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In reviewing The Muslims are Coming! by Arun Kundnani, Andrew Copson writing in the New Humanist finds that whilst he supports the warnings against prejudice, the message falls short on the part the religion itself plays in Islamic extremism. He adds this point of his own:

There is a confidence imparted to a person by religious ideology that can motivate excessive violence, and the intellectual and ideological content of religion needs to be considered in any full analysis.

Of course he’s right. But there are moral distinctions to be made between “attacking” extremism and “critically debating” religion. The fact that ideological confidence can motivate violent extremism is no premise to assume that it does in anyone who identifies with any given religion. Considerate analysis must include respect for those who find value in religion, something far from ideology and a million miles from condemning violent extremism.

Mentioned a couple of times recently since reading Nagel’s most recent (2012-ish ?) Mind and Cosmos, that I’d felt the need to go back to some of his earlier work of which I was aware by reference and quotation, but had never properly read.

So, I’m reading The View From Nowhere (1986), and despite so far reading only the introduction, I’m already full of quotes I feel the need to share. Another of those I (wish I) could have written myself:

[The process of progressive objectification] will not always yield a result, and sometimes it will be thought to yield a result when it really doesn’t; then as Nietzsche warned, one will get a false objectification of an aspect of reality that cannot be better understood from a more objective standpoint. Although there is a connection between objectivity and reality [....] still not all reality is better understood the more objectively it is viewed.

Appearance and perspective are essential parts of what there is, and in some respects they are best understood from a less detached standpoint. Realism underlies claims of objectivity and detachment, but it supports them only up to a point.

The internal-external tension pervades human life, but is particularly prominent in the generation of philosophical problems. I shall concentrate on four topics: the metaphysics of mind, the theory of knowledge, free-will and ethics. But the problem has equally important manifestations with respect to the metaphysics of space and time, the philosophy of language and aesthetics. In fact there is probably no area of philosophy in which it doesn’t play a significant role.

The subjectivity of consciousness is an irreducible feature of reality – without which we couldn’t do physics or anything else – and it must occupy as fundamental a place in any credible world-view as matter, energy, space, time and numbers. [....] I believe it is already clear that any correct theory of the relation between mind and body would radically transform our overall conception of he world and would require a new understanding of the phenomena now thought of as physical. [....] The good, like the true, includes irreducibly subjective elements.

This is in some respects a deliberately reactionary work. There is a significant strain of idealism in contemporary philosophy, according to which what there is and how things are cannot go beyond what we could in principle think about. This inherits the crude appeal of logical positivism [....]. Philosophy is also infected by a broader tendency of contemporary intellectual life: SCIENTISM. Scientism is actually a special form of idealism, for it puts one type of human understanding in charge of the universe and what can be said about it. At its most myopic it assumes that everything there is must be understandable by scientific theories of the kind we have developed to date – physics and evolutionary biology being the current paradigms – as if the current age were not just another in the series [of ages of understanding].

Precisely because of their dominance, these attitudes are ripe for attack. Of course some of the opposition is foolish; it can degenerate into the rejection of science – whereas anti-scientism is essential to the defence of science against misappropriation. [....] Too much time is wasted because of the assumptions that methods already in existence will solve problems for which they were not designed.

Emphases are mine. I hadn’t realised “scientism as infection” was a Nagel concept. I’d thought it was absolutely mine – magic! Objectivity is much simpler to handle so is easier to communicate – the memetic effect:

[....] a persistent temptation to turn [intellectual pursuit of understanding]
into something less difficult and more shallow than it is.
[Whereas] it is extremely difficult.

Or, as I would put it “just complicated enough” to be at risk from simplistication.

A Grauniad post from Jon Butterworth – I’m becoming a fan, one of the more down to earth physicists I’ve met.

But, it’s another one of those nagging doubts I have. I get the 5-sigma stats, the limits to the assumptions of normal distributions, and even the subconscious Bayesian correction, but I can’t help feeling the focus on error relative to your thesis is merely reinforcing – reifying – the objectification of your own thesis. It’s about error “relative to” your set of assumptions. The smaller this error the greater the significance of some bigger error in your model / hypothesis / assumptions built into the measurements you’re seeking as well as the results you’re finding. Your ability to achieve “perfect” results is greater the more your boundary conditions constrain what you can look for.

I suspect this is tied up in the “look elsewhere” idea he mentions – which I don’t really get, yet. More reading. Sigh!

Interestingly even in the title / intro / abstract – Lyons agenda seems to be aligned with some of my issues. The rationalisation and (resource) justification aspects of large physics projects might create some self-fulfilling relationship between theory and results. Intriguing.

[Post Note : and the following day a post taking supersymmetry possibilities seriously at 2.6-sigma. Previous supersym ref here. Also ephemeral points on twitter - that big physics is using 5-sigma just because it can, given how many events it can poll. Reinforces my nagging fear that the stats are a red-herring, missing (obscuring) something of more explanatory value, more real than the standard model.]

[Post Note : Opportunity for a (real, attributable) Einstein quote

"Since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity,
I do not understand it myself anymore."

