Arthur Koestler’s (1959) “The Sleepwalkers proved to be an excellent read to the end.

A slightly odd epilogue on the evolution of intelligence and knowledge; odd because it majors on the paradoxical thought that human mental brain power is too great for our current state of biological evolution. We have brains much bigger than we know what to do with. But the topic and its evolutionary analysis is right – knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is a matter of memetic evolution – fully swayed by all human values, motives, politics and games, both individually and tribally.

The objectively-rational, empirical elements are a part of the whole process, and whilst science might claim primacy in what is ultimately seen as scientific “fact”, the wider bases of belief remain hugely important. Not just important to the processes of deriving the knowledge, obviously, but also in how “final” any accepted knowledge appears to be. Contingency must be more that lip-service. Suspending intelligible connections between knowledge accepted at the mathematically, theoretically, even experimentally consistent levels, and the everyday realities of human life, are a recipe for future disintegration. I think it was David Deutsch pointed out that few scientists really behave as if the world were more than Newtonian. And, for the same reason, simply giving exclusivity in real life to “evidence-based” decisions and logical processes, merely stores up the the discrepancies and delays release of their stored tension. As Dick Taverne wrote at length, we should never ignore available evidence but neither should we aim for a life based only on empirical evidence.

Storing up (convenient) differences between accepted theory and everyday behaviour can be maintained over hundreds and thousands of years – as the stories of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo and Newton illustrate. And it’s not because contemporaries “didn’t know better” at every stage. The knowing was always filtered through necessary political games, neurotic fantasies, mis-steps, pure whim and …. luck. Science may be able to “imagine” – even wishfully think as their objective – a “rational” world without values, motives, ambitions and neuroses, but it’s not one that exists, ever. A dystopian fiction. Not one we’d even want to exist. Not one we’d value.

Anyway, apart from the narrative histories of our legendary scientists – man, Galileo was a complete idiot beyond his terrestrial mechanics, a criminal massive waste of (our) humanity – it’s a story that continues today. Far from being history it remains a problem of our time, one we are doomed to repeat.

Julian Baggini writing only yesterday in The Grauniad, reviewing Tim Lewens’s  “The Meaning of Science” on why science must not lose sight of, as indeed some scientists entirely dismiss, the philosophy of science, or philosophy in general. Values exist, develop and must be managed distinct from science itself – there is no holy grail where all values tend towards becoming derived from science or otherwise evidence-based empiricism. Stalling agreement on this, suspending the discrepancy,  is another time-bomb we could do without. The naive democratic ideal that all such human governance needs is transparent access to information and evidence-based, arithmetic logic (eg popular voting) is simply part of the explosive charge.

“When Stephen Hawking pronounced philosophy dead in 2011,
it was only the fame of the coroner that made it news.”

Just this last week, Hawking pronouncing on what the world needs to know about black holes (the opposite to what he preached previously) …. is only news because of his fame, as many of the other scientists involved or excluded in the field wished to point out. Black holes are the stuff of science fiction – and sexy graphics that sell media – and a very small tribe of specialists with specific agendas. They are a million miles from human experience. They are NOT science which forms any part of the body of human knowledge (yet). Pure memetics.

What does scientific literacy really mean?

Even sleepwalkers occasionally bump into something interesting and true.

Arthur Koestler was never a stranger to deliberate controversy in any field, but “The Sleepwalkers – A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe.” is another recommended read. Not in the least contentious to my agenda.

[Afterthoughts to follow-up. The gulf between mathematics and reality puts me in mind of Unger & Smolin’s thesis, that we ought to back off on the apparent supremacy of maths in scientific reality. From Koestler we learn that 12th century cardinals and popes (and the Jesuits) understood this well. Also one reference / quote from Lancelot L Whyte remined me of Don Boscovich’s mathematics – comprehensive but far from elegant or simple in accepted senses. And “Saving the Appearances” at every turn – I learned the significance of Owen Barfield’s title.]

By a strange coincidence, after the facebook exchanges yesterday, on the anti-Copernican indications of the Cosmic Microwave Background being mysteriously air-brushed from the record (*1), I find myself reading Arthur Koestler’s “The Sleepwalkers“. Coincidence because I just happened to pick it up randomly off the ex-library second-hand book cart at Conway Hall last night. I’d heard of Koestler obviously, but didn’t know the book or much about his work.

[Great read so far, by the way, but more later.]

Imagine my surprise:

“That the progress of science as a clean rational advance, [has in fact been] … more bewildering than the evolution of political thought. The history of cosmic theories may, without exaggeration, be called a history of collective obsessions and schizophrenias … a sleepwalker’s performance.”

“I shall not be sorry if [this] inquiry helps counteract the legend that the scientist is a more level-headed and dispassionate type, and should therefore be given a leading part in world affairs (*2), or that he is able to provide a rational substitute for ethical insights derived from other sources.”

“[Aristarchus’ (3rd C BCE)] correct [heliocentric] hypothesis was rejected in favour of a monstrous system … an affront to human intelligence, which reigned for 1500 years … one of the most astonishing examples of the devious, nay crooked, ways of the progress of science.

Way to go!


[(*1) The post was about anti-science campaigns in Wikipedia editing, against which “pro-science” campaigns were also cited. To be clear these counter indications should not suggest that the solar system is earth-centred (Doh!), what they should suggest, from our earthbound viewpoint, is that our cosmic model must therefore be flawed. The problem is the political attachment to mythology of Copernicus & Gallileo and a dogmatic aversion to all things anthropic, is seriously clouding the judgement and interpretation of those who would claim to be scientific. (As Brandon Carter predicted, and Rick Ryals has championed). The point being science is as dogmatic a political campaign as any other.]

[(*2) This was written in 1959 – in the post Hiroshima & Nagasaki cold-war climate.]

[Post Note : Ha, and as Sabine tweets – to avoid having to erase counter-indications, you know what, just don’t even mention them in the first place?]

[Post Note : Oh, and also today “Krauss, smarter than Einstein” apparently. You couldn’t make it up.]

[Post Note : Also need to join up that “scientist as the level-headed & dispassionate type” above with the piece by Karen O’Donnell on “emotional” women in science.]

[Post Note : Physics of perspective, or is that perception.]

[Post Note : Is science rotten or just hard?]

[Post Note : And of course it was the Koestler bequest that funded the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh Uni. Two associated speakers at the 2015 BHA Conference this year. Interestingly Koestler was controversial for many reasons, but his biography of Kepler that became The Sleepwalkers doesn’t appear to have been controversial at the time. Controversy in scientific connections arose from views on evolution and the paranormal (from Wikipedia):

In his 1971 book The Case of the Midwife Toad he defended the biologist Paul Kammerer, who claimed to find experimental support for Lamarckian inheritance. According to Koestler, Kammerer’s experiments on the midwife toad may have been tampered with by a Nazi sympathizer at the University of Vienna. In the book he came to the conclusion that a kind of modified ‘Mini-Lamarckism’ may occur as an explanation for some limited and rare evolutionary phenomena.

Koestler had criticised neo-Darwinism in a number of his books but he was not anti-evolution. Biology professor Harry Gershenowitz described Koestler as a “popularizer” of science despite his views not being accepted by the “orthodox academic community.” According to an article in the Skeptical Inquirer Koestler was an “advocate of Lamarckian evolution – and a critic of Darwinian natural selection as well as a believer in psychic phenomena.”

