I attended the session organised by The Skeptic Magazine at Conway Hall last night involving Richard Dawkins and Larry Krauss introducing a showing of their film “The Unbelievers”. Having already seen the film, I was able to hear Michael Sandel at an earlier event, and arrive at the Dawkins / Krauss event during the break between the showing and the Q&A.

The evening:

One thing I did hear, that might colour my already negative reaction to the film itself, as Larry pointed out, they’d had a fair amount of critical response even from their natural supporters in the God vs Science debate, but the agenda and editing of the film itself was entirely down to the group of individuals that documented their earlier speaking tour and produced the film. The film didn’t necessarily reflect in any balanced way the overall Dawkins / Krauss agenda. Fair enough.

The Q&A was pretty lively and long, most of the audience were “the converted”, the stage was preaching to the choir, yet as noted above there was quite a lot of critical questioning about the disingenuous “ridiculing” by selection of opponents in the film, no sign of the scientists looking for common ground with the religious – not even with the liberal rabbi in the audience – and suggestions that the scientists were not always being honest in their political campaigning, certainly not being as honest as they’d claim science to be. (There were of course a good number of questions about religious and scientific education in schools and from very early ages, and from younger members “inspired” to pursue science by our public scientists. Fair enough, more power to their elbows.)

I of course had a prepared question that fitted the very question of scientific honesty vs the positive agenda of science as politics driving us away from the science of reality – my biggest problem with the current topical discourse.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the opportunity to ask it, but did manage to slip a written copy into Larry’s hand as he was whisked off to the book signing session …. and it goes like this:

My preamble:

Larry is often quoted, and indeed said during the Q&A, that physics is easy because it’s all sorted bar the details and it deals with physical reality anyway, whereas biology is altogether messier. Actually I beg to differ, the fundamentals of physical science – at the levels of fundamental particles and at the levels of cosmology are hugely speculative – and consequently exciting both theoretically and experimentally, whereas biology and evolution seem not in the least contentious bar ongoing details and extensions to knowledge.  Both suffer from experimental problems in controlling boundary conditions and accounting for prior assumptions and therefore in interpreting results – but all good science takes care over these issues.

In the theistic creationism vs scientific cosmology debate, there is no argument which is right, the argument should really be about the science of cosmology itself – where its physical and philosophical limits lie, and what authoritative solutions are going to look like. (Public science is nowhere without authority BTW.) But, the politics of fighting against theism and creationism, is distorting the quality of the actual science. So.

The film shows Larry in one lecture talking about his “Something From Nothing”, a good read – a good book. It’s fundamental comsogeny, and definitely opposed to any kind of theistic creationism (who isn’t?).

Before that book, back in May 2006 when interviewed in The Edge Larry said, in paraphrase:

• … when you look at CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background) map, you also see that the structure that is observed, is in fact, in a weird way, correlated with the ecliptic – plane of the earth around the sun.
• That’s crazy. There’s no way there should be that correlation … telling us that our science is wrong and we’re (somehow) the center of the universe, or … something else … (but something’s wrong).

Since the book was published and recently, very topically, there are some very interesting scientific developments that call into question many aspects of the standard accepted model of cosmology, as different groups of researchers probe the CMB or perform their own first-principles research. Singularities and black holes, post-big-bang inflation theories, singularities and other things popping into existence from the energy field, including whole universes, even an infinite multiplicity of possible universes to explain this one in which human life has evolved, the quantities and distributions of mass, energy and gravitational forces being observed indirectly through the shadows of the big-bang in the CMB patterning …. I could go on. Just two recent examples:

• What about BICEP2 having to admit it did not find evidence to support inflation – despite massive fanfare. (and many others right now as we speak). Was its error a genuine oversight (of cosmic dust) or was it a political error being too directed towards proving the inflation predictions?
• What about Laura Mersini-Houghton’s team and the work to show that black holes and singularities really do not need to exist to support all these unnecessary conjectures.

My question for Larry:

So what exactly was/is “crazy” about those CMB indications, what is your latest view since your 2006 statements.

Is it possible that what is really wrong is something more fundamental about the starting point for a big bang not being a singularity, or the cosmological and gravitational constant assumptions needed to explain expansion and inflation of the mass and energy distributions in the cosmos, and the evolutionary timescales for humanity to exist – an accidental but conveniently deniable anthropic agenda.

The standard model of particle physics, completed by the Higgs Boson for the internally consistent Electro-Weak components, says nothing yet about strong and gravitational forces – yet we have a cosmological model of gravity presumed everywhere in scale from a singularity to a whole universe, the whole cosmos.

Physics is massively incomplete and speculative at these fundamental extremes. My fear for science is that by being dishonest about this in our arguments against creationist alternatives, even ridiculing moderate religious believers rather than engaging them on common ground, we simply expose our physics as being fundamentally flawed and our argument as being directed and politically motivated rather than based on the quality and integrity of the science. Science suffers.

[Numerous links and references available to support all the above - will be added in due course - but the question stands to be answered.]

Michael Sandel spoke to a large audience at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster last night, an event organised by the How To Academy, and introduced by Andrew Neil.

Very brief talk, max 40 minutes, introducing his latest book “What Money Can’t Buy – The Moral Limits of Markets“, in his usual minimally-scripted audience-participatory style, and therefore without subsequent Q&A.

Really only one point to his lecture and his brief book. Virtues cannot be bought and sold, evaluated by the markets, they need to be valued by proper public discourse, difficult though that is.