(Albert Einstein : Philosopher Scientist (1949) edited by Paul A. Schilpp)]

Tweeted and FB’d several comments at the loss of William Hague from the Foreign Office, and Baroness Warsi’s subsequent comments about his loss, her departure and the FO falling apart. Basically I was disappointed that Hague had decided to leave for his own reasons, he didn’t seem the kind of competent committed person to withdraw his old-school loyalty from a difficult job. (Made several passing references in the blog to our missing Hague in connection with immediate foreign situations that cried out for his skills. This one on Gaza, Ukraine and ISIS and UK/EU and #IndyRef. Thank god John Kerry has no home to go to and has kept the show on the road single-handedly.)

Well, it seems Hague was indeed pushed, he was just being loyal to the team by giving the public message he did. Too loyal, as I suspected. And now it seems tongues are wagging about his encumbent replacement Hammond not appreciating what they’ve lost. (Source – Twitter last night. Need to dig up refs.)

Being based in London for the working week these days, it’s maybe apparent from the blog that I’ve been taking advantage of attending cultural and intellectual events of various kinds in the city.

Multi-discipline public presentations from academic institutions like ICL and UCL, public speaking engagements by “celebrity” expert “authorities“, talks and meetings of particular societies, BHA, CLHG, CFIUKConway Hall / The Ethical Society, New Humanist / Rationalist Association, and more. Apart from the specific content of the particular meeting, the big plus of such events is the face-to-face time of new (and existing) contacts and discussion conducted for the past 15 years primarily by blogs, social media and mailing lists.

Several of these events I’ve already blogged reports, and several more I have bookings for the future.

One particular novelty for me, despite 14 years of active blogging & social media on these topics, has been “MeetUp“. Despite being set-up to organise diaries around attendance at physical meetings, many of the participants, use MeetUp itself as the blog – posting the online agenda – and discussion forum – the online comment thread, associated with the MeetUp topic.

Like all such vehicles there are good and bad examples of use; you know the kind populated by trolls for whom “giving offence” is their perceived basis of the right to free speech, and “to grow a pair” as the London Active Atheists Group would have it – active as in the indiscriminate one-dimensional “shrill” voices of anti-faithism, anti anything that’s not ‘ard enuff, on my limited exposure so far. And yes, since I do “ave a pair” I will plan to attend at some point, sadly this last one fell on the same evening I had an appointment to see an apartment. (Compare WHC2014 declaration on free speech, where “no right not to be offended” is one selected part of the creed, along with positives like support and restraint.)

One example that, despite having its fair share of conspiracy-theorists and free-critics, seems to maintain a constructive balance is GlobalNet21 – a group which seems to have several active sub-groups. Blogged one group event already – “the state of traditional democracy” – and another – “new enlightenment” – I’ve not posted here until now, but posted links and feedback into the MeetUp thread at the request of the organiser Kathryn Best. [Post Note : several other overlapping sources and resources in this "new enlightenment" session - Snowden's Cynefin view of complexity, Maslovian motivation and other incentivisation theories and practice, and several others - need to collect the links posted on MeetUp and construct a coherent essay on this one too.]

GlobalNet21 is particularly interesting for me in that it is clearly actively facilitated by Francis Sealey, and that it represents in the face-to-face domain exactly what I was trying to achieve with Joining Up The Dots / “Dots’n’Threads” and eventually throwing in my lot with the practically moribund “The Global Circle“. One to watch.

Very interesting session in the Wilson committee room at Parliament’s Portcullis House last Tuesday 9th September. It was a MeetUp organised by GlobalNet21. I was busy with several other events last week, so taken until over the weekend to publish my notes.

Peter Hain (Lab) and John Mann (Lab) as the main speakers. [Caroline Dinenage (Con) had to pull out due to constituency business.]

Both MP’s Hain and Mann contrasted their own political careers – starting out locally engaged and (single) issue focussed, and finding themselves drawn into the process of democratic government – with those of modern “career” politicians. Typically starting with a politics related degree, internship experience with party or offfice, working in related politics or journalism field until securing candidacy (council or parliament), thereby becoming MP, junior minister, spokesperson, minister and finally PM. So many candidacies actually go unopposed. Coming from and becoming part of the Westminster press / academic / government “bubble” – and in so doing, reinforcing the bubble. Reinforcing the detatchment of polticians from “real life” of their constituents.

In parallel was the apparent decline in voter engagement and turnout statistics over the decades, though there was some suggestion these things did go in cycles. The idea of Halcyon days is simply nostalgia. Interpretations of current low levels could be an apathy due to most things being comfortably OK (the normal interpretation), or a specific message of public dissatisfaction with the political process and arrangements (though no-one felt the need to mention the Russell Brand effect even once during the whole evening).

Counter-intuitively, career politician or local activist, the time for working on engagenment is not necessarily in the run-up to elections, where both lobbyists and candidates understand the game of securing maximum counts for least effort, least commitment and minimum difficult, complex debate.

Similarly, engagement is not necessarily through policy setting and agreement. Strategic policy may often be the window dressing – the language and narrative expected by “the bubble” – but tactical action, using actual power to address specific value-adding issues is what draws public support for specific MP’s and hence their parties. Mann challenged the academia members of the bubble to use his advice as a case study for what it really takes to secure votes.

