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All posts for the month July, 2005

I’m trying to draft a couple of “considered” posts for here and for MoQ-Discuss.

I’ve just about finished Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”. It’s so good that perversely I’ve made almost no annotations, because it’s all note-worthy and in need of re-reading in future. I’ve blogged a number of points already, but there are some important themes arising … these are just some holding thoughts.

Evolution of Morality – Dennett’s pragmatic story of naturalised ethics and the moral first aid manual, is Pirsig’s MoQ in everything but name. At the MoQ Conference there was one line of argument, from Jorg, Dean and Brent I think, in the discussions ensuing Mati’s presentation, that MoQ needs to be hitched to the philosphical mainstream, needs to have its own (however original) ideas picked-up in other philsophers who have achieved mainstream credibility. Pirsig does not want personal celebrity, or even credit, and he’ll probably always be a deranged hippy in the eyes of any establishment, whatever the quality of his thinking. Those of us who wish to promote quality thinking per se (without Pirsigian labels necessarily) need to be hitching our wagon to Dennett.

[Insert major block-quotes from Dennett here.]

Game Theory, Doubt, Rhetoric and Philosophising Rules of Engagement

Difficult to disentangle and sumarise my thoughts here, but here goes.

[Insert another block-quote from Dennett here.]

I was struck in Hofstadter (GEB) about the game theory nature of evolution, culturally evolving best decision making paradigms for given situations. Dennett makes decision-making (and decision support and justification) a subject in his work, and of course it is precisely the point where I came into epistemology, through (business) information modelling. The mechanism by which nagging doubt is exaggerated to become a crucial decisive issue is well illustrated in the “reverberant doubt” game-theory example Dennett quotes from Hofstadter. If our position in the world is “ballistic”, ie we are always battling falling into a sea of entropy with the negative entropy tools of evolution, but with no metaphysically fundamental foundations, just temporary static latches and layers, doubt is a powerful mechanism to hold onto the certainty of theistic skyhooks. It’s a very subtle variation on the “religion is for wimps” meme, and it is actually worse (the nagging doubt more reverberrant) than that, the doubt is greater the more intellectual thought one can put into it. (Wow, it’s surely also my Catch-22 isn’t it !!)

Rhetoric, and other forms of “impure rationality” are absloutely essential in this zone of ballistic trajectories without firm foundations. I knew it.

Philosophising Rules of Engagement – This isn’t new, but Dennett describes this very clearly. In my words, philsophy is the archetypal domain for analysis paralysis – it’s what philosphers do. Doubt can be cast on just about any argument, by undermining some premise or other (hence why I can’t disentangle it from the doubt topic itself). If you’re going to make (pragmatic) progress in producing useful philosophic output, as philosophers you have to set up some premises that you are going to treat as fixed (for now) even if your open mind says the might not be absolutely. These are the layers and latches of MoQ – they’re all debatable in the long run, but not in the short run. We need to keep debate isolated from meta-debate, or it may has well just be tortoises all the way down.

Meta – I used the word meta in this context somewhere recently myself. Dennett makes the meta-distinction frequently. I recall a sense of relief in my data modelling history, when I’d been working with what turned out to be meta-models almost meta-languages, and I noticed a headline, a front-page story in some illustrious journal like The Economist or Harvard Business Review as I recall, proclaiming in some end of year review at the height of the dot-com boom – the the word for next year is “Meta”. Something in this I believe.

Sorry – a bit incoherent, and incomplete but important enough for a “hold that thought” post.

Saw some interesting stuff at The Amplifier Bar 383 Murray Street last night (non-obvious entrance round the back alley beside No.381, explains why I once before failed to find this venue.)

Dropping in Orange – guitar and organ, with drippy but thunderously loud bassist / vocalist – opened with Hawkwind’s Quark, Strangeness and Charm, which kinda set their weird scene. Hmm.

Kill Devil Hills – folk rock by contrast, with mandolin, fiddle, acoustic, electric and bass guitars, and primitive drum kit. Nice atmospheric original sounds, bit like the openers in that sense, despite being worlds apart.

