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All posts for the year 2006

Or, brain surgey with Bob Hoskins.

Wow, it’s another three week gap no blog. So much planned to do over the seasonal break, but little of that accomplished, other than reading of course.

Read the whole of Ian McEwan’s “Saturday“, pretty much during that one day following the sunrise on Saddam’s execution. Spookier though is the plot of fifty year old parents with two young adult children, so much to identify with even before we get to the blues guitar and the fascination with complex poetic consequences of ethical decisions beyond logical cause and effect. (I wonder if my Tom knew the plot when he bought it as a Christmas present ?) A book of its time set in London in 2003 after 9/11 and before 7/7 on the (satur)day of the London peace march against going to war in Iraq. Impressive in its scope of issues addressed; “ambitious” is the critic’s preferred term I believe. I won’t spoil with further plot detail, from the grandeur of Darwinian minds to (perhaps over researched ?) fascinating insider detail on neuro-surgery via all society’s issues of our “changed times”, save perhaps global warming. An excellent read too, kicking off in the style of his “Enduring Love“, with the breakneck pace and surreality of involvement in a freak accident.

On Friday; it took from the small hours of Friday morning UK time to the afternoon of Saturday US Central time for us to return, what’s that almost forty hours ? and another six for our baggage to materialise; did I mention the outward leg – changing terminals at Heathrow ? Soon air travel will be recognised for the torture it literally is. Anyway, Friday I finished Alex McCall-Smith’s “The Sunday Philosophy Club” at the third sitting over two days. McCall-Smith’s Edinburgh altogether gentler and more parochial alongside McEwan’s London. Despite the fact that the heroine Dalhousie is editor of “The Review of Applied Ethics” and the references to moral philosophers more explicit, in fact there is much less of it to deal with in McCall-Smith’s who-dunnit of misunderstood motives.

If Saturday reads like a blockbuster screenplay (I see Bob Hoskins co-starring), Sunday is more a book at bedtime script (I hear Barbara Flynn’s voice). Both very good, cleverly done with excellent results. Both recommended.

I posted about Wayne Booth previously , crossing paths with Pirsig and McKeon in Rhetoric at Chicago, and then again when he died last year.

Came across this excellent Wayne Booth article today, via Wilf Berendsen on Friends of Wisdom. Interestingly Wilf was picking up on the cross-discipline university approach mentioned by John Spencer at Liverpool Uni and mentioned his own involvement with Academia Vitae in Holland

The Booth article is 20 years old, and towards the end, has some “futuristic” predictions (already passed) about things that might happen in future education establishments. Some wonderful ironies, in a very interesting piece … just a sample here.

  • business school professors founding centers for “decision research” and “cognition and communication,” with the purpose of discovering just how minds are changed;
  • classicists studying the history of the goddess Peitho, the goddess of persuasion;
  • cognitive psychologists repudiating behavior modification models and studying ways in which the mind performs “constructionist” operations that escape full formalization;
  • “comparative religionists” studying how myths are made persuasive by embedding them in the factual;

[Post Note : the three rhetorics are :
Rhetoric-1 – what the author intends as objective facts and rational argument
Rhetoric-2 – more persuasive language added by the author
Rhetoric-3 – the approval of third-party experts in the author’s field.
The point being that we (honestly) rely on all three, particularly when we do not share the same specialist field as the author, and that therefore a sound understanding of how to evaluate all three rhetorics, and the intentional behaviour of the parties involved, if knowledge is ever to be regarded as true beyond a specialist field. Thus the network of expert approval (not just critical analysis) is recursive but nevertheless essential to the process, and that rhetoric is therefore a cross-specialist subject, as important as any in its own right.]

A fantastic article from New Scientist, via Sam (via “Peak Oil” action network).

It is exactly my thinking …. not just in not ignoring non-human socio-cultural-intelligence … Sam brought it to my attention, because in MoQ circles, I am always warning that socio-cultural-intelligence (layers 3 and 4 of the MoQ) are not necessarily restricted to humans, just because we tend to see humans as the pinnacle of that from our perspective as “earthbound misfits”.

But the whole evolution driver for making progress … nature vs nurture … engineering an environment that “breeds” constructive actions and discourages degenerative ones (with a self-evolving MoQ-like framework for the measure of good and bad). Of course for any eco-system / extended organism above level 3, the predominant mechanisms for evolution involve memes rather than genes – cultural communication.