Parties and the “two-party system” were a topic too. Despite much wrong with the byzantine machinations of party organisations and activities, and with the effect of casting all issues adversarially, parties do in fact perform a valuable function in providing the platform, advice and vehicle for raising individual constituent issues into the government political process, getting both active individuals and their issues on to the agendas for debate, decisions and action.

In these days of ubiquitous electronic media, it is the otherwise most disenfranchised that are, relatively speaking, most empowered. Anyone however “ineloquent” of whatever social status can and will add their voice to a debate, a campaign, a petition. The downsides however are the ease with which cynicism and reactive or simplistic positions can spread, and given that real life is limited by resources and priorities – not everything can be most important or “paramount” – the empowerment to communicate raises expectations that can easily lead to disappointment, frustration and reinforcement of the said cynicism. A vicious circle I call “the memetic effect” in this blog – the catchiest but not necessarily the best ideas capture maximum attention.

There is a sense in which the public needs to understand that limited resources, conflicting priorities and unintended consequence over different levels and timescales mean not every issue can be solved by simple yes / no decisions. Basic “civics” education is so important for public understanding of the complexities, though clearly the more transparent and honest political dealings can be, the complexity needn’t be over-complicated. Explaining the difference between complexity and complication is err … complicated. Real priorities can be more readily apparent, the more people appreciate the real processes needed.

Interestingly, despite the counter-intuitive rejection of the value of “policies” per se, it is nevertheless clear that agreed values and shared human aims are fundamental to achieving consenus and focus on real priorities. Value itself is created by action, whereas policy statements of value simply support the process, and rationalise the decisions.

Many other specific ideas for improving the process came up. In no particular order:

Open primaries for candidate selection were recommended and a number of MP’s including Mann had used and promoted this concept. They are not a silver bullet – by the very virtue of being open – they are open to abuse and manipulation, but they are part of the reforms needed to encourage two-way engagement – candidates with the public and the public with the process.

There semed to be implicit consensus that larger constituencies with some form of proportional / AV representation really was overdue, and disbelief that the recent opportunity to enact this had been rejected. The simplistic first-past-the-post within arbitrary constituencies was part of the adversarial election-winning distraction from real value-adding action.

Quite mixed views on an elected second chamber. Clear objective for some. General agreement on the total numbers in the two houses has become too large. Personally, I believe reform in combination with the AV ideas above, does also need some “conservative” meritocratic appointees with timescales and policy horizons beyond the next election term office. It’s not so much that the elected individuals have selfish short-term vision, but that the process can artificially impose the term timescale. Conversely several mentions of checks and balances in any system, such as “recall” being essential.

Finally, in addition to the mentions of the empowerment of participants by ubiquitous social media, several mentions of electronic voting and also the voters responsibilities to vote, including some discussion of legally mandatory voting. No time for these to be aired fully. Enforced voting was generally rejected, certainly not without actual voting choices include concepts like “none of the above”. Electronic voting perceived by many as too open to manipulation by those parties providing and running the systems, but in fact my objection is that to maintain its value, voting mustn’t be made too easy – a click from the armchair, like any other two-bit quiz or feedback form.

Overall, an excellent session. Covered a lot of ground, but necessarily couldn’t do justice to all topics. Personally, I’m already sold on the need for increased engagement. Positively inspiring to encounter real values and practical wisdom “in the flesh” – all too easy to criticise those “in power” from afar, and demand the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. Also particularly note-worthy of this event was the fact that it wasn’t run as a debate requiring yes or no agreements, but a conversation topic where the potential for change and improvement was a given from the off.

Just a holding post for now. Will have to digest and comment on this later, but first impression is disbelief. (I recall being unimpressed by Wolpert when I saw him in a debate a couple of years ago, must dig up the blog.)

[Post Note: I did in fact go back to try to make some specific comments, but found myself just as speechless at the pure arrogance of the man, that it hardly seemed worth the effort to construct any arguments – far more fruitful avenues for dialogue. What I did pick up was this lone comment, which says pretty eloquently all that needs saying:

AvProtestant on 11/09/2014 10:00pm – Reading Wolpert’s comments I’m reminded of what J S Mill said of Jeremy Bentham: 

“[He] failed in deriving light from other minds. His writings contain few traces of the accurate knowledge of any schools of thinking but his own; and many proofs of his entire conviction that they could teach him nothing worth knowing.“]

[Post Post Note: Also as promised I went back to dig out my previous Wolpert encounter. Amusingly, the previous encounter was exactly like this one – so abysmal I could’t be arsed to digest and comment. The previous encounter I was thinking of was this one, and even then the best I could manage was that …

The scientists [inc Wolpert] were frankly embarrassingly arrogant in seeing no alternatives to scientism, despite significant definitional debate around narrow and broad conceptions of objectivity, empiricism and methods of science in “the view from nowhere” and truth defined anywhere from “objective fact” to pragmatism. Embarrassing that they see only scale and complexity of detail in the ultimate tractability of everything falling under science, ignoring the paradoxes (eg in the zombie thought experiment) and non-linearity in the position of game-changing intentional consciousness in the game of life as we know it.

