I’ve been intending to dive into this Tim Hunt debacle, but the twitter storm is moving too fast for me to get a word in, so this is just a holding post – no extended argument here (yet).

Science needs women? Doh!

Which century are we in? Which geological period is Hunt in? All human endeavours need women in positions of equal opportunity to participate – and even that is a thinly disguised historical insult to our sisters.

For me this is not (just) a question of equality of freedoms but one of necessary diversity. We must “admit variety” to quote E. M. Forster on democratic freedom. Evolution demands it, and I’m not talking sexual reproduction. Women bring a “differently better” set of skills to the party, any party, the only party in town in fact. Life.

Vive la difference, as I may have mentioned. Jeez!

We different humans need each other.


[Post Note : I warned at the start of this post it was a quickie – a specific point I needed to make without deeper analysis – reacting to the twitterstorm that has since led to his resignation – sadly.

Love is such a tricky non-PC topic in professional or otherwise-to-be-taken-seriously contexts – even trickier when you are talking genders or sexuality in the first place – but if we can get over ourselves, love really is the most important thing in life bar none. Hunt did in fact just make a mistake. Yes his views on gender were probably of his time, and yes his attempt at humour was clumsy and misguided – and sadly his apology was no less clumsy – but either way, all he did was make a mistake.

Did he really need to be pilloried into a resignation?

A wonderful piece here from Sarah Bell – “Perhaps the answer is simply love?” – rather than falling in love being an awkward “emotional problem”.

A theme here: “What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding“.]

I’m reading and “reviewing” a lot, though if you’ve been following me closely over the years, the reviews are for my benefit not yours – to capture contributions to my own story. There’s a trope or meme that I often find myself reading something I wish I’d written – believe I could have written – and, after I’ve gutted the content for new angles, my review reduces to “Excellent, a recommended read” – and seriously, if you don’t already buy where I’m coming from, that’s always a serious recommendation.

It’s not that I’m selecting reads for reinforcement of my existing arguments. Far from it. I know my own mind, and I know it “prejudices” my reading – that’s just being honest. The scary thing is, whether I’m reading (boringly) predictably or (hopefully) sceptically, my mantra of “nothing new under the sun; ’twas ever thus” keeps emerging. Rabid opponents in the public eye seem barely a fag-paper apart when it comes down to it.

The Dick Taverne I’ve just read and reviewed last night, is a case in point. Excellent. Another way of saying what I believe I’m already trying to say, so obviously I recommend you read him.

However having finished Taverne, I picked-up Nick Spencer’s “Atheists, the Origin of the Specieswhere I left off almost exactly a month ago. I was reading Taverne because it was the book group recommendation of a group of like minds, and the name rang a bell. I’m reading Spencer for a pretty random sequence of causes. Following up on my interest in Sheldrake I just happened to find myself at Theos, and noticed the witty title, related to my interest – in evolved rationality.

Spencer’s book is “Excellent” also – think I may already have said that – but in fact it’s more than that, it’s “Brilliant”. Lots to agree with of course, but excellent witty turns of phrase, laconic understatement, and despite covering enlightenment history, where I consider myself pretty well read these days, lots of new stuff – both historical narrative and enlightened literary quotes and sources to follow-up. Brilliant and, need I say, recommended.

Not quite finished reading it, but I’ll do a fuller “review” when I’m done, though it probably exemplifies another meme, one where I could have more notes than original text by the time I’m done.

Interesting bedouin boy to world’s no.1 entrepreneur story, that instantly put me in mind of the kids fleeing Timbuktu and Samira Ahmed’s allure of the desert.

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did. (T. E. Lawrence)

It’s a wonderful world. The TEL quote was in my mind since yesterday when Branson posted his top 10 quotes on the subject of dreams which didn’t include my personal favourite.

I’m reading “The March of Unreason – Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism” because it’s the book selected by Central London Humanists book group for July. The name sounded familiar – it is the Dick Taverne of UK Labour / Independent / Lib-Dem politics fame, currently in The Lords. I’m reading the 2006/7 paperback edition where he reinforces in the preface that the book is primarily political and expressing his disappointment that response to its original 2005 publication focussed almost exclusively on the science aspects.

[Post note : Update on the book club event.]

Yes, a major part of his thesis is a demand for evidence-based decision-making, and reminding us that it was no coincidence that the rise of both science and democratic freedoms went hand in hand with the enlightenment. They co-evolved from the same rational thinking. Skeptical critical considerations as a better alternative to authoritarian religious dogma. Better because the human progress achieved since then is self-evident. But, there’s a but.

There is a strong counter-balancing message that early readers missed.

Taverne is very explicitly not arguing for evidence as exclusively necessary for all decisions, nor that evidential considerations are necessarily scientific – objectively repeatable and amenable to simple logical argument. Science itself is far more than that anyway – more subtly creative – but ethical and political decisions even more so. Available evidence must not be ignored and in a free democratic society reasoning must be open to challenge and criticism, but ethical political decisions – what should “we” do – depend on far more human values and judgments than are necessarily backed entirely by the evidence and objective methods.

