Interesting …. having pointed out yesterday that humanists typically hold (religious) faith in love (of humans), but the formal voices of humanism would reject the suggestion this was a religious trait, as they do whenever religious comparisons are made – also re-blogged the link to the reaction to Andrew Brown’s suggestion … that today there is a tweet circulating about why humanists don’t get a voice in BBC R4’s Thought for the Day – presumably prompted by the similarity with the BHA’s Though for the Commute – exactly as it prompted my post yesterday too.

Thought for the Day is based on spokespeople with religious values. Humanism resists the idea it has such values, and indeed apart from expressing (and acting on) very generic do-gooding towards humanity on every issue – freedoms, etc – still tends to define itself in terms of being against religious dogma (who isn’t) rather than any specific values it is actually for.

Humanism wants to be seen and heard alongside religions on an equal footing without acknowledging that this is because of what it has in common with religions. Disingenuous.

Interestingly, one of the BHA’s “Thought for the Commute” posters is Peter Tatchell saying:

“The Beatles were right, All you need is love.”

I couldn’t agree more. One of my long-running threads here on Psybertron goes by the tag #whatsofunnybout (peace, love and understanding).

It’s at root behind my three rules of dialogue – respect, respect and respect – which I often use to counter “no-one has the right not to be offended” being naively interpreted as therefore I have every right to offend you. That right to offend lies with the court-jester (Steve Fry say), the cartoonist-in-residence (Martin Rowson say) and the fool of the parish (Dick Dawkins say), but general debate and dialogue proceeds by conversation built on respect for fellow man. An obligation to understand, interpret and agree before criticise and persuade change in the other.

However, what I find ironic is that “All you need is love” is profoundly religious statement of faith in humanity being touted by humanists who run a mile screaming at comparisons with religion.

Of course there are many organised religions, theist or otherwise, where love of fellow man is at least an important component, and even a few where it is the core component, or sole aspect. Organised religions, particularly those with archaic traditions of authority and hierarchy, ultimately with omnipotent causal gods overall, have well recognised downsides. Downsides we want to keep well away from secular governance of society.

But it feels like throwing baby out with the bathwater, to reject the shared value of love, the religious value shared with many religions.

Drs Alice Roberts and Michael Mosely on BBC2 Horizon today 29th September.

Vive la difference, I usually say ;-)

Just rough personal notes here, whilst watching:

Hmmm. Nothing is “hard” wired. Some stuff is pre-wired, genetically and in foetal development, neurally and hormonally, and a great deal is infant developed by stereotypical “encouragement”, and a lot more is moulded by formal parenting and education, and even more is moulded by experience of the social / peer environment.

Roughly 5, 15, 30, 50 % contributions maybe (after Pinker), depending which specific traits you’re evaluating. Anyone can do anything equally well, but their innate propensities do start different, and these differences are re-inforced or de-emphasised.

So testing an adult human, will be a complex – pointless – situation, without an enormous amount of historical data to support the exercise. Also very hard to create totally controlled boundary conditions for testing pre-and-early-post-natals – a human individual is not to be seen as a repeatable experiment – macaque’s could be different.

Anyway there are real from birth differences – for GOOD evolutionary reasons. Equality of opportunity is one thing, but vive la difference is also important if we humans are to develop maximum value together.

Direct objective measures of physical brain differences can be highly misleading, because correlations between mental, behavioural and physical are complex patterned in many dimensions and levels. Many of the defining differences arise from the connective and permissive control mechanisms (hippocampus, corpus-callosum, etc) not size and wiring-symmetry of cortex, etc.

My most recent reference to this is the left-right brain difference between male and female – but remember left-right brain concerns not the jobs the halves do but the mechanisms that bring them into play in “mind”. The Gur input is important – left-brain analytical propensity to physical detail, exaggerated in males – and in the autistic. Note it’s the connections between the hemispheres, not the hemispheres themselves that are important. I see the Gur data supports the McGilchrist hypotheses. Women are typically “better connected” than men, though again there are developmental and plasticity mechanisms – causality is two way – and again the life of a human individual is not a repeatable controlled experiment.