He described the tendency to not only talk in terms of market-economy, but to accept “market society” as leading to impoverished democratic political discourse. That is, not all transactions in society are strictly economic and the appeal of allowing spurious market concepts to replace difficult public debate on values is damaging.

He used audience participation to tease out people’s real views by voting – on the very topical NHS proposals  to financially incentivise dementure diagnoses, and the example (from his book) of selling to the highest bidder the right to shoot a single member of an endangered species annually to fund conservation for the population. By turning the nobs with “what-if” variations with different audience members, which naturally included several GP’s, he drew out what we really valued. Interestingly, the individual vs population example turned completely when a participant suggested a human example auctioning the right for one individual to beat their spouse, in order to fund care for the wider population of victims. Focusses the mind.

He pointed out that the very idea of incentive as a market factor is in fact a relatively new concept , not mentioned by Adam Smith for example, and mentioned maybe only once each in Presidential and Prime Ministerial speeches in the early 80’s, whereas now to “incentivise” was practically de-rigeur. The politics of a market society.

The bottom line was two linked factors – the acceptance of allowing the market to establish policy meant political debate was impoverished and a source of much dissatisfaction with the political process in western democracies. And the underlying reason for that dissatisfaction was that people inherently knew there were other values, virtues, being corroded by the market incentivisation – patient-doctor trust in the first example, human and ecological rights and responsibilities in the others, and many more. Values that would previously have been called, or based upon, the virtues.

And why are virtues “corroded” by marketisation? Because they are quite self-evidently not the variables of economic theory and textbooks. They are not “scarce” resources that are consumed, even though they are involved in transactions. The application of trust engenders more trust, the giving of love creates more love, the giving of rights creates obligations to reciprocal rights – they grow by use, they are not consumed by use. Treating them as market variables corrodes, devalues, distorts and destroys them. The market is not neutral, it has downward causation on the value of the goods involved in the transaction. They are devalued by being bought and sold, whereas intrinsically we value them.

In order to establish the social value of these goods we really need proper public discourse in politics – the kind that leaves us feeling satisfied with the policies established, so we remain supportive of their application. A difficult process for sure, but necessary. Leaving them to the market devalues and destroys them.

Not new, ’twas ever thus, yet despite the 2008 crash we still don’t seem to have learned. What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? – again.

Saw and met Rebecca Goldstein doing the @platobooktour to promote her Plato at the Googleplex – why philosphy won’t go away on Monday at Nunn Hall, London. A bit like her 36 Arguments it’s a fictional creation as a vehicle for bringing long-standing (but still very relevant) philosophical questions and ideas into topical mainstream debates. I’ve not read her latest yet beyond the preface and opening chapter, but it’s looking promising and if it’s half as good as 36 Arguments it will be excellent.

The great and the good attending the British Humanist Association event included Ian McEwan, Peter Atkins, Stephen Law, Bob Churchill and Alice Fuller to name a few, as well as Andrew Copson in the chair.

She opened the evening with a little of her biography and her own journey into philosophy and writing having majored originally in physics. Some of this autobiographical journey – her ultra-orthodox Jewish upbringing, with a family background from fleeing the holocaust, via Hungary to the USA – you also get from reading her Betraying Spinoza – another thoroughly recommended read. The switch from ultra-theism to more scientific rationality and a belief in an objective world “out there” may seem obvious, but what we learn here though, is that her switch from physics to philosophy came from dissatisfaction at the lack of coherence in any real world explanation behind the mathematical elegance and success of Quantum Mechanics. David Bohm’s interpretations being the most coherent she believed, but these are not the current mainstream view in modern fundamental physics.

For many the subject (literally) of her latest work, Plato in the 21st century is a “hate figure” in scientistic humanism – Copson admitted so in his introduction. For any modern thinker, like Goldstein, the relationship with Plato must be a mixed love-hate balance between the narrow fascistic tendencies of (say) The Republic, with the fact that in his more lyrical dialogues, he pretty well invented every philosophical question that still matters to this day. As others have said “all philosophy is footnotes to Plato”.

Sure, as a man of his times, he could not have all the knowledge we have to create acceptable modern-day answers, but in fact by virtue of his dialogic style, he often didn’t attempt to commit hard answers to many such questions anyway.

A major part of Goldstein’s thesis is that the results of Plato (and similar contemporaries trying to codify the world in different “civilisations”) have been adapted through multiple channels theistic and secular. And, despite the fact in ancient Greece they kept their gods quite separate from moral codification and rational thinking, it is the modern Abrahamic theistic religions that dominate the outcome. Hence the hate figure for so many humanists. Doubly ironic since the origin of Ibrahim is to name those the other side of the Jordan from the Greeks.

By way of an aside, I noted in her switch from the mathematical elegance underlying (incomplete) fundamental physics to the hopes of more satisfactory (coherent) philosophy for our real world – metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, ethics, you name it – she also studied Kurt Godel seriously enough to publish another learned work Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel. Much controversial opinion about the rights and wrongs of applying Godelian thinking beyond mathematics itself – but there is no doubt IF people believe the rules of life can be directly systematised objectively – rather than via a philosophical metaphysics – that the impossibility of both completeness and consistency is a real moral dilemma. Like Dennett, a friend of hers and a hero of mine, she warns against the arrogance of science in discounting the need for philosophy to complete the picture – being “too greedy” in its objective reductionism of real life and what counts as evidence. I now also have Goldstein’s Godel work on order.