Of course he is making the first part of the argument. A defence of science under attack from cynical, rather than truly sceptical, suspicion – the eco-warrrior, the anti-you-name-it mentality. A loss of faith in scientific claims made by technology-based business interests for example, superstitious cynical conspiracy theory dogma rather than healthy scepticism and a tendency to ignore, discount or dismiss actual evidence to the contrary. The dead-hand of the precautionary principle – a pessimism too far. And post-9/11 a significant part of that is the more dangerous rise of more fundamental religious dogma, terrorist or otherwise counter to individual freedoms. So far, so much in common with many other post-9/11 writers. I share his frustration that the “pro-science and freedoms” audience is missing the other half of the story – we’re trying to keeping the sceptics honest by also pointing out the dangers of their own unwittingly cynical dogmas.

Something wonderfully ironic about Lewis Wolpert’s wishful contribution to the cover blurb:

“An excellent defence of science”

Wake up and smell the coffee Lewis. “Defence” of science as an objective is dogma, not sceptical critical thinking. Wolpert has been a target of mine before. Guessing Wolpert was part of the disappointment Taverne refers to in his updated preface.

Although Taverne refers to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as one of the great “bad” books of its time, “unconvincing philosophically” (in his end notes) he uses a quote exactly as used by Pirsig, to illustrate that there is nothing exclusive to science about the rational process:

“When the cause of a vehicle breakdown is uncertain,
a good mechanic will gather the facts,
formulate a theory and
carry out tests to see if it stands up,
quite unconsciously acting as any good scientist would.”

In summarising his conclusions, Taverne says:

“The argument of this book is not only that arguments which are evidence-based are valid but that we should never ignore evidence where it is relevant. Even where it is relevant I do not argue that evidence is all that matters.

For example, a wise philosopher …. [might argue] …. there is also a value judgement to be made about the deeper quality of life, which cannot be based on a verifiable or falsifiable proposition.

My main purpose therefore has not been to make exaggerated claims about the scope for applying scientific method, but to wage war [specifically] on those who ignore evidence.”

This focus does leave unasked some questions about what counts as valid evidence beyond the scope of objective science, but the deadlock breaker is free democracy. “Criticism and adaptability are the characteristics of societies that are free and prosperous.” Taverne states before quoting E. M. Forster, as several other recent reads have done:

“Two cheers for democracy.
One because it admits variety.
Two because it permits criticism.”

I think it’s key that Forster suggests two rather than the customary three cheers. The downside being the imperfection of democracy – echoed in the famous Churchillian quote. Ethical and political decisions in a free democracy can never be perfectly captured in verifiable evidence and logical propositions. I’m tempted to offer my own favourite quotation on that from Marianne Jones:

Too Blue for Logic.

My axioms were so clean-hewn,
The joins of ‘thus’ and ‘therefore’ neat
But, I admit
Life would not fit
Between straight lines
And all the cornflowers said was ‘blue,’
All summer long, so blue.
So when the sea came in and with one wave
Threatened to wash my edifice away –
I let it.

Though we all need to let go the delusion that science is the answer to everything – everything important in real life – we nevertheless ignore evidence at our peril. Taverne concludes, lest there be any doubt:

Modern liberal democracy gives more people the chance of a good life than ever before.
This would not be possible without the contribution of science.

A good read, and a great wealth of examples I’ve barely hinted at in terms of the perversions of scientific scepticism reinforced by ignorance of evidence by campaigning pressure groups and the dismissal of value judgments not reducible to science alone.


[Post Note : here a recent and topical example of where irrational anti-nuclear prejudice massively undermined the value of a very expensive research project – the Rosetta / Philae comet lander mission.]

Went to see Timbuktu at short notice yesterday at the MeetUp suggestion of the London Black Atheists.

Wonderfully understated and slow-paced, but beautifully shot, and ultimately we are left somewhat confused, with unresolved ambiguity. The history of today; we can’t yet know the outcome.


‘Timbuktu’ is a poignant and mesmerising film, a modern tragedy and defiant song of a nation in peril. Abderrahmane Sissako’s wonderfully human take on the fundamentalist occupation of Mali is not to be missed!


Abderrahmane Sissako is a world class film director & this is one of his best.


[Spoilers warning, if you’ve not seen it.]

There are so many cameos from characters not individually developed, that you suspect there must be a 4 hour director’s cut lying on the floor somewhere. And no heroic Hollywood ending despite the excellent cinematic qualities and no shortage of candidates for the starring role: The driver, the neighbour’s son / daughter’s friend. All of these put me in mind of A Thousand Splendid Suns though they never really progress beyond the opening scenes in their home village. Rather than a heroic epic we get a few days / weeks in the life.

