Just a brief holding post for later elaboration. It’s been bouncing around recently that The Grauniad is planning to shut off its commenting capability on articles posted on controversial topics. Especially ironic given their “Comment is Free” heritage and tag-line.

I actually agree with their move.

It’s long been an issue since the days of “flame-wars” on bulletin boards and discussion forums, that complex and emotive topics need active (*) mediation, even to the point of campaigns banning public commenting on some otherwise public channels. The Grauniad is simply catching up. Open comments always turn into polarised shouting matches, with a little trolling, ego-stroking and virtue-signalling thrown in.

Also doubly ironic to tie this move into the current “safe spaces” meta-debates. It’s more complicated that 140 chars will allow. (*) It’s no coincidence that old media “readers letters” come pre-vetted by an editor for their constructive value. It’s no coincidence that civilised debating platforms come with skilled facilitators. Freedom of expression comes with rules.

Three recent twitter & facebook items via “Bee” (Sabine Hossenfelder @skdh) that need joining up, together with an older link left hanging – unanswered.

(1) The Gravitational Waves story – the betting that we are about to get the announcement that they have actually been detected – subsequent to Larry Krauss’ tweets. Everyone likes to be proven right (as Bee responded to my comment), but science (unlike the rest of life) is distinctively about testing to destruction; (technology and engineering are about exploiting the bits that don’t break). My pooh-poohing the story is really saying – OK, it’s an exciting confirmation inside physics, particularly given how hard they have proven to be to detect – but not in any wider sense is it earth-shatteringly newsworthy. Basically confirming common sense.

(2) The Cosmological “non-Constant non-Story” – the fact that long-running controversy over how close to either side of zero – or how large – it must be, is overshadowed by the fact that as a model it is proving to be a useless predictor of expected relationships to quantum effects. This must surely ring alarm bells that something might be significantly wrong with the models underlying so much of fundamental physics on so many scales? Time to look for new ideas, not simply test the existing ones for confirmation. Such creativity is – has always been – a big part of science, but science has no monopoly on creativity. Isn’t that infinitely more important and exciting to the wider public as well as exciting, even scary, for science itself?

(3) The public communication of science being two-way – scientists need to listen to their public too.

(4) On the topic of listening to your public, here’s a question I left hanging on free-will. There are alternative conclusions.

Thanks for taking the time Sabine, so …

You say “any change that happens in nature is to our best knowledge a mixture of being pre-determined and being fundamentally random”

(a) the “best of your knowledge” may be inaccurate / incomplete?

(b) that best knowledge as stated already presumes there is no kind of free-will that contradicts that kind of determinism in nature. This logic is flawed already?

Then you say “That statement can be made without ever using the term free will.”

(c) So how can you then honestly conclude (on the basis of a & b) that something called free will doesn’t exist?

That’s the “gaffe” Gabe refers to in your own previous paper. The right conclusion is your knowledge is incomplete. No?

(5) But I’ve suggested listen to your – non-scientist – friends before too. On (2) above coincidentally. Larry Krauss too.

Mentioned I was doing a good deal of retro-reading these days.

I’m currently reading Joe McCabe’s The New Science and the Story of Evolution. Joe was one of the big movers and shakers in the UK “Freethought Movement”.

This particular book is a 1931-ish combination of early woks and essays including The Story of Evolution written 20 years earlier. It’s basically chapters in evolutionary chronological order from cosmogeny to civilisation. Naturally many of the “facts” as asserted are out of date – lots of the knowledge in physics was very new in those 20 years – but the sweep of reasoning remains compelling. One recurring theme is that both evolution and relativity were pretty well covered in the thinking of many of the ancients, long before they became part of established “scientific theory”. In his thinking of the ancients, there is also much “of its time” language around savages and semi-humans, but he wouldn’t be the first to see alternative worldviews in the aboriginals of the new world that had been too easily dismissed by the dominion of accepted western rationality.

Like Sir Arthur Eddington in the UK, in the US Yale Professor F. S. (C.*) Northrop became known as an expert on interpreting and promoting Einstein to wider audiences, in Northrop’s case long before the seminal work for which he became much more famous.

McCabe references F. S. (E.*) Northrop on both his early expertise on relativity and his later Meeting of East and West – intuition and rationality – that postulated the “aesthetic continuum” as something more fundamental behind wave-particle duality and the rest – the aether reborn effectively. A “flow” medium somehow more fundamental than the “objects” on which modern scientific objectivity depends.

Fascinating when threads come together like this. Who knew UK “Freethought” also drew on the same influences as US “Pragmatism”? Northrop was the biggest influence on Pirsig.

[(*) It is the same Northrop – Yale, Harvard & US National Academy of Sciences – being referred to in both cases. McCabe simply has the initials in error.]

So as well as already having:

Joseph McCabe – The New Science and the Story of Evolution (1931), and
F. S. C. Northrop – The Meeting of East and West (1946),

We now have new references:

Joseph McCabe – The Evolution of Mind (1910), and
F. S. C. Northrop – The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities (1947)




The idea that less / fewer road signs and markings make for better road safety is not new, and indeed has been part of the design of roads and junctions for some time.


