Prompted by Tweets in response to this Grauniad Higher Ed piece:

If “research” being published is primarily human readable text, then nothing wrong with PDF provided saved in a text-searchable form – how you save it matters. (And purists would say LATEX is a better format which keeps text separate from formatting – but formatted viewers have less wide-spread adoption than Adobe products. And being locked against casual editing, or open to annotation and comment are all widely available features with PDF.)

If what is being published really is structured – or benefits from being structured – where the organisation and formatting of content is really part of the information being published, then an XML document with (say) RDF-Schema (for structure) and style-sheets (for presentation) is the most future-proof way to go. Turns documents into databases without building the database first.

This is a common issue for all information publishing in all businesses, not just academic research.

The political philosopher Roberto Unger and the cosmologist / physicist Lee Smolin have jointly written “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” and its release last month had already been promoted as a landmark work.

It’s actually two books, one by each of them, with common introduction and index. So far, in addition to the introduction and index, I’ve completed only Unger’s contribution, which is about 2/3 of the total. Stylistically it’s written for a multi-discipline but technical audience in terms of the philosophy and physics. It’s not “popular science”. It’s also arguing a case rather than simply informing, so there is a lot of repetitive near-restatement in elaborate and technical language.

However the arguments are already clear and compelling, only a few points to disagree with.

There are three explicit and one corollary theses (my own paraphrased re-statements):

  • The Singular (Individual) Universe – the cosmos comprises only one universe, evolving with a history. Nothing lies outside the universe.

  • The Reality of Time – time is real and inclusive of the whole history of the cosmos. No part of the universe lies outside time.

  • The Selective Reality of Mathematics – maths is a tool for describing, representing and manipulating reality, but is not some privileged layer underlying fundamental reality. Not even maths lies outside the cosmos and time.

  • The Reality of Causation – but patterns of regularity, that might look like laws at periods in cosmological history are not timeless laws, rather they evolve and speciate like any other aspect of the cosmos. Not even patterns of causation lie outside cosmological time, they are emergent and meta, whether they appear law-like or not.

Aside – As well as those bare bones, reiterated, explained and argued by Unger, there are encouraging references to Mach and Poincare, Riemann and Einstein too, and the Hilbert project terminally scuppered by Gödel. More links later. (*)

The agenda and argument are not idle speculation. Unger is recommending this reset of simpler philosophical foundations removes a misleading “metaphysical gloss” from currently accepted physics, and provides greater empirical possibility for exploring any and all of the stubborn gaps in existing theory.

A recurring theme is what Unger refers to as “the conundrum of meta-laws”. Causality may be independent of the existence of laws, but is the causal evolution of of genuinely novel patterns and species of regularity itself governed by meta-laws?

Struggling to see what exactly he sees as the problematic meta-laws conundrum? [Personal riff on Hofstadter – Clearly patterns of regularity themselves occur in recursive “meta” layers upon layers, with “ortho” patterns in relationships between the layers. Again, patterns or principles of the possible, but not fixed timeless laws per se. For me this creative evolution of the actual from the conceivably possible screams “Tabletop” after Doug Hofstadter’s metaphor for “slipping” to adjacent possibles via any number of meta layers of meta relationships – meta-meta-physics.]

Anyway, to close this review of the first part of Unger and Smolin, here a large [snipped] quote from Unger as he closes his chapter on patterns of regularity in causation, before moving on to his final chapter on the selective reality of maths:

“The reality of time is [in fact] a revolutionary proposition. […]

[The meta-laws conundrum] suggests a sense in which our conventional ideas about causality are confused. Causal judgements presuppose the reality of time. The relations among logical or mathematical propositions do not. The laws of nature have been commonly understood to justify causal explanations. If time […] is all inclusive, the laws of nature should not be understood to be outside time.

Laws of nature [in the present cool universe] codify causal connections over [distinct] structure with a relatively stable repertoire of natural kinds and [patterns of] recurrence.

Nature often satisfies these conditions, but not always. The stability and the mutability of the laws need not contradict each other [historically].

It follows that we cannot hope to ground causality in a timeless and changeless foundation. […] Our conventional beliefs in [the dominant interpretations of] science, fudge the difference between the two horns of this dilemma. They grant the reality of time, but not to the point that [laws may change within it.]

To accept this criticism is to recognise the need to revise our view of causal explanation. […]

[The greater] the scope and ambition of our theories, the greater the danger in disregarding the historical character of causation [and their regularities] in the universe.”

Purely logical (timeless) objective structural descriptions of reality overlook the value of historical “becoming” explanations (to paraphrase Mary Midgeley berating Larry Krauss).

Right now I’m looking forward to reading the cosmologist’s (Lee Smolin’s) contribution to this argument, and skipping ahead few pages into his first chapter “Cosmology in Crisis” it’s pretty clear he is restating the same key points at the outset, despite the caveat that the two authors kept their contributions separate because they actually claimed to have disagreements in their views.

Already Smolin is also making it clear that sweeping away the misguided metaphysical gloss in contemporary cosmology and resetting a more common sense metaphysics, far from undermining today’s best accepted standard models and symmetries, actually increases the possibilities of empirical exploration for the many current gaps, mysteries and paradoxes. Reading on.


[(*) Some Post Notes:

Unger is fairly dismissive of anthropic principles, weak or strong – but I interpret that as being a warning against sloppy anthropic thinking. ie our “anthropic perspective” in the “current universe” is clearly real, so recognising that is important, especially when pondering the “fine tuning” effects mentioned in this work, and evaluating interpretations already made by other humans with similar tunnel vision. We are always looking at our cosmos from our insider perspective. There is no other.