Mysticism and a fascination with the paranormal imbued much of his later work. Koestler was known for endorsing a number of paranormal subjects such as extrasensory perception, psychokinesis and telepathy. His book The Roots of Coincidence (1974) claims the answer to such paranormal phenomena may be found in theoretical physics. The book mentions yet another line of unconventional research by Paul Kammerer, the theory of coincidence or synchronicity. He also presents critically the related writings of Carl Jung. More controversial were Koestler’s levitation and telepathy studies and experiments.

Interesting. He shows interest in alternative explanations, but becomes branded as anti. His idea that some traits are inherited by Lamarckian mechanisms is no longer contentious. His debunking of Copernicus (the topic of the Kepler book here) seems to be widely shared.]

Tremendously powerful piece from Katrin Bennhold in the NYT. (Hat tip to tweet from Samira Shackle.) Already tweeted a few comments – but a must read, with messages worth taking seriously, however misguided the full reasoning.

“In this world counterculture is conservative, religion is punk rock, headscarves are liberation and beards are sexy.”

“They spoke of leaving behind an immoral society to search for virtue and meaning”

“Counterculture is conservative” is an interesting message in itself. Being anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment is such established de-rigeur culture (fashion) – amongst the baying mobs on social media – that the value of a little authoritative conservatism is lost to all but a small few. Coincidentally the point and comment earlier today on this science-related Facebook post from Sabine.


The Winnower's photo.
The Winnower – We need to improve our culture.
This is too real. http://socialbat.org/…/goals-of-science-vs-goals-of-scient…/
  • Only disagreement (proposed modification) :
    Challenge authority. Make friends
    Cite authority. Make different friends.
    (ie the difference is all to do with friends’ attitude to authority,
    sadly, nothing to do with how relevant to understanding the content.)
    Like · Reply · 2 · 3 hrs


‘We need to improve how to be “good” in our culture.’

All women, notice. Vive la difference.


[Post Note : This from BBC / Frank Gardner.]

[Post Note : And the opposite case.]

Alom Shaha @alomshaha tweeted – Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote “Le Scientifique n’est pas une personne qui donne les bonnes réponses, mais celui qui pose les bonnes questions.”

Nicolas Fanget @nfanget tweeted translation as “Scientists aren’t people who give the right answers, but ask the right questions.”

Reminded me of Einstein / Nietzsche / MacGilchrist / MacIntyre – We are worshiping the slave / servant / emissary (objective rationality) but have forgotten the master, (the gift of intuitive knowledge). Science is about the rational process of testing and checking (asking questions about) what we know, but not primarily what we know.

Linking coincidentally – but nicely – to the dots joined-up the immediate preceding post.

This post primarily about Al MacIntyre (and its comment thread) have been important several times, in joining up to both philosophy of consciousness and neuroscience topics. A re-read to day, thanks to a recorded hit means I notice some additional dots to join up. The philosophical collections on consciousness in the previous post but one, and of course the rationality as servant to the intuitive put me in mind of McGilchrist’s Master and Emissary, and a lot more.

Riff on Urgent vs Important.

Most recently arising from the Paul Mason piece – with the nagging doubt that “urgent” was not really the right term, probably because there isn’t a single term for the underlying issue. Achievable quickly is as important as priority of need, however it contributes to an aim – however gamed / opportunistic / opportunity-&-motivation-creating the relation to actual aim. Urgent because it is valuable and achievable in the short-term – not simply because it is high-value positively or counter-negatively if achieved immediately. Circular. Think Tactical vs Strategic.

But also Peripheral / Incidental vs Core / Fundamental. Detail (empirical, specific) vs Concept (theoretical / hypothetical / generic). Small / Individual (achievable) vs Large / Complicated / Complex (difficult to do, predict, manage, control). [I feel a 2×2 BCG grid coming on, predictably one closer to Dave Snowden’s Cynefin conception now I think of it.]

Complication and complexity being different one predictable (in principle, with effort and resources) the other (potentially) chaotic. The immediate reason for the riff arising, this paper on Chaos. (Hat tip to Sabine).

Chaos was never about the concept of butterflies in rain-forests. That was always a hypothetical thought experiment as far removed from reality as it could be, and therefore an excellent conception of chaos (after Einstein on “general intellect”, as quoted by Paul Mason). It was NEVER an actual definition or explanation of chaos in reality. Phys.Org typically naff as a source of scientific knowledge. As naff as 2×2 grids. [No opinion here about whether the actual subject of the news item is worthwhile as a “new definition of chaos” based on entropy.] Chaos has always been about predictability and always been about entropy, since entropy has always been about order and hence predictability.  And yes, it’s about expanding entropy in systems, but not maximum entropy. Maximum entropy is as predictable and boring as zero entropy. White noise is not “chaos”.

The interesting stuff are the cusps in the changing patterns of entropy as it expands generally, but reverses locally. I’m thinking Hofstadter here. I’m thinking life arising in an expanding universe.

More generally, recognising contextually predictable cases amidst the generally chaotic whole is the key.

Just a thinking-out-loud “riff” – some convergence of ideas, but no conclusions here.

Attended a discussion last night between representatives of the Christadelphian church and the London Active Atheists. Not without some trepidation, since the old-LAAG’s are perversely proud of their disrespect and intolerance, their general snarky dismissiveness of anything non-objective in fact. I have an ongoing problem with that anyway, but doubly problematic initially, since due to booking mix-ups, the Christadelphians admitted they hadn’t brought their A-team, and we also had one of those embarrassing pauses where the host hasn’t checked if their guest’s presentation works before we start. Ho hum.

Two of the team largely relied on testifying their faith and love of god, and describing the good works of their ministry – can’t really argue with that – but one was able, and had the patience in the circumstances, to attempt to describe the theology behind their world view. As an objective debate, the atheists – especially those who’d done their homework on the history of the bible, the archaeology of its stories, not to mention fact and myth in attributing words and action to someone called Jesus – with their standards of objective evidence and weight of numbers, won the day. But I have to say these considerations miss the point for me.

No-one, not the Christadelphians, is saying the bible is perfect on any dimension, still less the histories of church actions purported to be based on it. More to the point, what it says (in the words) and what it says Jesus said (in words) is not the point. Yes they adhere to a “literal” reading of the bible, the bible in its most original (but imperfect) versions where possible. But that’s a literal reading of that whole bible. And, on the moral compass dimension, that’s a reading of action, not a reading of some academic record of the written rules and instructions. Reading the whole bible, means not getting focussed on one set of rules (of their time and culture – more later) in the ten commandments, but the the living of life according to the qualities of the prophet – the beatitudes, and more parables and the like.

This takes us into interpretation (and hermeneutics). Sadly, too much of the discussion of interpretation was between literal and metaphorical, and being subjectively selective in which interpretations to make of which bits. Seemingly arbitrary and random and, as the scholars in the audience pointed out, indicative of pre-developed moral preferences in the individual rather than the “literal word of god” in the bible. But again, it’s not literally “the words”. It’s the logos.

In fact at the level of the words, the counter to being literal is not being metaphorical, but being rhetorical in context, which isn’t to say some of the rhetoric isn’t also metaphorical, but it’s the context and the rhetorical purposes that require a more holistic reading. So, in the example used (I’m sure someone could quote book and verse) where Jesus says bring me your family and I’ll put them to the sword in front of you, interpretation is no mystery (and I’d never heard that passage before last night). Reading the whole, you know Jesus (even a 100% mythical Jesus) is about love in action.

Clearly when Jesus says something that gruesome – but doesn’t enact it, notice nor suggest anyone else should (as was noted to the contrary in the earlier example of his rebuke to his angry disciples) – he’s making a rhetorical point to his current audience in context. (I don’t even need to know what that was, in order to know that’s true.) Of course, needing to have context for the historicity of the recorded rhetoric is one reason Christadelphians prefer to stick close to the most “original” versions of the bible.