Also spookily close to my current readings of Nagel, in the next post. The language, years apart, is so …. identical.]

It’s been said before, but here a Grauniad Science Blog by Moheb Costandi with a link to this full issue of The Psychologist which is devoted entirely to therapeutic psychedelics with an introduction from the now infamous David Nutt.

Powerful stuff. Part of a collection, for research purposes, naturally.

[Post Note : And nice to see Sue Blackmore still hanging in there.]

Zizek, starting with the Rotherham case, but pointing out that it is just an example – some would say political correctness – where the elephant in the room needs to be addressed for what it is. (The Ashya case too, it is quite apparent that the religious connection is being played down, not even mentioned in BBC stories, lest it be proven not relevant – damned if you do, damned if you don’t – as Michael Cashman tweeted.)

At this level, of course, we are never tolerant enough, or we are already too tolerant. The only way to break out of this deadlock is to propose and fight for a positive universal project shared by all participants.

In my own agenda: “I’m against religious fundamentalism, because I’m against fundamentalism of any kind, including scientific (scientistic) fundamentalism. I don’t define myself by what I’m against, I define myself by what I’m for. So, more specific than mere “tolerance” is respect … ”

[Post Note : And a powerful follow-up from Sam @Elizaphanian.]

I came to be reading Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos. because I came across this review, which was itself a balanced comparative review of Nagel alongside Max Tegmark’s mathematical take on reality, but it was clear Nagel had ruffled a few orthodox scientific feathers with his heretical ideas. Coincidentally when I ordered Mind and Cosmos I’d already obtained and started reading Sheldrake’s Science Set Free. So many feathers ruffled there that Sheldrake (a real scientist) is practically an outcast from the orthodox house of science, for making too many “supernatural” topics valid game for scientific enquiry. Nagel on the other hand is a philosopher, so all too easily dismissed by hard-core scientists to start with.

Since picking up on Nagel for his universally referenced “What’s it like to be a bat?” and his “View From Nowhere” I’d never really thought of him beyond his “what’s it like to be …” alternate take on Chalmers’ “hard problem” of consciousness – explaining the subjective experience, so it was a great pleasure to get acquainted with more than a single paper of his.

Mind and Cosmos is very carefully written, painfully avoiding too-inflated claims for alternatives, but nailing the failings of overly-reductionist physicalist scientism. Painful because his arguments so carefully pick-off one aspect of each topic at a time, comparing each with distinct alternatives, and commenting on the quality of potential arguments rather than necessarily coming to firm conclusions. For that reason alone, anyone interested in getting to grips with what is wrong with scientific reductionism, starting with perhaps a nagging belief only, will find his arguments valuable. A couple of chapters – particularly the one around cognition and its evolution – are so painstakingly argued that the subtleties are hard to follow, but I wouldn’t be put off by that. The writing itself is beautifully simple.

Without too strongly recommending his preferred candidate alternate model to reductionist materialism, Mind and Cosmos is a plea that alternatives are seriously considered by scientific researchers. In that sense he is strongly aligned with Sheldrake. Also like Sheldrake the alternatives are “kinda” panpsychic. Proto-concsiousness being at least part of the fundamental elements of the cosmos – a neutral monism of neither mind nor matter exclusively, though mind more primarily than matter if forced to back one side. Unlike Sheldrake, Nagel doesn’t nail his colours to any particular mast, theist or otherwise.

I do not find theism any more credible than materialism as a comprehensive worldview.

Nagel is opposed to reductionism – everything explainable both functionally and historically from their parts, but is not wedded to emergence either. Personally I can still use emergence, nevertheless with Nagel’s reminder of two-way causation from pattern to parts as well as the orthodox conception of efficient cause.

A key aspect of Nagel’s line  of argument is always to compare intentional reasons, and teleological reasons with reductionist / constructionist approach of orthodox scientism. Not simply – that’s just the way it is or  the laws of nature couldn’t be any other way and the results are the “chance” causal outcome of the component level constraints and laws only.  His arguments dispense with any strong need for the intentional – the intentional designs of an intelligent mind – but the teleological – the causally directed effects of patterns on the parts, creating propensities and tendencies towards patterns in the outcomes (but not specific outcomes or “goals”) – remains very much part of his possible, plausible mode.

“These teleological speculations are offered merely as possibilities, without positive conviction.”

Yeah, right. One thing Nagel doesn’t buy from orthodox science is arguments of something from nothing, not the literally anything from literally nothing – which any philosopher recognises is a metaphysical question anyway – but the conveniently complex from the presumed simple. No “life from chemistry” any more than intelligence from cosmos or cosmos from quarks without his injection of teleology and his neutral monist foundations. Here he is of course pretty controversial, but his arguments suggest he’s at least as much chance of being right as the reductionists. [Here a recent reference that suggests emergence (of bio molecules from simple chemistry) isn't so far-fetched.]

The concept of “value” looms large, particularly “pre-reflective impressions of value” and “pre-rational data” (very much “radical empiricism” a la James) and a great part of Nagel’s evolutionary arguments acknowledge Sharon Street’s “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value” Philosophical Studies 127 Jan 2006. That seems to become essential reading. [Not  fully read yet, but she references Gould & Lewontin (1979) without referencing any 21st century Dennett - sigh.]