Also, the “Darwinian” evolution of laws of nature all the way down is pretty much what Brian Josephson was describing earlier at the meeting of Nobel Laureates.]

[Post Note : Final review here after completing Smolin’s section.]

Listening to Simon Blackburn last night at Conway Hall, indeed mulling over the title of his talk before listening to him, it is transparently obvious that he has an important agenda when it comes to his close association with humanism and the BHA.

Now Blackburn is probably “the” greatest living British philosopher active and teaching in the field, so even an amateur enthusiast such as myself can’t fail to have noticed his work over several years already. My noticing switched to paying attention the first time I heard him speak in person (at Hay on Wye “How The Light Gets In” festival) only last year. He, in his own words last night, has that appearance of the “fuddy-duddy” white-haired old-guard, so last year, so two and a half millennia “out of date”, and a very patient, gentle, wry delivery to boot. He hardly screams “listen to me” in our times of attention-grabbing, social media headlines with everything.

But listen we should; the man talks sense. Once listening, it’s clear he has a very important message that humanists generally, and the BHA in particular, need to hear.

On a previous occasion, giving the Bentham Memorial Lecture on 26th November 2014 at UCL, hosted by Joe Wolf  (UCL Philosophy Professor) and Peter Cave (Humanist Philosophy Group chair) presented in association with the BHA, Blackburn’s title was:

“Was Hume The First Humanist?”

Hum(e)an wordplay aside, the answer to the explicit question is clearly no, not the first by a long way, but the rhetorical point for his captive audience is that Hume is the model humanist for modern humanism.

Last night, 27th January 2015, Blackburn delivered the belated 2014 George Ross memorial lecture at Conway Hall, hosted by Anja Steinbauer of Philosophy Now and Philosophy For All London. His title:

“Faith, Hope & Charity for Humanists”

Bringing the three cardinal Christian virtues into the house of rational and humanist ethics, elicited the “how dare he?” knee jerk from a thankfully small minority of the audience and questioners, but his message was clear to those humanists who listened.

Explicit in his first title, immediately apparent in the content of the second talk, and front and centre right from his first major book publication “Spreading The Word”; Blackburn is a scholar of Hume, all the better he says, for being read in the Edinburgh accent that Blackburn doesn’t have.

So what makes Hume the model humanist?

  • Concern for humans, obviously; for humanity, individuals and populations in the world in general, but also so for “kith and kin”, nearest and dearest, family and friends, those with social associations and practical dependencies in the day to day world we inhabit here and now.
  • But more importantly in this context; modesty and economy of argument, despite vaulting ambition. Not the bull-headed agendas of the “new atheists”, campaigners with clenched-fists and all guns blazing, concerned primarily with winning and being “right”. Valuing the virtues in others.

And in that earlier Bentham lecture, he proceeded to develop strategies and exemplars of argumentation – based on the above values – for humanists arguing with the religious. Much nodding in the direction of Andrew Copson sitting in the gods. (I’ll say more on this in a later post, but coincidentally, earlier the same week as the Bentham event was the Common Ground event “How can Humanists and Muslims live and work together in London?” – my brief notes included in this earlier post.)

Last night he first introduced the three terms of his title. Seeing the cardinal (but no doubt non-exclusive) virtues of Christianity as imports from “the other camp”, meant it could be easy to give them short shrift, but we’d be wrong to do so.

Faith, contrasted with other forms of belief and knowing, formed the bulk of the evening’s discourse and the Q&A, and had the biggest problem with negative connotations, given its popularly mis-understood substitution by enlightenment “reason”. Part of the received wisdom of the humanist “creed” is to see faith in opposition to reason. But for Hume, reason is seen as the slave to the passions as the basis of belief and action – reason as a servant(*), a tool, not a substitute for belief. The very existence of Kant’s own “critique” of “pure” reason stands to show the real enlightenment gap between reason and existing “habit”.

Hope, seen as effectively redundant once you have faith, was not given much time at all by Blackburn. Hope implies some fear of risk associated with opposite to whatever you have faith in.

Charity, easy to see as “a good thing” but needs more careful analysis to understand its fit with human values. Always possible to have too much of a good thing too; charity at the expense of other immediate and local needs of kith and kin. And easy to develop a cynical take if you focus on the feelgood and self-interest value of donation resourced charity institutions. But being charitable, has a deeper and well established place as “altruism” in moral philosophy.

Here we are talking about human nature, and if you’re so inclined, the science of human nature. But, let’s not confuse science with the ideology of science. Kant’s anthropology was developed from a purely pragmatic point of view, so wrong to infer scientific fundamentals.

There are scary “totally competitive” takes on the Darwinian place of altrusim, say from Ghiselin: “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed”. This is an important mistake of the Darwinist creed. Spencer “red in tooth and claw”, Dawkins “selfish you name it”, Pinker, Wilson (on Marx) to name a few names. Beware, distinguished scientists don’t always speak distinguished science.

The Darwinist scientific creed is a kind of triumphalism of new knowledge over “out of date” views. By contrast philosophers happily re-read contributions centuries and millennia old. Historical context is lost if viewed only with hindsight. Altruism is closely related to the ability to identify and empathise with others, including historical, literary, fictional, even “tv-soap-opera” others, experienced in real (imagined) time.

At this point Blackburn proceeded to illustrate evidence and myths addressed by other thinkers in altrusim.