As a rationalist, atheist, humanist I have no problem with any prophet preaching love in action towards fellow man and the cosmos. Clearly the good books of the Abrahamic religions have checquered histories and variable quality in their content. One reason they can only ever make sense holistically, in the round, and why interpretation by individuals passage by passage can only ever lead to doubt, confusion and conflict. You either need the authority of a scholar in the hierarchy of your church and its good book(s) or individuals who understands that “holistic” caveat in how to read it. Christadelphians clearly comprise the latter kind of individuals. And, in their case, the whole bible includes the old testament, albeit read through the filter of the new covenant.

Nothing above says the bible is exclusive in originating and capturing such values; being imperfect, how could it be. Recognising the imperfection and non-exclusive interpretation, neither does it make sense to proselytise or attempt any conversion, so they don’t. Note also, little if any of the above refers to any God or the trinity – that’s two different metaphysical debates for another day.

Some useful stuff, though I fear not many were open to it.

I’ve been reading Paul Mason’s latest pretty thoroughly over several days. Already blogged several positive comments, relating his thesis to my own agenda here; [Appropriate Marxist Theory] [Atomisation of Markets & Labour] [Postcapitalist Preview]. So no secret he covers lots of material I’ve already absorbed over the years, and it’s therefore been intriguing to finally get to his conclusions and recommendations.

Anticipating disappointment, the kind of philosopher’s conclusion I’m used to these days, that there is no silver bullet or even a right answer, we simply have to keep the dialogue going, accept the messy reality of our imperfect democratic freedoms and institutions, and allow evolution to take its course. Well, nothing could be further from the actual experience. Mason pulls no punches, and states his clear recipe for a brighter future. Obviously there are detailed holes to be picked and disagreed with, and Mason invites us to tear his thesis apart if we can do better, but the point here is to plan the shape of the world we want to inhabit, to focus on priorities that can be managed appropriately by state rules and incentives, and to do it wholeheartedly and coherently. The devil will of course be in the details, and the details will need to take care of themselves, so no point “centrally planning” economic activity a la Stalin. Even with supercomputers, perfect real-time information and automation approaching AI, we couldn’t ever get that right. We could nevertheless use such resources as part of our simulation and decision-making. How dumb would we have to be not to do so?

In order to do any of that there needs to be a we, or a coherent set of we’s, sets we identify with. Nation states, unions, associations, federations, regional assemblies, you name it. It can’t simply be business organisations with state institutions whose role is to get out of the way and leave the market as free and level a playing field as possible. Fetishising “the free market” is the problem, especially as we approach a state where valued info-tech products in the market are either positive externalities or at near-free marginal labour cost. We need economic processes that accept cost-free and collaborative arrangements, high automation and low employment.

Of course, some have called Mason’s recipe Utopian, but really it’s not. There is no opposing fetish, to ban competition and markets, to fail to reward innovation and entrepreneurship. Again, how dumb would we have to be? No, this is about accepting reality and taking actions we can, whilst we can. (We, again, notice.) Actions that recognise economic arrangements in transition, not some idealised end-state. Mason quite rightly doesn’t attempt to define that, rather simply those processes and arrangements that would move us in the right direction, reflecting and accommodating the reality we find.

And, not without cause, some will accuse Mason’s “Project Zero” plan of being Marxist. Imagine getting a hearing in the corridors of power of the developed world with that tag? Well, damn it, look at the actual content of the particular ideas of Marx being proposed. We’re not talking Das Kapital or the Communist Manifesto here. We’re talking about state interventions only in as far as they represent the socialised “we”. In fact it in doing so “the state probably gets less powerful” as the population continues to get ever more networked.

Mason is also at pains to ensure his economic theory and evidence are not pre-loaded with the critical non-economic drivers we currently face. Eventually – after properly addressing capital, debt, technology, markets, resources and goods, he does of course bring in those other issues. Population, and demographies and movements within the whole. The inexorably rising multiplier of all other issues. Global warming and energy consumption & dependencies the main issue being multiplied by the former.

Can he be serious? Well, the penultimate page of his final chapter asks “Is this for real?” He is. It is. Not only can we engineer our way out of this mess:

We lie at a moment of possibility:
of a controlled transition
beyond the free market,
beyond carbon,
beyond compulsory work.

There may be elements of romance in the vision, the belief that we really can do better, but I’d say Mason’s thesis is pretty thoroughly grounded. Far from Utopian, what’s wrong with a little vision, a large dose of vision in this case. An engineer myself, as Mason correctly predicts, I’m still focussing on addressing “root causes”. In my case that remains our flawed model of what we know about our world, the politically correct fetish of objectivism. And sure, there are points of interpretation of existing realities I actually disagree with. But hey, I’m in. Where do I sign-up for Project Zero?

I can already see specific chapters of Postcapitalism addressing specific ongoing debates with colleagues out there. Standby to have Paul Mason added to your recommended reading list. Consider it done.


[Post Note : Also some criticism that Mason’s Project Zero plan is not only Utopian but basically impractical. Impractical in the sense that several of the proposals are counter-intuitive and anathema to anyone wearing a traditional business hat. That’s the point, it goes without saying – the proposals are radical, “try selling that” I suggested above given the inevitable “Marxist” and interventionist tags – but nothing proposed is impractical in any practical sense. Nothing that couldn’t be tried, given the will to do so, and nothing here is all or nothing. Inaction is simply denial. Also, as well as recognising value in conceptual vision, despite its unclear details, there is also recognition of the distinction between urgent and important. One is tactical, the other is strategic.]

[Post Note : And Finland moves to basic income not linked to productive labour.]

[Post Note : WEF / Davos reference. Completely misses Mason’s point. He’s not predicting what is likely to happen given existing forces and players, he is recommending what we should to to make the best of things happen. There will always be capital based aspects of the economy, just no reason why it should all be so, why all life depends on labour-based income.]

[Post Note : Rusty Rockets reference.]

[Post Note : a counter review, although same conclusion “Realistically, the future will be hybrid … with the gift economy expanding over time.” The point being that agreeing the expanding “gift” economy isn’t capitalism is not a matter of Marxist opinion. But I did say, as Mason himself more than hints, the Marxist tag will give the project a hard time amongst “conservatives” in authority.]

I left my review of Paul Mason at his revelation that Karl Marx is to be our saviour.

Not a bombshell that Mason has serious left leanings. Even as a journalist he’s always worn his heart on his sleeve supporting the financially underpowered – most recently in doggedly sticking up for the Greeks against the EU, ECB and IMF.

Interesting then that the Marx he recommends is not the Marx of Das Kapital.

Marx ‘s outline draft papers, Der Grundrisse, contain his Fragment on Machines. In this he saw fundamentally that knowledge was the valuable aspect of production – the how-to of labour inputs – even as the physical aspects of work became automated, increasingly supervised by the labour. And echoing Mason’s earlier reference to universal knowledge in the info-tech wave – not so much polymathic as genuinely generic and conceptual understanding – Marx gave us The General Intellect. The ability to know how; the understanding of how things work independent of the specific economic production or technology context. Mason gives us real examples from pre and early info-tech days (telegraph operators) and the fact that knowledge involves understanding the psychology of the fellow humans in the wider system, not just the immediate technology involved.

After showing how this view fits with the labour-theory of capitalism, it brings us to an interesting question of why does a pseudoscience like economics need a theory? What’s wrong with actual documented effects, pure empirical evidence?