The idea is to make drivers more situationally aware of their relationship to other drivers and hazards, not to make the driving more hazardous.

So, fewer instructions on rights of way, imperatives and priorities, and less information signs beyond the immediate situation, mean the driver must work out what is safe and appropriate in the immediate situation. ie each must check decisions with the behaviour other road users rather than take your own rights of way for granted as signposted.

Signs and layouts that help you see and better judge the road and other users are essential. Driving lights, hi-vis panels, cats-eyes, curves that increase lines of sight, clearance of visual obstructions, white carriageway lines (without instructions) all help visualise your situation.

Making roads more hazardous – making it harder for a driver to judge available safe space – will tend to slow down cautious drivers, but unless your objective was to increase travel times, the slower speed won’t reduce the hazard. It’s the increased hazard that is reducing the speed. How dumb is that?

Just a holding post …. I have a draft post in progress on how the echo-chamber ends up reinforcing very small differences between people who largely agree, one reason being that the groups you become part of are self-selecting for similarity. The differences that really matter are between groups.

Interesting contribution from an El Pais interview with Zygmunt Bauman.

Reading “The Zhivago Affair” by Finn and Couvee, about the publication of Pasternak’s opus. Perhaps not quite a great classic – a little self-indulgent on the semi-autobiographical individual freedom, artistic freedom level, whilst being very much in the literary artistic tradition of its great Russian prose-poet predecessors. But a big best seller thanks to its content and timing as a reaction to the Soviet regime stretching back to the original Bolshevik revolution. Most will know (some of) the story through David Lean’s magnificent film.

Like many authors engaged in brutal battle the other side of the iron-curtain during the cold-war, the “difficulties” were immense and intriguing. The CIA’s role in its western publication and promotion are fascinating.

Not surprisingly (paraphrasing):

When the CIA was created in 1947, many including Truman, were uneasy that some form of “centralised snooping” was unavoidable. In order to keep it at arms length from The White House and US government generally, its brief was sufficiently vague to give it freedom for “black propaganda” and “covert ops” whilst preserving official deniability.

Many now question whether that’s the kind of dirty job one someone has to do, given we no longer have the cold-war, but what is perhaps more surprising – entirely counter-intuitive – is the CIA’s own strategy in doing so (paraphrasing again):

In the 1950’s the CIA was engaged in relentless global and political warfare with the Kremlin. This effort was intended to shore up support for the Atlantic Alliance (NATO) … The CIA believed the power of ideas – in news, art, music and literature – could slowly corrode the authority of the Soviet state with its own people and its satellite states. The agency was in a long game that could incrementally over time improve the chances for more open societies.

The US was up against a foe that, since the 1920’s had mastered the creation of the front organisation. Phony CIA front organisations spent untold millions to fund concert tours, art exhibitions, highbrow magazines, academic research, student activism, news organisations – and book publishing. In Western Europe, the CIA channeled money to the non-communist-left. CIA help went mainly to the parties of the democratic left and centre. (The right wing and conservative forces had their own financial resources.) The CIA became one of the world’s largest grant-making institutions.

It took a fairly sophisticated point of view (ie not moronic McCarthysism) to understand that the public exhibition of views contrary to US orthodoxy was a potent weapon against monolithic Communist uniformity of action.

Dr Zhivago was a part of this. The fact that the Soviets were against it because of its anti-Soviet content was politically almost incidental to the CIA’s involvement.


Post Note:

(1) On the main angle of my agenda here – “the ideology of science” – an interesting take from Pravda on the awarding of Nobel prizes:

When three Soviet scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics it was “recognition by the academy of the major merits of the Soviet scientists” whereas ” the award for literature was prompted for entirely political motives.” Bourgeois scientists “were capable of objectivity,” but the assessment of literary works was entirely under the influence of the ideology of the dominant class.”

(2) One the theme of Russian literature generally, I also unravelled a confusion. Dostoyevsky I’ve talked about most, and here Pasternak, but last year I read the first two volumes of Sholokov’s Quiet Flows the Don. I’d obtained a four volume set of the 1939 Moscow Foreign Languages Publishing edition of the 1934 translation on the basis it was the “first” to be translated and the “first” to win the Nobel prize for literature. Doh! the first Soviet work to be published in translation and first to receive the Nobel prize in 1965. Many pre-Soviet Russian works were translated and published much earlier and of course Pasternak was awarded (but prevented from receiving) the prize in 1958. Wasn’t too impressed with Sholokov – like soap opera, drunken fights, adultery and rape, some sweeping landscapes and battlefield blood and guts, but not in the same Russian classics league poetically – much more the Soviet brutal realism.

This is a short post to address the additional “eastern” perspective missing from the post note in my previous blog on the London Thinks “How Do We Believe” event.