  • Canine pack behaviour examples show absolutely no need to take either extreme view of benign cooperation nor lethal competition with game-theoretic options of cheating and freeloading. Reality is subtle, complex, learned, effective social behaviours. Taking the same thinking to the human case, these organic, learned trust effects can be shown to be more effective even than formal promises and contracts. These are not rationally calculated quid-pro-quo benefits of mutual back-scratching, but intuitively developed social regularities. Habits. Good habits.
  • The depressingly reductive views of the Dawkinsian Darwinists was misguided. Even the “selfish” attributes of “genes” was redundant from the arguments, the genes themselves too. Peter Godfrey-Smith’s work, describing the necessary conditions for heritable evolution of species (of anything) to occur, supports populations of anything, transmission of anything advantageous by any means, even groups of anythings. (“Group selection” is supported whilst not essential to the still raging controversies.)
  • The Phineas Gage example (a much overused meme) illustrates – eg in the great book with the lousy title “Descarte’s Error” by Antonio Damasio – the reality of loss of socially acceptable and socially predictable behaviour eventually screwed up his otherwise normal life, when specific mental capability was physically destroyed.
  • Trolleyology or the “Trolley Problem” is a poster child of ethical theory and is another example of where accepted simplistic views of “emotions” getting in the way of “rationality” get it badly wrong. eg conclusions of the Josh Green and Peter Singer variants of the problem are ideological against the emotions, the passions, the virtues. (Michael Sandel’s effort to turn as many knobs as possible to vary the basic problem helps illustrate just how subtle the human value judgements in the trade-off really are in finding “the right thing” to do. Every situation is different, not simply a different example of some common fundamental situation. To judge is human.)

So – Charity! Believe it or not on the limited unscientific “evidence” presented here, charity (altrusim and empathy) are demonstrable and testable by science, and quite counter to science dogma.

The Q&A session kept returning to the know / believe distinction inherent in the faith that “the sun will rise tomorrow” example which – given the nature of the Philosophy Now audience – tended to come down to technical philosophical arguments about induction et al. However it remained clear the real targets of this distinction where the scientific heroes of humanism named earlier – claiming contingency in science itself, yet somehow certain, with dogmatic faith in their misguided and impoverished view of rationality itself.

Humanism needs to re-appropriate the virtues of faith, hope and charity and rehabilitate them in the otherwise science dominated realm of rationality. There can be good and bad examples of any of these so careful understanding of their real functioning was infinitely preferable to dismissing them as “used goods” from the other camp.



(*) First noted at this point, but also arising in the Q&A, there is so much other material on this topic. Daniel Kahneman “Thinking Fast & Slow”. Plato’s “rational human” charioteer in control of the “passionate animal” horses or the Buddhist “elephant and its driver” version. Nietzsche, Einstein and Iain McGilchrist’s “Master and Emissary” take on the proper relation between the immediately intuitively general feel and the considered rational specific reasoning.

@ConwayHall tonight a #londonthinks event from The Ethical Society chaired superbly by Samira Ahmed, with:

Adam Rutherford @AdamRutherford – scientist, atheist, writer and humanist.
Rev Giles Fraser @Giles_Fraser – priest, Grauniad columnist and humanist.
Francesca Stavrakopolou @ProfFrancesca historian of religions of the book, atheist humanist but expressly not “new atheist”.

Billed unimaginatively by some for the hard of thinking as a “battle” between science and religion it proved in fact to be a very interesting discussion. Dozens of tweets fired off with quotes, with and without the #londonthinks tag. Despite obviously touching on all the usual freedoms of thought and expression and human rights topics, the conversation got on with using them constructively rather than shouting “about” them. Ditto all the hoary old chestnuts of life after death, the supernatural, Godwin’s law, ethics as a metaphysical layer beyond science, Wordsworthian romanticism, love, and the dumb things the unscientific believe, all got an airing, but …

As noted by Giles, the scariest cheer of the night went to Adam’s assertion that the essence of science is contingency and doubt. Scary because there was an eerie certainty to the popular agreement – politically-correct received-wisdom.

However, on knowability, Adam was certain – a kind of logical truism – that everything was conceivably knowable to science. The idea that some things were unknowable or in any sense both true and not true he considered nonsense, but he also conceded that scientific answers to questions of knowledge might not be the most interesting to society at large.

Francesca too couldn’t see the sense in the idea of being both true and not – but in her case this was a matter that belief in objective truth was itself overrated. In Francesca’s case, it was about the sociality of belief in hopes and fears in action; largely physical in fact, rather than any conceptual logical belief in definitive or objectively-true knowledge as understood by normal western male intellect. The same point reinforced explicitly by Giles with a Wittgensteinian reference.

Interesting is about what is in the best interests of humanity and the cosmos. Disingenuous of science to highlight its doubt and contingency whilst maintaining certainty in science as somehow methodologically the best way to know anything. What is good for science – the content and processes of science – is not necessarily in all our best interests – beyond scientific activities.

I’m a scientific technologist, an atheist and a humanist, but yet again I identify most strongly with Francesca’s enlightened good sense and with the theologian ahead of the professional scientist. The latter closing with the claim:

“I have to remain faithful to the objectivity of truth”.

There we have it.

[Full audio recording here. Full video on YouTube here.]

Found myself listening to Rupert Sheldrake last night in the Essex Unitarian Church at Notting Hill Gate in front of a congregation of The Jung Club. Fascinating encounter, despite being really only a 25 minute potted summary of his Morphic Resonance field hypothesis – increasingly elaborated in his later works with more opportunities for empirical testing in more and more contexts. The encounter of course was an opportunity for the Jungian chair and audience to relate MR to panpsychism, dreams, memories, near-(and-post)-death experiences

He’s still very much a scientist – his focus on empirical testability more than the “how” aspects of explanatory theory – but also openly a god-believing Christian despite having previously been not only atheist but a “rabid materialist” like most other scientists. He expressed sympathy for Bohmian interpretations of Quantum Theories since the material bottom fell out of the materialist world.