The “engineering a crisis” approach – a “creative destruction” or a “common enemy” is a standard “management” or governance technique for encouraging constructive behaviour. My footnote has always mentioned the “high stakes” implicit in this game – and of course it is a “game” as Wittgenstein confirms – the problem with games is they are psychological, and if people suspect a crisis is engineered – authorities crying wolf – the crisis loses its constructive value – the destruction is self-inflicted and terminal. Sadly, you can’t beat a “real” crisis to encourage progress.

My whole agenda. Wow.

Whole article included, whilst I find an on-line copy to link to.

Why bonobos make love, not war

By Matt Kaplan>

( The New Scientist)
November 30, 2006

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most volatile and hostile countries on the planet, yet its dark interior is home to a group of pacifists who look like refugees from the Summer of Love. Pygmy chimps or bonobos are both literally and metaphorically our kissing cousins. If you know them at all, it is probably as the most highly sexed of all the apes, but they are also considered by many to be our closest living relative – closer even than the common chimp. Bonobos seem to live by the principle “make love, not war”. They are very docile towards one another, never aggressive or murderous, and possess many of the psychological traits we value most, including altruism, compassion, empathy, kindness, patience and sensitivity.
How did they get to be so nice?

Think of it this way. Somewhere between 6 and 8 million years ago, our ancestors split from the line that would become today’s two species of chimps. Then around 2.5 million years ago, bonobos and common chimpanzees went their separate ways. Today our human world is characterised by war, oppression and terror. Common chimps also have a reputation for aggression and bloodshed. And then you have the bonobos. Which poses a few questions. How come they have taken such a different evolutionary path? Can they teach us to be more tolerant?
What would it take to turn on our inner bonobo?

The question of how bonobos got to be the way they are has long baffled primatologists. Nobody has been able to put their finger on exactly what makes this ape so different. What is becoming clear now though is that its behaviour is influenced less by its nature – the genes – and more by its environment, culture and learning. What bonobos eat, how they structure their social interactions, and their ability to pass on certain psychological attitudes from one generation to another all seem to play a part. That being so, there may indeed be lessons we can draw about how to make human society more peaceable.

At most, there are a few hundred thousand bonobos left in the wild. They live only in the rainforests of the central Congo basin in DRC. Although their exact distribution is still unknown, the northern extent of their territory is bounded by a loop in the Congo river that forms an impassable barrier. On the face of it, their habitat looks very similar to a chimpanzee’s, although the latter are much more widely distributed (see Map). The habits of the two species couldn’t be more different, though.

When communities of bonobos from different areas of a forest meet, the females of each tribe initiate sex with males from the other. When chimp tribes meet, the encounters are extremely violent and it isn’t unusual for at least a few individuals to end up mauled or even dead. Chimps create despotic male-controlled societies where males beat up females to display dominance. Bonobo society is egalitarian, until it is time to feed, at which point females tend to get preferential access. Tool use is another huge disparity between the two species. Chimps make use of varying tools in different regions to obtain and prepare food. To date, wild bonobos have never been observed using even a single tool.

Then there is the sex. Bonobos are famous for it. Aside from the typical male/female activity, they also engage in more “creative” behaviours: wet kissing, masturbation, oral sex, female/female and male/male couplings, group activities, the list goes on and on. The only restriction seems to be incest between mothers and their children. Chimps by contrast restrict themselves almost entirely to male/female sex and don’t have nearly as much of it as bonobos. What’s more, males are dominant, frequently use food to lure females into having sex with them, and sometimes beat uncooperative females.

Primatologists Gottfried Hohmann and Barbara Fruth from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have been studying bonobos in their natural habitat since 1989. It hasn’t been easy. When they first arrived in DRC there were a thousand obstacles in their way and no infrastructure for them to work with. “We were lucky though,” Hohmann says. “In Congo money buys everything, and this made logistics easier because money was the one thing we had. But even with a lot of money you still need to meet and communicate with the right people.” Fortunately, Hohmann speaks Lingala (the native tongue) and knows the “right” people, allowing his team to establish a permanent presence in what he describes as the most incredible forest on Earth.