Men are not “better” decision-makers unless your idea of a good decision is analytically objective. Women (archetypically) make decisions differently, though we can all learn better behaviour any number of ways. My thesis is that the difference, variety, is better for humanity, than having all our eggs in the one basket of one decision-making paradigm. But of course the more we understand the explanatory cause and effect model, from genes onwards the better equipped we are to make the political and ethical choices. The science may be incomplete, but it’s not really controversial.

The parentally-subconscious preference on how they see infant boy & girl capabilities is an interesting part of the 15% contribution – not seen that before. Parents can choose to avoid explicit stereotyping, but this sub-conscious effect could be important and culturally variable. But, as I say, I don’t see the gender differences as necessarily a bad thing, and it’s never a bad thing to know what they are. Vive la difference.

The two presenters actually agree. Small but real genetic & infant biological development difference, huge socio-cultural plasticity. Stereotypes can be destructive, but archetypes remain valuable.

Excellent episode of Start The Week. Not just Karen Armstrong on the links between religion and the history of life in general, including war, but more history of Baghdad, Islamic learning, culture and trade, and the evolution of the middle-east situation in general. Imperial dominance overtaking historical cultural leadership, leading to “humiliation” as a driver to violent frustration. We learn that despite Mesopotamia being the prehistoric cradle of civilisation, Baghdad itself is much newer dating from 700’s AD.

[Seeing Karen Armstrong speak at the Royal Institution on Wednesday.]

[Previously blogged about her back in 2010.]

[Post Note : Karen’s Grauniad article /essay to promote her book tour.]

[Post Note : and a CFI_UK response from Stephen Law.]

[Post Note : and an ex-Muslim perspective.]

Been reading  The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffrey M Schwartz and Sharon Begley, at the suggestion of an exchange between Dave Morey and Harvey Taylor on FB.

Other than the two title topics being part of any complete brain-mind story, the only real connection between Neuroplasticity and Mental Force is that they are both aspects of science denied by mainstream science for many decades for which common sense and less-reductionist open-minds would recognise much supporting evidence. Most of the book is the authors’ narrative of the battle to generate support for the evidence already out there, as well as their own neuro-psychological experience, in the face of political resistance to good science.

For me it’s another book I could have (wish I had) written. The line of argument and all the sources are those I’ve been marshalling on the blog for 15 years, so in practice I skim read it, but would recommend it for anyone for whom the lines of thought are novel.

After kicking off with Terry Bisson’s Thinking Meat, there are 3 or 4 solid chapters on 20th century demonstrations of brain (cortical neurone rewiring) plasticity. Tough in gory detail for anyone squeamish who finds vivisection distasteful or morally questionable, but the Silver Spring macaques and human stroke survivors suffered more for longer than strictly necessary for our knowledge to become accepted. Ramachandran is referenced, and I’ve used the likes of Damasio, Sacks, Zeman, and others to provide the same stories. Not only does the “mind” learn, the brain re-wires itself according to real life experience of the individual, not just in its early development. The authoritative body-scientific learns to rewire itself much more slowly than human individuals. (3 generations or 80 years is my typical estimate, after Kondratiev.)

The second half of the subject matter kicks off with my 3 favourite quantum physics quotes from Bohr, Born and Heisenberg. These provide a lead-in to the relationship between the writer(s) and Henry Stapp, and the long relationship between them and the Chalmers et al Arizona / Tucson Science of Consciousness and Quantum Consciousness movement(s) – a resource I’ve plundered for much material previously. I must have seen the Schwartz and Begley names before, but not registered.

Finally, they cover Libet’s Volitional Brain. Unlike so many in the mainstream, they do not misinterpret Libet as evidence that free-will is non-existent, an illusion. Like Libet (and myself) they recognise that it points to a free-won’t view of how free-will really operates. In closing they join up Jamesian and Buddhist world-views with the science presented so far. The “quantum Zeno effect” whereby the mental really does supply “downward causation” on the physical. A clear antidote to the objectively-physical greedy-reductionists; free-will really does wield mental force over the merely physical.