Here on Psybertron, much of the philosophical journey was informed early on by the qualities of Zen / Tao thinking introduced to millions by Robert Pirsig with two earlier clues connecting it to the real world of business and economics by Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence and to physical reality by Nobel prize-winning physicists Josephson and Stapp.

There are (for me) three lessons that inform doubts about the dominant western view of rationality.

  • One, simply that the self-other relationship is worth understanding and valuing. Quite the opposite to the dogma of a purely objective logical ontology in “science” (the so-called “exact-sciences” anyway) from which subjectivity is deliberately stripped or simply turned into another object. (There are many other relational, informative, flow-based alternatives to physical objects – particles in space and time – alone.)
  • Secondly, the questioning exemplified by the koan. Questioning is at the core of all pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, since Socrates most obviously, but recorded by Plato, codified by Aristotle, and restored to the western canon (ironically via Islamic scholars) in the enlightenment that gave us modern science. It’s already a presumption in the modern take on Socratic method, that there is an objective truth being uncovered with a fully consistent logic. But it may not have been that way to Socrates himself. We can never know. The questioner may or may not believe they already know the “truth” better that the target being questioned, but there is an inbuilt arrogance that the learning is aiming for objective truth, independent of what the subject believes. The Taoist koan, by asking questions without objective answers, at least leaves those thought-provoking non-objective “Mu” possibilities open.
  • Thirdly, reality really does exist, but the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. To suggest otherwise strips reality of any meaning. Any world view is a model of that reality, not reality itself. So any model of reality – any ontology – is contingent on its usefulness, and contingent all the way down. Even the most strictly objective, logical, hierarchical model stands on a turtle somewhere. The real world may have no cosmic bootstrap, but our model always will. And we can never know any more about the world than the epistemology our bootstrapped ontology gives us. To suggest the model we hold is not a “belief system” is merely semantic word-games.

These three points have many corollaries, possibilities left open for alternate world-views.

Qualitative differences matter. Assuming a strictly reductionist hierarchy in the relationships between the exact sciences as a foundation, living and evolving biology dependent on that, and all other psycho-social phenomena above these, involves many category errors. There can be quite – qualitatively – different types of thing in the different layers of our ontology. There is a gestalt view that says patterns of organisation in these different layers all have existence in their own right. Sure there is a dependence, a supervenience, of the higher layers’ existence on the lower, but the chains of causation which explain and predict behaviour do not all run from the part to the whole. That’s greedy reductionism. The wholes in the higher layers have their own behaviours. These behaviours do not “depend” on any of the properties of their parts, but rather on the nature and level of their organisation.

Certainly any number of “hard problems”, that lead science to deny the existence in its model of self, consciousness, will etc, are at least given space for investigation rather than dismissal and denial.

Of course many (Pirsig included) have constructed their own ontologies on some or all these principles. All I would say is the value is in believing these qualitative alternatives exist and have value. Getting exclusively attached to any one of them is just another dogma, no different to any religion, cult or even science. The enemy is dogma, not belief itself.

Missed this London Thinks event at Conway Hall Ethical Society earlier this week, in fact I’ll not be attending many in the coming year thanks to a changed working pattern, but this one’s a keeper on YouTube. The title and the content right on my “What, why and how do we (believe what we) know?” agenda here on Psybertron.

Samira Ahmed excellent in the chair as usual, Richard Wiseman entertaining, and Francesca Stavrakopoulou talking so much sense:

  • The “Western” prejudiced view of top-down organised & proselytising religions rather than their folkloric bottom-up origins. (As per the origins of stories … )
  • The Book of Numbers story (she’s used often before) illustrating the benign common-sense in early – patriarchal of its time – ritual in testing the accused adulteress. (True of most religious rituals and taboos … )
  • And more …

The rest … the natural evolution of necessary psychology, good and bad. Especially the memetic aspects where stories are reinforced by media transmission, individual or institutional, innocent or manipulative.

  • Bruce Hood and Deborah Hyde on sacrement of essence – even in inanimate objects – even in otherwise rational atheist people. Richard Wiseman on practical psychology (stage magic) examples. Real power, real value even if not “true”.
  • Co-existence of inconsistent texts and beliefs, without literalism being an issue.

Lots of good stuff in there. We all have “belief systems” that are fundamentally psychological – even hardened objective rational scientists. It’s the wrong battleground for “new-atheists” beating-up on the religious, rather than focussing on the repressive abuses of religion. There are enough of those to worry about.

  • Dawkins hasn’t done us (atheist / humanist / rationalist / naturalists) any favours. (Sure he’s “staked out” some of the extreme territory we’re dealing with – not sure he has much grip on what solutions might look like.)


Post Note:

Got a tweeted comment from @WanderingJedEye that reminded us this “western” top-down hierarchical objective perspective is not only contrasted with the Abrahamic / middle-eastern experience, but with “eastern” world-views generally. There was in fact a Hindhu cultish contribution in the above debate from Alice Heron, but the focus was mainly the lessons of the cultish experience, rather than anything in the particular world-view. I posted a piece to address this additional thought.