Hard to tell whether he still has an academic position and Cambridge, Trinity College. His position with the Perrot-Warrick fund for paranormal research, administered by Trinity, is lapsed, but he’s still included in the set of talks collected by Brian Josephson whose views I also respect. Not surprising given Sheldrake’s views he’s shunned by mainstream academic science. Funnily enough I nearly asked last night how he stood in relation to the memetic and paranormal schools, and I see Sue Blackmore was a previous holder of the funded research role. Small world.

Amidst the flurry of social media debate around the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I created this set of three more carefully considered posts:

  • #1 There Is No “Right To Offend”
    Freedoms of expression are protected in law, but the nature of expressed content is not objectively defined as “rights” in law.
  • #2 The Court Jester
    Defence of such freedom covers offensive satirical humour, but social rules demand the target is an establishment in power and that anyone other than our court-jesters applies self-restraint in all but exceptional circumstances.
  • #3 Islam, We Have A Problem
    Where our topics are Islam and extreme islamist terrorism, we need to be careful who our targets are and not forget that Muslims – the ones that are listening – already see the problem too. The ones that aren’t listening are not hearing the subtle points of the satirical messages beyond the offense.

As I push these out through social media channels, I’m also pulling together contributions from others. (So this post will continue to be edited as I gather material and comments.)

Stephen Law @CFI_UK – What’s The Point of Lampooning Religion?

Stephen adds the Emperor’s Suit of Clothes to the “lampooning” story. Actually that’s an extension to my Court Jester point, sometimes referred to classically as The Fool. In shattering the Emperor’s delusion, it is a child amongst the authoritative establishment of the court that raises the embarrassing observation – an innocent with no voice or responsibility in the normal process and etiquette of running the court. (I often elaborate – in earlier posts – with The Fool and The Emperor’s New Clothes metaphors – just confined myself to The Court Jester in the shorter posts above.)

Here’s another useful quote from Stephen:

Perhaps it’s sometimes done for no other reason than to upset the religious. Let me be clear that I don’t approve of that (though I do defend the right of others to do it)

I don’t approve of it either, and in the posts above I make it clear I defend the freedom (there is no “right”) of individuals other than The Court Jester do it on tactical, emphatic, anger-expressing and attention-grabbing temporary grounds. I don’t defend anyone’s carte-blanche freedom to do it as a sustained assault without content also addressing some evident higher objective.

Another key paragraph from Stephen:

However, more often than not, the lampooning is done with the intention of shattering, if only for a moment, the protective façade of reverence and deference that has been erected around some iconic figure or belief, so that we can all catch a glimpse of how things really are. At such times, lampooning can become great art.

In the Emperor’s Suit of Clothes example, sure – most of the audience and the target are either oblivious to, or in denial of the point being shattered. In the religion vs alternatives “debate” we’re well past that, with established positions and differences of opinion, before we even get the extreme nut-job positions, where “reverence” is the last thing on their agenda. The people being offended already get there’s a point we’re attempting to make – there is no “shattering”. The metaphor is not really about lampooning or satire. But clearly lampooning is an artform when done well – like art, anything can be art, but it doesn’t mean anything is. (See essay #2 above.)

Robert Fisk in The Independent – Charlie Hebdo attack can be traced back to Algeria.

Robert drew a fair amount of flak along the lines of using the history to justify the atrocity – which of course he didn’t. His concluding point is pretty much the same as mine. With deep and complex history no single paragraph – let alone 140 characters – is going to convey the true depth and complexity. We need informed and attentive dialogue.

Charlie Brooker in The New Humanist

Charlie Brooker is a savagely funny satirist who targets modern irrationality. In person, he’s a more gentle soul.

Exactly. Satire is a public art form, a public service – not about individual humans being abusive or offensive to other human individuals, and Charlie (Brooker) is a professional. (See #2 The Court Jester.)

Moroccan-born Muslim, Ahmed Aboutaleb – The Mayor of Rotterdam

Moslems who don’t appreciate western freedom, pack your bags & fuck off.

As clear a statement as any, in The Mail, endorsed by (opportunist) Boris Johnson.

This is the third of three related posts. The first #1 There Is No Right To Offend looked at self-restraint on freedom of offensive expression, and the second #2 The Court Jester concerned the specific cases where expression of offensive humour has satirical intent. These were argued most generally, but were obviously prompted by the Charlie Hebdo massacre and ongoing responses.

In that specific context we’ve already seen Stephen Fry advocate that “we must mock”. Well he’s wrong. It’s OK for him speaking from his position as a national treasure, an established rebel, a comic TV actor, a spokesperson on Humanism and LGBT freedoms to name a few, but in those roles he is one of our most recognisable court-jesters. He surely must mock mercilessly, provided he skewers establishment targets, and so should all satirists, but we cannot all be court-jester at the same time. If we all mock we have our “day of mockery” – an expression of solidarity and depth of feeling – claiming the right of expression, but not constructively addressing any argument. Ultimately degenerate and not progressive beyond claiming the right to do so.

On the other hand we see Will Self and Martin Rowson agreeing, on Channel 4 News, that there really is no absolute right of expression of mockery and offense. Freedom really does come with responsibility for restraint and appropriateness of content and context, where appropriateness includes targetting authority, power or establishment. [Post Note : See also by Will Self.]