A great reference work from my perspective, and as I say, a recommended read for anyone to whom the subject matter is new or mysterious.

[Post Note : will come back and gradually add internal links to all the existing blog references.]

Another interesting and typically honest down-to-earth Grauniad piece by Jon Butterworth, following on from a couple of weeks ago, he’s obviously had plenty of correspondence from two quarters. Scientistic types who find Bayes Theorem the thin edge of a statistical wedge, admitting subjectivity into their hallowed ground, and philosophical types (aka nut-jobs) using the chink to insert suggestions of alternative physics into Jon’s “standard model” domain. Against the scientistic types Jon is happy to point out the value of honesty when it comes to admitting Bayes; to the nut-jobs he says:

For example, as a writer and head of a physics department, I get quite a few unsolicited communications about new theories of physics, often involving Einstein having been wrong, or the Higgs boson actually being a macaroon or something. I have a prior bias here, based on the enormous amount of existing evidence. Einstein might have been confused about the cosmological constant on occasion, but given prior evidence it is highly unlikely that the whole thrust of relativistic mechanics is up the spout. Likewise, I personally have quite a lot of evidence that the Higgs boson is consistent so far with being the fundamental Higgs of the Standard Model, and inconsistent with the macaroon theory.

Well I’ve not been sending Jon any pet theories, but I do highlight two of Jon’s points:

(1) it is highly unlikely that the whole thrust of relativistic mechanics is up the spout.

(2) a lot of evidence that the Higgs boson is consistent so far with the Standard Model.

Firstly, that prior assumption, his bias,  has a massive impact on interpretation of new results. Perversely, Einstein was right, and there is a great deal of “non-inflation” evidence the standard model is way off the mark. Once that is more generally recognised, that prior assumption (1) is gone, totally.

Secondly, as I reported when I heard Jon speak on the latest LHC Higgs evidence, it is quite explicit that the increasingly significant (5-sigma plus) evidence is pointing to internal self-consistency of the incomplete standard model. (2) does doing nothing to prove the fit between the model and the real world, other than to reinforce the subjective impression in (1).

As well as Bayes, we need a little Godel here. Jon already highlighted last time, the need to look elsewhere. It is a wonderfully healthy situation to have an honest scientist thinking out loud in the mainstream press. Could save science form the scientistic extremists. Be even better if we could find Jon a philosophical type for similar dialogue, with mutual respect.

[Post Note : More on Bayes in science from the NYT -

“Statistics sounds like this dry, technical subject, but it draws on deep philosophical debates about the nature of reality,” said the Princeton University astrophysicist Edwin Turner, who has witnessed a widespread conversion to Bayesian thinking in his field over the last 15 years.

Countering Pure Objectivity

Woohooo – maybe more scientists will gradually see the need to respect and/or get to grips with philosophy?]


Public communications piece from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Laura Mersini-Houghton’s recent announcements (previously reported Bang Goes The Big Bang here):

“Physicists have been trying to merge these two theories – Einstein’s theory of gravity and quantum mechanics – for decades, but this scenario brings these two theories together, into harmony,” said Mersini-Houghton. “And that’s a big deal.”

And it does that by dispensing with black holes and singularities (and consequent inflation and dark-matter and dark-energy and many-worlds multi-verses), all the way back to the big bang. Stripping out the hacks and returning to (classical) common sense. (Hat tip to Rick on FB again- trawling the web for big-bang updates.)

That’s a big deal.

[Post Note : Obviously there are honestly sceptical responses to Mersini-Houghton, but so far no direct refutation, and I did notice one reference to Stephen Hawking having now agreed with her, over the non-existence of black-holes as singularities anyway. Need to collate other links.]

[Post Note : Oh, and how timely.]