I suspect there were more lines and scenes intended as gags than were actually elicited on the night, but with the impending brutalities preying on our thoughts, few of us were looking for laughs. There were for example, multilingual confusions creating some comically weak translations between characters and their interpreters and a running cell-phone gag, of “Your Arabic is very bad, please speak French / English / Tuareg / Local tribal language”. The only occasion actually creating the laughs being the Barça vs Real debate and the French connection with their world cup win relying on bribes to fellow FIFA members. Topical anywhere in the world.

The romantic idyll of village life could indeed have been anywhere in the world – normal people making a living, raising their kids – but with an ethnic melting pot of many different Africans and plot twists hanging on inter-personal misunderstandings. Actual location was Mauritania standing in for southern Mali but evocative of marginal desert life anywhere. The central family tragedy was itself a misunderstanding in the telling from son to father to neighbour – a handbags at sunset fight-scene ended by the accidental fatal shooting. Interestingly, a very benign take on Sharia – for which read “accepted local custom and practice” vs illiterate “word of god” usurped and voiced by the bad guy imposters. The vast majority of the local converts being unconvinced and reluctant in the incomprehensible inhumanity of their adopted mission. Most of the brutal acts were left largely to the imagination – I’ll not record any more spoilers – but enough terror in the insinuated threats and palpable fear to lead the viewer. More than enough in fact – the final scenes leaving us in fearful tension, but with hope eternal for the fates of the 12 year-olds running from the scene. History yet to happen and – the point of the film – a history we can therefore yet influence.

Several unresolved points in the editing – the western visitor with his personal medical supplies, the cloth-wrapped object (cell-phone?) in the wife’s hand as she dismounted from the pillion, and sufficiently threatening to the extremists that they fatally opened fire? Much is confusion.

But in all very effective. The scene that stole the show for me – the game of football without a ball. A snapshot of a much more complex tale, with many back-stories and possible futures. It is (not) written. Recommended.

[Post Note : Interesting this should turn up the following morning. And this too.]

I’m missing the sell-out talk by Peter Singer promoting his latest “The Most Good You Can Do” this evening at Conway hall, due to switching to attend a screening of Timbuktu at Institute Français / Cine Lumiere (more on which later, but a new group of people to interact with as well as the film itself).

I was expecting to find Singer’s rational position too extreme for my taste, based on the advance blurb, but wanted to hear his arguments – I’ll just have to read his book. Coincidentally, already had feedback from his lunchtime presentation at RSA today that kinda reinforced my (clearly admitted) prejudice.

Anyway, an important debate none-the-less. Thanks to twitter, no shortage of input. Not least this NY Review of Books review by John Gray, and Singer’s own letter in response. I share the frustration of many with Gray’s overly pessimistic negativity, but can’t fault his basic arguments, so I shall read both with interest.


[Post notes : Made the right call there. Consistent with feedback from the earlier talk today, if the video recording was anything to go by, the Peter Singer talk at Conway Hall / London Thinks appears to have been excruciating.

Moving on. Timbuktu on the other hand was wonderful.]

Not yet read the Paul Mason / Grauniad article where this originated yet, a classic case of a picture tells ….

Media preview

Of course, depending on your political agenda, exactly which story those words tell is entirely optional. Must read the article, but Paul Mason is very much focussed on the Greek perspective of “Grexit” these days.

Or “Graccident” as I heard the accidental exit coined this morning?

ISIS are a barbarous abomination. They need taking out independent of any wider peace-making and state-building “security” considerations.

Scarily on @BBCR4Today this morning Humphrys suggested ISIS and the idea of their caliphate were no longer to be derided, but an entity to be taken seriously in the tri-partite break-up of Iraq/Syria. No way Jose, they are inhuman criminals.

Fortunately the (?) interviewee confirmed that “Boots on the Ground” were certainly very much “ruled-in” to the anti-ISIS coalition considerations – no commitment as part of current talks, sure, but NOT ruled-out. This is absolutely the kind of action that should be taken within proper international / UN arrangements involving cooperative Mid-East states. Absolutely as Charles Kennedy called-for in opposing the US /UK “WMD” debacle that led us into Iraq by the wrong route, with the wrong mission-creep objectives.

We owe it to Charlie (RIP) to get it right this time.

More later, but an interesting piece. http://phys.org/news/2015-06-obsession-metrics-corrupting-science.html (HT to Sabine Hossenfelder @skdh )

The problem with measuring things is (a) you need to choose an object (thing) to measure, and (b) you need to choose another object (measurement) to quantify. Both those things are prejudiced by the model you started with. If your model is a hypothesis you’re attempting to falsify, that’s OK. But contrary to popular belief that’s only a small (albeit crucial) part of science – most of science is creative exploration, and objectification is (literally) the last thing you need.