Overall – very impressed with Nagel’s latest and believe it could be a very important piece of work. Certainly orthodox scientists needn’t run away screaming. They should take up Nagel’s careful arguments and proposals for what they are, and see what difference they make to existing explanations. A recommended read.

[Post Notes:

Mentioned upfront that Nagel had been rejected by orthodox science - even Dennett, though I must dig up the context. As I said painfully inconclusive arguments, relying on philosophical questioning and only a couple of main sources. This review is pretty balanced in reviewing his critics as well as Nagel's own case. "Non-committal" is the tactical criticism. I think he deliberately avoids scientific support in his brief book - satisfied that his job is the philosophy, to point out the unanswered questions that orthodox science should consider, after all, he's not the scientist.

Despite what Jerry Coyne says he's not "anti-evolution" he's against reductionist materialist neo-Darwinism. Jerry Coyne didn't read the book of course, and his defensive agenda is the title of his blog anyway - a closed mind if ever there was one.

So far all the criticisms of Nagel seem to be ad-hominem, and few are from those that command my respect, except Dennett, as I say. This Prospect piece seems to get Nagel's message.

Other than reported statements, I can't find any critical piece by Dennett. This conference report is interesting, but don't know anything about the agenda of Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard. (Most of the Dennett quotes elsewhere seem to come from this report.)

Daniel Dennett took a different view. While it is true that materialism tells us a human being is nothing more than a “moist robot”—a phrase Dennett took from a Dilbert comic—we run a risk when we let this cat, or robot, out of the bag. If we repeatedly tell folks that their sense of free will or belief in objective morality is essentially an illusion, such knowledge has the potential to undermine civilization itself, Dennett believes.

I reckon that understates Dennett's take on "greedy reductionism".]

[Post Post Note : Now reading Nagel's "The View From Nowhere" in full rather than just various second hand readings and references. Barely through the introduction and already finding it "on-message". More later in a separate post.]

Disappointing. No secret I find Krauss & Dawkins too simplistic (reductionist scientistic) when it comes to their idea of “rational” arguments against theists or the otherwise religious. But, having bought and viewed the DVD of The Unbelievers, I was baffled how little content there was in this fairly short documentary film, and what content there is, is mostly already public in various clips. Nothing I hadn’t already heard either of them say before.

Lots of wistful shots of them travelling to and talking about the various speaking engagements, and sitting around airports, hotels and studios – very brief snips of the actual talks / debates / interviews, and as I say little of that unseen before.

The one thing that stuck in my mind, probably because it was some time since I last saw it, was Dawkins “debate” with the top Oz Catholic cleric, where Dawkins merely chuckles and ridicules him for not being too expert on practical details of evolution – confusing cousins vs parental heredity genetically speaking. Irrelevant to anything they were actually debating, but of course that’s practically the only clip you see. Highly disningenuous.

Just a big ego-trip for “The Unbelievers” the documentary itself. No content or arguments either way. We need some of the other “horsemen” to step up to more reasoned debate – Harris & Dennett say.

[Aside - saw another recent Krauss tweet, need to dig up, where he referred to others pointing out - as I have done - that arguing against something-from-nothing arguments (life and cosmos examples) on the grounds that their nothing is already something, as "nit-picking"! I have one the life examples in my Nagel post draft - upcoming.]

Interesting piece by Samira Ahmed, actually a summary of one of the sessions at WHC2014 I referred to here, but primarily making the plea against the misguided aggressive atheist stance that moderate religious expression should be attacked just as hard for simply being “cover” for barbaric fundamentalist forms.

Politics and management of the complex depend on levels of hypocrisy, and knowing who your allies are in any given battle is rational common sense. Mustn’t confuse values, aims, policies, strategies and tactics, they’re all quite distinct.

And it’s not simply a matter of Machiavellian cunning, cynical pragmatism or Sun-Tzu / Clausewitz on campaigns of war, it’s about working with your (potential) allies to uncover valuable common ground – you both learn and win friends. Doing something constructive rather than lazily invoking your knee-jerk “right” to criticise.

As I said at the time:

Tactical Aggression – [rather than] – the old misguided idea that benign expressions of religion are merely cover for militant and inhuman kinds and therefore to be challenged as aggressively as any.

Simplistic Equals Wrong – Guardian piece by Ian Birrell on responses to Foley’s brutal murder.

Just a riff of connected thoughts arising. That article is dead right – we need to maintain consistent foreign policy, and that’s complicated with the sway of political terms and public opinion in “the west”.

The recent history of the Gulf / Iraq / Afghanistan wars, followed by those arising from the Arab Spring, like Libya, meant that by the time Syria came along we’d lost appetite for considered intervention. “No boots on the ground” or “no military force” became a dogma rather than a considered conclusion based on long-term policies. So now that Israel Palestine reignites, Ukraine / Russia and Syria becomes ISIS in Syria and Iraq our foreign policy is on the back foot. (Made worse in the UK by discontinuity in the FO itself and divisive diversions of UK / Scotland and UK / EU, rather than strengthening of international collaborations.)

