the Universe


This is probably as close as I’ll get to an actual review of Tim Bollands “Life the Universe and Consciousness”.  I’ve made significant comments and references here three times already:

And in that time there have also been half a dozen Twitter threads, and as many personal message threads, attempting to unpick or clarify one aspect or another. Twitter is not the best medium for such dialogue. Brevity means a blurring between explicit questions and cryptic rhetorical statements and my own style (after Dennett / Rappaport) is to test (my own) understanding by making statements of what I think I’ve heard / read “in my own words” – only to elicit the amusing response “nowhere do I say that”. Oh well. This difficulty is compounded for me by my own prejudiced position to cut to the chase and compare what I’m reading with positions I’ve already taken on much the same source references. But we got there in the end and I’m sure it will prove to be worth it. So here goes:


For such an all encompassing topic – the “Life the Universe and …” meme is a clue –  the book is comprehensive in scope and meticulous in structure and detail. Sure, for every source quoted to support some aspect of Bollands’ solution or argument, or illustrate some problem he’s describing, you might consider an omission you would have chosen as an alternative yourself, but this is one 400 page book where whole libraries have been written; whole civilisations have arisen and fallen.

The meticulous nature is embodied by Bollands’ methodology that runs through the entire first half of the book and which involves repeated use of the same 4 part syllogistic structure. He proceeds by progressively changing the premises and the wording of apparent conclusions as he works through the 12 problems he is seeking to solve with his Universal Life thesis in the last 3 chapters.

The strictures of the chosen structure cry out maybe for some matrix or graphical representation, a map of the territory we’re traversing. As it is, the near repetition demands concentration on what exactly is being said differently at each iteration. Another consequence is that so many of the statements developing the argument along the way, of what might be said from some philosophical or scientific position, are not assertions Bollands is positing. The mix of bold and italic emphasis helps but, in the first half and second chapter, even much of that represents extensions to the problem statements and not necessarily the assertions Bollands is in fact wishing to make. I had to double check a few of my readings of those, I can tell you.

At the risk of labouring this difficulty, the structure of the work is crucial to understanding what is being said. As Bollands has tweeted – publicly, not just in response to my clarifications – it really is necessary to follow the entire logic as laid-out in order. Fair to say it’s not a book for the casual reader, nor any faint-heart challenged by reading many statements they disagree with along the way.

Bollands is addressing “the big problem” with science in the 21st C – enumerated as twelve distinct problems across Life, the Universe and Consciousness. I reviewed these in the “Problems Problems” piece so won’t repeat here, even though they are obviously elaborated in a great deal more detail in the text. So here, what of his Universal Life solution?

The idea that objects in the world exhibit qualities of life and conscious awareness is not new. Intelligent-life-like. As “a way of talking” the intentional stance is applied routinely  to objects we wouldn’t conventionally think of as alive or intelligent in any biological or wilful, purposeful sense. Some (eg Dennett) would go beyond seeing this as simply a way of talking, and insist we suspend disbelief in the reality of conscious will as we evolve our understanding of what it really is. Bollands goes further and posits that life and consciousness, as we know them intuitively, really are much more universal in reality. That is, they’re not just a feature of more highly evolved complex structures, but extend right back to those things we might think of as (fundamental physical)  particles, (chemically elemental) atoms and (chemically compound) molecules. Components of the world more generally.

Two things are apparent about Bollands’ position very early on. Firstly, his intuitive conception of life, despite also addressing many different incomplete and overlapping – and hence never fully agreeable – scientific definitions of life, is fairly conventional, concerning maintenance of the individual and species in the face of environmental attrition. His Universal Life definition goes beyond this, but this core feature is non-contentious, if hard to pin down objectively.