On the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it was a powerful expression of solidarity against violent intimidation of free speech to claim #JeSuisCharlie in the (Spartacus) moment when the lethal intimidation was palpable and shareable. Now after the event we need more than simple sloganising to discern ongoing issues and actions. Charlie Hebdo were not an unalloyed good. We cannot absolutely identify with the whole of Charlie Hebdo. They asserted their right, but their targets were wide-ranging and their content variable, and in the run-up to the specific events, they knowingly provoked the response they achieved.

Provocation is one aim of satire, but the target matters.
Murder is murder, provoked or not.

Where the topic is Islamism (Jihadism or other terrorist extremism or plain murder “in the name of Islam”) there really is no establishment target for the satire. When the topic is Islam more generally, then there are real establishment – Islamic state establishment – targets, but the target is not Islam itself. When a Jihadist group brands itself “Islamic State” it blurs the picture for sure, but it does not make them an Islamic establishment target. Islam is a target for deliberately offensive satire only where it is the established religion.

Apart from all the questions of security in the face of the reality of armed and motivated Islamists, including those that our freely expressing citizens feel the need to provoke without restraint, there is one topic crystallising in the fall-out. Of course in the process of falling-out we get both extreme perspectives:

  • Islamist extremism has nothing to do with Islam.
    (The politically correct end of social media.)
  • Islamist extremism has everything to do with Islam.
    (The indiscriminate & prejudiced end of social media.)

The wise position, as ever, lies between the two.

And the good news is that many Muslim spokespeople do recognise this. I say spokeseople, but don’t forget there are billions of Moslems, with thousands of disparate and overlapping Islamic constituencies and communities. I say many Moslems, but I don’t say all or even most (I’ve no idea), just a positively encouraging number. We will never meet a spokesperson or spokespeople people for Islam itself. So:

There is something about Islam that leads to violent Islamist extremism and Moslems have as much interest as anyone else in sorting out what that is and how it should be addressed. Properly targetted (freely expressed, even offensive) satire is surely part of it, but it’s clearly not the solution.

For example: back on 25th November 2014, there was an excellent event #CmnGrnd @ConwayHall “Looking for Common Ground – How can humanists and Muslims live and work together in 21st century London?” Organised by Western and Central London Humanist groups supported by @BHAHumanists.

Chaired by Alom Shaha, the audience was predominantly active Humanists but all four panelists were practising Moslems speaking for a range of Muslim organisations. To a man, the panel highlighted the caveat that “one brings one’s own prejudices to the reading of any holy text” so that the text could form a pretext for any prejudice. Pretext is not justification in anybody’s book.

All also spoke of first-hand experience of prejudice, intimidation (and worse) against themselves and their loved ones, and recognition of mutual responsibility to find solutions.

As the speaking and questioning progressed through the evening a whole range of specific topics came up, many in the realm of rights and freedoms, none of course addressed conclusively on the night. (The above link includes a full audio recording – and I also have comprehensive notes.) Radicalisation to levels of extreme, violent and/or terrorist intent is driven by many different sources of perceived oppression and grievance. One observation made very strongly from the floor was that complexity was actually part of the problem. Anyone asking a specific direct question was asking to be disappointed, if they expected simply expressible satisfactory answers. Even the simplest open questions were indeed rhetorical. We are dealing with complex issues with deep histories with wide scopes and varied perspectives.

The other take-away was sheer gratitude. Thanks for talking to us, thanks for sharing the problem, thanks for listening to our point of view, please let’s continue the dialogue to find solutions.

And the Muslims thanked the Humanists too.

Finally – Pulling Charlie Together – I drew together summaries and links to all three posts in this series into a further post where I am also collecting related responses to the same issues from other social media and blogs.

This is the second of a three related posts. The first was #1 There is No Right to Offend.

No-one has the right not to be offended, but any restraint on the freedom to offend is a matter of cultural tolerance and moral motivation, and categorically not any objectively-defined “right” with statutory limitation to giving offense. There is no “right” to offend. So the question becomes one of what form do valid freedoms and limitations take.

Our topic here is not dialogue, debate and argument, directly constructive in terms of its content and immediate outcomes, which proceeds on a basis of mutual respect between the participants. We’re beyond that, where intent to offend is at least part of the motivation, and as already noted in the previous post, there is a whole spectrum of possible cases.

Firstly let’s discount some meta-cases. One is simply to assert the freedom, when under threat or implied intimidation against it, but that’s a meta-reason about the freedom itself, not about any content or specific target of the expression. Similar is the case in any exchange expressing or debating disagreement, where dialogue and argument degenerates into expressions of frustration and anger, possibly even as reaction to previous expressions of abuse. Again another meta-reason to express offense, to reinforce or emphasise the disagreement or offense, but not to advance the content of the argument. I think of these cases as misdirected, or temporarily directed, offense.

And, apart from any deliberate wish to gratutiously offend or mentally hurt another individual human – harm is harm, physical or otherwise – there really is only one other class of valid cases.

In a word, satire.

Now, before satire specifically, humour generally which, like art, defies objective definition. Between sarcasm and wit, word-play and irony, the unexpected, physical slapstick and outright shock pretty much anything goes. Like offense itself, without objective definition any freedom to express humour is never going to be a statutory right with definitive limits. You know it when you experience it.

This reliance on subjective freedom to express – the freedom is from the side of the target, the butt of the joke, the restraint only from the joker – works fine in a world where we recognise the jokers for what they are, the court jester. Their free expression tolerated by an establishment and recognised by a public. In these days of ubiquitous social media and comment channels, not to mention the proliferation of media channels at all levels between the individual and mainstream broadcasters and media publications, almost everyone finds themselves concerned directly with freedom of expression and the possibility of expressing offense, deliberate or otherwise, wittily satirical or not.