Over the years, Hohmann has become convinced that one of the keys to the differences between chimps and bonobos lies in their ecology, more specifically their diet. Jane Goodall revealed that chimps have a taste for meat. Capable predators, Goodall observed them hunting in groups for monkeys, wild pigs and even antelope. Their attacks were anything but swift and merciful. Chimps have been seen slamming monkeys into rocks and then feasting on their flesh. Bonobos, by contrast, were long thought to be entirely vegetarian.
In 1993, though, Hohmann and his colleagues published evidence that they do sometimes hunt, kill and feast communally on other forest mammals, shattering the image of the peaceful herbivore (Folia Primatologica, vol 60, p 225). In recent years it has become clear that the most carnivorous bonobos eat almost as much meat as some chimps. Unlike chimps, however, where males get the lion’s share, bonobo females always control the prey and share it primarily with other females and with youngsters.

Bonobo power bars

Meat is high in protein, and its fat content makes it a rich source of energy. So if bonobos are primarily plant eaters, what are they eating to fulfil their needs? It seems that their particular part of the rainforest is a very well-stocked larder for hungry vegetarians. Studies by Hohmann, Fruth and their group reveal that the plant species bonobos consume are particularly high in nutrients and low in the components that tend to make plants indigestible.

The herb Haumania liebrechtsiana, for example, is unusually rich in protein and unlike most high-protein plants it contains very little indigestible fibre. Hohmann describes it as the “bonobo power bar” and is amazed that a plant that is so regularly feasted upon is not yet extinct.

Chimps do not eat haumania, which is rare or absent in their habitats, and their diet also differs from the bonobo’s in another important way. Hohmann and Fruth have found that vegetation in chimp forests contains significantly higher levels of tannins – noxious chemicals plants often use as a first line of defence against predators, and found in particularly high concentrations in bark, seed coats and other tissues protecting the most nutritious parts.

Chimps expend much time and ingenuity preparing their food to avoid ingesting tannins and similar chemicals. Indeed, many experts including Hohmann believe this was a major driving force in the emergence of tool use in chimps. Bonobo forests do contain tannins, but at much lower levels. As a result, bonobos waste little time preparing food. Add to this the presence of haumania and other nutritious herbs, and their life looks relatively carefree. With no need to make tools or even think too carefully about what plants they eat, feeding time has become a social activity, allowing highly gregarious behaviour to emerge. What’s more, the abundant supply of nutritious vegetation means bonobos have little need to compete for food or to hunt for meat, which the researchers believe contributes greatly to their peaceful lifestyle. Put bluntly, …

“bonobos are nice because the environment they live in is nice”.

Could that really be all there is to it though? Frans de Waal from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, a pioneering researcher of captive chimps and bonobos, thinks not. “Bonobos and chimps under exactly the same captive conditions behave in totally different ways,” he says. Captive bonobos still have more sex and are ruled by females, while chimps maintain their male dominated society and are far more violent. Genetic differences control some of this variation, argues de Waal. For example, the difference in size between males and females is greater in chimps than bonobos. He suspects that this, combined with the fact that bonobo males are poor cooperators – they never work together as male chimps do – has made it possible for female bonobos to gain the upper hand.

De Waal also points to the important matter of advertising sexual readiness. Both bonobo and chimp females do this with genital swellings, but they do it in very different ways. The chimp display is “honest”, occurring only during the few days when females are likely to conceive – about 5 per cent of their lifetime. Bonobo females signal readiness around half of the time, despite the fact that for most of that they cannot conceive. As a result, levels of sexual competition between males of the two species are different.
Among chimps, where time is short and the males know it, there are aggressive fights over who gets to mate. Bonobo males always find plenty of receptive females, so there are few reasons to compete with each other. Hohmann doesn’t deny the physical differences between chimps and bonobos, but maintains that environment is the critical factor explaining their behaviour.

“I cannot believe for a moment that the cultures we see in the wild are hard-wired in their brains,” he says. “Behaviour is the most flexible aspect of these animals.” Bonobos and chimps show tremendous learning abilities, he points out, rapidly adapting to just about any situation. Tool use is a case in point. Cultural learning has led to distinct cultural traditions of tool use in different populations of common chimps. Although bonobos do not use tools in the wild they can easily learn to use them in captivity when the need arises.

“The question to ask is what would happen if bonobos were placed in chimp forests and chimps were placed in bonobo forests?” says Hohmann. There is no doubt that life would become a lot harder for the bonobos. The female alliances would probably crumble as competition for food increased, paving the way for the males to exploit their physical superiority. Necessity might even force them to work together as male chimps do. How the chimps would respond is even more intriguing. If they had access to haumania and food low in tannins would a culture of cooperation emerge, or would a violent male dominated culture endure? Unfortunately, there is no way to answer these questions, but studies at zoos do indicate that chimpanzees flexibly adjust to new environments and are capable of holding their aggression in check.