Secondly, pretty much everything we can say about life, we need to say something about consciousness too. They go hand in hand. Problems with the one, in some sense, involve solutions with the other. In (my) summary:

    • The stuff we call life (and indeed consciousness) resides universally in many of those things we rational and scientifically-informed inhabitants of the 21st C would call physics and chemistry, not just biology.
    • The nearest thing we have to an objective science-friendly definition of that stuff we call life (and consciousness) – beyond conventional incomplete definitions about its reproduction and maintenance against environmental attrition – is the fundamental circular process idea that living things create themselves from other living things.
    • (Taken together, this doesn’t say every “thing” is alive, simply that every living thing is in some real sense self-assembled from other living things, for its living purposes. Other non-living objects are structured from the same components but only via the action of external forces and processes, for no purpose attributable to the thing.)

So what is the point of a review? Sell more books? Criticise the intellectual content?

Bollands is in good company in that there is many an important book where turning my critical annotations into coherent sentences would result in a critique longer than the book itself. To what end?

Bollands is in good company also in that I’d place him firmly in the “close but no cigar” camp. A category that includes: the modern panpsychists, Goff, Kastrup and Strawson; many an evolutionary philosopher Dennett, Hofstadter, James, Whitehead, Pirsig, McGilchrist and the EES crowd; some of the free-thinking scientists Smolin, Rovelli, Tegmark, Deutsch & Marletto, Verlinde, England and the IIT crowd. Am I saying that if Bollands, like all these other illustrious people, were to change their theses to accommodate words to suit me, then we would have the one true metaphysics, the one grand unified theory? Nope.

What I’m saying is I 99% agree with Bollands both in terms of the problems with 21st C science and in terms of the validity of his proposed solution. My important criticism is primarily linguistic. It’s about the audience that needs to hear the message in order to consider modifying their world-view as a result, and it’s about what they will hear in the choice of words. It’s not about being right, it’s about successful communication, understanding and outcomes. Bollands first objective is understanding.

In  the same way as I say to the panpsychists, I could agree with everything you say if you said it was proto-conscious-stuff that permeates the world (pan-proto-psychism) rather than “consciousness” itself, I say to Bollands why not say universal-proto-life rather than purposeful “life as we know it” that permeates the whole world? The fact I have my own pet-theory, built on the shoulders of giants who’ve said it all before, about what that proto-stuff really might be, is neither here nor there.

The language problem is how will 21st C century scientists respond when a philosopher tries to tell them life and consciousness are more fundamental than the objects of their science? Ridicule. (Even Dennett, a hero of mine on the right side of this topic has been known to respond with ridicule in the name of “pan-niftiness”. He nevertheless entertains pan-proto-psychic ideas. Strawson tries the opposite linguistic tack, suggesting all will be well if simply use the familiar word “physical” to describe conscious life, then the physical scientists will give the idea an easier ride. He’s nevertheless transparent that this is simply a tactical, linguistic convenience; your equally valid choice may differ.)

Life, like consciousness, is problematic in science in achieving a single agreed objective definition not because it is vague, but because it is many different things evolved on multi-variate spectra in many layers of increasing complexity (*). I happen to think it’s more honest to acknowledge this before projecting intuitive human scale experience of life and consciousness on prehistoric, primordial elements of the cosmos.
(* One difference of understanding and credibility here, despite the evolutionary model, Bollands appears to suggest the same “infinite complexity” at all levels.)

Like Bollands, and like Hofstadter and Dennett jointly and individually, I have no problem with “circular” definitions either. Knowledge and understanding of the world, like the world itself, evolves through “strange loops”. True definitions, like all species, arise only with hindsight.

Also, like Bollands, I see that life and consciousness, whatever they are in any definitive sense, they go hand in hand. Bollands explicitly posits there is no distinction between the behaviours of living and conscious things. They are inseparable. Although distinct from fundamental / metaphysical considerations of life and consciousness, imagined applications of AI and A-Life often turn up in thought experiments about what we really mean by them. Unsurprisingly Bollands also mentions some aspects of these. I have been of the firm opinion that we will never have anything deserving of the name Artificial Intelligence (beyond complex self-learning algorithmic behaviour) until we also have Artificial Life. And, when we do, we will have created or helped to evolve new instances of real life and real intelligence. But we digress.