So complex in any definitive objective sense, that for many – now billions of individuals – it’s easiest to assume nothing is beyond the pale, than deal with the myriad subjectivity of intent and consequence. Easier sure, but not absolute. When limits are questioned by those discomfited or offended, or those sympathising with those targetted, there can be no statutory definition – just a test of social acceptance. Think Frankie Boyle and the Sun, and testing limits to “sacred” satirical targets of humour, or invoking blasphemy laws in secular states. They hit the headlines.

There are two points. The first is that such a test cannot work if billions of individuals individually push the limits. We can’t all be the jester in the court of the establishment. It has to be an exception, at least a minority, within the population, the rest of us must exercise restraint, excepting say the concept of a “day of rage” where the point is to highlight the depth of anger. The second is that to be valid satire, as opposed to random offensive humour, the target must be the establishment. No topic is out of bounds, but the message must be targetted at the establishment, not just any population or individual with whom we have a beef, or even a deadly serious grievance. Satire, mockery, ridicule are misdirected here, justified by emphasis and provocation for sure, but not germane to resolving the content of any argument or disagreement.

Satire is for those people and media-organs recognised and the “court-jesters” of our time targetting the establishment “court” of our time. We cannot all be the court-jester at the same time – that’s anarchy. Outside these boundaries, no-holds-barred offensive humour however witty, can only be hurtful and/or provocative of a response – be that response a laugh or a violent reaction.

Charlie Hebdo knew exactly what kind of response they were provoking.

Continued in #3 Islam, We Have A Problem

[Post Note : Excellent BBC Magazine piece from Will Self.]

[Post Note : And also from Frankie Boyle.]

Humanist declarations, and UN Human Rights declarations include the double-negative form of words:

“No-one has the right not to be offended.”

And often in debate, or other free one-way expression of opinion, people express the sentiment “offense is taken not given”, “why should I care if you’re offended” – usually in less polite “fuck you” or “spin on it” terms such as used in one of the cartoon responses “giving the finger” to the CharlieHebdo massacre.

Of course these are debates and contexts where we’re already far from considerations of “being polite” – we have serious disagreement, rejection and downright condemnation of positions and actions – in which, under the mantra of the “right to free speech”, we may already feel the need to be …

“rude and offensive and vulgar and obscene (and blasphemous)”

… in anybody’s language. That is, the giving of offense is deliberate, but it nevertheless comes in a wide range of varieties:

  • Gratuitously intended with little if any thought to any (positive) aims beyond the offense.
  • Gratuitous in the immediate (tactical) context, but with higher (strategic) aims.
  • Strategically intended and delivered with satire, irony and/or other form of humour.
  • Strategically incidental but delivered with humour.
  • And so on …

Permitted (tolerated / allowed by the cultural context) rather than framed as an objective right in law. Limited only by restraint from the giver rather than legal protection for the taker. Restrained by a virtuous duty of care only, but not by blasphemy law (say) or intimidation.

In freedom of expression, there is no unqualified, blanket Right to Offend.

Whatever offense is permitted it cannot be defined as a right in objective terms from the subjective perspective of the offended party because in reality the effect and intent are also on a rather grey scale from the giver’s perspective. So the issue we have is that we have a doubly-subjective and therefore problematic definition of any limitations on the right to offend, so it is certainly snappier to think of it as an unqualified right. But it’s not.

Next installments:

#2 The Court Jester – contexts where permission to offend under freedoms of press, expression and speech demand (offensive) satire and ridicule beyond virtuous restraint.

#3 Islam, We Have a Problem – representatives of Islam address Islamist extremism – terrorist barbarity – done in their name in response to “blasphemous” ridicule or any other grievance.

[Hat tip to Ben and Sam for inspiration to now publish what had been long-standing drafts. Further explicit links and references in future installments.]

John Farrell tweeted the observation that tonight’s cup game between AFC Wimbledon and Liverpool was being touted as if AFCW was the same club as the old WFC – which is a good thing despite the fact they’re not. It was Ben Cobley’s retweet that I picked-up, and when I mentioned the old days at Plough Lane (WFC’s ground at the time) it turned out Ben was also a supporter on the terraces there at that time.

From the north-east of England, I was a student in London 74 to 77 and WFC were promoted from the Southern League to the old 4th division, the same year I graduated and started living and working in SW London, sharing rented houses with other mates from the north.

78 and 79 we took the opportunity to watch mighty representatives of north-eastern football then in the 4th division – Hartlepool, Darlington, York, Doncaster to name a few visitors to Plough Lane. I’d forgotten Ron Noades and Dario Gradi were the management team at that time … but I do recall in those early league days, there were few enough on the terraces, that the banter involved conversations with the guys on the pitch. Great times.

By 79/80 I’d moved to live and work in Reading, and my social contacts with London were reduced to live music rather than football, but when Sylvia and I married and set-up home in Reading, the first day of the 81/82 season we looked for a match since it turned out we were both fans. Reading FC hadn’t really registered on our radar then, but we noticed the Fulham had just been promoted to the top flight and their opening game was to entertain Chelsea, so we rather naively set off for the Cottage.

Discovering from the radio on the drive there, that game was a sell-out (naturally), I suggested given the lateness of the hour and the direction we were headed, “how do you fancy WFC?”