These conflicts are all connected, and connected on many levels and issues. If we don’t follow policy that actually reflects them all – their continuity and all their complexity – we have little hope of achieving stable positive outcomes. Into the vacuum flows simplistic “Islamic Caliphate for Dummies” – brutal, evil, wrong. We can do better.

(I say “the west” but of course the other Arab nations and much more also need to align concensus long-term policies more honestly rather than short-term opportunistic stances.)

I attended the “Particle Physics Evening” Hosted by Jon Butterworth (of Smashing Physics fame) at University College London yesterday evening. Altogether, including two streaming in from CERN, there were 7 speakers and reasonably lively Q&A with the 250ish audience, so I came away thinking I’d learned a bit.

[Post Note: I should add this public meeting was a part of the gathering of particle physicists at UCL for BOOST2014]

Given the more general title as advertised, I was expecting something like – forget the press banging on about Higgs, here’s the interesting stuff – but in fact the focus of this team, and hence the talk, was almost entirely on Higgs. The multiple correlation by multiple different test teams using different LHC experiments and technologies to detect Higgs-predicted multiple decay patterns meant a very high level of certainty that the new particle “discovered” was the real 126GeV mass particle predicted for Higgs. Their use of the D-word indicated this very high level of statistical certainty. They admitted that as well as planning new objectives for research when LHC restarts next year at its near doubled 14TeV capacity, there were plenty of things they still needed to test and confirm about the Higgs itself besides its mass and predicted decay patterns, and still masses (excuse the pun) of existing data to analyse before LHC restarts.

What struck me was that the “standard model” being talked about – for which the Higgs provided the missing piece – is really only “complete” for unifying Electro-Weak forces. Still nothing said about strong forces or even gravity, despite mass being the point of the Higgs interest, and therefore still less said about possible dark-matter and dark-energies and gravitational interactions between these masses. The cosmological model is far from complete, even with Higgs.

Someone did ask the question I’ve expressed many times. How logically can finding a massive particle explain why other particles have mass? The answer threw up another item I’d not recognised previously. Higg’s only explains the asymmetry of mass between the otherwise “identical” particle triplets, and it only explains how they came to acquire their different masses during the evolution of the universe, masses which no longer depend on any ongoing interactions with Higgs. Nowadays Higgs only exist in certain extreme conditions with extremely short decay life otherwise. This is the kind of explanation that depends on such a fine-tuned timing in the early post-big-bang universe, that the sceptic in me still finds it pretty far fetched. What they’re really establishing is internal consistency of their incomplete model.

Given the recognition that the standard EW model (completed by Higgs) was far from a complete cosmological model, what might exist beyond it came up only in the last throwaway remark of Jon’s closing comments. SuperSymmetry – a whole set of mirror equivalents of the standard model with complementary properties and much much higher masses. The same again and much more is still missing from the postulated model.

I did ask Jon afterwards (given the previous post) did he see anything in supersymmetry – or whatever lay beyond – that could yet unravel the standard EW model? Initially he said no, without being specific all the remaining gaps looked like things that should be confirmed and refined, but admitted that until they were (confirmed and detailed) technically it maybe could unravel. Supersymmetry was only one of the hypotheses for what lay beyond, though many of the others were as he put it, more philosophical than physical. Well said and very significant.

Two other interesting topics:

The whole question of data collection and data analysis – the algorithms used to select “interesting” data sets (few hundred per second) from the background noise (millions per second). Surely observer bias in the algorithms must skew the findings? David Miller’s role in this team was to address exactly that – ensuring sampling of the noise as well as the “interesting” signals checked they weren’t discarding significant sets. The sceptic in me again says, that since it’s patterns we’re really looking for – not standalone indications – that the results are still hugely at risk to this process. Hmmm.

And finally, meta, but maybe the most significant point: One thing I’ve been looking at creating is a forum based on moderated wisdom of real people with respect for each other, as opposed to the troll-addled offense-by-ridicule polarised threads of comments and social media. Well that was pretty much exactly how Jay Wacker described Quora. Wikipedia is great for non-contentious facts, as I’ve said many times, but Quora was set up to be a respect-mediated way to collect informed-wisdom. Excellent initiative, and a lesson to those “humanist” forums and threads that this initiative on wise opinion came from “real” geeky physicists, who clearly understand the reality of life more than either scientistic-atheist-humanists or religious-fundamentalists. Very interesting – I shall try it out and see how it works.

Interesting pair of papers, one from this week, and one from Nov 2012, on the “failure” of the Large Hadron Collider work to find any evidence of “supersymmetry” particles to support the standard model, and the idea that mass is not a particle property, and so maybe even the Higgs field / boson is a myth. No, really? It’s been said here before.

The best thing about this is the suggestion that maybe the “wrong turn” in particle physics was taken quite some time ago, several decades, so rather than fiddling with and knocking corners off existing theories, more radical new hypotheses really are needed. The latest paper is suggesting mass and length are not even real, and that falling back on (parallel) multiverses as a reason why we find the particular properties we do in this universe, is simply not satisfactory as any kind of explanation. And a lot more. Fascinating reads.