Stop measuring and start listening, experiencing unmediated by your chosen measuring device or measures, with an open mind, without prejudice. You might learn something.

In fact the article concerns meta-science, about measuring academic inputs to and outputs from science resources, not about scientific measurements themselves, but the same considerations apply. Values are more important than measures. The topic arose in this blogging project from the perspective of “scientific management” – governance of any human system, whether the content is science or widget-making. Perversely science suffers disproportionately from scientific management. Science is (should be) scientific enough without it.

I’ve made myself “unpopular” a couple of times with my agenda of (self-)restraint when it comes to free speech – it’s a freedom we all have all the time, but nevertheless best used where there is some prospect of positive outcome.

Sure, sometimes martyrdom (figurative and/or literal) is necessary, if the point needs to be made to publicly assert the right and take the flak (literally and/or figuratively) when the right is under physical denial. Let the deniers damn themselves from their own mouths (and/or gun barrels). But hopefully, there’s more to life than that.

Great piece here from Cruella (Kate Smurthwaite) in The Teacher magazine, on the relative priority of creating conditions in society where exercising the right of free speech is a positive experience, rather than encouraging 13 year old girls to set themselves up for abuse.

In all honesty, if I’d known when I was 13 what I know now,
I would have spoken up less. Now who wants me to come
into school and tell girls that?

Kate, of course, has had that on-line abuse experience in spades. I’ve been much more fortunate.

[Post Note : YouTube “News at Kate” version of the story.]

An agenda of mine that how funds get allocated to big science projects needs to be set by social values, not by science itself.

“Research councils often back big science out of ignorance ….”

“pathways to impact … a charter to support bullshitters.”

“…. perhaps it’s time to open up the debate to the public about what scientific agendas we should be pursuing and how they should be resourced. This could help move away from a trend where our governments are buying into ‘vanity projects’, and would have the potential to hold them more to account.”

Which means they need to be justified in terms of meaningful values.

The idea of research being funded because it leads to economic benefits is as dumb as education being designed for career paths. Those are development and training.

[Post Note : “inevitably an element of politics” in big science Jon Butterworth]

[Post Note : Shell (& BP “big oil”) influence science exhibits they sponsor – no shit Sherlock.]

Listened to Beyond Belief BBC R4 broadcast Sun 24th May on iPlayer this morning. It featured Stephen Law (@_CFIUK), Nick Spencer (@TheosNick), Marylin Mason (BHA) – with a brief inserted piece from Rory Fenton (also of the BHA) – in conversation with Ernie Rea.

Stephen and Marylin’s stories are similar to mine. Naturally atheist, yes, but that’s a negative statement, about something not believed, so more than that. Atheism-plus. Finding Humanism when noticing boxes being ticked in positive outlook and values. Few actual requirements in the accepted definitions of atheism; so possible for Christian atheism too, though usage of the word can vary the intended definition with context.

Whether “science alone” can answer the big questions of morality is a matter of broad & narrow definitions. Narrowly defined no, but broadly yes, knowledge believed based on evidence of experience. Certainly moral values have evolved with us.

Some debate about the origins of humanism, much as per two recent posts. Ancient Greek – Epicurian/Stoic origins – thinking about good lives leaving gods aside, very human gods anyway at this time. (Same as Grayling’s talk here). Versus Nick’s focus on post enlightenment / renaissance forms of humanism. Stephen conceded humanism does not preclude Christianity, it does not necessitate atheism. Marylin “hostile” to religion only where it impinges on individual daily politics – essentially the secular view.

Discussion of Humanism being used in an anti-religious sense, is really one of boring semantics. There is a lot of shared history. In fact Stephen called it a “phoney war” and then (dare I say) engaged in it – putting prickly straw-men into the discussion with “Of course what Nick thinks … / what Nick is attempting to …”

From my perspective, there was no real disagreement here. The origins of humanism are important in understanding its evolution, but no-one owns the resulting reality or its definition. Humans probably evolved humanist values independent of religion, and religion may have focussed on co-opting, codifying and maintaining them. What matters is what’s positive about it in a secular society; certainly not exclusively atheist, more atheism-plus, to use Stephen’s word. In fact surely, the more we share claims to subscribe to the content of Humanism the better? They’re in our custody now and in future.

Two significant points as the discussion drew to a close:

The idea of “bedrock” in education. Something people can be taught before and whilst they learn by thinking for themselves from experience and first principles. Humanism should be a part of that. (We may not want codification cast in stone, but there needs to be a resource – see also the Grayling piece again.)

Secondly, in defining that Humanism, Nick highlighted one possible point of difference. The clue is in its name. One key aspect is in understanding “what it means to be human“.

Hear, hear.

Had an interesting evening Thursday, listening to Rupert Sheldrake (again) at Theos, the Christian religious think-tank (for the first time), and having the opportunity to question and talk with him and with other Theos members. Also acquired a copy of Nick Spencer’s “Atheists, the Origin of the Species“; more on which later. [Post Note : Full audio of Sheldrake here.]