Anyway, how she weaves her theses into the modern day lecturing, speaking and writing tour of our 21st century Plato I’m yet to read, but you will find him active on Twitter @platobooktour as we speak.

Finished reading John Lydon’s Anger is an Energy at the weekend. Had also booked to hear him at the Old Truman Brewery in London last week, but for personal reasons couldn’t make the book tour gig.

About a third through Anger I was thinking that Rotten was much the better read, and biographically the Pistols period is common ground between the two works. Anger is very much in John’s spoken voice – much of it recorded and transcribed it feels (?), whereas I came away from Rotten thinking you could see where he gets his lyrical skills from, since he certainly displays an engaging way with words and their composition. In that respect Anger is much more raw. You get the man and his imperfect human content ranted at you. But you do know who you’re dealing with.

I’m glad I wasn’t put off by the initial impression because Anger does continue to deliver the full story, right up to the abortive JC Superstar project earlier this year. Background to many PiL song lyrics, session musos, instrumentation and band line-ups as individuals, as well as the trajectory of his personal life that led him to settle in LA with Nora, become a US citizen, own a boat and, as his critics will never let him forget, “sell out” to more commercial media projects. Having also done the US living experience I found myself identifying with John’s take on life and human individuals. Like John, the US is much maligned from afar, but both worth getting to know their wider qualities – their aim is true.

Recommended – if you’re prepared for the rough edges. Great index too. I still find myself wondering how anyone who didn’t already love the man and his work would fare if they picked-up Anger is an Energy to read on spec? A painful introduction I’d suspect, but essential reading if you’re already interested.

The PiL collection playing repeatedly on my media player yet again, and looking forward to that lone UK PiL gig in December.

An impressive “The Life Scientific” yesterday, except not as we know it, Jim. Chris Toumazou has had an impressive career as an inventor, but where was the science? It was a life unscientific. It was a life driven by human needs. No less impressive, just not science.

I’m not naive, I know the point is to big-up science, everywhere from cosmology to daily life, taking in the Brian Cox “celebrity-dumbing-down” effect in the evolutionary ascent of man – but, come back Bruno. You know – we’d like you to believe science has all the bases covered and can provide all the answers we need to anything and everything. I’m pretty sure Jim doesn’t actually believe this, looking at his appointment as head of the BHA. This edition had no science whatsoever. It was all engineering and applied technology, even the medical technology and the multi-discipline development. I’m all for it. I’m an Imperial College Engineer too, but it’s just not science.

Yes, technology generally has a science base, but the application of technology isn’t the science, it’s far more than that. Promotion to prospective students is one thing, but misrepresenting science, setting misplaced expectations, is not doing it any favours in the long run.

[Post Note : When I wrote the above, I hadn’t watched even one episode of Cox’s “Human Universe”, I was just talking from repute, general media reports and quotes from Cox. I actually watched the “Why Are We Here?” episode last night. As I said on facebook:-

“… it’s an even bigger pile of unscientific tosh than I had feared – bollox mitigated by some nice cinematography. … Sagan and Bruno must be turning in their graves. …  It’s not the dumbing down that’s the problem. It’s the choice of contentious speculative lazy brainless ideas, expressed as opinion without the slightest hint of empirical evidence disguised as science fact. (I think Jim is deeper and wider – he plays the “promoting science” game, part of his day-job – but behind that I think he knows what’s what.) The irony; Cox was loved-up and waxing lyrical (cheesey, vomit-inducing) over the colour image of the CMBR sky-map (a meme if ever there was one!) – at the very time BICEP2 are eating humble-pie with their champagne. That never was science (it was always prejudiced politics ignoring existing evidence).”

To elaborate :

“As BICEP2 clearly demonstrates, most science is a work in progress.”

Sure, and not all work in progress is of equal scientific value, or necessarily of any scientific value beyond the process.

“At the heart of this theatre is the artificial landmark of a peer-reviewed paper.”

Exactly. Public science is really about authority, not about publication any more than it should be about press-releases and press-conferences or worse still stage-managed “theatre”. Authority based on concensus of the widest scientific community is what establishes science. Until then it is just speculation – 5-sigma speculation possibly, but 10 out of 10 useless. Speculation promoted in support of interests. Politics.

“[Even] Nature has a stake in discussions of the gravitational-waves story. Our news team was among those tipped off about the claim in advance.”

Science media (of all kinds, even major organs of repute) are part of the problem conflating the promotion and funding of science related activities with science itself, to the detriment of the latter.

Inflation, Multiple (all-possible) universes, etc – are pure drivel – politically developed as denial of otherwise obvious theories and evidence. BICEP2 never was science, never will be – the “error” is the least of their concerns, the question of why the error wasn’t detected is, or rather “overlooked” – not even considered – is …. political.

Wake up, science.]

I need to consolidate a few posts to make a fuller argument, but yet again BHA highlights one of its “Thoughts for the Commute”. This time it’s philosopher Richard Norman :

“Love, friendship and creativity. The enjoyment of making beauty. Making a better world. Who could ask for anything more?”
Richard Norman

Yet again “belief” in the value of human love and friendship – and nothing more. Not the slightest hint of any scientistically rational basis for such belief. Empirical in a hopeful, hindsight-related sense, sure, but objectively repeatable? I doubt it. Just good faith. Come out of the closet, humanists, you know it makes sense.