After a reminder of the time-axis in labour-theory, data points not being static, but representing different stages in different process instances, so they can’t simply be manipulated arithmetically, we get an Einsteinism that encapsulates the focus on conceptual “general intellect”. Labour-theory, or any worthwhile economic theory …

… belongs to a class of ideas that Einstein described as “principle theories”: theories whose aim is to capture the essence of reality in a simple proposition, which may be removed from everyday experience. Einstein wrote that the aim of science is to capture the connection between “all experiential data in their totality” – and to do this “by use of a minimum of primary concepts and relations”.

The more clear and logically unified these primary concepts were, the more divorced they would be from data. The truth of a theory is, for certain, borne out by whether it successfully predicts experience, but the relationship between the theory and the experience can only be grasped intuitively.

Mainstream economics evolved into a pseudo-science that can only allow for statements obtained through crunching the data. The result is a neat set of textbooks, which are internally coherent but which continually fail to predict and describe reality.

Fascinating. My whole agenda in there. Autistic economics for sure, but also the weirdness of causation in general. The myth of empirical objectivity, when it comes to static data and predictive theory. In the quest to appear “scientific” – a word that monopolises credibility – any socio-politico-economic theory misses what science itself fails to notice. Reality is not scientific.

This much is given. But there are a couple of more contentious points.

Information IS immaterial, as Wiener (and Dennett) say. But Landauer (IBM) was right, it’s physical representation is always physical, whether in silicon or in synapses. It’s these physical representations that may tend to zero marginal cost. The information content remains independent of its physical embodiment however.

Secondly, information is NOT knowledge. Data and information may be freely networked – without any intrinsic hierarchy – but know-how and wisdom do come in layers. Mason himself is using the universal-knowledge / general-intellect ideas. These are free to the human that has them, and whilst their distribution is not controlled by any pricing model and their information content can be “shared” democratically, marginal possession of intellectual capability to understand varies hierarchically.

He’s right about one thing however. Once such increased knowledge can be embodied in machine processes, it can be standardised in all machines. Standards (my life for the last two decades) are information products that can be freely distributed. Generic intellect is always ahead of this game – unless machines can also think. Appropriately, AI is Mason’s next topic.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t pursue this beyond increased automation, whereby not only the labour inputs, but the machines themselves – real or virtual – also tend to becoming free through “repeated applications of info-tech”. It’s the repeated algorithmic application of information patterns upon information patterns. There’s no AI; no machine thinking. But if both labour and machines (capital) lose any marginal (financial) value, effectively becoming free, what is capitalism left with?

Reading Paul Mason’s “Postcapitalism – A Guide to the Future” after earlier mentioning the previews and as is my wont recording some notes around the mid-way point. That is, I don’t really know his conclusions for future action yet, but as previewed it is indeed full of material I already identify with, indeed have been studying and working with for a couple of decades myself.

As Mason indicates “big business” has been looking at the democratising nature of information connectivity on more networked peer-to-peer, bottom-up or individual-node-outwards means of exchanging value for quite some time. He credits Drucker (as I often do) as one of the first to recognise how this game-changed traditional capitalist economic models since copiable & shareable information is NOT a scarce resource controlled by supply and demand pricing. IPR is an “artificial” legally enforced arrangement – or not for those who go open-source or creative commons routes. Without supply and demand pricing the value exchanged is “social capital” between individuals and their self-identified groups. Hierarchies are gone from such socially networked arrangements – or are they? I’ll need to come back to this point.

So for now, not only does networked information undermine resource pricing models, its ubiquity runs more and more deeply through more and more “products” and their positive “externalities”. All “markets” are affected, not just those explicitly in information products.

Much of this is not new, after Drucker, himself after Kondratieff (*), Schumpeter and Parker-Follett, Mason also credits Kevin Kelly and many of the visionary celebrities of the “wiki” generation. Business, tech business or otherwise, is of course continuing to find the best angles to extract financial value from the impending Internet of Things. But few have yet really adapted to a post-capitalist situation where financial gain based on monetary value is no longer the main part of economic reality. “We” are really valuing networked social value.

The “we” is important too.

Mason is an economist, and in building to the above assertions, he gives us a good history of national currency value relationships with any tangible markets. Gold-standard, Bretton-Woods, banking reserves and so on. And a great deal of fascinating – and scary – stats of relative wealth and growth through the 4th Kondratieff wave.

Agreements between nations have been crucial to the stability of economies – gentleman’s agreements or formally institutionalised rules. Globalisation in the broadest business sense, international freedoms of and access to human and physical resources, already weakens such inter-nation controls, and of course a globalised network of socially communicating individuals further destroys their power.

One of Mason’s threads is that this “atomisation” of individuals – both as labour and as consumers, was largely engineered by traditional (and neo-liberal) capitalist free-marketeers, as a means of minimising costs and maximising revenues for their traditional businesses. What is not being addressed is the fact that this same atomisation of networked individuals has undermined the pricing model for future business, beyond those that make hay from their near monopolistic tech positions. The Googles, the Amazons etc. But of course since the social values are moral rather than financial a monopolist can be just as effective if they choose a free-to-consume business model. The Wikipedias, the Androids and Linuxes. Ownership as a choice is no longer easy to enforce and exploit if any one or more players chooses not to play that game.

Value becomes (always was) a matter of morality, not finance.

But individuals appear on the supply side of the market too. Labour has lost its solidarity. We have lost our common identities. Demographies are simply post-hoc statistics. (Interestingly, it was Paul Mason I was quoting when I used the expression “bogus identities” in my Identity Politics piece. Mason was using it in the context of Greece vs Euro and the migrant crises.)

Many useful quotes recorded from the first half of Mason’s book, and his Chapter 4 on “The Long Disrupted Wave” is recommended in its own right for the assembly of evidence it presents, but for now this:

[This story so far] is just another way of saying what Benkler and Drucker understood: that info-tech undermines something fundamental about the way capitalism works.

[However] none of the writers I’ve surveyed above achieves [a description of what the dynamics of a post-capitalist world would look like].

But what if somebody did anticipate the information-driven fall of capitalism? What if someone had clearly predicted that the ability to create prices would dissolve if information became collectively distributed and embodies in machines? We would probably be hailing that person’s work as a visionary. Actually there is such a person.

His name is Karl Marx.

Time to read on. [Continued here …] [And finally here …]


(*) Kondratieff? I’ve always referred to as Kondratiev, and I see on Wikipedia the former redirects to the latter spelling too?


Additional Reference Notes to be elaborated:

P6 they knew didn’t work. P11 basel 2 license to game the system P15 trust p24 British miners Foucault Minitel p25/26 network squared smile outside market. – Virtual trophy virtue – p77 final observation markets outside current economy. P79 on. The long cycle. Positive national story. P85 Shannon Turing Drucker. Strategic innovation – profit driven production. P86 automation. P90 all parties gaming Keynes. P91 neoliberal atomism – got it. P99 winners and losers part of downswing. P102 Globalisation winners & losers. P112 Drucker post capitalist society knowledge the resource. Universal educated person not polymath, but metamath understanding pure concepts. And federal peer to peer network. P115 networked types yes, but knowledge is about knowing not info overload. P117 and on economy of raw materials and instructions not finished products. IPR legally and socially enforced. Shareable not consumed – Dennett info independent of physical representation. IPR is about prevention. Apple mission. Breathless Kelly dot com boom etc. P125 digital exceeds analogue missed conceptual point. IOT prophets of pc. Goodwill. Wiki quality hierarchy.