The Volcanics – manic, heavy, lone guitar and bass with separate vocalist. Crackin’ sound, good frontman though tuneless shouted vocal style not really to my taste. (Compare QOTSA review below, heavy rock vocals don’t have to be painful guys.)

MF & The Truckload of Hope – country style blues / rock to follow. Huh ? Was this really the headline act ? Presumably MF is some local hero, and his audience and the other bands in it were all “friends”, but it didn’t do much for me so, unusually, I left ‘em to it. (Ironic, given that I’ve neen regularly watching Rick Steele’s country blues style acts around Perth in recent months, next time Sunday lunch at the Dianella. Spookily a photo of Rick’s son Luke in Sleepy Jackson, in the Amplifier Bar. It’s not what you do, it’s how well you do it. Quality rules OK.)

I’d looked out the venue (Amplifier Bar) because I’d seen Sin City are playing there tonight, the goth-metal Perth band I’d seen in Melbourne’s Green Room back in Feb (Complete nonsense, but well-executed good “clean” fun, with stonking drumming from Tom Brownrigg). Noticed they were doing a return to WA tour taking in Margaret River (Thursday, noticed as we drove through on the whale-watching trip last Monday), Bunbury (last night), Perth (tonight) and Freo (Swan Basement tomorrow). Anyway, the venue is excellent, if way-too-loud by any objective standard. Great lighting and sound systems built in (hence the name presumably). All individual instruments miked-up, including off their own amp speakers, and all the drums including the bass fed through a huge rack of floor mounted under-stage units as well as ceiling/side mounted PA. Massive sound, very loud, shifting-bodily-organs-loud, low frequencies visibly driving the stage smoke around, but somehow perfect, despite serious health and safety failings no doubt.

Recently I commented on Owen Barfield labouring his point about the mental illusion of seeing an intangible rainbow, when his real point was that “seeing” a tree was no less a mental trick of “representation”, as is even the additional mental picture we create from the other sensory perceptions available to us for the apparently more tangible object. Barfield himself pointed out that just about all philosophy since Kant has been concerned with this point.

More recently, I commented on MoQ-Discuss, that the abstractions MoQ-ers refer to as “patterns of intellectual quality” may well be purely conceptual, and that the MoQ representation of patterns of quality in the lower inorganic, biological and social levels are in fact just more intellectual patterns, so what we have is a “meta”-problem. Everything we know, of either the tangible or the conceptual, is in some sense an abstraction, before we start.

I’ve also commented previously on both Susan Blackmore’s and Daniel Dennett’s views that free-will, even the whole of consciousness itself, is “just an illusion” created by, or in one interpretation of Sue’s case completely comprising, memes; culturally communicated world-views. Dennett coined the meme that Darwinian evolution was a “dangerous idea” and, genetic or memetic, you can see why many might find scary the idea that free-will is just an illusion. Dangerous, says Paul Davies, in the sense that it might excuse an irresponsible nihilistic outlook on life in general. Sue disagrees, and I do too, but I suspect for different reasons.

I think people conflate tangibility and illusion, or rather intangible reality and illusory un-reality. Things may in some sense be intangible and non-physical; not existing directly in the physical, as mere assemblies of discrete “atomic” physical components (atoms, quanta, information, whatever). They may nevertheless “exist”, or be emergent, in the topology of interactions between multiple layers of dynamic patterns in the physical. Doubly intangible, if you believe the physical is largely intangible to start with, but no more illusory than anything else, as in literally everything else.

Clearly enough of us humans are deluded enough to believe that the fates of our world and us within it are real enough to take seriously, even Blackmore and Dennett (otherwise why would they bother ?), so the illusory nature of the world or our consciousness of it and any free-will or causation within it, is just not an issue, is it. You’d have to be pretty twisted to start with, to use the illusory get out of jail card to absolve yourself from any worldly responsibility.

So to use Dennett’s own language, before we all reach for those teleological pre-ordained, theistic skyhooks, “Very clever. Nice try. But, so what ?” So what if we can argue that everything (or everything we think we can ever know or experience about everything) is an illusion, where does it get us ?

We need some pragmatism. Even if our entire world bubble is framed by an illusion, we surely have a useful “axis of tangibility” to consider within it, ranging from relatively tangible / physical to relatively intangible / illusory, and explanatory reasoning for the relationships between things along this axis. If we lump everything at one end of that axis, in our lemming-like quest for simple binary truths, we are paralysed, we have nothing to work with, no potential energy left.