Life the Universe and Consciousness is worth the read, and Bollands’ Universal Life is worth the effort it will take to understand. Even if ultimately you don’t agree with it and can’t see how empirical evidence could ever bring it into the body of objective scientific knowledge, I would hope some of the more open-minded scientists and scientific philosophers give it head-space. Like Dennett’s last epistle to the scientists, we need you to read this, and then read it again … we need it to change your world view.

Without that change of world-view it’s hard to imagine how any scientist could entertain a sentence like this from Bollands’ final summary of Universal Life being applied to things living at the level of physical science:

“When a living thing acts freely,
selectively and purposefully,
it is acting consciously,
motivated by its experiences,
values and beliefs.”

Even a sympathetic reader such as myself might baulk at beliefs, at a level below higher evolved intelligence. You can already hear the updated mocking response “What, you’re not only saying an electron is conscious (and alive) but now you’re saying it has beliefs? Pull the other one.” This linguistic issue remains my main – only – reservation. Pulling so many words from the level of existing human experience – with all their baggage – into this fundamental physical / metaphysical space seems to greatly diminish the chances of successful communication to its target audience. (I shall probably come back to this sentence in a future post, relating it to the similar work of others.)

Unlike quite a few of the books I’ve put in that “close but no cigar” category, Life the Universe and Consciousness is not “a book I feel I could have written”. If nothing else, I wouldn’t have had the patience to construct it so carefully and follow it through. Indeed, I almost ran out of the patience to properly read it.

It’s not as much fun to read as Douglas Adams, but I’m glad Bollands wrote it. I hope enough will take it seriously enough to follow the logic. It’s a valuable extension to the current panpsychist movement.

Life, the Universe and Nothing New Under the Sun?

Although I’ve not being doing much original writing recently – very busy at work, home & garden, and learning some semantic-web programming(!) – I’m still following the panpsychism traffic via twitter and via hits on the blog. I still owe Tim Bollands a considered review – he’s in good company with my “close but no cigar” verdict. He’s really looking for understanding rather than agreement so he deserves at least that. (Update, review done.) However, some old blog links getting hits the last two days, that joined-up some dots in my evolving evolutionary information thesis. Spooky, as I used to say.

A piece that intrigued me way back in 2002 – like the “e to the i pi =-1” (Euler’s Identity) linking 3 irrational “numbers” – a thought that linked quanta, information and life. (Not to forget that same identity is very close to the integration of singularities in turbulent flow – Navier-Stokes – at all scales.) Anyway, Apoorva Patel’s first piece linked above was Quantum Algorithms and the Genetic Code. On a re-read today, as well as that initial “Wow!” at the linking of quantum mechanics, DNA and information processing, it is fascinating in its own right on evolution as an information processing algorithm. Something that has since become central to all of my thinking.

Despite all the consciousness “hard problem” and “zombie” distractions with David Chalmers work, or other people’s interactions with it, recalling in 2005 that his important book on the topic “The Conscious Mind – In Search of a Fundamental Theory” actually made a big impression on me in terms of the fundamental nature of information. A name-check to David Deutsch in the same piece. All roads lead to IIT, EES and Universal Constructionism (UC). I suspect Bolland’s Universal Life (UL) may in fact be close to UC, despite quite different philosophical gestation, since ultimately his definition of life is about living things “making themselves” (not just reproduction and sustenance but assembling from increasingly “atomic” but equally living components. The distraction for me in all these things is choosing baggage-laden words like living and conscious, to describe the “lower” levels).

David Lavery’s (2004) “Evil Genius” time-travel narrative idea to explore different philosophical metaphysical views of consciousness, especially the Cartesian turn where it went off the rails into scientism and objective dualism. A story which strangely links to this other book idea of my own which started here as “Ishmael’s Daughter”. (I have quite well-developed off-line versions of this project as a bio-travel chautauqua in the manner of a Pirsigian but watery US “buddy-movie / road trip” – Lila meets Zen and the Art?Oh, wait, Pirsig already did that.)