Paul Mason’s book “PostCapitalism” is out this week, but has been previewed in talks and articles.

Lots of material I’ve used here. Schumpeter and Kondratiev waves of economic cycles. Freeman and Perez “Techno-Economic-Paradigms” building on Kuhn. Drucker, the guru of management gurus, standing on the shoulders of Parker-Follett. The 5th wave is clearly the information driven wave – the Information TEP – products (even physical products) whose value largely comprises or depends on information. The point is that information (like love) increases in value when shared and isn’t made scarce by copying – that’s quite a shift in capitalism’s foundation. The only scarce resource is the creativity of new patterns, tools and uses. The information itself and the knowledge in people is in connected networks and therefore non-hierarchical. Again, a change affecting the established capitalist model. In many ways the thesis so far is not new – we’ve been working on it for 25 years already.

Personally, I think other aspects of markets will retain scarcity and hierarchy. Knowledge is more than information, in the same way information is more than data and wisdom more than knowledge. Mason’s thesis seems to be that the flattening of the network will destroy pricing mechanisms. Perversely, as Kevin Kelly also predicted, even where hierarchical market power remains, even if only legally enforced, it will tend – has already tended – to monopolies. When one source is easily shared, why create a second source? Hence my point, the real value-add will be beyond the content simply as shareable information.

A network of connected “individuals” – connected but independent, not a monolithic collective – will seek something different from post-capitalism. This much is true. Looking forward to reading.

I had to capture this one for posterity

[Post note to state the obvious. Obviously there is no either/or conflict or choice to be made, each has their own place in the scheme of things, and each should recognise the place of the other. The point of the rhetorical quip is that in general many scientists are “philosophy deniers”. I’ve yet to meet a philosopher who would “deny science”, even when aiming to point out flaws, questions and alternatives. In my experience many self-identifying as scientists are “dogmatic” about the primacy of their (contingent) science and disingenuous when it comes to proper scepticism. Scientists will (scientifically) claim lack of clarity and empirical objectivity, and even intentional obfuscation, by the philosophers, but in general the philosophers (if they’re any good) will argue more carefully and respectfully.]

Interesting piece in the Grauniad today by Karen O’Donnell (a student of Prof Francesca), particularly interesting for the (male) responses in the comment thread.

At the outset, I should say I’ve no idea why it is cast as a response to (the media myths of) the Jeremy Hunt debacle, other than the Grauniad audience-attention-grabbing motive, because it obscures an important gender issue. Pity. However, that said, the point is worth making.

One of my agenda threads is “Vive La Difference” – not to deny important gender differences, differences that mean the female view has advantages that we would lose from the meme pool.

The problem here is casting the difference as “emotion” vs “objectivity” – let’s face it, an argument as old as philosophy itself. But, continuing with that language for a moment, even emotion is a valuable part of academic, research and/or (any) discourse – scientific or theological – it takes thinking to places it might not otherwise reach. In the investigative, hypothesis-seeking, exploratory, creative process passion is a powerful force. And it’s an engaging and motivating force as Karen says. Sadly as well as the gender agenda, some of the commenters have the science vs religion agenda in mind too – missing the point of Francesca’s school of theology. As one of the commenters points out arguments involving passion are every bit as important in the history of science as anywhere else.

Obviously, documenting an “argument” in support of a testable proposition – in whatever academic field – will typically require objectification of the story and, since that may include topics whose subject matter includes human psychology, objectification of the subjective content too. But this is the point where contrasting the passion with the objectivity misses the real gender point.

The point is really about how narrow and broad thinking are joined together in the human mind.

I’d recommend Iain McGilchrist’s Master and Emissary. After Nietzsche’s phrase, he is pointing out that narrow objectivity, and the logical rationale that manipulates such well-defined objects, is the emissary, the servant of our wider senses. Something Einstein understood. The constant focus on objectivity – a fetish I consider it – shuts out half of our brains. In women the halves appear to remain better connected. [Lots of left-right brain myths and men vs women myths – male inability to walk, talk and hold two thoughts at the same time, etc – arise from these differences. The myth is that these are due to differences between the halves of the brain, whereas reality is more to do with how the two halves communicate with each other permissively.]

Speaking archetypically, women are – fortunately – more in touch with their wider senses than men are. A quality we’d do to cherish. If that broader range of sense and emotion, the passions, also have motivation and engagement benefits, we’d do well to cherish those too.

See here for Master and Emissary.

See here for Vive La Difference.

See here for Left-Right Brain Myths.

There is certainly a coming together of many related ideas which is very exciting, but there are some implicit assumptions in that “convergence” that blur some details that may not actually be right in any of the three fields.

This post is to record a position. The linked paper ….

“CONVERGENCE of Neuroscience, Biogenetics and Computing
– a convergence whose time has come.”
by Dr Michael Brooks

… is part of a series linking the work of Dan Dennett on the computational aspects of evolution, Craig Venter on the digital informational aspects of genetics and David Deutsch on the fundamental nature of information in physics. I’m a fan of all three, and have referenced their works multiple times in this blog, but I believe there are a couple of traps to avoid in the rush to converge:

Information & computation – the manipulation of information with other patterns of information, in real or virtual “machines” – is a very fundamental process. Information is simply “significant difference”. Possibly more fundamental than physics itself as currently understood in the standard particle model(s).

Mind & brain – cognitive sciences generally are right to see Mind & Brain as a “computer” – that is as a “machine” that does computation, but clearly it’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking of machine here as a physio-mechanical device. Computation is a many layered process, and when it comes to the computer itself, distinctions between hardware and software need not map simply to the brain and the mind. Information and computation processes are fundamentally independent of any physical substrate in which they may be represented. Independent of the substrate notice, not just independent of their representation.

At that level, avoiding the trap of over-simplifying the hardware-software view, there is lots of scope for careful work to bring these ideas together. But there is a second trap to be aware of before looking at the convergence with Genetics. That trap is accidentally assuming the digital nature of what is being considered. And there are two sides to this trap, both to do with digital objectification – one that genetics is necessarily digital, two that the computation is necessarily digital.

Genetics – is real, and it really is about information encoded in molecular patterns of bases in DNA. However, the objectification of those significant patterns as “genes” with distinct boundaries and clear definitions is part of the ontology of bio-genetic science. Useful to the science but not fundamental to the information patterns – there are a lot of fuzzy edges and apparent trash in between. We have a useful digital model of genes, but the genetics – the significance of and manipulation of the information – are not necessarily digital.

Furthermore, this same trap also exists in the Mind-Brain convergence too. There is nothing above that says either of these concern digital information. We tend to think of physical world computers as familiar digital computers, and whilst there is excitement about potential growing realisation of quantum computing, non-digital computing is actually as old as analogue computation – I know, many years ago I used to do it for a living.

In the famous Registry Assembly Programming case, the exercise is indeed fundamentally digital, and yes, it does illustrate the fundamental nature of computation. How can computation not be fundamentally digital?

What that exercise does show is that basic computation steps lead to complex processing – any unlimited sophistication – only by their combination. The underlying processes remain very simple, even when higher level languages and tools are used. The integer registries in the RAP case are themselves a representation of the information, which further represent (human) semantics. The model – the ontology – is a digital abstraction, but the information need not be.

You might argue that even in analogue computing, there are still digital particles involved – individual electrons in the electrical currents and voltages, or water molecules in the physical flows and levels – but as already noted above the information is (may be) more fundamental than even the particle physics.

Food for thought and a fascinating topic.