Again, more truth it seems in art than science – I only recently commented also that Smullyan’s piece “Is God a Taoist“, presented in Dennett and Hofstadter’s “The Mind’s I” was one of the best explanations of the reality of free-will I’ve come across in a long time. If I ramble on much longer I’ll be quoting the “Cornflowers” again.

Saw Queens of the Stone Age at Metro City Perth last night, supported by UK (Sunderland) band Futureheads.

Good to experience an excellent gig at Metro City, too. When I first came out to Perth, I had already pre-purchased tickets for George Thorogood and Joe Satriani at Metro City, but it was shut down for six months due to some gangland / pikey shooting mullarky, and bookings re-arranged elsewhere. Great venue, bars and snack-food franchises (!) inside the audirorium, high-stage and the audience packed in around it club-style on several interconnected levels.

Futureheads were manic, black shirts suits and ties, style reminded me of the Ramones or maybe Wilko Johnson, ie fast and furious, everything under 2 minutes, but with complex staccato structures and magic four part harmonies, even a Kate Bush cover. The QOTSA audience like them.

QOTSA pleased the crowd, greatest hits selection to open and close, with the “latest album” stuff in the middle. Seriously heavy sound, dominated by the complex drumming, even with latest replacement drummer since David Grohl moved on, but with strong clean-cut vocals, quite different to your traditional heavy rock screamers. Josh Homme has a strong stage presence too, holding the audience with acapella vocals on Songs for the Dead. No messing, no patronising audience participation gimmicks, just some anthemic lines to sing along to. Emotional last night of the current tour and a return to the scene of previous sell-out gigs. Josh was almost moved to tears by the audience reaction.

Went “Whale-Watching” today with Tom and Robbie, and we saw a dozen or so, only minutes out into Flinders Bay, sailing from Augusta, just round the corner of Western Australia into the Southern Ocean. Dozens of dolphins too of at least two varieties, feeding in the river-mouth and out in the bay. Although Southern Right and Blue Whales are also to be seen there, the whales we saw were all Humpbacks, at least one cow and calf, several bulls including an enormous one that came right up to and under the boat on several occasions – “you could taste the anchovies” as it blew. The main behaviour seen is the “porpoising” along as a group, but also aggressive head-lungeing between the bulls, and tail lifted high as they dive away, and rolling onto sides exposing their characteristic long knobbly pectoral fin, and turning right onto their backs as they rolled under the boat. Dolphins bow-running the whales as well as the boat. For a trip with “no guarantees” expectations were thoroughly exceeded. We couldn’t have scripted it better.

Seems Augusta has consistent regular action in season, as Flinders Bay is use by groups of whales congregating up from Antarctic waters and interacting with each other as they prepare to migrate northwards.

Sad given how good Dennett’s writing is, that he has to devote almost a third of “Darwin’s Dangreous Idea” to refuting doubts about Darwinism created by Gould and Lewontin’s original paper and Gould’s high profile public views on evolutionary mechanisms. Burgess Shale – the boy who cried wolf, etc.

Gould was someone I read ten years go, the popular science “Life’s Grandeur”, and blogged previously when reading Dawkins that Gould’s points about which specific mechanisms of speciation dominated, that they were all just variations accomodated within the “natural selection” scheme, why the fuss ? Dennett concludes political (marxist) and religious (theistic) motivations that belie Gould’s stirring up confusion over Darwinian details, because he “secretly” doesn’t accept the core of it.

Remember Dennett introduced his book as “not a scientific work, but a book about science”. Who says science is just about objectivity ? (See previous Josephson post too. Communications are part of the problem, just like the Josephson examples, even cases where Gould would agree his views had been misinterpreted, the misinterpretation becomes widely embedded in the culture as “World renowned zoologist doubts Darwinism”, etc and exploited mercilessly by those whose agendas it suits. )

All roads continue to lead to this one problem.