Hat tip to @TiffanyJenkins for the link to this BBC Future Proofing episode on The Singularity.

(Holding post for now: Will miss tonight due to MeetUp engagement, but will review when I get to listen on iPlayer later.)

FYI – My prejudiced position is that all the talk about the impending Singularity is premised on a “too mechanistic” misunderstanding of the true computational nature of mind and intelligence. I say AI will be achieved when it evolves to be Real-I. (Need to dig up relevant blog links.)

Rough Notes whilst listening:

Computing power = smartness ? Hmmm.

Exponential human development – quartering time-base since homo-sapiens – OK. Predicts 2030-ish Omega point. If (that is IF) computers overtake human intelligence at that point, then by 2045 they will be billions of times more intelligent. Not sure computational power is the main driver of that cycle, but …

(Personally – I still believe in the three human generations timescale of technology development, ~80 year cycles in their actual effect on how humans live. Kondratiev / Kuhn etc. Interestingly 2030 is about the cusp of the next wave.)

Ray Kurzweil (now Eng Dir @ Google) – it’s about Language, the Turing Test. Zzzzz.

IBM “Watson” – “more” natural, sure. Anthropomorphic interactions (saying thanks), sure.

Humans do have advantages over robots – creativity, problem solving, emotional intelligence, dexterity, flexibility, etc. Doh! that’s what makes us humans as opposed to Accounting PhDs. Sure technology will automate the boring bits. Accounting however is a very complex human game – a million miles from arithmetic computation. Can’t see any robot playing “Tabletop” – the level-slipping analogies of creative problem solving.

Still (@24:10) only talking about “digital” computers and algorithms. Fast and accurate is not the point of human intelligence. Additive is the key – human intelligence will exploit ever more powerful tools.

(Interesting both presenters wrong in detecting human vs machine composed music. Second was clearly “formulaic” – metronomic – time-base-wise. Hard to prove now, proves nothing anyway, but I made the right choice. Not sure whether we were dealing with recordings or if both compositions machine-played?)

The Meta-aspects of humans, standing back to reflect on humanity. (Meta is the level-slipping in Tabletop.)

Ultimate conclusion is humanity – and human intelligence – is more than “machine” AI.

Agree. This is why I say AI can and will evolve, but it will only approach the intelligence of an intelligent life-form like humans, when it evolves to be an intelligent life-form itself. Real-I. (On evolutionary timescales.) Nothing special about humans here – any similarly intelligent life-form will do, we just happen to be the encumbents around here.

So long as AI workers have digital computers as their “computation” model of human brains (let alone minds) they’ll be severely hampered in getting AI to develop that way. Human intelligence does of course exploit “algorithms” to save time and brain power from the boring bits, free to do the creative “slipping”.

This is being reported everywhere. The irrelevance of CMB polarisation patterns relative to background noise and interference from space dust. No longer clutching at straws to support inflation-driven hacks to explain cosmic evolution since the big bang and, by rights, casting fresh questions over the nature of cosmic origins themselves. Here’s hoping common sense prevails, and good scientists ask the scientific questions. (Like Mersini-Houghton for example.)

Neatly summarised on FB by Rick Ryals:

If you project the expansion of the universe backwards without *pre-assuming* that you have to go all the way to an infinitely dense initial singularity in order to have a big bang, then inflationary theory becomes un-necessary as the most natural solution falls out… A universe with pre-existing volume had a big bang.

No more flatness problem, no more horizon problem… etc… duh.

Ironically, the same day UK science’s poster-boy is aired being interviewed by Jim Al Khalili in The Life Scientific, claiming he supports a multiple (parallel) “multiverses” view. [Text here – (*) even Schroedinger’s damn cat. Aaaaaggghhh!!!.] I do wish scientists would leave metaphysics to the philosophers, or at least (as Jim clearly does) acknowledge that some of the questions really are not in the realm of science. Why? Because if scientists actually did their real jobs, instead of playing stand-up politics with the media and their funding sources, they’d notice there is good scientific evidence for multiple sequential “universes” separated cyclically in time and furthermore, universes that don’t depend on the inflation hack. Nor do they depend on the brainless cop-out that if we can’t fit our flawed story to the cosmos as a whole, we’ll posit an infinity of possible universes where our politically-motivated guesses might just happen to be true in one of them. Scientists ought to have to pass some kind of test before being let loose with the kind of thought experiments used by philosophy. Stands to reason, dunnit?

