All posts for the month March, 2008

News story with UK opposition bemoaning government “stranglehold” on science funding – “Return control of science funding to the scientists” calls Osborne.

[Post Note – the opinion that follows is in response to the implicit suggestion in the reporting of that quote that, because scientists are concerned with science, they are somehow specially qualified not just to be involved in science funding, but even in control of it.]

Science funding decisions are simply not scientific decisions. They depend on values and objectives. They are at least a philosophy of science issue, and depending how narrow or enlightened that is, a lot more philosophy besides – existence, knowledge and ethics too – wisdom for short.

This is Nick Maxwell’s agenda for Aim-Oriented-Empiricism and Wisdom-Enquiry.

Until I experienced a few transit flights through Heathrow. Truly the worst airport experience ever. Like so much UK infrastructure it shows its age and the effect of NIMBY’s and anti-central-planning free-marketers.

This comparison is useful. Schiphol’s single integrated terminal always seemed so vast and the distances so great, but in fact the total distance between connecting flights cannot be any greater, whereas the security checking and queuing in and out of transfers between secure and external areas makes the ordeal so much worse at LHR. Gimme Schiphol, or Atlanta, or HK, or Changi any day. Of course the (BA) plan to maximise connections that minimise inter-(separate)-terminal transfers helps those funding such airlines as can justify their own integrated terminal. Come on T5, get it together.

In an age of carbon-footprint-consciousness I guess it’s non-PC to complain about the pains of air-travel, but I am.

Thanks to Dan Glover for posting this Mundaneum link on MoQ-Discuss.
(And to Ron Kulp for this documentary link to the same subject.)

I’ve blogged several times previously on the similarity of blogging to the approach Pirsig used to organise his ideas, and how this is a generic metaphor for the interconnectivity rather than atomism of knowledge itself.

Pirsig, like this much earlier Mundaneum approach, involved gathering “useful facts” as simple index cards (a page, a post, in blogging terms), but the crucial thing is that these “atoms” contain links to other indexed atoms, and in fact some atoms are nothing but links – meta-atoms, subject headings, organisational nodes, place-holders, what-have-you – little or no content of their own.

Partly this also mirrors the context and story-telling emphasis of modern knowledge management – recognising that sources (individual first-person people / conversations / anecdotes) are context that is at least as important as the content of “knowledge” in any objective sense.

Note – the original Mundaneum link is from the “Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society” web site, which itself is a blog and has some wonderful links in its side-bars. A new source of exploration for me.

Several different threads here. All mentioned before – reading Sam Harris “End of Faith” itself, a discussion thread on MoQ.Discuss with End of Faith title and several spin-off threads, and a discussion thread on Chairman Parker’s Blog.

My position can be summarised quite easily.

Tolerance of (misplaced) religious faith is as dangerous as extremes of faith themselves; Harris is right in his warnings, and his analyses are much more sophisticated than the deliberately attention-grabbing headlines. We need to remember that this argument is about faith – bases of belief – rather than God per se. Nothing wrong with Dawkins / Dennett et al position in explaining religions in the scientific terms of evolutionary psychology / memetics either.

The problem that remains is that in this debate the scientists (Dawkins archetypically) are blind to the fact that much of science really is a (not-quite religious) belief system too – the bases of science are not as objective and value-free as science’s model of itself – a scientific “article of faith” almost. The “scientific neurosis” in Nick Maxwell’s terms. In Dennett’s terms the intellectual honesty is simply about exposing both religious and scientific faith to the same scrutiny and questions of evidence, not limited by either protagonists choice of weapons in that argument.

The reason this is such a big subject – a global issue, rather than just a problem for science itself – is not just that science-based technology is exponentially behind so much global activity, but that scientific thinking is a dominant meme in western (and western infected eastern) global economic culture, in all manner of debate, analysis and decision-making. Dominant, in direct competition with a god-based religious faith meme that is. In the Dave Gurteen reference in the previous post, I mentioned the “pedestal” idea. Whoever is perceived as “winning” is a natural target from those who are competing. This dichotomous winning / losing mentality is part of the Newtonian objective / logical-positive / cause & effect world model that says conflict is built-in to the dominant process – if you want an argument, or a war if you prefer, you can always have one. Test and critical analysis are fundamental to the methods of proof of knowledge, but they are not the sum total of wisdom in applying and using knowledge to make progress, solve problems or exploit opportunities.