I sympathise with Sheldrake, indeed agree that most of his ideas benefit from [ie rationally deserve] proper scientific consideration. Pending “materialist promissary notes”, I’m even happy to hold his panpsychism-based ideas as possibilities. (Interestingly, Iain McGilchrist who was cited as a recent Theos guest speaker, and someone whose ideas I recommend to anyone who’ll listen, holds a not-quite-panpsychic position in seeing the brain more as our “transducer” of consciousness (maybe of proto-consciousness) than its physical container.) None of which means I believe in the paranormal (by definition there’s no such thing), or that “morphic resonance” is the most likely explanation. Sue Blackmore, protege of Dawkins and Dennett, of course held the same position as Sheldrake in taking scientific research of the paranormal seriously. No-one can accuse Sheldrake of not taking a properly sceptical scientific stance on these (whackier) topics. It’s science’s response to scientific questions that is the target here.

Nailing his “10 theses” to the door of the “church of reason” Sheldrake succeeds in maintaining his pariah status in mainstream science. I questioned whether greater progress might be achieved by focussing on fewer key questions that deserve answers, than turning the situation into one large battle on a very broad front. Like, for example, Unger & Smolin who support (at least) two of Sheldrake’s positions (but couldn’t admit as such). One that physical laws and constants are fixed, and somehow don’t deserve evolutionary explanations of their values and form in the current universe(*). And, two, that when it comes to form and knowledge in the universe of physics, mathematics has some absolute privileged “Platonic” position. Science needs to recognise its own metaphysical dogmas as such.

One point I take issue with Sheldrake is in placing Dennett in the camp of denying the self and the reality of consciousness. Dennett rejects “the hard problem” characterisation of their explanation. He very much sees a common sense evolutionary explanation based on information as form independent of physical substrate, as do I, as does Sheldrake.

Anyway, I’m posting these Sheldrake notes under the “Atheists, the Origin of the Species” heading because the common point is that so much of the history of post-enlightenment science has had the denial of soul-like-stuff as its materialist agenda, the thin end of a theist wedge, rather than honest, sceptical investigation of how it is properly explained by natural science.

I’m only maybe 1/4 thru reading Spencer’s “Atheists, the Origin of the Species” since Thursday, but the parallel with Anthony Grayling’s talk “Values and Humanist Values” the night before is already making me smile. They’re both taking a historical view – Spencer on Christian atheism mainly post-1500, Graying on non-Abrahamic humanism from the Greeks onwards – the common ground is obvious. Christian humanism, Christian secularism and Christian scepticism are as real as their atheistic, scientistic counterparts.

[Reformation] sceptics could believe as confidently as any religious adherent. They were simply doubtful of the rational grounds for belief, and its capacity for certainty. Scepticism was the antithesis of dogma, not faith.

The fact that theological differences might be a cipher for political and social threats was a nuance easily lost amid the aroma of cooking [human] flesh. Theological certainty could kill, and it wasn’t even certain.

Earlier in the introduction, Spencer uses a quote from Francis Bacon that has intrigued me before and, in my case. has led to a more than passing interest in OxBridge intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that converted to Catholicism late in life.

“a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism;
but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

Or in my own corollary, even a little more attention to dialogue on philosophical common ground, might bring humanity to more rational shared values and priorities.


[(*)Note – and there are other real physicists questioning these if sources are required.]

[Post Note : Good timing. Humanism & Christianity Discuission on BBC R4 Beyond Belief between Nick Spencer (Theos, above) Stephen Law (CFI_UK) and Marylin Mason (BHA) – and Rory Fenton (BHA). Non-contentious agreement, more notes here.]

Listened to A C Grayling talk to the Central London Humanist Group last night at Conway Hall. He’s a favourite speaker because he is such a good talker, drawing on deep knowledge of the history of philosophy since the greeks, interspersed with anecdotes from real life politics and stories from classic literature. All done naturally without slides and minimal (if any) notes.

Content-wise, his messages were pretty straightforward, his title redundant. All the values being talked about are humanist, or were humanistic anyway. Pretty well all philosophy on values, virtues and morality from the Greeks onwards is humanistic. About good behaviour of humans. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics remains the classic standard work. The clear transition from the masculine warrior virtues to those civic virtues of a civilised society. Freedom of thought and action, think for yourself with thoughtful consideration for others, minimum harm, golden rule, etc.

Thinking for yourself and giving consideration for others at all times may be inconvenient, messy and inefficient, but it is that very muddle that helps preserve the freedoms. Legality should be case law, not detailed rules codified with comprehensive legislation and objective definition – cast in stone. And systems of enforcement should be multiple and loose, not directly constrained by technology. Bi-cameral governance should be clear on different roles and responsibilities and on different bases for membership – eg not both by popular voting.