“What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding ?”
Nick Lowe, quoted by Elvis (and frequently by me).

“All you need is love.”
Lennon & McCartney, quoted by Peter Tatchell.

Saw Karen Armstrong speak at the Royal Institution last night at an event organised by Intelligence Squared and hosted by BBC Radio journalist & presenter Tom Sutcliffe.

It’s a “book tour” speaking and signing in support of her Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, and the formal part of the evening was in 3 parts. Roughly a 20 minute talk, a 30 minute interview and about 30 minutes of Q&A. Clearly Karen has done plenty of speaking on her topic recently, and in fact it was Tom Sutcliffe who hosted Start The Week this Monday on BBC R4 with Karen as the main guest. There were a couple of occasions when both speaker and host had to apologise for “stop me if I’ve said this already”.

In her opening talk, 20 minutes on her latest 600 page tome (25% of which is notes, bibliography and index), she clearly needed to be selective and I believe she chose to go deliberately off-script to talk in immediate terms of the current ISIL situation. Sadly I felt this was a little incoherent, too much easy conflation of ISIL with Islam and Muslim males with the idea that “men are from Mars” generally. A little like the Quilliam Foundation, the main message is that radicalisation arises from dissatisfaction, boredom, frustration and humiliation wherever “my people suffer”, whether the “other” is sectarian, ethnic, national or simply imperial oppression. Her main point being that this was pretty much true of historical conflict generally. Her other historical point is that religion as we now know it, the kind we (including she) would like to keep separate from the politics of states, is a recent, post-early-modern, understanding that would simply not be recognised by the ancients. Then religion was simply the belief system embodied in the actions of everyday life, not a thing or “it” to be viewed objectively separate from “us”. Suffering, and the compassionate personal human reaction to it, is of course a feature emphasised by the main religions.

In putting questions to her of the kind, “but you would agree that … , you even say in your book that …” Tom actually struggled to get Karen to concede any point he put to her – perhaps familiarity had bred contempt? But gradually, the flow of her arguments became clearer, and fortunately that positive trajectory continued through the Q&A. None of the questions proved a problem to her, and in pretty much all cases she agreed with the rhetorical points being made, even by the pointedly atheist / anti-religionist questioners. For example, sure, belief in “a god” is not very important to religion, the idea is really just a placeholder for the idea of good in the individual human. Much of the problem in the violent and aggressive frustration in how to respond to perceived suffering, was the ego’s focus on being “right” and rationalisations religious or otherwise to support that, rather the person’s focus on active “good”.

It was, she said, important to understand the value of mythology and the non-literal narratives of the scriptures. Previously they would never have been read by individuals, but told and interpreted as part of wider living narratives. Clearly myths always contain some general underlying or essential truths about human life, but the point is not the intellectual understanding of the specific myth to the general message, but much more important the living essence of the myth in one’s own life. To fail to personally enact it was to “not get” the mythology. She also emphasised the distinction between idols and icons in the objects of mythology. Both are clearly metaphorical but idols become objective substitutes for the points represented, even words to name them, opaquely obscuring the point – “we” become idolatrous – whereas icons no less represent them but remain metaphorical and transparently reveal the true objects of the myth – “they” remain iconic.

Karen is one of those of whom I’ve said before, that a sophisticated theologian typically talks a great deal more sense than the average scientistic (objectively reductionist) atheist, and I didn’t come away feeling any different, despite a shaky and somewhat disappointing start to the evening.

[Post Note : topical from HuffPo via Sayeeda Warsi on ISIL ignorance of Islam according to Islamic theologians. Armstrong made her remark about Islam for Dummies and The Idiots Guide to the Quran, much tweeted about in previous weeks.]

Interesting …. having pointed out yesterday that humanists typically hold (religious) faith in love (of humans), but the formal voices of humanism would reject the suggestion this was a religious trait, as they do whenever religious comparisons are made – also re-blogged the link to the reaction to Andrew Brown’s suggestion … that today there is a tweet circulating about why humanists don’t get a voice in BBC R4’s Thought for the Day – presumably prompted by the similarity with the BHA’s Though for the Commute – exactly as it prompted my post yesterday too.

Thought for the Day is based on spokespeople with religious values. Humanism resists the idea it has such values, and indeed apart from expressing (and acting on) very generic do-gooding towards humanity on every issue – freedoms, etc – still tends to define itself in terms of being against religious dogma (who isn’t) rather than any specific values it is actually for.

Humanism wants to be seen and heard alongside religions on an equal footing without acknowledging that this is because of what it has in common with religions. Disingenuous.

Interestingly, one of the BHA’s “Thought for the Commute” posters is Peter Tatchell saying:

“The Beatles were right, All you need is love.”

I couldn’t agree more. One of my long-running threads here on Psybertron goes by the tag #whatsofunnybout (peace, love and understanding).

It’s at root behind my three rules of dialogue – respect, respect and respect – which I often use to counter “no-one has the right not to be offended” being naively interpreted as therefore I have every right to offend you. That right to offend lies with the court-jester (Steve Fry say), the cartoonist-in-residence (Martin Rowson say) and the fool of the parish (Dick Dawkins say), but general debate and dialogue proceeds by conversation built on respect for fellow man. An obligation to understand, interpret and agree before criticise and persuade change in the other.