Really just a holding post for two presentations (with some overlapping content) from Brian Josephson thanks to a cross-link on the man himself. A hero of mine, sceptical of sceptics’ motives and abuse of power for rejecting scientific claims. Cold Fusion, The Memory of Water and more examples killed by the cultural spread of scepticism rather than any good reasoning, scientific or otherwise. The memes have it.

Good and Bad Ways to do Science
Pathological Disbelief

If X were true, everything else we already know about Y would be false.
So what ? Maybe we might actually be learning something new.

Seems the brief run of regular blues acts at Perth’s “Blue to the Bone” is coming to an end. Thursday has already become a karaoke night, Friday was already rockabilly, Saturday still has the excellent John Meyer (and Lindsay Wells) I believe, but last night was the last of Rick Steele’s “industry” guest nights. Rather than the quality of the musicians, the failure seems mainly due to the awful winter we’re having and the lack of any promotion (other than giving away free drinks at the drop of a hat ?), but audiences drawn to Northbridge on weeknights clearly haven’t matched the costs.

(Rick is part of the blues furniture in Perth and continues to host the Tuesday night “Perth Blues Club” at the Charles Hotel, great night again this week, with horns too, as well as appearing Thursdays and Sundays at the Dianella.)

Last night was a feast – As well as Rick on guitar, harp and vocals, we had his usual cohorts Travis on keyboard, vocals, drums and bass, Marc on bass, vocals and lead guitar, and Ace on drums, together in various combinations with Cat (McKineally ?) on keyboards and vocals, Dave Brewer on Lead and vocals, Zak, Kenji, plus half a dozen others on guitar , vocals, drums, flute (no euphonium last night) and digeridoo. (Nice to hear the sustain of a Gibson amongst the wall-to-wall Strats, who was that guy with the pre-hensile little finger on his left hand, and who was the chick with the voice and the delayed reverb Roy Harper / Jon Martyn style electric-folk guitar ? All too brief, but great sounds from Zak’s “gypsy” guitar again too.)

However, the digeridoo accompanying the blues guitar and vocal is really something to behold – novelty value clearly – but a mesmerising range of rhythms and layers of beating resonances driving the groove along. Worth the admission fee alone – what was it again ? Ah yes, no charge.

After skimming Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, I suggested earlier that I already knew it from secondary sources. Well actually no, there is lots of new material for me with fresh links to my threads.

Something Rather Than Nothing – as a pan-Darwinist I never had any trouble with the evolutionary explanation of life the universe and everything emerging out of the chaotic void. Nor also that whilst the specific world we know has human supporting features and a particular set of laws of physics, any range of possibilities could have arisen instead, which may or may not have supported life as we don’t know it. The only catch is the prior existence of more than nothing.

Buildings and Process – Throughout the book he uses the skyhook vs cranes analogy of never really having “get-out-of-jail” convenient starting points, but always needing to imagine how the crane was built to provide your starting platform. Dennett also has a large section on biology as “engineering”, and on the engineering process generally. He relates it to archeaological analysis of features of ancient building structures, and recognising that many features are not to do with the primary function of a building as an enclosed space of given dimensions, but are to do with the processess of constructing it and the processes that will continue after it is complete. In fact he even goes so far as to say that the point of completion is far from clear in most cases. A building has a process lifecycle.

Edge of Chaos – is a fashionable phrase cropping up in many fields. One point in Darwinian evolution is the idea that not all mutations are in fact random, they are “directed” by naturally occurring patterns in the first place, hence multiple emergence of many identical design solutions – working with nature, not against it. These sweet-spot states where natural progression is easy, and meaningful patterns emerge, are typically associated with complexity and modern “chaos”. Mark Maxwell’s MoQ paper uses the edge of chaos analogy for the coherence or sweet spot when dynamic quality is achieved (and the optimum chance exists of loosing your arrow cleanly and hitting your target, to use Herrigel’s analogy) is a point of “resonance” or maximum potential between complete stasis on the one hand and good-old-fashioned chaos (absence of any meaningful order) on the other. More than just linguistic coincidence ?

Oh, and Nietzsche and Marx got the real significance of Darwinism first.

Made a start on my pile of Dennett original reading. Having realised recently I’m practically a pan-Darwinist, I thought I’d start on “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”.

