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.