As Haidt said (previous post) – science is untrustworthy because (too many) scientists spend their time playing-politics and issue-campaigning instead of doing science. Scientists are no more to be trusted than politicians or theologians, and only philosophers seem to appreciate that problem. Honest a-political scientists can of course understand the physical problem, if they put their minds to it, rather than their political defenses.

[(*) Post Note – literally many worlds, multiple parallel (independent) universes, is a thought experiment, nothing to do with physics – if the physics of two different worlds are related in anyway, they are part of the same world, possibly an inadequately explained part of the world, but the same world. Uncertainty of, or superposition of, multiple possible states in this world is a reflection of the difficulty agreeing explanations at the boundaries of physics knowledge about the world – unfinished work of physicists. Multiple universes in the sequential sense is something entirely different, cyclical aeons in the same world, same universe, but with (most of) history reset at each new big bang.

The mechanism is actually a lot easier to understand says Rick Ryals:

When you make a particle pair from vacuum energy you leave a real hole in the vacuum. This increases negative pressure and causes the vacuum to expand. The positive gravitational effect of the ne
wly created massive particle offsets the increase in negative pressure so the “flatness” of the universe is fixed. Ripping out huge chunks of the vacuum structure to make particles with causes the vacuum to “thin” as tension between the vacuum and matter increases. Eventually this process will compromise the integrity of the forces that bind the universe and… BOOM… a universe with pre-existing volume has *another* big bang.

And, Neil Turok, betting against gravitational waves in Scientific American.]

Interesting Boyarsky Lecture at Duke, from Jonathan Haidt – who I’ve read and reviewed very positively before – which he opens by contrasting liberal unconstrained view of morality with the need for institutional constraints. And immediately nails his colours to the more conservative “centrist” mast than the vast majority of his liberal academic, medical scientific, audience.

Hat tip to Stephen Law on FB for the link.

Excellent, after a full viewing. The ultimate message is that we share most values, but our views become skewed or imbalanced by making one value “sacred” above all others, immune from any trade-offs. And the sacred choices are mostly partisan, defended vs the mad, irrational perceived opposition, liberal vs conservative at any given point in time, but environmental changes over time mean that the sacred priorities evolve. Or rather they should evolve, but become even more imbalanced by the reaction to the opposition. On the science front, the problem is scientists (the humans) are politicised on the liberal side of the balance. Hear, hear.

Definitely worth watching in full, despite the US-centric agenda.

Good to see a piece on the new computing element of the UK school curriculum, where it is more than simply a “coding” skill for immediate employment. Stuart Dredge in the Grauniad quotes Bill Mitchell of the BCS.

He says it’s “thinking about thinking”, and you can do with bits of string and card and lots of running around, without going anywhere near a computer. It can be inspirational. Hear hear. Computation is something as fundamental in this world as say physics, understanding of which is highly transferable knowledge, as I’ve mentioned several times, last time here in The Year of Code.

[Post Note : A little scare-mongering.]

Met and heard Bob Churchill of IHEU talk to the CLHG at Conway Hall last night, with an audience of 60-odd.

His provocative title “Your Humanism is a Thought Crime” left out the implied … in certain parts of the world where religious freedom is not recognised, or is actively suppressed whether by legal arrangements or by cultural taboo. His first and recurring clarification is to note that the expression Religious Freedom is a selective contraction of a much more comprehensive UN Human Rights declaration on Freedom of thought, expression and belief including religious and non-religious belief.