Skimmed it first, and realised I feel I practically know it already; so many of his chapters and witty headings having been quoted by others since 1995. The respect Dennett pays to his reader just commands reciprocation.

“This book is about science, but it is not itself a work of science.”
“There is no such thing as a sound argument from authority …”
“… when I quote them, rhetoric and all, I am engaging in persuasion.”

“Since you are reading this book, you have probably read several of ..”
Dawkins, Pinker, Gould, etc …

“And if [I] can’t write a good book after the sterling help of …
[Dawkins, Hofstadter, Pinker, Mayr, Brockman, etc] … [I] should give up !”

After his “peremtory dismissal” of creationism, which I’ve quoted before, he says “The fundamental core of Darwinism is now beyond dispute …” and later “Let me lay my cards on the table. If I were to give an award to the best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin ahead of Newton, Einstein and everybody else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. But it’s not just a wonderful idea. It is a dangerous idea.”

“The philsopher and scientist are in the same boat [quoting Van Quine, quoting Neurath.]” “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, only science whose philosophical baggage [is unexamined]” And the unexamined life is not worth living, is it. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread [quoting Pope]. Do you want to follow me ?”

And so he’s headlong into Aristotle’s misguided teleology.
And Locke too. “Go run along and stop asking such silly questions.”
It’s why / how, not why / because, dummy.

With respect, I’m not sure I need to read this, but I’m going to enjoy it.
What is it about men with bushy beards ?

Completed Hofstadter and Dennett’s “The Mind’s I” on the way back to Perth, Oz. Although it peters out a bit, with Hofstadter’s “Conversation with Einstein’s Brain” there are still more gems in there.

After Lem’s excellent “Non Serviam” mentioned previously, we still have Ray Smullyan’s “Is God a Taoist”, John Searle’s “Minds, Brains and Programs”, and Thomas Nagel’s “… Bat”

Nagel’s Bat has been well aired here previously, and familiarity no doubt breeds contempt. There’s actually quite a lot wrong with it and the editors’ reflections, not so much wrong, as missed opportunity. Bats are not only not blind, they “see” with sound, but their vision must be incredibly vivid and textured compared to our world of one-dimensional electromagnetism, they have so many layers of modulation as well as wavelengths to play with and, what’s more, they are in control of it. Nagel’s Jimi Hendrix to Hofstadter’s J.S.Bach maybe. Of course there is something “it’s like to be” a bat, even if its self-conscious “I” is no doubt pretty limited by its neurone count. Again, it’s not all or nothing. There must be some kinda way outta here. Next.

Smullyan, on the other hand, was new to me. His brief dialogue with “god” on free-will and ethics, can’t help but lead you to a Taoist, non-teleological, pan-theist view of the “laws of nature”. Liked the conclusion ….

[Quote]
Mortal : You certainly seem partial to Eastern philosophy !
God : Oh, not at all ! Some of my finest thoughts have bloomed in your native American soil.
[Unquote]

East and West are merely points of view as Northrop and others have pointed out. In fact Smullyan is thinking of neither Northrop nor Pirsig, but Walt Whitman when he quotes … “I give nothing as duties. What others give as duties, I give as living impulses.” Native American is good too – the ambiguity in the native referring to the “mortal” in the dialogue works on three levels at least. Clever stuff.

Searle is ultimately disagreed with by Dennett and Hofstadter. This legendary discussion on AI covers the “Chinese Room” and McCarthy’s infamous “thermostat”. Like many a thought experiment the “ifs” are probably too incredible to begin with, but whilst the particular case doesn’t support AI, the reasoning does, even if it is more geared to the material of brains than the form and architecture of the software levels they can support. The disagreements seem subtle compared to the power of the arguments for Strong AI. (I see Roger Schank’s work gets yet more namechecks, alongside Block, Dreyfus, Haugeland, Wilensky and Winograd. Must read Schank and understand better why Jorn Barger fell out with him. My instinct is to stick with Barger. The criticisms of strong AI seem to be targetted at the falsity of early claims to haver created it, rather than the possibility in principle.) The thermostat story, just illustrates the problem with excluded-middle / binary arguments about what constitutes AI. Let’s move on.)

Used this quote recently (at the MoQ Conference), and admitted I couldn’t recall it’s source.