I’ve made an issue several times before of ensuring we are careful to use the term Islamism when we ought to, and given today’s upcoming announcements by the PM, I thought I’d make a brief summary of my position now:

  • Problem of Islamism – A security problem. A policy of hatred of others. Jihadism. Promotion of Islamic rule (hence a so-called Islamic caliphate) by any means at the expense of the freedoms and rights (and lives) of other Muslims, sects and non-Muslims. Solution involves both inter-national political effort and lethal force.
  • Problems of Islam – Cultural issues. The source of Islamist ideology (see above). But, also some imposition of repressive, irrational, patriarchal, discriminating and even barbaric practices on other Muslims, even where those same individuals are also members of free democratic and/or secular states. Some problems shared with other religious practices. Solutions involve intra-national political effort and legal force.

ie in taking care to target Islamism when that is what is at issue, is not to say Islam itself is without problems or that the two are unrelated. Indeed thoughtful Muslim commentators see the role of the Islam in Islamism, whilst demanding care in addressing both issues. Care that recognises that the political and cultural freedom issues also have quite independent ethnic and nationality dimensions.

Both Islam and Islamism represent problems, but different problems with particular relationships, each with different solutions and each requiring care to avoid conflation of issues and tarring all with the same brush.

A couple of readings and conversations – face-to-face and social-media – recently, that play directly into my agenda of keeping science and humanism honest, and expose where I’m at odds with received wisdom. I’m used to it after 15 years of blogging and, of course, countering with alternatives to received wisdom is the point. I’m not simply being contrary, there are important alternatives being overlooked. Received wisdom is simply a tyranny of the majority.

A number of campaigns I support, many of which fall under Sense About Science, make a lot of sense (obviously) and their intentions are laudable. Laudable enough to actively support as immediate if temporary measures, efforts to get the topics on the public agenda, curb current excesses and abuses of what passes for scientific knowledge. Starting from a ground zero of ignorance and denial, then all progress is positive. But …

But, there is a kind of arrogance that says being right follows from making progress. That’s evolution, innit? And there is a valid line of thinking that says so long as we make progress, who cares about being right. That’s politics, but it’s not science. In politics there will be values, but rarely any concept of ever being fundamentally right. Science on the other hand, whilst knowing it is never right, always contingent, does care about approaching knowledge as truth. If it doesn’t it’s just politics. And this is the Catch-22 again, when you have a political agenda around science we have to be careful to distinguish the politics from the science.

One of SAS campaigns is “show me the evidence” and a corollary of that one is “show me all the evidence” including the null and negative indications, particularly in (say) Ben Goldacre’s #AllTrials demand for publication of all clinical trials, including the failures. Who could argue with that?

Me actually. This is a political extension of the openness and transparency of all considerations and communications. Leaving aside any issues of privacy and security, this may be pragmatically fine from a freedoms and rights perspective, but what is completely impractical is that we all need to consider all available evidence and information. At some point we have to trust the knowledge we’ve got so far and trust the people with & sources of that knowledge. Asking to be shown the evidence is a statement of mistrust or a default to zero trust in the absence of evidence. So it is clearly a judgement where the process stops – when you have enough evidence to trust. That clearly depends on context.

So for the #AllTrials case, where the responsible and expert licensing authorities are in the loop, it will probably be practical to set some rules about disclosure to those bodies (transparently available to anyone, too)(*). The evidence of trust shifts to our relationship with the authority. In the more general “show me the evidence” case, the practical limits will always be a matter of judgement. Evidence that is easily available – and intelligible in all its subtle nuances to whoever is interested – should never be ignored, but we should not expect to see scientifically objective intelligible evidence to support every judgement. (This is Dick Taverne’s argument, and in fact he is a founder of SAS.) The need to trust judgement never goes away, it just gets pushed around. Trust is inevitable and it is where the science and the application of science must part company. Trust, like scientific knowledge, is something we should work to maximise, we cannot entirely replace one with the other.

And there are other competing factors that mean it is counterproductive to pursue the objective evidence line exclusively. One is we will never succeed in achieving watertight definitions of all the objective evidence needed for all situations. And the tighter and more comprehensive such attempted definitions become the more unlikely the nuances will be understand by more people. Simpler communications may give the illusion of wider understanding, but that understanding will be at the expense of actual scientific truth. It may be politically sound to pursue that kind of science communication, be we must be careful not confuse it with the actual scientific knowledge. At some point we always need to trust that the specialist scientists, like the responsible politicians, know better. It’s an illusion to believe we can drive trust out of the system.

Definitions and objective evidence are part of science’s model of the world, and the human world is more than that.


(*)Note: Though even here, where management of the rules and their application has clear authority, it is already possible to predict gaming of the system, whereby potential failures are tested under the radar before bringing into the regulated environment. Rather than selective publication of results we get selective “official” testing. Unintended consequences. ie the devil is in the detail of the execution and management, not in the definitions of the rules and processes. Definitions don’t solve the problem.

Dick (ie Baron) Taverne came along to the CLHG book club discussion of his “March of Unreason” last night. Interesting to meet and spend time talking with him.

Since his book is now 10 years old he gave us a 10 minute update on how he saw things different now. I actually thought all his main points were valid anyway – clearly his focus on topical issues was of its time, and limited by the evidence then available – that’s the point – but the underlying points are really unchanged for me. Perhaps because we were an atheist / humanist audience the politician in him gave us what he thought we wanted to hear – rising theistic religious fundamentalism as the main dogmatic threat to rational science (though he cited Pinker’s Better Angels to remind us to keep a sense of proportion and progress.) In his book the rising fundamentalists were the back-to-nature eco-warriors – those who saw science as either unnatural or driven by big business or both. Some so-called “science” is alien to humanity – feeding ground-up animals to herbivores in the BSE scandal for example, though the risks were always tiny and managable when it came to empirical evidence.

I have a counter point to the Sense About Science “show me the evidence” campaign. It’s an error to think everyone should be informed on all the technical nuances of every science-based issue affecting life enough to actually recognise good evidence and spend the time to consider it. We have lives to live. The mantra should be show me the evidence that you have considered enough evidence that I should trust you. If you’re selling “scientific” cosmetics products – I already know you’re selling product. I’ll find my own evidence thanks, by trial and error, if I care. If you want funding for a multi-billion particle physics project, I want to know I can trust who is advising you. Outside of laboratory conditions, evidence is about trust; trusting authority. After the size of the human population of the planet, trust is the no.2 issue for us all. Risk aversion (Taverne’s take on the stultefying “precautionary principle”) is a part of the optimism / pessimism balance of trust. – Nuclear Power, GM crops / technologies, Animal testing. etc.)

Interestingly Taverne is a staunch supporter of the BBC, as I am, and cited recent improvements – whether as a result of “Sense About Science” or otherwise – one example being that the meaningless idea of having balanced reporting by simply giving equal time to any counter spokesperson on every issue was a thing of the past. Based on a recommendation from Prof Steve Jones, it was now normal for producers and editors to take scientific advice on the “weight of evidence” before deciding on balance. Simple but effective stuff. Again it may be a right, but shouldn’t be a necessity, for the public to assess all evidence, when there is an authoritative institution we can trust. We should focus on building trust. Confidence. Living.