His presentation was in two parts; Firstly, to describe and update us on the work of the many (hundreds of) international humanist groups under the IHEU umbrella, and the many examples of specific cases and countries where campaigns to help those individuals and groups subjected to discrimination and much greater lethal risks. The examples and statistics are mind-boggling in scope and variety, and the most comprehensive account of these forms the basis on the annually updated Free Thought Report (which Bob edits). The second was to focus specifically on the direct first-hand lobbying activities of IHEU and other humanist NGO’s in support of ongoing UN proposals for new and amended motions and declarations. (Be great to share the slides, Bob.)

The amount of work evident in these combined activities was and is immense – impressive and indeed inspiring. Even as an avid follower of such human rights issues and cases reported in the media, you couldn’t hope to appreciate the total scope without the IHEU work done to report them all under one umbrella. From the IHEU perspective, Humanism is as broad a church imaginable: “The global umbrella organisation embracing Humanist, atheist, secularist, skeptic, rationalist, lay, ethical, cultural, free-thought and similar organisations, worldwide since 1952.” To be whole-heartedly commended and supported.

In the Q&A, and ongoing discussions late into the evening, Bob responded to two lines of questioning amongst others:

Given the very general nature of the human rights freedoms, and the range of issues of nation, race, age, gender, sexual-orientation as well as religious and non-religious beliefs generally, how is the “Humanism” message made distinct compared to the many campaigning organisations in this broad libertarian, humanitarian sphere – such as Amnesty International it was suggested.

And secondly, given that the focus in sheer weight of example cases was religious – predominantly Moslem – suppression of freedoms, how is Humanism establishing and arguing for alternatives to the underlying fundamental tenets of specific religious beliefs.

Joining the dots between those two issues; Humanism, despite the impressively huge amount of campaigning and success against violation of general freedoms of belief and expression, it has done so largely under an anti-religion banner, often under the God vs Science wars” or, BHA specifically, secular moves to eliminate faith-based activity from any (UK) state organs. The focus has been to criticise, attack and ridicule the more “irrational” and dogmatic aspects of religious belief or otherwise exclude it from the domain. Other than some “scientific” & “democratic” forms of rationality, is Humanism doing enough to establish the nature and values of “good” Humanist beliefs, in the vacuum left behind where established religious-based moral law has withered or is otherwise being progressively swept away? The process of getting our own Humanist house in order, as it were.

Bob, from his perspective as both philosopher and campaigner, articulated a sophisticated and informed response. In summary: Firstly, we can’t be simplistic about the myriad interconnected issues. And even where we are able to propose appropriate responses, policies and values, there remain complexities in their communication. Even in the no-brainer clear cut cases, with an obvious wrong to be put right,  there remain many tactical subtleties of both communication and action depending on the short and long term risks to the individuals involved. But in general, many levels from particular campaign messages and actions to more general intellectual debate and conversations, mediated and un-mediated.

Hear, hear. And, in many ways, this represents the fear that drives the agenda here on Psybertron. In this world of ubiquitous communications, it’s all too easy to allow the focus on clear-headlines needed to pursue the clear-cut no-brainer campaigns, to crowd out the tougher, subtler conversations that are also necessary.  It’s a truism that real values are reflected in how individuals act and govern their actions in practice, and that policies and manifestos expressing aims and values, however carefully drafted, can remain theoretical. But, like The Free Thought Report, agreed and published policies and processes for addressing the real complexities of the issues, are a resource for justification and validation of action by all involved.

Impossible to be comprehensive and conclusive within the constraints of the evening, and a blogged report like this, but all in all a very encouraging conversation pointing in all the right directions.

In reviewing The Muslims are Coming! by Arun Kundnani, Andrew Copson writing in the New Humanist finds that whilst he supports the warnings against prejudice, the message falls short on the part the religion itself plays in Islamic extremism. He adds this point of his own:

There is a confidence imparted to a person by religious ideology that can motivate excessive violence, and the intellectual and ideological content of religion needs to be considered in any full analysis.