However, what I find ironic is that “All you need is love” is profoundly religious statement of faith in humanity being touted by humanists who run a mile screaming at comparisons with religion.

Of course there are many organised religions, theist or otherwise, where love of fellow man is at least an important component, and even a few where it is the core component, or sole aspect. Organised religions, particularly those with archaic traditions of authority and hierarchy, ultimately with omnipotent causal gods overall, have well recognised downsides. Downsides we want to keep well away from secular governance of society.

But it feels like throwing baby out with the bathwater, to reject the shared value of love, the religious value shared with many religions.

Drs Alice Roberts and Michael Mosely on BBC2 Horizon today 29th September.

Vive la difference, I usually say ;-)

Just rough personal notes here, whilst watching:

Hmmm. Nothing is “hard” wired. Some stuff is pre-wired, genetically and in foetal development, neurally and hormonally, and a great deal is infant developed by stereotypical “encouragement”, and a lot more is moulded by formal parenting and education, and even more is moulded by experience of the social / peer environment.

Roughly 5, 15, 30, 50 % contributions maybe (after Pinker), depending which specific traits you’re evaluating. Anyone can do anything equally well, but their innate propensities do start different, and these differences are re-inforced or de-emphasised.

So testing an adult human, will be a complex – pointless – situation, without an enormous amount of historical data to support the exercise. Also very hard to create totally controlled boundary conditions for testing pre-and-early-post-natals – a human individual is not to be seen as a repeatable experiment – macaque’s could be different.

Anyway there are real from birth differences – for GOOD evolutionary reasons. Equality of opportunity is one thing, but vive la difference is also important if we humans are to develop maximum value together.

Direct objective measures of physical brain differences can be highly misleading, because correlations between mental, behavioural and physical are complex patterned in many dimensions and levels. Many of the defining differences arise from the connective and permissive control mechanisms (hippocampus, corpus-callosum, etc) not size and wiring-symmetry of cortex, etc.

My most recent reference to this is the left-right brain difference between male and female – but remember left-right brain concerns not the jobs the halves do but the mechanisms that bring them into play in “mind”. The Gur input is important – left-brain analytical propensity to physical detail, exaggerated in males – and in the autistic. Note it’s the connections between the hemispheres, not the hemispheres themselves that are important. I see the Gur data supports the McGilchrist hypotheses. Women are typically “better connected” than men, though again there are developmental and plasticity mechanisms – causality is two way – and again the life of a human individual is not a repeatable controlled experiment.

Men are not “better” decision-makers unless your idea of a good decision is analytically objective. Women (archetypically) make decisions differently, though we can all learn better behaviour any number of ways. My thesis is that the difference, variety, is better for humanity, than having all our eggs in the one basket of one decision-making paradigm. But of course the more we understand the explanatory cause and effect model, from genes onwards the better equipped we are to make the political and ethical choices. The science may be incomplete, but it’s not really controversial.

The parentally-subconscious preference on how they see infant boy & girl capabilities is an interesting part of the 15% contribution – not seen that before. Parents can choose to avoid explicit stereotyping, but this sub-conscious effect could be important and culturally variable. But, as I say, I don’t see the gender differences as necessarily a bad thing, and it’s never a bad thing to know what they are. Vive la difference.

The two presenters actually agree. Small but real genetic & infant biological development difference, huge socio-cultural plasticity. Stereotypes can be destructive, but archetypes remain valuable.

Excellent episode of Start The Week. Not just Karen Armstrong on the links between religion and the history of life in general, including war, but more history of Baghdad, Islamic learning, culture and trade, and the evolution of the middle-east situation in general. Imperial dominance overtaking historical cultural leadership, leading to “humiliation” as a driver to violent frustration. We learn that despite Mesopotamia being the prehistoric cradle of civilisation, Baghdad itself is much newer dating from 700’s AD.

[Seeing Karen Armstrong speak at the Royal Institution on Wednesday.]

[Previously blogged about her back in 2010.]

[Post Note : Karen's Grauniad article /essay to promote her book tour.]

[Post Note : and a CFI_UK response from Stephen Law.]

[Post Note : and an ex-Muslim perspective.]

Been reading  The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffrey M Schwartz and Sharon Begley, at the suggestion of an exchange between Dave Morey and Harvey Taylor on FB.

Other than the two title topics being part of any complete brain-mind story, the only real connection between Neuroplasticity and Mental Force is that they are both aspects of science denied by mainstream science for many decades for which common sense and less-reductionist open-minds would recognise much supporting evidence. Most of the book is the authors’ narrative of the battle to generate support for the evidence already out there, as well as their own neuro-psychological experience, in the face of political resistance to good science.

For me it’s another book I could have (wish I had) written. The line of argument and all the sources are those I’ve been marshalling on the blog for 15 years, so in practice I skim read it, but would recommend it for anyone for whom the lines of thought are novel.

After kicking off with Terry Bisson’s Thinking Meat, there are 3 or 4 solid chapters on 20th century demonstrations of brain (cortical neurone rewiring) plasticity. Tough in gory detail for anyone squeamish who finds vivisection distasteful or morally questionable, but the Silver Spring macaques and human stroke survivors suffered more for longer than strictly necessary for our knowledge to become accepted. Ramachandran is referenced, and I’ve used the likes of Damasio, Sacks, Zeman, and others to provide the same stories. Not only does the “mind” learn, the brain re-wires itself according to real life experience of the individual, not just in its early development. The authoritative body-scientific learns to rewire itself much more slowly than human individuals. (3 generations or 80 years is my typical estimate, after Kondratiev.)