I’ve used the idea of focussing on demands for quantifiable objectivity as a fetish previously, akin to autism in economics. Taverne referred to Merkel as a deficit fetishist (quoting another source) in the Grexit saga, focussing too narrowly, applying a rule, without vision or imagination. Rules being for the guidance of wise men, and the enslavement of fools. It’s obvious to anyone that the Greek situation is not really about the debt as a number – some large proportion of it will obviously be written-off – once the fuss dies down. Hands-up anyone who conceived it would ever be repaid. The negotiations should be a game to encourage tackling of previous productivity and corruption problems in public services, with the threat of a little austerity as an incentive. It’s not about using austerity as a punishment, a big stick to achieve a zero deficit. That’s dumb. Wiser and less-public negotiations would achieve the right result. Public pronouncements on numbers are mere hostages to fortune. Naive. Autistic. Counterproductive.

Some discussion on Daniel Kahneman followed; the psychologist with the Nobel prize for economics. Economics has always been about psychology to its practitioners; about perception, sentiment and confidence. I think this was confirmed for me back in my 1980’s MBA days, budgetting and accounting as psychological games. The simplistication (dumbing down) in the media, and thence in public pronouncements by the politicians and Robert Pestons of this world, create a focus on numbers we can fight about – wars make for media-selling headlines (see “fuss” above). Someone also previously coined the idea of “autistic economics” for this problem. We can all do arithmetic, right? Jeez. Come back Stephanomics.

Finally, joining up the German and Greek dots with a conversation about Egyptians specifically and Africans generally, leading naturally to Scots and Brits, Taverne reinforced his aversion to “national” identity and support for the “federal” post-WWII European project – powers delegated upwards by member agreement –  notwithstanding massive problems with the current EU arrangements. The US wants, we and the world need, us (all) to be bigger than little-Englanders.

A man after my own. A fascinating evening.

(Will add more links to the implied references in due course if asked.)

Identity Politics

It is increasingly topical that names used to identify “groups” become contentious topics. Muslim vs Islamist, Humanist vs Christian Humanist, Race vs Ethnicity, Ukraine vs Crimea, Greece vs Europe, UK vs its parts, Locations vs Communities, even species of Monkeys vs Humans. And once you want to tie any of these to actual ethical policy you’re into the minefield of identity politics – “bogus identity politics” some would say. A topic I’ve been promising to say something about for some time.

Choosing which group to talk about is a political choice; what is the point I want to make and why? And this becomes one of the reasons why not only the group chosen as your subject, but its relationship to the name you use for it also becomes so contentious. That names come with baggage is the passive, relatively innocent end of the problem, but such choices carry intentional rhetorical force too – as a means of isolating or uniting one kind of identity from or with another. We all have agendas beyond our immediate point. Naming is politics.

As with the causes, responses to the problem come on a wide spectrum too, from the careless calling of a spade a spade or tarring all with the same brush, to efforts to create tight definitions and carefully chose labels or neologisms to support the particular issues and conversations. Further extreme is the adoption of particular terms, that may once have been carefully thought out names and definitions, but whose original purpose becomes lost in the paralysing euphemistic short-hand of political correctness. Both extremes – careless and PC – are effectively ways of ducking or ignoring the problem. The illusion is that careful use of terms with sufficiently tight definitions is the only real solution – it’s certainly the “scientifically rational” solution. But, as I said recently, that’s actually a fools errand.

Defining Identity

The underlying problem whether identifying some topic with or beyond yourself is just that; using a subject-object basis for identity (objective things distinct from each other and your subjectivity). Whether you are identifying with a group to make a point about its distinction from other groups, or identifying another group distinct from yourself or your chosen group, you are objectifying both subject and object. Me / We as opposed to You / They / Other as opposed to Another.

In science, or any endeavour blessed with scientific endorsement, it is pretty much essential that objects and terms are so defined. Repeatability by anyone, anywhere, anytime, with all extraneous effects accounted for, subjectivity specifically excluded, and amenability to mathematical and logical manipulation demands well formed objects and evidence. Even if their definitions are statistical or stochastic, are all fundamental to conventional scientific endeavour. Even when “being objective” in a non-scientific context, it’s about recognising your (subjective) position in relation to the object (subject matter), however much you try to discount it. The concept of knowing a truly neutral god’s-eye view from nowhere really only exists in an abstract model, not in the real world.

This is true of any model of reality, if it is to be amenable to rational analyses.

And science, the body of knowledge and its processes, is exactly that – a model of reality. The best model we have for extending rational objective knowledge of natural reality. There are two points to note. Firstly, the model is not the reality; the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. Secondly, the model chosen is abstracted for a purpose; it’s a political choice based on the ends you’re aiming for, and in that way science is the model chosen to extend knowledge of the natural world. A good choice for science, and for the most part non-contentious.

A model of what exists is an ontology, and it’s normal for such a model to use classification, usually a hierarchical taxonomy to define all the things and groups or sets of things that make up your world model. Since the groups may be overlapping and nested hierarchically, things may be members / instances of more than one group / set, but each set is defined by its membership. Meet the definition and you’re in, fail to meet it and you fall outside that set. By definition (literally, by means of definition) the model cuts the world into useful pieces distinct from one another; definitively distinct. It’s what analysis means, it’s more ancient than Aristotle and it’s the old battleground of the romantic poets taking issue with classical science. It’s not new that we “murder to dissect”. Even contemporary philosopher Dan Dennett is at pains to urge his scientist friends, amongst whom he has many, to delay establishing definitions. Hold your definition, he says. Your definitions are not a fundamental aspect of the world, but an emergent part of the scientific model you are developing and extending. Accept that definitions are loose until fitted into your model, only then when usefully forming part of your model are they definitive. Though even there, they’re also contingent of course – they are definitive only for the purposes of the current model, until you find a better one.

If you’ve spent significant time in business and technology, as I have, working on information models, you’ll also realise that even in good functional models, definitions used to identify “business objects” are much less definitive than they might appear. The more you broaden the model to cover wider and wider contexts of life, the closer you get to a generic dictionary of terms independent of context, the more such definitions either include terms like typically or usually used for, or terms that contrast the definition of one object with another. Calling a spade a spade? Try defining “spade”. Seriously if you doubt me, try that exercise before googling or wiki-ing it. You won’t find a comprehensive one that doesn’t say what it’s usually used for, or contrasts it with not being a shovel, nor recognises that the name applies to many unrelated objects from which it has inherited the same name by metaphorical association. If you turn up to work and simply have to choose between a shovel and a spade, the problem is trivial. Then imagine the kind of definition you might need if you had to frame a piece of legislation or policy on what a spade can or cannot be used for ever, anywhere, by anyone? Inconceivable? Don’t even think about it.

Definitions are only definitive within the limits of some model – an abstraction – fitted to a specific purpose. The defined objects are certainly not a fundamental aspect of reality.

The “aha” moment?

So how are we to “discern” different things of different “significance” in the real world, if we accept that objective distinction and definition are simply artefacts of our model, not the world itself? A two-pronged answer. Firstly until people reach an “aha” moment in recognising how significant this objectification problem really is, and how a fundamentally different model might look like and how it would improve life, the answer is one of guidance only.

So, for now, beyond the confines of science, and even within it, don’t get too hung up on definitions as the means to identify your objects of interest. Certainly in human situations beyond scientific contexts or specific applications, don’t be fooled into thinking you can solve your problem by seeking more definitive definitions. That’s the fools errand. In “identity politics” where waging rhetorical arguments on behalf of or against groups of humans, accept that no such definition can get beyond being a “working definition” for the current conversation. The only reliable identification of a group is self-identity. What does the individual identify as? Even then, there are extreme subjective cases. The individual who refuses any (useful) labelling in order to reject or game the system you’re suggesting, or the individual who chooses perverse identity either for the same reasons or (say) to play the victim card, in order to pursue some other rhetorical or political agenda.