Of course he’s right. But there are moral distinctions to be made between “attacking” extremism and “critically debating” religion. The fact that ideological confidence can motivate violent extremism is no premise to assume that it does in anyone who identifies with any given religion. Considerate analysis must include respect for those who find value in religion, something far from ideology and a million miles from condemning violent extremism.

Mentioned a couple of times recently since reading Nagel’s most recent (2012-ish ?) Mind and Cosmos, that I’d felt the need to go back to some of his earlier work of which I was aware by reference and quotation, but had never properly read.

So, I’m reading The View From Nowhere (1986), and despite so far reading only the introduction, I’m already full of quotes I feel the need to share. Another of those I (wish I) could have written myself:

[The process of progressive objectification] will not always yield a result, and sometimes it will be thought to yield a result when it really doesn’t; then as Nietzsche warned, one will get a false objectification of an aspect of reality that cannot be better understood from a more objective standpoint. Although there is a connection between objectivity and reality [….] still not all reality is better understood the more objectively it is viewed.

Appearance and perspective are essential parts of what there is, and in some respects they are best understood from a less detached standpoint. Realism underlies claims of objectivity and detachment, but it supports them only up to a point.

The internal-external tension pervades human life, but is particularly prominent in the generation of philosophical problems. I shall concentrate on four topics: the metaphysics of mind, the theory of knowledge, free-will and ethics. But the problem has equally important manifestations with respect to the metaphysics of space and time, the philosophy of language and aesthetics. In fact there is probably no area of philosophy in which it doesn’t play a significant role.

The subjectivity of consciousness is an irreducible feature of reality – without which we couldn’t do physics or anything else – and it must occupy as fundamental a place in any credible world-view as matter, energy, space, time and numbers. [….] I believe it is already clear that any correct theory of the relation between mind and body would radically transform our overall conception of he world and would require a new understanding of the phenomena now thought of as physical. [….] The good, like the true, includes irreducibly subjective elements.

This is in some respects a deliberately reactionary work. There is a significant strain of idealism in contemporary philosophy, according to which what there is and how things are cannot go beyond what we could in principle think about. This inherits the crude appeal of logical positivism [….]. Philosophy is also infected by a broader tendency of contemporary intellectual life: SCIENTISM. Scientism is actually a special form of idealism, for it puts one type of human understanding in charge of the universe and what can be said about it. At its most myopic it assumes that everything there is must be understandable by scientific theories of the kind we have developed to date – physics and evolutionary biology being the current paradigms – as if the current age were not just another in the series [of ages of understanding].

Precisely because of their dominance, these attitudes are ripe for attack. Of course some of the opposition is foolish; it can degenerate into the rejection of science – whereas anti-scientism is essential to the defence of science against misappropriation. [….] Too much time is wasted because of the assumptions that methods already in existence will solve problems for which they were not designed.

Emphases are mine. I hadn’t realised “scientism as infection” was a Nagel concept. I’d thought it was absolutely mine – magic! Objectivity is much simpler to handle so is easier to communicate – the memetic effect:

[….] a persistent temptation to turn [intellectual pursuit of understanding]
into something less difficult and more shallow than it is.
[Whereas] it is extremely difficult.

Or, as I would put it “just complicated enough” to be at risk from simplistication.

[Post Note : where did I see another recent reference to the concept of “just complicated enough” ?]

A Grauniad post from Jon Butterworth – I’m becoming a fan, one of the more down to earth physicists I’ve met.

But, it’s another one of those nagging doubts I have. I get the 5-sigma stats, the limits to the assumptions of normal distributions, and even the subconscious Bayesian correction, but I can’t help feeling the focus on error relative to your thesis is merely reinforcing – reifying – the objectification of your own thesis. It’s about error “relative to” your set of assumptions. The smaller this error the greater the significance of some bigger error in your model / hypothesis / assumptions built into the measurements you’re seeking as well as the results you’re finding. Your ability to achieve “perfect” results is greater the more your boundary conditions constrain what you can look for.