The second half of the subject matter kicks off with my 3 favourite quantum physics quotes from Bohr, Born and Heisenberg. These provide a lead-in to the relationship between the writer(s) and Henry Stapp, and the long relationship between them and the Chalmers et al Arizona / Tucson Science of Consciousness and Quantum Consciousness movement(s) – a resource I’ve plundered for much material previously. I must have seen the Schwartz and Begley names before, but not registered.

Finally, they cover Libet’s Volitional Brain. Unlike so many in the mainstream, they do not misinterpret Libet as evidence that free-will is non-existent, an illusion. Like Libet (and myself) they recognise that it points to a free-won’t view of how free-will really operates. In closing they join up Jamesian and Buddhist world-views with the science presented so far. The “quantum Zeno effect” whereby the mental really does supply “downward causation” on the physical. A clear antidote to the objectively-physical greedy-reductionists; free-will really does wield mental force over the merely physical.

A great reference work from my perspective, and as I say, a recommended read for anyone to whom the subject matter is new or mysterious.

[Post Note : will come back and gradually add internal links to all the existing blog references.]

Another interesting and typically honest down-to-earth Grauniad piece by Jon Butterworth, following on from a couple of weeks ago, he’s obviously had plenty of correspondence from two quarters. Scientistic types who find Bayes Theorem the thin edge of a statistical wedge, admitting subjectivity into their hallowed ground, and philosophical types (aka nut-jobs) using the chink to insert suggestions of alternative physics into Jon’s “standard model” domain. Against the scientistic types Jon is happy to point out the value of honesty when it comes to admitting Bayes; to the nut-jobs he says:

For example, as a writer and head of a physics department, I get quite a few unsolicited communications about new theories of physics, often involving Einstein having been wrong, or the Higgs boson actually being a macaroon or something. I have a prior bias here, based on the enormous amount of existing evidence. Einstein might have been confused about the cosmological constant on occasion, but given prior evidence it is highly unlikely that the whole thrust of relativistic mechanics is up the spout. Likewise, I personally have quite a lot of evidence that the Higgs boson is consistent so far with being the fundamental Higgs of the Standard Model, and inconsistent with the macaroon theory.

Well I’ve not been sending Jon any pet theories, but I do highlight two of Jon’s points:

(1) it is highly unlikely that the whole thrust of relativistic mechanics is up the spout.

(2) a lot of evidence that the Higgs boson is consistent so far with the Standard Model.

Firstly, that prior assumption, his bias,  has a massive impact on interpretation of new results. Perversely, Einstein was right, and there is a great deal of “non-inflation” evidence the standard model is way off the mark. Once that is more generally recognised, that prior assumption (1) is gone, totally.

Secondly, as I reported when I heard Jon speak on the latest LHC Higgs evidence, it is quite explicit that the increasingly significant (5-sigma plus) evidence is pointing to internal self-consistency of the incomplete standard model. (2) does doing nothing to prove the fit between the model and the real world, other than to reinforce the subjective impression in (1).

As well as Bayes, we need a little Godel here. Jon already highlighted last time, the need to look elsewhere. It is a wonderfully healthy situation to have an honest scientist thinking out loud in the mainstream press. Could save science form the scientistic extremists. Be even better if we could find Jon a philosophical type for similar dialogue, with mutual respect.

[Post Note : More on Bayes in science from the NYT -

“Statistics sounds like this dry, technical subject, but it draws on deep philosophical debates about the nature of reality,” said the Princeton University astrophysicist Edwin Turner, who has witnessed a widespread conversion to Bayesian thinking in his field over the last 15 years.

Countering Pure Objectivity

Woohooo - maybe more scientists will gradually see the need to respect and/or get to grips with philosophy?]


Public communications piece from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Laura Mersini-Houghton’s recent announcements (previously reported Bang Goes The Big Bang here):

“Physicists have been trying to merge these two theories – Einstein’s theory of gravity and quantum mechanics – for decades, but this scenario brings these two theories together, into harmony,” said Mersini-Houghton. “And that’s a big deal.”

And it does that by dispensing with black holes and singularities (and consequent inflation and dark-matter and dark-energy and many-worlds multi-verses), all the way back to the big bang. Stripping out the hacks and returning to (classical) common sense. (Hat tip to Rick on FB again- trawling the web for big-bang updates.)

That’s a big deal.

[Post Note : Obviously there are honestly sceptical responses to Mersini-Houghton, but so far no direct refutation, and I did notice one reference to Stephen Hawking having now agreed with her, over the non-existence of black-holes as singularities anyway. Need to collate other links.]

[Post Note : Oh, and how timely.]

Hat tip to @TiffanyJenkins for the link to this BBC Future Proofing episode on The Singularity.

(Holding post for now: Will miss tonight due to MeetUp engagement, but will review when I get to listen on iPlayer later.)

FYI – My prejudiced position is that all the talk about the impending Singularity is premised on a “too mechanistic” misunderstanding of the true computational nature of mind and intelligence. I say AI will be achieved when it evolves to be Real-I. (Need to dig up relevant blog links.)

Rough Notes whilst listening:

Computing power = smartness ? Hmmm.