Studies of other primates also show they can quickly learn to be more or less aggressive as their environment changes. One classic example of this was observed by Robert Sapolsky, now at Stanford University.

Sapolsky was studying a troop of forest dwelling baboons that slept in trees near a tourist lodge in Kenya. In 1981, the lodge’s rubbish dump greatly expanded, and another baboon troop came to live and forage there. By 1982, many males from his forest dwelling troop had started visiting the dump for food. They were no different in age or dominance rank from the other males in their troop, but they were more aggressive – a prerequisite, Sapolsky surmised, to compete with the dump dwelling baboons for food. The following year brought an outbreak of tuberculosis, originating from infected meat in the dump. Over the next few years most garbage-eating baboons died, including all the aggressive forest dwellers. By 1986, troop behaviour had become much more peaceful.

In 1993, Sapolsky revisited the troop and marvelled at the lack of aggression, despite the fact that all the original passive males had died and new males from other troops had moved in to take their place. Remarkably, although these had been raised in distant, typically aggressive baboon troops, they adopted the troop’s passive culture. “My best guess is that having only passive resident males was the key to the appearance of this new culture,” Sapolsky says.

“I think what all of this shows is that if aggression works, any animal will use it. It isn’t an inherited characteristic, ” Hohmann says. The converse is also true. “With the bonobos, team work currently pays off, violence does not. If their environment were to change, so too would their behaviours.”

Where does this leave humans? As primates ourselves are we slaves to our environment or can we rise above it? “Our environment does shape our inner ape,” argues de Waal. “We can cooperate like the bonobos and be competitive like the chimps, but the conditions around us determine which side is seen.” De Waal thinks we tend to judge ourselves too harshly, though. We regularly comment on our chimp-like aggression. “Yet if you look at our hunter-gatherer histories, warfare is actually very uncommon. Even now, war is a rare thing,” he says. “It has been calculated that over the long haul the number of people killed in warfare is actually going down.” In contrast, we never compare ourselves to bonobos. Yet we have a remarkable capacity for peaceful cooperation not just in our daily dealings with each other but also in international organisations – consider, for instance, the ideas upon which the United Nations was founded.

Still, perhaps we can learn from bonobos. If Hohmann is right and they live peaceful and cooperative lives because they can feed without worries, shouldn’t we strive to create environments for humanity that bring out our best traits? After all, we tend to be at our most pugilistic when resources are scarce or unfairly distributed. As for the circumstances that bring out the best in us, if history is any judge, this happens when there is a common threat. “A lot of people suggest that if we had an extraterrestrial enemy that we would all stop fighting each other and work together,” quips de Waal. Aliens notwithstanding, there is already a common threat. Global warming is universal, imminent and life-threatening to millions of people. Perhaps it will be the environmental condition that awakens the bonobo in all of us.

Had an exchange with David Morey today on MoQ.Discuss, on non-simple mechanisms contributing to evolution, prompted by the recent “In Our Time” edition on “altruism” involving Dawkins and Dupre, and we got into Systems Engineering approaches to evolution …

By coincidence, stumbled across this interesting post from Matt Wyndham (who looks like he hasn’t posted for over a year) The link in the post (and the comment thread on that) and the “Previous Posts” links in Matt’s side-bar are full of good material. Also got a Gordon Pask hit on Cybernetics, after also mentioning Stafford Beer and “Requisite Variety”. The great convergence, Dawkins would dismiss.

Matt’s comment (or was it Ze’s ?) about “Every surgeon knows the quality of evolved functionality comes with lousy interfaces” reminds me this is a systems engineering dialogue. That is so relevant to the day job currently; If you’re planning for evolution of a complex system, ensure you have its interface specifications well defined before you let nature rip.

(BTW talking of blogs-long-time-no-post, I reviewed some of my 5 and 6 year old pages earlier and found 30% or 40% link-rot. Time to start stashing away important off-line links.)

Great little piece of Bad Language from Matthew Stibbe (via Matt Bartlett) with some useful and witty hints on writing to a deadline. I need all the help I can get.

Actualy Matt (Bartlett) has a great collection of links for November.