No, not Shakespeare dummy – it’s a deliberate play on the Tempest quote.

Best documented web source is Thomas Disch, who used this as the title of his book about how Sci-Fi “conquered” the world.

I first saw the phrase as a signature line on some mail discussion forum, and it is frequently referred to as a quote by “a” physicist, alluding to the fact that quantum physical reality is 99.9999% vacuum. The only attribution I can find is David Moser (?)

[BTW - "Science Fiction" - I like the ambiguity, the fiction that is science.]

Hoping to use the 430kph (270mph) MagLev “train” from Shanghai to PuDong Airport tomorrow.

A somewhat eastern philosophical engineering review here about “being able to run with the wind”.

At 50RMB it’s one eighth the taxi-fare and at 8 minutes it’s under one fifth the travel time too. Scary to think of travelling at that speed only mm from the massive concrete rail, but impressive to see it whizz silently past the freeway traffic on the way here.

Thinking of Prof Eric Laithwaite demonstrating the principles all those years ago at Imperial College, and is my memory playing tricks or were they even earlier black-and-white TV editions of Tomorrow’s World with Raymond Baxter and Michael Rodd ? [James Burke actually.] The principles were first demonstrated by Germans pre-WW2.

[Post note : my flight out left too early, before the MagLev started operating, so I missed out. Ah well, next time.]

The PuDong Shangri La hotel here in Shanghai affords an amazing view of the HuangPu river. The traffic on it indicates the mind-boggling scale of local economic activity.

The myriads of barges and lighters incessantly ploughing up and down, neck and neck, six “lanes” overtaking in each direction, with their loads of coal, aggregates and god knows what, loaded to the gunnels, wash breaking over their prows, are scary enough. The ferries chancing their luck to make the river crossings by weaving through the traffic, are given no obvious quarter. Only the massive cargo freighters, tankers, container ships, heavy lift cranes and barges, and submarines (!) with their official-looking tugs and pilot boats, receive a wider berth.

Amazing stuff, but the seemingly ever present smog, makes any photographic record a pretty murky prospect.

Still reading Hofstadter and Dennett’s “The Mind’s I” collection when I get free moments.

There are several extracts from the work of Stanislaw Lem, of whom I’d never previously heard, which actually pre-date Hofstadter’s own “Godel, Escher, Bach”. One “book”, “Non Serviam” taken from Lem’s 1971 work “A Perfect Vacuum – Perfect Reviews of Non-Existent Books“, is remarkably prescient concerning the evolution of consciousness. Practically blown away by it, I have annotations next to just about every paragraph.

In fact Dennett and Hofstadter’s own editorial reflections sum it up … Lem’s Non Serviam ” … is not just immensely sophisticated and accurate in its exploitation of themes from computer science, philosophy, and the theory of evolution; it is strikingly close to being a true account of aspects of current work …”. As true now in 2005 I reckon, as it was when they commented in 1981 on this 1971 work.

I was struck at the MoQ conference by the number of passionate musical connections, (not to mention the Liverpool location). There’s a running musical thread in my blog, which I’d never really connected to the world-model mainstream, except I guess through Hofstadter’s Bach and Minsky’s musical appreciation, but Ant kept this one quiet. Some interesting links there too.

I remember thinking, given that it was a post-hippie trip, that there was precious little musical allusion in ZMM given, say the constant references in Kerouac, and the road-movie genre generally. Every movie has a soundtrack except ZMM, and it’s not even a movie. ;-) Odd what ?

Two posts [initial reaction] & [on reflection] from Hydragenic via [qB @ Frizzy].

Without the BBC here in China, it has seemed eerily distant since last Thursday. Can hardly believe I’m saying it, but it makes you proud to be British.

[Ewan (B) forwarded this link too ... We'reNotAfraid.]
[And what's more, I got this photo onto their site too. "Ian G Australia"]

[Like this one too from Anonymous via Euan (S), via Suw (C). PS like the "stalker gen" idea on Suw's site :-). Brilliant comment thread too, with additional images.]

Another “post-note” this time via Dave Pollard, the New Yorker story by Adam Gopnik contrasting 9/11 with 7/7 in terms of popular response and public debate.