Diversity, imperfection and redundancy are messy but good. Hear, hear say I.

Conversely, the religious and totalitarian alternatives of stricter codification and the psychological and physical means of enforcement, provided plenty of anecdotal and Q&A content for such a talk with a group of liberal, atheist, secular, humanists. “Simple, no need to think for yourself, we’ve got some clear rules for you.” Even if applied benevolently, such a scheme ossifies the natural evolution of value and, if too efficient and effective, is too easily open to malevolent or misguided misapplication. The messier, distributed, diverse approach wins. So far so good.

But, what about those values. After virtues, virtue? After virtue? Freedom and Consideration. That’s it?

All variations on that, all additions, are essentially pragmatic and contingent, towards smoother, efficient running of society, leaving more time to live life, more time free from worrying about difficult decisions, more opportunity to delegate and share the workload of governance of that society. Free society open to question and challenge, naturally, but self-sustaining and smooth running.

With only those basic values, not all decisions can be straightforward or self-consistent to work out the balance of freedoms and consequences of every decision and action. Life is full of inconsistency and conflicting pressure across multiple time-scales. It’s good that everyone – as many as possible, including the youngest in education – appreciate the philosophical questioning and thinking processes, but not that we all spend all our time being philosophers, fully working out the solution to every problem. We’d get nothing done, we’d live no lives.

So my question. Where and how do we agree practical values, useful rules of thumb for typical real life situations?

Grayling’s reply was “nowhere; we don’t”. As soon as we do record them, they risk being documented definitively, cast in stone and abused. Fair point, but.

Interestingly however, in his response Grayling used the “story” of The Good Samaritan to illustrate the message that encoding the specific values of the specific situation, would never have the same power by parallel association to apply the “story” as a parable on good behaviour in wider life situations. How often will we actually get the opportunity as a bystander to help the innocent victim of a mugging in the street?

Clearly the place we document, in order to learn, communicate and educate values of living is in stories. Parables and literature that are clearly not intended to cast values as rules in stone, but which nevertheless contain the values in ways we can appreciate in their literary (fictional, mythical, apochryphal) context yet “slip”(*) sideways into our individual daily lives, lived now in the present.

We need great works of literature. We need good books.

What was it Samira Ahmed said – the story of Ishmael reminds how good a work of literature the Old Testament is.


(*) For “slipping” see Hofstadter.

[Post Note ; And same day today, BHA tweets on The Golden Rule.]

[Post Note : and to reinforce Samira Ahmed’s point, here is Samira Shackle in New Humanist, interviewing Azar Nafisi, writer of “Reading Lolita in Tehran”]


Just a holding post for 3 related links, so I can draw others attention to it:

SciAm article : Dark Energy Tested on a Tabletop

Sabine Hossenfelder’s earlier “BackReaction” response to the original source paper.

Rick Ryals speculation on consequences for the cosmological constant and the standard model (from Sabine’s Facebook timeline):

Negative mass particles would fall “up”… should have negative density and negative pressure…

A cosmological constant with negative pressure *mimics* negative mass via its anti-gravitational effect, and a cosmological constant that is a less dense form of the same mass energy as ordinary matter rho<0 would have real massive particle potential when enough of it was gravitationally condensed to attain the matter density… until then the “almost material” would logically be “dark”.

It would also be virtually undetectable, except gravitationally, and in a finite model matter generation from the vacuum structure *causes* expansion via the hole that the “hole” leaves in the vacuum during matter generation which necessarily increases negative pressure via rarefaction of the ever thinning vacuum structure.

This coincidence makes me wonder if anyone has ever written down the basis of wave functions in this background, including an expansion of the field in corresponding creation and annihilation operators… computed the stress-energy tensor in that background and quantitatively described the vacua. Has anyone worked out the matrix elements of the stress-energy tensor between Einstein’s original finite vacuum and the one-particle states?

Has anyone even checked with GR to see if negative mass has negative pressure?

Anyone else share that wonder?


[Post Notes : Since the response trail has gone cold on Sabine’s FB thread, I’m bringing forward here for future follow-up, Ricks additional inputs. It’s a worry that serious open-minded physicists can address these details beyond the initial rebuttal:

Ian : “We know there’s no explanation for the cosmological-constant problem within general relativity and the Standard Model of particle physics,” so, maybe suspend belief in the standard model for a moment, and I’d be interested in your response to Rick Ryals speculation?


Rick : Thanks but it isn’t exactly speculation as it all falls naturally from the mentioned cosmological model. In General Relativity’s most natural universe, the vacuum has negative density when,


In this static state, pressure is proportional to -rho, but pressure is negative in an expanding universe, and so energy density is positive.