Spookily, Anecdote have a time management piece this month too. Draw’s on David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”, but includes some tips of their own, inlcuding the “cut yourself off occasionally from all communications channels” advice. 

And Anecdote have another piece on making use of del.ici.ous . How many times have I told myself I could really make use of that, but could never find the time.

Instead of reading David Morey’s novel (which I had with me on our trip to the Gulf Coast over the Thanksgiving holiday) I finished Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” and got about half-way through “Philosophical Investigations”.

The latter so far just seems to continue casting doubt on the science (logic) of natural language, and of course logic is something he already debunked philsophically in the Tractatus – “All philosophy is critique of language” (4.0031) – “All propositions of logic say the same thing. That is nothing” (5.43)

The lingusitic stuff doesn’t so far seem to say much more than I’ve already read in Quine’s “Word and Object” – Gavegai, etc (and in Foucault, Derrida and Dennett ?) but I’m only part-way through.

Tractatus was generally a disappointment, but there were surprises, in that whilst following a very methodical structuring of dependent logical assertions, he was actually undermining the value of logic in real world philosophy, and there are some great one-liner jokes to boot. Methinks he must have had a wicked sense of humour at Russell’s expense.

After several dense pages of formal logical notation in 5.5 he concludes “This shows that there is no such thing as the soul” in 5.5421 – Brilliant.

(He is also obsessed by “colour” – the reality of experiencing it vs “naming” or “describing” it … I note that this is something he has also written on elswehere. A recurring theme in “mind” philosophy generally … “Mary the colour scientist” etc.)

Must write more when I’ve fully digested Wittgenstein. Apart from making reference to his mentor Russell, and thence Frege, Witt doesn’t sully himself with analysing the thinking of others – an arrogance he shares with Pirsig, no ?

[Post Note : Read a fair bit “about” Wittgenstein one way or another, despite only recently reading him in the original. I was browsing his Wikipedia entry, partly because I’m still following the conversion to faith / intellectual elitism angle for some reason I’m not yet quite sure of, and sure enough found that point confirmed for future reference. I wasn’t expecting to find this. Could I really have forgotten ? Yep, sure enough, there it is plenty about this in Edmunds and Eidinow. My copy is full of annotations I’ve never followed-up. When will I ever find the time ?]

Another interview promoting the re-publishing of Lila, pointed out by Ant and linked by Horse.

Actually a very sympathetic interview of the man by Tim Adams who recalls reading Zen and the Art at the age of 14. Lots of anecdotal recalls of biographical (and very personal) events behind the two books, including some worth adding to the timeline.

Update.
Even better, Ant has captured a copy of the
full transcript here.

Brian Eno speaking on BBC Radio 3, at Hope University, Liverpool Future City of Culture “Free Thinking” series. Nothing new in terms of this blog, but lots of good material, worth a listen.

Darwinian optimism. “Scenius” the genius of “the scene” – everyone is smarter than anyone. Emergence from simplicity. Art and politcs. Power of community. Flash-mobbing. Moveon.org Observer-participant collapse. Historical technology cycle drivers … new technology (eg TV & Vietnam) creates change, attracts control, technology evolution, etc. Internet built to be hard to control, by design, fast feedback loop crucial. Time-paradox, “the long now”. 10,000 year planning horizon (remember blogging before about a project to establish a construction that might last that long). Lagos traffic chaos “negotiation”. The Netherlands traffic experiment. Self-regulation. Art as the stylistic “don’t have to do” overlay on top of the necessary … very Maslow.

The whole “free thinking” series seems to have some good content. Links are only valid for 7 days after broadcast. Hope permanent links appear.

Anthony Graying too, on Radio 2 promoting a book; extolling the idea of teaching philosophy to schoolkids. Never been a better time to strudy philosophy, he says, employers should be snapping people who know how to think.

Meta-thinking methinks.

Can’t believe I let the Stern Report and the press response go by without comment. I guess I had the BBC links in my side-bar at all times, so I was following events there. This link at Know Your Place (via Sam) is as good an entry point as any.

The interesting thing, given agreement that this is the point where we all agree, “OK, so it’s real – it’s official” is that it doesn’t in itself answer the question “So what alternative world would we like instead”.

Some romantic return to “noble savagery” or utopian communist agrarian society (as one commenter suggests) is not only highly unlikely (positively impossible, given all the “interests” already involved) but almost certainly not the sensible thing to aim for anyway.