Mass was of course a fudge ever since Newton introduced it to explain inertial resistance to acceleration; Boscovich and Mach (and hence Einstein) recognised this of course. For a true physicalist model, dynamics are much more primary than anything like matter is to a materialist. So many other possibilities if we escape the materialist dogma.

Much too hard for any lay / amateur like myself to understand all the scientific (mathematical) arguments, but the all too human quotes of the practitioners are very illuminating. Disappointment and failure. No more jobs in particle physics, time to find work in neuroscience, etc. LOL.

What is also good about the two Simons Foundation source papers is that the comment threads are not hysterically polarised attack and defence. Several pointing out that “failure” is not the right way to look at scientific progress – unless you were involved in big-science funding justifications maybe – fair enough, but most finding the reports though-provoking and joining the dots with other sources of ideas. Progress.

[Hat tip to David Morey on Facebook for the links.]

Rupert Sheldrake’s “The Science Delusion” (2012) so-called by his publisher as a pointed response to Dawkins, is called “Science Set Free” in the US. Given my agenda – alternatives to logical-positivist materialist-reductionist scientistic-dogma worldviews – it’s not possible for me to be ignorant of Sheldrake, but I’m pretty sure I’ve not read anything of his until his 2012 book. Certainly not his seminal “New Science of Life – The Hypothesis of Morphic Resonance” (1981).

The 2012 book seems to summarise his previous work, and although it covers the whole range of his ideas on alternative medicine, telepathy and the “paranormal”, his main agenda is to point out dogmatic arrogant dismissive politically distorting aspects of the modern science enterprise – hear, hear. He may never recover from some of his ideas being too whacky – too new-agey – for orthodox science to take seriously, but there are attractive aspects of his morphic resonance hypothesis for the open-minded.

Much evidence for consciousness and memory as something like pan-psychism, extending beyond the physical structures of any one brain – like I heard Iain McGilchrist say recently, better to think of highly-evolved brains as the best “transducers” of consciousness, rather than its source or physical location. Similarly some of the complex behaviours of simple organisms (like Alan Rayner and his funghi) cannot just be reduced to properties of their physical structures. Also much evidence that the Cosmological Anthropic Principle casts doubt on the accepted standard model(s) and ideas of downward as well as upward causation and “natural” lines of evolution.

All the so-called “paranormal” stuff he has, like Sue Blackmore, taken seriously as a research topic for some time. Some interesting ideas about problems researching anything telepathic “under laboratory conditions” and anything like double-blind arrangements where researcher’s biases are not in play. But as he points out these problems beset much “big science” and business motivated medical science too. He actually uses several Ben Goldacre quotes positively, when I can imagine “Bad Science” easily taking a pop at Sheldrake.

I also happen to believe materialist-as-physicalist philosophy with “emergence” of patterns upon patterns of fit consistent with Sheldrake’s morphic resonance,  wouldn’t cause Dennett as much problem as Sheldrake assumes on the appearances of intention and creative purpose [ref needed] . Be interesting to hear the two together.

I’ve said before when arguing against orthodoxy it’s possible to be “too open minded” and leave yourself open to criticism based on ridicule, but for an open mind Sheldrake does cover a lot of worthwhile ground.

[Post Note:  Final conclusions reading The Science Delusion are that Sheldrake sounds frustrated and tired delivering a message he's clearly been banging on about for a long time. His core point - that materialist reductionist science has become dogmatic and closed minded, and that society is becoming dangerously distorted by its dominance - is surely true. But the examples of alternatives he cites are too many, too personally "cause-celebre" and maybe insufficiently coherently argued to create change in themselves. I should add, I've now moved on to reading Thomas Nagel's "Mind and Cosmos" - an atheist version of the same agenda it seems.]

Interesting. Not sure it says much about the religion vs science debate, but it does say a lot about effective styles of interaction. If you go in “taking the piss” and showing your audience no respect, I’m not sure you can expect your audience to show any respect to you or what you might have to say. A sad case. (Sue needs to take a lesson from Dan Dennett, below.)

Sadly, I thought Sue had already changed her mind away from Religions as Viruses of the Mind. Sure there is a lot of memetics in how and why religions (and any beliefs) catch-on and spread, but trivialising it with crass reductionist examples helps no-one.

No-one has the right not to be offended.
But that gives no-one the right to offend and ridicule as their main thrust.
[Post Note: we can't all be court-jester / play the fool, we can't all be the disrupter. These very terms imply the existence of a majority conservative norm - and for good reason, evolution depends on large quantifiable fidelity and fecundity, depart too often from the norm and we have heat-death or chaotic anarchy.]

Dennett – in Intution Pumps (and earlier works). He credits these as Rappaport’s rules, but this is the version Dennett presents : How to compose a successful critical commentary:

You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

These first three rules I call elsewhere: “Respect, respect & respect”.

[Post Note: Here endeth the lesson.]

Interesting piece because of the suggestion this affects its advertisers, but a large number of twitter users are “bots”.

But by its definition, I’m a bot.