In identity politics, definition of ones identity is political, subjective, and psychological. It won’t fit your objective definitions usefully for long, no matter how carefully you work out such definitions.

Is there a better solution for identity?

For a more comprehensive and fundamental solution if, as I do, you believe the problem is real (see “aha” above), real in the natural world described by science, then I’m guessing you’re going to need a better solution than a science based on politics and psychological games. You’d also have to believe a little metaphysical consideration is worth the effort. Ironically fundamental physicists, imagining some as yet unknown particle or field underlying their model-so-far are doing exactly that. It was Max Born no less who said “theoretical physics is actual metaphysics”. Sure, they will want to turn their imaginings into definable and testable components of their scientific model of physics but, until they do, such imaginings need not be limited by their existing models. The what-if’s can be as creative and imaginative as you like.

There is nothing supernatural in reality; that’s a naturalistic definition of reality. Anything imagined must be naturalistic and expected to stand the evidential tests of empirical experience. However, in order to have even a conversation about a world model with alternatives to objects (defined objectively, distinct from subjects and from each other), it’s going to be a struggle to fit existing language and rationale and remain intelligible. I’ve many times referred to this as the Catch-22 of making any progress here.

Identity and definition and the idea of identity as something objectively definable (or not) is a long-standing issue here, and the growth of this as a political topic in both the party-political sense, and the wider ethical sense of freedoms and responsibilities, are not new either. What may be new is the increased topicality of free-thought vs religious extremism. In fact the prompt for this longer post arose from a conversation a couple of weeks ago with one scientist friend, a mycologist, who has his own very particular take on a solution to the problem that the real world is not as definitely objective as our traditional scientific models have led us to accept.

A natural solution – an inclusive and informative view of identity.

Alan Rayner’s metaphysics (or his “non-definitive physics” as he would have it) is called “Natural Inclusion” (NI). Not exactly a monism, since it doesn’t even recognise a single “substance”, but like many monisms it starts with the idea that the subjective (me and my mind) stuff must comprise the same as the objective (other, out there, physical) stuff. That’s a view not inconsistent with scientists who would hold that me and my mind stuff are the “happenings” of my brain and bodily systems and energy stuff; not something else, not fundamentally distinct, and certainly not “woo” or supernatural. However, NI goes further and says even space and stuff are not a fundamentally different presence. Like a number of metaphysics, it uses the language of flow and dynamic patterning as more fundamental than any of the objects we consider significant, but since space itself is included in the flow, rather than flows of stuff contained in space we get flow-forms in and of the space-stuff.

And the language becomes – distinct but mutually inclusive presence, receptivity and permeability, separation as abstraction, dynamically distinct manifestations of informative energy flow …. and so on …. natural inclusion. The language is necessarily alien – unintelligible – if your mind-set is the traditional objective rationality, and I do not attempt to provide a full description of NI here, just a flavour. And, as I say, there are alternative flavours of metaphysics if you prefer. The only sin here would be to assume a metaphysics based only on your existing physics.

No, my purpose here was to illustrate a point about identity without definitions.


Think of two entities A and B, which we can clearly discern (you can see them, right?) as two different things from their (fuzzy red shape) appearance of “space-stuff”, even though their boundaries may appear confused and dynamic. In our “model” – necessarily an abstract model remember – we might choose to define B narrowly or A more widely (say) but equally tightly definitively (blue dotted circles) or we might simply need to draw a line D that clearly distinguishes the spade (A) from the shovel (B). But note that however we might choose to make the distinction between A and B definitive in our model, we can still discern our experience of A from that of B quite independently from those definitions, however narrow, wide, tight, loose, specific or generic.

In the NI approach the space-stuff (natural-flow-forms) that are A and B are “mutually inclusive of receptive space and informative energy”. They don’t “occupy” space as mutually exclusive objects. And note the word “informative” – it’s the information that gives them “form”. Inform as a verb, not just to communicate, but to give form energetically. I believe this is a powerful idea. Another good reason to investigate NI in particular, though as I say I’m not particularly holding up NI here as the solution.

The bottom line?

For now however, whether the idea of a non-definitive physics of “natural flow form” – or any metaphysics – is something that turns you on or off, my point here has been very straightforward:

It is perfectly possible to imagine a world model that does not depend on objective definitions, and if your current context demands definitions, remember not to get too attached to them. If you get to feel that definitive identity of our objective world is a fundamental part of our problem, then there are alternatives that would re-pay your investigation.


[Post Note : I mentioned earlier in the piece some basic concepts around models and ontologies, taxonomies of sub-classes where parent classes are being selected as significant – every two things have “a” parent class, so simply having a unique parent is rarely the point when it comes to distinguishing identity between any two related things. An interesting article here – about WordPress and WP-Theme code and licensing dependencies – that raises the exact same issues. Distinguishing or establishing a clear relation between two different pieces of code is fraught. In some sense whether one is literally (historical process-wise) derived from the other, they will share some common derivation, and however packaged and distributed, the real-time function of two pieces of code can be inextricably intertwined. Even in software, “identity” is political, subjective, beyond objective. Only case law can resolve the legalities of which definitions rule, not the definitions themselves.]

There’s a research avenue I keep mentioning but still haven’t followed-up closely; that of “intellectuals” adopting Catholicism late in life. Some kind of dawning of “wisdom”. I think I last mentioned it when I (again) noticed this Francis Bacon quote in Nick Spencer’s book:

“a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism;
but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

My original connection to the Catholicism theme came many years ago when reading biographies of The Inklings (at Oxford) and others at Oxbridge (J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis, Marshall McLuhan, and more … I need to assemble source links.) Two things prompted me to post this morning:

One was Stephen Law at CFI making a simple statement in a Facebook comment thread around his latest piece on “God” – which “obviously” doesn’t exist, yet apparently demands yards of screed?

“The atheist agrees belief is not a kind of knowing.”

Well this atheist doesn’t. Unlike many other rationalists, I can see rationalism (humanism, atheism, secularism) as a belief system. A pragmatic one based on scepticism, where what is believed as knowledge is always open to challenge. Belief only ceases to be a kind of knowing when it is “blind faith” or dogma. Knowledge is never dogmatic; honest scepticism is the antithesis of dogma, not belief. Belief is sufficient trust or “faith” in what you know, and the soundness of its basis, to act on it in the here and now. Always open to challenge, analysis and reflective questioning, but where justification and reconstruction of what is known is not a necessary part of the action itself. We would be inefficient and ineffective – paralysed – without belief. The problem even has a name – “analysis paralysis”.

Secondly, and thirdly, alerted by a couple of tweets this morning one to this guest post by Joe Landi on Godless Mom’s blog: “From Catholicism to Unbelief … and Back” and another to this “Einstein quote” (*) from David Gurteen:

(*) Of course, most Einstein quotes aren’t. But anyway, as Landi says, his post on rediscovering Catholicism is not semantic or dialectic, no “reasoned” argument, simply a statement of all the things he “loves” about Catholicism. Apart from this:

As Camus said, no one has ever died for the ontological argument …

The Trinity secures an epistemological position where love, not the intellect, is what will truly lead us to the truth. It, so to say, levels the playing field, putting us in a world where an uneducated cloistered Carmelite can know just as much as, lets say, Aquinas. As the proverb says: “wisdom is easy,” in the sense that you don’t need a P.H.D. to attain to it. And this is precisely what puts the “catholicus” in Catholic.

ie “And the greatest of these is Love”

And for my fellow atheists, note that there is no “god” in this – no supernatural causal agent, omnipotent, omniscient or otherwise.