Despite the hype, what the internet revolution (exponential evolution really) is exposing is how much progress can be made through transparent collaboration, and visibly interconnected communication.

That much seems clear, but we need values and wisdom to recognise progress, so there are important aspects of the issues still open to debate. One is the basis of values (ethics) – which for me are also part of the evolutionary psychology story, rather than any tablets of stone.

Another is teleology – purpose – if the direction (axis) of progress, betterness, can be agreed, there are still questions about what is driving it – is there some direction (agent action) towards this ultimate purpose. Natural explanations of this are the principle reason I take an interest in the Anthropic debates.

Related, but quite distinct is first-cause. Causation and the psychological impressions of both time and purpose, are one set of things, but any metaphysical explanation of the whole cosmos runs into a first-cause question – the something rather than nothing question.

Here the God answer runs into the “but where did God come from ?” question. In fact any positied first cause theory – even a scientific one – runs into this, and most importantly however much it is debate, my contention is that any hypothesis here must by definition be untestable in any direct empricical way. The right kind of answer here is a convenient, pragmatic one. The answer you choose doesn’t pre-empt any possible answers to questions in the experienced real-world domain, so no-one need be offended by anyone else’s answer here. God, it, the cosmos, the stack of turtles, always existed is as good as any answer. Mu too, makes the additional point that it is not a question even worth asking, let alone debating an answer, other than to discover that it is indeed that kind of question. The problem arises when some believe their answer here is somehow a fundamental answer to all other difficult questions of cosmic mysteries, particularly the aparently purposeful teleology. Err no; the first cause question is a special class, and not a short-cut to all other answers.

I’m an atheist – though in Harris terms, the distinction between atheist and agnostic is immaterial to a real atheist, and only really matters to a theist looking for an argument. I qualified my opening statement about religious faith with the caveat “misplaced” because, even though the first-cause “God” is a convenient fiction like any other first-cause – the question is the fiction, not the answer you choose – there are babies in the bathwater of theistic faith that need to be preserved. Not least that the religious traditions have indeed preserved (in those tablets of stone) many traditional (ie long-lived but evolving) values and ethics – which have no more fundamental basis – and a much more fundamental concept of collaboration – eudaimonia – love if you like, as an antidote to competitive conflict.

It’s the end of faith, in either god or science, being the tool of choice in making human progress. When all you have is a hammer, all screws look like nails. The power-boater may think he is driving his point home, whereas the sail-boater knows he is steering a course through life’s choppy waters. When all you have is a choice between objects, all decisions look like matters of faith or science. When you have a more fluid-dynamic inclusional view of the world as our oyster, that oyster can work those grits of difference into pearls of wisdom.

[Acknowledgements to Sam Norton, Alan Rayner, Ted Lumley, Nick Maxwell, Robert Pirsig, as well as those explicitly mentioned. – I’ll grow this into a properly referenced paper.]

Thanks to David Gurteen for bringing this to my attention. The punchline is a bit lame, or perhaps understated, but if 20% of these stats turn out to be 80% true, then the situation is mind-boggling – scary and/or inspiring at the same time.

Interesting comment thread(s) on YouTube – there are several different versions ShiftHappens, ShiftHappens2.0, ShiftHappensUK, ShiftHappensNarrated, etc – apart from the naive nationalistic (ostrich-head-in-sand) reactions, all the threads run very quickly in three directions.

(1) Where are values and wisdom in all of this – can there be anyone who sets priorities for what (shit) happens ?

(2) The processing power, inter-connectivity and bandwidth equals AI vs Ai is just fiction debate ? But there are so many options and opportunities of course before we get to that one – worth keeping an eye on the ball(s).

(3) The faith debate, which could be the “ostrich” debate depending on your perspective. Shit happens then you die, but it’s OK, God’s in charge. The first cause / teleology debate gets everywhere – see (1).

Though provoking at the very least.

 [Post Note : David’s newsletter makes a reference to Thoreau’s “Walden”.]

[Post Note : Also a predictable US vs India / China debate in the threads. I call this the “pedestal” debate – whichever nation is currently on the pedestal should expect to be the target for being knocked-off by those in pole position – expect that is, where a view on life is a competitive either/or rather than collaborative outlook.]

[Post Note : Also David has a summary of the KM worlds of work …. several interesting points – context preserved through first person stories, thinking out loud and transparent workings, and the world recognized as complex with many overlapping approaches and mechanisms, rather than simple netwonian cause / effect model.]