The reason I like Twitter compared to that other useless piece of social media, is precisely because it’s a “channel” whose UI I can avoid using at all costs. Everything I post to or read from Twitter I do as a human, but the feeds are automated from other UI’s. This blog for one thing, outbound posts and with embedded readers on other pages, and more recently Tweetdeck both in and outbound and other WordPress plug-ins. So yes “promoted” tweets sometimes make it into the inbound channel as well as the humanly “followed” tweets. But I can dismiss these. There are no other UI widgets trying to second guess what commercial or “sex” driven content to put in front of my eyes, alongside the user content on my desktop.

Twitter is great because it’s a channel without inherent content.
Please make your business model out of that fact.

After the “Relaxed About Theology” post, I largely drafted this one in response to another twitter exchange involving a tweeter who clearly wasn’t at all relaxed about the religious connections between the Sheldonian and the recent World Humanist Congress (#WHC2014) held there. Having drafted it I decided not to post it, since although he had a point his aggressive motive wasn’t clear, and no-one from BHA or other humanist organisation seemed to have engaged. So maybe better let sleeping trolls lie. Well I discover today BHA did engage – totally defensively and dismissively, so I feel moved to share my view:

@getyourshare1 was making the point that the Sheldonian as a “religious” building was not appropriate as a humanist venue. Of course troll-style, he was making his point with emotive terms like “hypocrites”,  “betrayal”, etc. and making claims that were exaggerating what may (or may not) have been partly true. My initial tweeted response was that 1000 humanists taking over the (ex-religious) asylum had a certain delicious irony to it. But, he responded suggesting the church may have made rent out of the event at the expense of humanism. After one attempt to put a positive spin on it – “OK if that were true, what would you suggest we do about it” (other than hurl abuse)? But the hint wasn’t taken, so I shut up – Monday I think.

Anyway, it seems BHA have as recently as today simply been denying and dismissing his claims. My take is this:

The Church(es) are massive landowners in the UK. The major ancient universities were to a great extent founded by the churches, and as well as having that heritage, if Oxford is anything like Cambridge and Durham, we can be sure the churches still own a great deal of the property with ground rents and covenants and the like where the whole buildings are no longer owned. No doubt the concerns that run the academic institutions as businesses and charities have quite complex relations to their landlords, so whilst the Sheldonian is not “owned” by the church, or any hiring rents paid directly to the church, I wouldn’t be surprised if the church did benefit indirectly to some extent. (Tried to research that out of interest, but very difficult to bottom out the detail.)

What is undeniable however, is that the Sheldonian has religious heritage and a “congregational” layout, not to mention the organ and other religious artefacts, symbols and mottos all over it. Denied by the BHA.

The congregational element of humanism’s congress, and indeed of its Sunday “assemblies”, was one of the features that led Andrew Brown to point out similarities between humanism and a religion. Denied and indeed attacked with ridiculing and dismissive rhetoric by the BHA members.

Clearly not everyone in humanism is Relaxed About Theology, but the worry is that so many voices associated with humanism feel the need to attack or deny it every time some point of contact arises, rather than engage in reasonable dialogue.

[Links to all the twitter tags, handles and tweets deliberately omitted here, anyone following who has interest in reasonable dialogue knows how to make contact. Stoking trolls in 140 character sound bites is not reasonable dialogue.]

[Post Note : a particularly "shrill" denial of any case comparing humanism to religion, as a response to the Andrew Brown piece, posted at almost exactly the same time as this post.]

Sad to hear, but have to agree – wanted to give the artist Imogen Heap a chance – but this review says what I’ve been feeling about her recently.

I first came across her in Jeff Beck’s Ronnie Scott event with Eric Clapton and Tal Wilkenfeld. Some real magic delivery of both a blues-rock standard and one of her own numbers with this stellar “backing band”.

Saw her live with her own “friends” on a tour (in Oslo) 3 or 4 years ago, and found it very self-indulgent, having jolly good fun with whacky musical ideas and instruments – but sorry, not really delivering much entertainment or “soul” to an audience. Maintained an interest – because after all, quality will out – and followed her recent tweets to her self-made promo-videos, and oh dear – none too promising musically. Didn’t write a detailed review, assuming maybe this was a project in progress that needed some space to develop.

It’s like Clive James says – it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing – you can take the creative improv too far. The opening para of Grauniad review by Rebecca Nicholson of the album “Sparks” therefore comes as no surprise:

Imogen Heap‘s fourth record is less a coherent album than a collection of crowdsourced collaborations, generated through methods and techniques that include a running app and a pair of gloves that turns the wearer’s body into a human harp. Sparks was written in a community garden in Hangzhou, China, and in the Himalayas in Bhutan. There’s a song called The Listening Chair that will never be finished, with Heap promising to add a new verse every seven years. If you uploaded images of your footprints to her website, you’ll find them reproduced on the cover. (As fan interaction goes, it’s definitely one up on a T-shirt.) Musically, Sparks is a bit of a mess.

You don’t want to kick a girl when she’s down, but take note Imogen, we know you can do it.

[Post Note : rewatching that could'a had religion / rollin' and tumbin' with Jeff Beck - happier times, and Tal's expression and body language within seconds of Imogen opening her mouth says it all. But do watch Blanket too.]