The vacuum energy density is less than the matter energy density, but it is still positive, so positive matter density can be obtained locally if you condense energy from this negative pressure vacuum into a finite region of space, until the energy density over this region equals that of the matter density. This will, in-turn, cause negative pressure to increase, via the rarefaction of Einstein’s vacuum energy, (as the vacuum pulls back), so this expanding universe does not run-away, because the increase in positive mass-energy is offset by the increase in negative pressure that results when you make particles from Einstein’s negative pressure vacuum.

In Einstein’s static model, G=0 when there is no matter. The cosmological constant came about because we do have matter, so in order to get rho>0 out of Einstein’s matter-less model you have to condense the matter density from the existing structure, and in doing so the pressure of the vacuum necessarily becomes less than zero, P<0.


Sabine : [via twitter, (max 140 chars)]
Yes, negative (gravitational) mass has a negative pressure.
No, it doesn’t explain accelerated expansion.


Rick : Yes it does when a greater volume of the vacuum is required each time that you make a particle pair due to the rarefying effect that matter generation has on the finite vacuum.

But the universe is held flat and stable as acceleration increases …. until said process insidiously compromises the integrity of the structure and boom… the footprint of this universe gets laid down with the matter field for physicists of the next universe to scratch their collective heads about for all eternity… or so it would appear …

Rick and I continued some private chat on the implications, but these are not worth sharing until serious physicists take the physics inputs seriously. Anyone?]

[Continuing with chat response from Sabine (Matter corrected to Energy in the header):

[So, to the original question] I said, “Yes, negative gravitational mass can have a negative gravitational pressure to the same extent that positive gravitational mass can. That is to say, IF it’s pressureless, then of course it wont.

[T]he rest of the comment, I don’t know what [Rick] means.
[He asked] “Has somebody considered that the cc is a field and quantized it?”
Yes, sure. You can’t quantize a constant. And the cc doesn’t have ‘holes’ because it’s, well, constant.

From my lay perspective two obvious conditional assumptions there:

One, “if” gravitational mass (positive or negative) is pressureless.

Two, “whether” the cosmological constant is (literally) a constant. It’s that very assumption that is being questioned of course. Why it has the particular value it does in the current observable universe? The same point being questioned by Unger and Smolin, the dogma that such laws and constants are fixed and not evolving in the histories of universes.]

Heard Graham Bell talk again last week, this time a LAAG event entitled: “Making moral decisions: Are ‘you’ really in charge?” (With scare quotes around the ‘you’ in the original.) Obviously with that title presented that way, I was prejudiced to expect the usual “You and your free-will are illusions” line of denial.

In fact, although the whole thing came too close for me to denying ourselves and our free will (because it couldn’t be compatible with scientific determinism and therefore science couldn’t logically “prove it”), it was better that I expected. Good because it aired some important sources on the topic(s) – all expounded previously here at some length.

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow from his “Prospect Theory” economics psychology work with Tversky. Good stuff, but purely labels for empirical psychology rather than any explanatory theory of what’s really going on with Fast and Slow thinking. Not mentioned by Graham, Iain McGilchrist’s “Master and Emissary” model builds on explaining the basic phenomenon in terms of how the deeply divided brain has evolved to work that way and why both halves are valuable – need to value, and be valued by, each other. The fast processes are intuitive, more “hard-wired” – almost reflex – responses necessary for flexible behaviour in broad contexts. The slow processes are reflective, more “rational” where time permits and context requires more specific targeted decisions or actions. The key process differences lie in how the divided brain communicates with itself.

Jonathan Haidt too was cited positively, though interestingly Graham backed-off from wholeheartedly recommending him as a reference – too “woo” for the scientistic. Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis” comes close to life-style self-help as I’ve noted before, but his empirically backed psychological explanations are nevertheless good. And Haidt’s call for “conservatism” as a restraint on “freedom” is an important message – albeit a non-PC message for those for whom freedom is the mantra. A message reinforced by Julian Baggini’s latest Freedom Regained – freedom is better if it runs on rails.

Joshua Greene is cited because it appears he too uses “empirical science” to back his decision-making – brain scans to see what’s going on in the brain as decisions are made. Problem here is that whilst these measurements are empirical, the “trolleyology” surveys his subjects take are still nevertheless “thought experiments” – not very real. In fact trolleyology and its variants are a whole industry for some in moral philosophy – but there are two real points these cases make, particularly “proximity” (how close the potentially “harmed” subjects are to you) and “instrumentality” (the extent to which your positive action “causes” the harm). The other aspect not mentioned is “historicity” or context in general, and the whole history of moral development of the subject(s) up to the decision point and their future of living with the consequences thereafter. (PS can find no references to trolleyology having anything to do with super-market trolleys, before the runaway rail-trolleys on which the cases are generally built.) Simon Blackburn, Michael Sandel, Peter Singer and others are good sources of understanding what trolleyology really tells us about moral dilemmas and their limits in reality. (In terms of limits to freedom Julian Baggini’s latest is highly recommended.)