Exponential human development – quartering time-base since homo-sapiens – OK. Predicts 2030-ish Omega point. If (that is IF) computers overtake human intelligence at that point, then by 2045 they will be billions of times more intelligent. Not sure computational power is the main driver of that cycle, but …

(Personally – I still believe in the three human generations timescale of technology development, ~80 year cycles in their actual effect on how humans live. Kondratiev / Kuhn etc. Interestingly 2030 is about the cusp of the next wave.)

Ray Kurzweil (now Eng Dir @ Google) – it’s about Language, the Turing Test. Zzzzz.

IBM “Watson” – “more” natural, sure. Anthropomorphic interactions (saying thanks), sure.

Humans do have advantages over robots – creativity, problem solving, emotional intelligence, dexterity, flexibility, etc. Doh! that’s what makes us humans as opposed to Accounting PhDs. Sure technology will automate the boring bits. Accounting however is a very complex human game – a million miles from arithmetic computation. Can’t see any robot playing “Tabletop” – the level-slipping analogies of creative problem solving.

Still (@24:10) only talking about “digital” computers and algorithms. Fast and accurate is not the point of human intelligence. Additive is the key – human intelligence will exploit ever more powerful tools.

(Interesting both presenters wrong in detecting human vs machine composed music. Second was clearly “formulaic” – metronomic – time-base-wise. Hard to prove now, proves nothing anyway, but I made the right choice. Not sure whether we were dealing with recordings or if both compositions machine-played?)

The Meta-aspects of humans, standing back to reflect on humanity. (Meta is the level-slipping in Tabletop.)

Ultimate conclusion is humanity – and human intelligence – is more than “machine” AI.

Agree. This is why I say AI can and will evolve, but it will only approach the intelligence of an intelligent life-form like humans, when it evolves to be an intelligent life-form itself. Real-I. (On evolutionary timescales.) Nothing special about humans here – any similarly intelligent life-form will do, we just happen to be the encumbents around here.

So long as AI workers have digital computers as their “computation” model of human brains (let alone minds) they’ll be severely hampered in getting AI to develop that way. Human intelligence does of course exploit “algorithms” to save time and brain power from the boring bits, free to do the creative “slipping”.

This is being reported everywhere. The irrelevance of CMB polarisation patterns relative to background noise and interference from space dust. No longer clutching at straws to support inflation-driven hacks to explain cosmic evolution since the big bang and, by rights, casting fresh questions over the nature of cosmic origins themselves. Here’s hoping common sense prevails, and good scientists ask the scientific questions. (Like Mersini-Houghton for example.)

Neatly summarised on FB by Rick Ryals:

If you project the expansion of the universe backwards without *pre-assuming* that you have to go all the way to an infinitely dense initial singularity in order to have a big bang, then inflationary theory becomes un-necessary as the most natural solution falls out… A universe with pre-existing volume had a big bang.

No more flatness problem, no more horizon problem… etc… duh.

Ironically, the same day UK science’s poster-boy is aired being interviewed by Jim Al Khalili in The Life Scientific, claiming he supports a multiple (parallel) “multiverses” view. [Text here - (*) even Schroedinger's damn cat. Aaaaaggghhh!!!.] I do wish scientists would leave metaphysics to the philosophers, or at least (as Jim clearly does) acknowledge that some of the questions really are not in the realm of science. Why? Because if scientists actually did their real jobs, instead of playing stand-up politics with the media and their funding sources, they’d notice there is good scientific evidence for multiple sequential “universes” separated cyclically in time and furthermore, universes that don’t depend on the inflation hack. Nor do they depend on the brainless cop-out that if we can’t fit our flawed story to the cosmos as a whole, we’ll posit an infinity of possible universes where our politically-motivated guesses might just happen to be true in one of them. Scientists ought to have to pass some kind of test before being let loose with the kind of thought experiments used by philosophy. Stands to reason, dunnit?

As Haidt said (previous post) – science is untrustworthy because (too many) scientists spend their time playing-politics and issue-campaigning instead of doing science. Scientists are no more to be trusted than politicians or theologians, and only philosophers seem to appreciate that problem. Honest a-political scientists can of course understand the physical problem, if they put their minds to it, rather than their political defenses.

[(*) Post Note - literally many worlds, multiple parallel (independent) universes, is a thought experiment, nothing to do with physics - if the physics of two different worlds are related in anyway, they are part of the same world, possibly an inadequately explained part of the world, but the same world. Uncertainty of, or superposition of, multiple possible states in this world is a reflection of the difficulty agreeing explanations at the boundaries of physics knowledge about the world - unfinished work of physicists. Multiple universes in the sequential sense is something entirely different, cyclical aeons in the same world, same universe, but with (most of) history reset at each new big bang.

The mechanism is actually a lot easier to understand says Rick Ryals:

When you make a particle pair from vacuum energy you leave a real hole in the vacuum. This increases negative pressure and causes the vacuum to expand. The positive gravitational effect of the ne
wly created massive particle offsets the increase in negative pressure so the "flatness" of the universe is fixed. Ripping out huge chunks of the vacuum structure to make particles with causes the vacuum to "thin" as tension between the vacuum and matter increases. Eventually this process will compromise the integrity of the forces that bind the universe and... BOOM... a universe with pre-existing volume has *another* big bang.

And, Neil Turok, betting against gravitational waves in Scientific American.]