The fun has only just begun. Cool heads needed as I mentioned most recently here.

Excellent edition of The Edge NEwsletter, includes not only Dan Dennett, recovering from an acute heart condition, and Evolutionary Morality from Nick Wade of the NYT, but also last weekend’s Observer piece by their religious correspondent Jamie Doward, reviewing the three popular science books lined up against God in the best seller charts as we run up to Christmas.

Richard Dawkins – The God Delusion
Dan Dennett – Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Sam Harris – The End of Faith / Letter to a Christian Nation

Not yet read any of the three. As a big fan of Dennett, I will almost certainly obtain and read that. Dawkins, I’ve said enough about, what he seems unable to see is that being “scientifically right” is hardly a convincing argument. Sam Harris was recommended by Sue Blackmore on “A Good Read” recently, so I may give it a try, though Sam seems to shoot the atheist cause in the foot with a “Nuke the Bastards” suggestion if reason fails to impress not just religious extremists, but masses of religious moderates. (See previous piece on moderate but sophisticated theological issues here.)

The “final solution” outburst from Harris is interesting though. A sign of the seriousness of the issue under debate here. As the footnote to every page of my blog has said since 9/11 “The phrase ‘Creative Destruction’ can never again be used lightly.” Cool heads needed like never before.

Not heard this one before, but as an engineer in the s/w business it rings true.

“If builders built buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.”

- Weinberg’s Second Law

Via TCL via Rivets. Guessing Steve Weinberg, but I don’t know, must check.
(Gerry (Gerald) Weinberg apparently. Hat tip to Dermot and EDinCT for the comments)

And talking of software and engineering, after Napster and I-Tunes along came, no not YouTube, but the phonograph. Fascinating actually (Rivets never fails to find ‘em)

Interesting post from Anecdote about peer pressure influencing moral decisions. I first noted this 15 years go when I read DeLorean’s (auto)-biography. The paraphrased quote of his I keep dredging up is “Committees of moral men make immoral decisions”.

Nils Brunsson has this well documented as “Management Hypocrisy”

Interstingly another recurring memory on that score, comes from an early management training course I did, with a role-playing exercise, where we were each given different briefings. The point was that noticing the smell of something not quite right is one thing, diagnosing the problem is another. The situation involved some “falling out” between groups of colleagues that was interfering with harmonious working, in fact every role involved had some hidden issues, weird-religious-interest, domestic-upset, office-stationary-pilfering, promotion-rivalries, fiddling-expenses, stealing-work-time, office-romance-jealousy / infidelity, you name it – all human life was there. In fact the greatest cause of the friction was not the least moral actions – eg the “stealing”, but the least “congruent” – the religious odd-ball. A salutory lesson.

I’ll keep that link for a rainy day on MoQ.Discuss. ;-)

Just a snippet to store away, since I’m not really up on Hume yet.

Hume’s metaethics … his emotivist stance on the nature of moral judgment and … the assertion of rationality as part of that process is only an ad hoc attempt to somehow “independently” justify the moral conclusions we’ve already reached.

A recurring theme, but the context is a spoof Tim McSweeney monologue linked by Matt Kundert.

As a confirmed atheist, I was about to do some research on the coincidences of atheist philosophers converting to catholicism in later life (Wittgenstein ? McLuhan ? and a couple of others ?), basically wondering if there was an intellectual elitst attraction with the hierarchy in said church. That’ll have to wait.

I stumbled across the BBC’s John Humphrys’ “In Search of God“, in an extended discussion with Anglican Archbishop Dr Rowan Williams.

Apparently Humphrys was a believer, but lost the faith in recent years. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the Beslan schoolchildren’s massacre. He is challenging multi-denominational faith leaders to re-convert him.

I’m no great fan of Humphrys, but I’ve noted before that the Archbishop does seem to speak sense in public life.

Williams was painfully honest in trying to address questions, about what is the God he believes in and why. I made a lot of notes, but here are just a few.

He believes in a God, which at some level of abstraction is the root of causality, first cause, but not in any literal direct (interventional) cause of any specific events. The setter of the framework of the processes in the physical world, the only set of processes the world can have, even a god created world. God’s “omnipotence” limited by that physical framework “he” created. Ditto prayer, “somehow” a channel of “hope” for such influence, but no identifiable or explicable causal effect. He pretty freely used love and bliss as almost synomyms for God.