We never looked back. The original Crazy Gang years were even greater times. Corky, Ev, Glyn, Wally, Bez and Fish and later Vinny, Sanch and Fash all under ‘Arry’s direction. Don’t recall now whether they were back in the 4th or whether they’d had their second promotion to the 3rd that season, but 81 to 86 every season was a promotion or relegation battle, culminating with achieving the top flight in 86. I reckon we missed barely a dozen games, home or away, through that period. Mad times. That was BC (Before Kids) and eventually WFC was no longer the original crazy gang when ‘Arry left after finishing 6th.

We never found First-Division / Premiership finance / football as engaging as the real thing. For us a real highlight was a freezing foggy Tuesday night at Oxford’s old Manor Ground – cages for the away fans didn’t protect us from being pelted with coins by our hosts – so foggy that we had to ask Bez what all the commotion was up the other end. Sure enough, Wally had been sent off again. Another surreal memory was the fine summer’s day we beat The Blades away on the last day of the season to not only seal our own promotion, but also to deprive them of the same when, thanks to other results a draw would have served us both. After being held back for about half an hour we were advised the noise and smoke was a police car rolled up against the back gate of our stand and set on fire by their disgruntled fans – and we were eventually let out in small groups walking across the pitch to more remote exits.

Whilst Sylvia was pregnant with our first, we paid one visit to Reading FC – I think by then I’d seen a few evening games there with Reading work colleagues – and all we experienced was away fans’ (Bournemouth) thuggery and violence in the scarily claustrophobic terraced streets around Elm Park. It was several years before we went back to live football with the boys, but that’s another installment – starring Glen Hoddle.

Interesting and thorough piece in Nature on why basic scientific method of empirical falsification still matters to the integrity of physics however creative the hypothesising.

Of course (as the sole commenter so far says), there are plenty of other valuable kinds of knowledge and evidence, which also require careful reasoning. Some scientists may wish to claim redundancy of any other kind of philosophical thinking – but it wouldn’t be science. (Hat tip to Sabine Hossenfelder on Facebook.)

[Post Note – and quite a few articles responding to the post in Nature, also being collected by Sabine.]

Interesting analysis by Paul Mason of C4.
Not particularly original ideas, but good to see the whole position summarised readably:

Opec’s decision to go on pumping oil, in November, faced with collapsing demand, was designed to do exactly what has happened – sink the oil price to the point where only the big Gulf producers can break even, harming their competitors [including Russia] – and in the process sabotaging the expensive end of the US shale-oil industry.

What it does to Putin’s power base is scary of course.

Just a quickie to highlight for posterity a point I made earlier (and before).

Forget – “Collapse of the observed probability wave function.”

Think – “Collapse of the mythical abstract concept of objective reality.”

You may have heard that here first, but I’ve been piecing it together from the giants on whose shoulders I would that I stood. For example: now that we’ve buried his cat once and for all, could we please resurrect the good work of Erwin Schroedinger.

Interesting that Jim Al Khalili retweeted a linked review of his Life on the Edge from Nicola Davis in The Grauniad. Not exactly a glowing report, but I often feel the same, that the stack of assumptions and interpretations needed to support scientific “fact” at the extremes of fundamental physics are exactly that – a house of cards. (PS not seen any reference to the Schroedinger work “What is Life?” – a fine little book on the topic.)

Watched episode 1 of Jim Al-Khalili’s “The Secrets of Quantum Physics – Part 1 Einstein’s Nightmare” at last. (Mentioned related stories in a couple of previous posts.)

In synopsis – ‘cos I’m in a hurry as ever – everything about discoveries of quanta from Einstein on the photo-electric effect, the many forms of the ubiquitous dual-slit experiment(s), “spooky” action at a distance, EPR and the Einstein, Bohr (and Heisenberg) disagreements have been the stuff of popular science writing for some time (archetypically for me, Gribben and Charlesworth in cartoon form.) Even up to Bell’s inequality and the experiments on pairs of polarised electrons following separate paths. No mention of advanced or pilot waves and thankfully no mention of Shroedinger’s cat, despite numerous “open the box” opportunities. If that is unintelligible to you, then you need to watch Jim’s program and/or read his book.

Only weak point for me was that it is not made clear how and why the Bell card-pairs-game and the polarised-electron-pair experiment using Bell’s inequality does actually prove the Einstein-Bohr argument one way or the other. Bell’s inequality is stated without really explaining what it means?

BUT sure Einstein was wrong with his rigged-deck take on avoiding the conclusion of observer driven outcomes. He was of course right on a lot more. I always felt the concept of there even being a (predetermined) deck to be rigged was his point, the point being it’s a daft idea, like Shroedinger with his cat – to illustrate how mad – weird – the prevailing quantum concepts are when related to our common sense world. Thought experiments to demonstrate how inconceivably these metaphors could possibly reflect how reality really is. Which is the point.

Good that Jim clearly sees the ongoing weirdness as a problem needing sorting out. The fact this suggested some serious misunderstandings about the true nature of reality itself, exposed by Einstein’s refusal to agree with Bohr being ignored post-war in the Copenhagen drive to “shut-up and calculate” – QM works for (say) nuclear power and the electronics of the communications age – who cares? Conflicting opinions were simply “swept under the carpet”. Interesting that the hippy and eastern mysticism movement – that in fact led hippy physicists to the polarised-electron-pair experiment – is indeed a part of the story – a story about the nature of reality that is, not about any good or bad “science of the supernatural”. Looking forward to Part 2.