Interesting Boyarsky Lecture at Duke, from Jonathan Haidt – who I’ve read and reviewed very positively before – which he opens by contrasting liberal unconstrained view of morality with the need for institutional constraints. And immediately nails his colours to the more conservative “centrist” mast than the vast majority of his liberal academic, medical scientific, audience.

Hat tip to Stephen Law on FB for the link.

Excellent, after a full viewing. The ultimate message is that we share most values, but our views become skewed or imbalanced by making one value “sacred” above all others, immune from any trade-offs. And the sacred choices are mostly partisan, defended vs the mad, irrational perceived opposition, liberal vs conservative at any given point in time, but environmental changes over time mean that the sacred priorities evolve. Or rather they should evolve, but become even more imbalanced by the reaction to the opposition. On the science front, the problem is scientists (the humans) are politicised on the liberal side of the balance. Hear, hear.

Definitely worth watching in full, despite the US-centric agenda.

Good to see a piece on the new computing element of the UK school curriculum, where it is more than simply a “coding” skill for immediate employment. Stuart Dredge in the Grauniad quotes Bill Mitchell of the BCS.

He says it’s “thinking about thinking”, and you can do with bits of string and card and lots of running around, without going anywhere near a computer. It can be inspirational. Hear hear. Computation is something as fundamental in this world as say physics, understanding of which is highly transferable knowledge, as I’ve mentioned several times, last time here in The Year of Code.

[Post Note : A little scare-mongering.]

Met and heard Bob Churchill of IHEU talk to the CLHG at Conway Hall last night, with an audience of 60-odd.

His provocative title “Your Humanism is a Thought Crime” left out the implied … in certain parts of the world where religious freedom is not recognised, or is actively suppressed whether by legal arrangements or by cultural taboo. His first and recurring clarification is to note that the expression Religious Freedom is a selective contraction of a much more comprehensive UN Human Rights declaration on Freedom of thought, expression and belief including religious and non-religious belief.

His presentation was in two parts; Firstly, to describe and update us on the work of the many (hundreds of) international humanist groups under the IHEU umbrella, and the many examples of specific cases and countries where campaigns to help those individuals and groups subjected to discrimination and much greater lethal risks. The examples and statistics are mind-boggling in scope and variety, and the most comprehensive account of these forms the basis on the annually updated Free Thought Report (which Bob edits). The second was to focus specifically on the direct first-hand lobbying activities of IHEU and other humanist NGO’s in support of ongoing UN proposals for new and amended motions and declarations. (Be great to share the slides, Bob.)

The amount of work evident in these combined activities was and is immense – impressive and indeed inspiring. Even as an avid follower of such human rights issues and cases reported in the media, you couldn’t hope to appreciate the total scope without the IHEU work done to report them all under one umbrella. From the IHEU perspective, Humanism is as broad a church imaginable: “The global umbrella organisation embracing Humanist, atheist, secularist, skeptic, rationalist, lay, ethical, cultural, free-thought and similar organisations, worldwide since 1952.” To be whole-heartedly commended and supported.

In the Q&A, and ongoing discussions late into the evening, Bob responded to two lines of questioning amongst others:

Given the very general nature of the human rights freedoms, and the range of issues of nation, race, age, gender, sexual-orientation as well as religious and non-religious beliefs generally, how is the “Humanism” message made distinct compared to the many campaigning organisations in this broad libertarian, humanitarian sphere – such as Amnesty International it was suggested.

And secondly, given that the focus in sheer weight of example cases was religious – predominantly Moslem – suppression of freedoms, how is Humanism establishing and arguing for alternatives to the underlying fundamental tenets of specific religious beliefs.

Joining the dots between those two issues; Humanism, despite the impressively huge amount of campaigning and success against violation of general freedoms of belief and expression, it has done so largely under an anti-religion banner, often under the God vs Science wars” or, BHA specifically, secular moves to eliminate faith-based activity from any (UK) state organs. The focus has been to criticise, attack and ridicule the more “irrational” and dogmatic aspects of religious belief or otherwise exclude it from the domain. Other than some “scientific” & “democratic” forms of rationality, is Humanism doing enough to establish the nature and values of “good” Humanist beliefs, in the vacuum left behind where established religious-based moral law has withered or is otherwise being progressively swept away? The process of getting our own Humanist house in order, as it were.

Bob, from his perspective as both philosopher and campaigner, articulated a sophisticated and informed response. In summary: Firstly, we can’t be simplistic about the myriad interconnected issues. And even where we are able to propose appropriate responses, policies and values, there remain complexities in their communication. Even in the no-brainer clear cut cases, with an obvious wrong to be put right,  there remain many tactical subtleties of both communication and action depending on the short and long term risks to the individuals involved. But in general, many levels from particular campaign messages and actions to more general intellectual debate and conversations, mediated and un-mediated.

Hear, hear. And, in many ways, this represents the fear that drives the agenda here on Psybertron. In this world of ubiquitous communications, it’s all too easy to allow the focus on clear-headlines needed to pursue the clear-cut no-brainer campaigns, to crowd out the tougher, subtler conversations that are also necessary.  It’s a truism that real values are reflected in how individuals act and govern their actions in practice, and that policies and manifestos expressing aims and values, however carefully drafted, can remain theoretical. But, like The Free Thought Report, agreed and published policies and processes for addressing the real complexities of the issues, are a resource for justification and validation of action by all involved.

Impossible to be comprehensive and conclusive within the constraints of the evening, and a blogged report like this, but all in all a very encouraging conversation pointing in all the right directions.