Since the true nature of that abstract God is unknowable, crude anthropomorphic metaphors – the bearded wise omnipotent old man – were actually preferable to any more sophisticated abstractions, because they may have the illusion of being closer to a real picture of God, whereas they cannot really be. At least with the crude metaphor, you are unlikely to forget “he’s” only a metaphor.

(A fair bit of stuff about “free-will” and “eternal afterlife”.)

Here is the main point, if I can articulate it. “Faith” in that God, and that description of the divine creation, underlies a belief in the observable facts that the world (governed by “his” physical framework) comprises uncertainty, contingency, complexity, risk & probability and arising (emergence) of unwillable outcomes, unwillable even by God.

Significantly, the Archbishop didn’t draw on any arguments of authority, biblical quotations, or historical weight of numbers to support any of his answers. (Compare the christian non-theologian response to Sue Blackmore on “A Good Read”

Ultimately he appeared to see faith as “sense-making intellect”, and god as that “sense” ? Some significant silences, in trying to distinguish mysticism from theistic faith. Apart from “historical doctrine” only “holistic consistency” distinguished religious faith.

Even Dawkins might struggle to find anything to disagree with there, if he could get past the choice of word and metaphor.

I blogged about Eestor recently. That’s not an anomalous energy patent, but an electrical capacitance alternative to the internal combustion engine. Will it work commercially and socially ? The point is that there may be reasons for engineering scepticism, but the basic physics is not (yet) in doubt.

Brian Josephson has been a regular champion against sceptics in physics, who let their scepticism get the better of their scientific judgement, when anomalous effects are reported. “Cold Fusion” (more accurately low-energy or solid state fusion) is alive and well despite the heavy guns of received wisdom in physics arrainged against it.

Sam sent me a link to Steorn Technology. Like low-energy fusion it seems to be an anomalous excess energy effect, something magnetic, but the difference here is that the “discoverers” and patent holders are giving nothing away as to what the physics might be. In fact, assuming the whole thing is not just some start-up funding scam, their approach is to say we’re just engineers, we challenge serious scientists to explain it. Their FAQ sums it up,

Question :
Is this a:
1. Marketing ploy. Such as “Steorn: Remember what we did with a fake product, think what we can do for your real one.”
2. A scam
3. You are too weak technically to realize it is not really a free energy device

Answers:
1. No
2. No
3. The Jury will decide.

Be interesting to see how their quest progresses. Like the low-energy fusion anomalous energy, explaining the physics is one thing, harnessing technology is another.

The point here is that the impossibility of a perpetual motion machine is such an anathema, that the possibility of an as yet unexplained natural energy source is too easily discounted. Josephson – Nobel physicist – goes so far as to suggest that physics is not the most fundamental reality, though to be fair by that he means physics as current explained by quantum mechanics.

Which brings us to J.S.Mill again. Claiming to believe in the contingency of scientific knowledge is one thing. Acting that way is another. Which of course is back full circle to Chris Argyris too … the behavioural distinction (in social organisations) between “espoused theories” and “theories in use”.

Here in northern Alabama, there are a dozen churches of every christian denomination per square mile as far as the eye can see. The locals also seem to “celebrate” Halloween as a major social and commercial event. We’ve been unable to move for pumpkins, fall-wreaths, packets of “treats” and the smell of cinnamon in the local shopping malls for a full month already.

Last night, Saturday, seemed to be the Halloween party night around town, people in the parking lots dressed to party, lugging cases of beer to their SUV’s, and many in Halloween fancy dress – all ages.

Pretty chilly in town last night – mid-40’s I’d guess – the band (Yes No Maybe, excellent by the way) wearing several layers and warm jackets, warming their fingers on the radiant propane heaters between numbers on the patio-stage at Humphrey’s. Younger groups dropping in and out of the bars in fancy dress, presumably planning to move on to the Halloween party at the local nightclub later. As I left town at about 11:30pm, there were still queues to get into the downtown parking lots.

Some seriously elaborate fancy dress – one amazing Gene (Kiss) Simmons get-up, put me in mind of Tommy Womack’s (cod) piece a couple of nights earlier, but that’s another story. The point though, is that given the “conservative” locale, the young girls were almost without exception in skimpy schoolgirl, nurse, french-maid, little-devil, dominatrix, geisha stereotype outfits.