My take – the weirdeness is simply a consequence of misguided common sense about objects and objectivity. ie it’s not their “observation” that’s the problem, but their conceptualisation in the first place, which ultimately leads to them being set up to be observed. We reify into objects what is in fact more immediate pre-conceptual empirical experience – deliberately to make objects distinct from ourselves as subject. Science is based on objectivity, whereas reality really isn’t. I hope Jim recognises that’s a philosophical question and not a scientific problem, ie I’m not knocking the science. Science cannot know reality at these levels. As Jim says it is in some sense unknowable, unknowable to science that is.

Really good takeaways. Honest on the state of what is truly (not) known and understood at the QM level and seriously well done for not resorting to Schroedinger’s damn cat. Well done.

[Aside – no mention of De-Broglie-Bohm advance “pilot” waves – Jim mentioned in a tweet he had a preference for this view – over Copenhagen anyway.]

[Post Note : Even objects as large as molecules comprising 114 atoms (!) giving double slit interference signature. LiveScience via @cpwernham. Beware spammy site, checking secondary sources. Objects are not what they seem.]

[Post Post Note : And in response to comments Jim has blogged more explanation of what he glossed over about what Bell’s inequality said about Einstein, Good stuff. Even again, forced to choose, would side with Einstein. My point is, sure all authoritative science remains contingent, but some science has never got beyond being contentious. Good mention of the De-Broglie-Bohm alternative too. And sure too, a public TV programme is not a physics lecture, so difficult details have to be excused, but the key messages must remain honest.]

The paper referenced in the previous post is well worth a read, if you find probabilistic collapsing wave-functions, and the suggestion that thanks to quantum mechanics there is no actual single physical reality, too weird to actually believe. Einstein was right for knowing Bohr was wrong, even if he never cottoned onto De Broglie’s pilot wave model, later picked up by David Bohm. Chaotic and difficult to predict individual histories, sure, but deterministically so. May Shroedinger’s cat forever rest in peace never to be heard of again. (Must actually watch Jim’s series and read his book, to see where his beliefs lie.)

A century down the line, the standard, probabilistic formulation of quantum mechanics has been combined with Einstein’s theory of special relativity and developed into the Standard Model, an elaborate and precise description of most of the particles and forces in the universe. Acclimating to the weirdness of quantum mechanics has become a physicists’ rite of passage. The old, deterministic alternative is not mentioned in most textbooks; most people in the field haven’t heard of it. Sheldon Goldstein (*), a professor of mathematics, physics and philosophy at Rutgers University and a supporter of pilot-wave theory, blames the “preposterous” neglect of the theory on “decades of indoctrination.” At this stage, Goldstein and several others noted, researchers risk their careers by questioning quantum orthodoxy.

The key thing about the article is that it’s an empirical demonstration at human visible scale, using oil drops on water surface waves. Suck that up Copenhagen. Interesting that the cautiously informed responses are all about how “hard” the pilot-wave model is going to be to create all the mathematics needed to replace Copenhagen, but no suggestion that it’s demonstrably wrong.

Aside – I’m wondering if, like fluid mechanics, the practicalities will always be calculated and predicted using statistical approximations, ratios and scale factors determined from historical measurement. Tracking the real “particles” of fluid is always too complex and therefore performed computationally at “finite element” level with fluid properties based on the empirical factors – whether Roman water in pipes or 21st century aircraft in the air, maybe now for elementary particles in the ether.

[(*) First husband of Rebecca Goldstein cited previously as also being a supporter of Bohmian Mechanics.]

It’s all happening at once today. Prompted I guess by the first episode of Jim Al Khalili’s BBC4 series on Quantum Mechanics, the usual alternative theories are crawling out of the woodwork.

Not watched the episode yet, but judging by the Grauniad review we get the “Einstein was wrong” take and a bit of wave-particle duality so far – Feynman’s quantum physics in a nutshell “double-slit experiment”. Jim tweeted this morning receiving a link to Natalie Wolchover’s piece in Wired from back in June about the David Bohm interpretation of QM – basically an Einstein and Bohr were both wrong, take on things. Coincidentally mentioned by Rebecca Goldstein last month as her own preferred interpretation before she switched from physics to philosophy.

And talking of philosophy at the other end of the scale just yesterday we have Roberto Unger collaborating with Lee Smolin on anthropic mistakes in cosmological interpretations.

Two givens

Firstly, at the extremes of fundamental physics much is speculation, and the touch points with empirical reality few, indirect and incomplete. Yes, the maths work in given contexts and scales, but the explanatory understanding of reality – beyond doubtful metaphors – is a long way off.

And, secondly, physics needs philosophy to help sort out it’s relation to both reality and humanity.

Related – but more general (medical) science in this case: the recurring agenda of mine: when is speculative (or interested) science newsworthy? The tag of “science” allows so much hyped crap to be touted as worthwhile knowledge, when it’s really churn in the processes of science – speculative in both senses, doubtful, but worth a shot if it justifies the funds.

Interesting blog, collection of bloggers, and additional linked blogs, all on a topic dear to my heart. Hat tip to Rebecca Goldstein @platobooktour for the link to the specific post.

When apparently serious commentators simply dismiss ideas they don’t agree with (or understand) as “silly” you can be pretty sure they’re defending a position rather than advancing knowledge.

Interesting interview of Roberto Unger by Ian Sample in a Grauniad podcast. It concerns a book co-authored with Lee Smolin concerning some pretty drastic meta-law proposals to govern evolution of the universe, including the actual (evolving) laws within it. Much about inflation theories and anthropic hacks in the likes of multiverses simply not being science, but fanciful speculation to prop-up misguided theories. (Book published early 2015)

(Hat tip to Sabine Hossenfelder again on Facebook.)