Libet is perhaps the most famous brain-scan correlation with decision-making, and consequently the most mis-interpreted. Graham didn’t mention him. It appears to reinforce the idea that most of our decisions are made before we have any conscious part in making them. In a sense that’s true – most of it is – but the small bit in reserve is the executive override, the “free-wont” as it’s been called. I always suggest people think of the tennis player (after Daniel Wegner) returning a fast serve and how much is “pre-programmed” by experience and practice, and whether the player still has any choice in the return shot. The point is however small any physical measure of our actual free-will it’s the important – most significant – bit we retain in influencing the outcome. It’s purely a matter of efficiency evolved for maximising fitness to our environment (as indeed is the McGilchrist view earlier). We focus on what matters in the moment and delegate the rest (walking, talking and chewing gum) to subsidiary systems and “tools”.

Sadly, Graham (and LAAG generally) are too quick to dismiss – with easy ridicule – philosophy and philosophers. They’re in good company with Larry Krauss there, but no less ignorant. Which is sad, because one person with a great deal to give in the debates on what free will and our self, wielding that free will, and how they evolved to be what they really are, is Dan Dennett, a philosopher who’s has more than a little fun with his philosophy denying scientist colleagues.

Basically too simplistic a view of determinism and too greedy a view of reductionism misleads us into seeing the physical machinery of the brain as incompatible with ourselves as our minds and our free-will built on that substrate. In order to avoid some mystical dualism of independent mind-stuff incompatibilists choose(!) to deny our free will. If that logic were correct, compatibilists would be misguided too. In fact the best response is to question the causation assumed in determinism and reductionism, since ourselves and our free-will are THE most directly empirical things we can know, even accepting that knowledge can be imperfect and illusory in aspects we can know. Certainly everyone – everyone at the talk – talks about moral choices as if they are able to make choices that (a) make a difference, and (b) they can be seen as responsible for.

Sam Harris is often cited within the new-atheist movement as a fellow denier of free-will. But of course, he isn’t, as I’ve discussed before. (See also Baggini’s quotes re Sam Harris).

The whole topic is really about what our minds are – are our minds “us” and how do “we” make choices that affect the physical world. As Graham described, the moral angle of this is really a sliding scale (onion-skins) on consequential harm and how we as social animals value relative harm and benefit. Like all such topics nothing is fundamentally absolute or universal, but the result of evolution and development. Evolution of our “species” genetically and culturally, and development historically from egg to fully formed forward-thinking “individual” in the moment, and all points between. Graham is certainly a strong advocate of the “naturalistic” standpoint and, on that, he’s right.

I side with Dennett – we are our minds and our minds are collections of memes – thinking tools – and we / they are real patterns of information. But that’s another story. Looking forward to Alan Duval’s talk next month – he appears to pick-up on more sophisticated philosophical views of the “compatibilism” debate.

This is hilarious. [Hard copy of Scientific American June 2012] “The Human Brain Project”

Sad too, but since it seems to be funded by Big Blue rather than public funds, not actually criminal.
Aaaaggghh no. The Human Brain Project is a multi-billion EU project. Now that is criminal.

The saving grace being that latter 2015 article says The Human Brain Project is premature, it needs a rethink. I’ll say. What were they thinking of, other than all that lovely money. This is not hindsight but basic common sense, not science, obviously. Big science needs better non-scientific advisors.

I was reading the 2012 piece because I was given the hard copy last night. We were at a talk on consciousness, mind, decision-making and morality (more on which soon) and the topic came up (a la Dennett) that the key feature that makes the human brain a mind – our mind – was software, not hardware. No amount of physical scale (exa-flops) nor connectivity (connectome) makes it a mind. It makes it a very complex machine. Building an elctronic simulation may be a fine model of its physical working, as physiologiocal, elctro-thermo device, but it doesn’t come close to asking how does the brain work – as a mind.

[Post Note – not watched yet, but here another current machine-brain is a delusion piece shared by Johnnie on FB]

Today we protest another atheist blogger murdered – hacked to death in public – earlier this week, and demand the Bangladeshi government take public action to condemn such behaviour as totally unacceptable, and be seen to capture and bring the guilty to justice.

I posted on the freedom-of-expression aspect of this unacceptable train of events back here. As atheist, secularist, rationalist bloggers for democratic freedoms we share the pain, but we must not forget that the following morning 45 Ismaili Shias were publicly murdered in Karachi just for holding a different view to another murderous sect in the name of Islam.

Also recently we noted the agreement – between (atheist) Bob Churchill and (Christian) Ben Rogers – that in defense of freedom:

Art.18 is there to defend freedom for every human being.
Too often Christians speak up for Christians,
Muslims for Muslims, atheists for atheists.
Freedom should be defended [by all] for all.

When it comes to freedom of thought, belief and expression, we must not be partisan in our condemnation of violent suppression.



[Post Note : And some success.]