The quantity of cold-weather-exposed flesh put me in mind of the geordie lasses on the riverfront in Newcastle on a Friday night, or the geordie lads in the Gallowgate end when Saturday comes. Is it just me ?

Sitting here I’m watching an angler on this bright crisp morning dry-fly fishing by the footbridge across the pond outside our window. He’s also ground-baiting, throwing handfulls of breadscraps onto the water in the general area. The kids feed the fish off that same bridge most days – tilapia, sun-fish, catfish, whatever. The Kingfisher and Herons make the most of the opportunities from the bridge hand-rail too. What of it.

I’d mentioned to a serious-angler colleague a couple of weeks ago about how much fishing there was locally, on ponds / lakes as well as the Tennessee river and its backwaters, and how often people seemed to catch significant fish on at least two out of three casts – Bass and Catfish as big as your leg, or forearm at any rate. Too easy, where’s the sport if the fish are that plentiful and dumb ?

He recalled a story of fishing near his previous home on lake Ontario, where huge Carp and Bass seemed to congregate near a power station warm cooling water outlet, and consequently many anglers also congregated. (I had similar experiences at the outlet from the Guntersville dam earlier this year.) The profusion of fish and bait, including ground-bait, seemed to be self-reinforcing. The more people fished, the more fish there were. Eager fish would even intercept baited hooks or thrown ground-baits before they hit the water. 

Fishing-fest or feeding-frenzy ? 

(BTW the dry-fly guy doesn’t seem to have had a bite yet.)

I seem to be spending my blogging life catching up from large gaps these days. Either “pressure of work” business reasons or intense distracting correspondences in “another place”. So again this is a quick round up.

Reading :

Finished Dostoevsky’s Karamazovs. Overall it’s a whodunnit (and why) exploration of psychology and motivations, real and rationalised, life and death, love and hate, children and the elderly, lovers, families, friends, colleagues and strangers, so perhaps not surprising that the “Most magnificent novel ever written.” cover blurb is a quote from Sigmund Freud. Close on a thousand pages of small closely spaced print, and so many character names, so a tough read in practice despite the wit and intrigue. Ultimately Alyosha’s “wise head on young shoulders” relationship with the village children is the one that seems to matter most, so perhaps no coincidence they form Dostoevsky’s final forward looking scenes. Worth the effort.

Delayed picking up Wittgenstein (again), since I started into J. S. Mill. On liberty is just so much common sense and so easy to read. His scope is limited by the western context of Victorian Christian “received opinion”, but Socrates “examined life” is the root of the message again, the recognition of “excluded middles” and truth as “active meaning”. I’m through his introduction and the liberty of thought and discussion, still have individuality as an element of well-being, the limits of social authority and his “applications” to go. Based on earlier secondary references to Mill, I had already concluded he was ahead of his time, but yet again even he would say, “nothing new under the sun”.

Strangely having acquired Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations, I recently found myself in a meeting of a group of data modellers (who shall individually remain anonymous here) amongst whom I first became aware of Wittgenstein eight or nine years ago. I’ll refer to two of this group as (A) Alan and (B) Bill. I told the anecdote elsewhere, of Alan (a philosopher by training) who confided after one meeting way back then, his regret at introducing the group to Wittgenstein, since the Russellian logicians amongst them / us had latched all too easily onto the Tractatus, but ignored his later work. Well, at the recent meeting, Bill expressed a realisation, often mentioned as an aside in previous encounters, that we were really modelling what is known (imperfectly), rather than what exists (in reality) … ie despite liberal use of taxonomy and ontology and set theories, our model was essentially epistemological rather than ontological. I mentioned my recollection of Alan’s warning all those years ago. Anyway, Alan, who was not at this meeting, and in fact has not been involved with this group for five years to my knowledge, coincidentally contacted me just two days ago having lost contact and recently re-discovered me through Skype. We had a brief “what are you doing these days” catch-up chat, during the course of which I mentioned to Alan that I’d used his name in response to Bill’s realisation just last week. Spookily, Alan responded that his original realisation of the epistemological significance over ontology, had arisen during a presentation by none other than Bill, some ten years ago, where Bill’s particular application involved a domain where most data was collected by remote / indirect measurement, where they could only infer or guess at the reality being probed. As Alan said, that’s when he realised (from his earlier philosophical training) that this was in fact more generally the case.

The consilient convergence continues.