I suspect this is tied up in the “look elsewhere” idea he mentions – which I don’t really get, yet. More reading. Sigh!

Interestingly even in the title / intro / abstract – Lyons agenda seems to be aligned with some of my issues. The rationalisation and (resource) justification aspects of large physics projects might create some self-fulfilling relationship between theory and results. Intriguing.

[Post Note : and the following day a post taking supersymmetry possibilities seriously at 2.6-sigma. Previous supersym ref here. Also ephemeral points on twitter – that big physics is using 5-sigma just because it can, given how many events it can poll. Reinforces my nagging fear that the stats are a red-herring, missing (obscuring) something of more explanatory value, more real than the standard model.]

[Post Note : Opportunity for a (real, attributable) Einstein quote

“Since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity,
I do not understand it myself anymore.”

(Albert Einstein : Philosopher Scientist (1949) edited by Paul A. Schilpp)]

Tweeted and FB’d several comments at the loss of William Hague from the Foreign Office, and Baroness Warsi’s subsequent comments about his loss, her departure and the FO falling apart. Basically I was disappointed that Hague had decided to leave for his own reasons, he didn’t seem the kind of competent committed person to withdraw his old-school loyalty from a difficult job. (Made several passing references in the blog to our missing Hague in connection with immediate foreign situations that cried out for his skills. This one on Gaza, Ukraine and ISIS and UK/EU and #IndyRef. Thank god John Kerry has no home to go to and has kept the show on the road single-handedly.)

Well, it seems Hague was indeed pushed, he was just being loyal to the team by giving the public message he did. Too loyal, as I suspected. And now it seems tongues are wagging about his encumbent replacement Hammond not appreciating what they’ve lost. (Source – Twitter last night. Need to dig up refs.)

Being based in London for the working week these days, it’s maybe apparent from the blog that I’ve been taking advantage of attending cultural and intellectual events of various kinds in the city.

Multi-discipline public presentations from academic institutions like ICL and UCL, public speaking engagements by “celebrity” expert “authorities“, talks and meetings of particular societies, BHA, CLHG, CFIUKConway Hall / The Ethical Society, New Humanist / Rationalist Association, and more. Apart from the specific content of the particular meeting, the big plus of such events is the face-to-face time of new (and existing) contacts and discussion conducted for the past 15 years primarily by blogs, social media and mailing lists.

Several of these events I’ve already blogged reports, and several more I have bookings for the future.

One particular novelty for me, despite 14 years of active blogging & social media on these topics, has been “MeetUp“. Despite being set-up to organise diaries around attendance at physical meetings, many of the participants, use MeetUp itself as the blog – posting the online agenda – and discussion forum – the online comment thread, associated with the MeetUp topic.

Like all such vehicles there are good and bad examples of use; you know the kind populated by trolls for whom “giving offence” is their perceived basis of the right to free speech, and “to grow a pair” as the London Active Atheists Group would have it – active as in the indiscriminate one-dimensional “shrill” voices of anti-faithism, anti anything that’s not ‘ard enuff, on my limited exposure so far. And yes, since I do “ave a pair” I will plan to attend at some point, sadly this last one fell on the same evening I had an appointment to see an apartment. (Compare WHC2014 declaration on free speech, where “no right not to be offended” is one selected part of the creed, along with positives like support and restraint.)

One example that, despite having its fair share of conspiracy-theorists and free-critics, seems to maintain a constructive balance is GlobalNet21 – a group which seems to have several active sub-groups. Blogged one group event already – “the state of traditional democracy” – and another – “new enlightenment” – I’ve not posted here until now, but posted links and feedback into the MeetUp thread at the request of the organiser Kathryn Best. [Post Note : several other overlapping sources and resources in this “new enlightenment” session – Snowden’s Cynefin view of complexity, Maslovian motivation and other incentivisation theories and practice, and several others – need to collect the links posted on MeetUp and construct a coherent essay on this one too.]

GlobalNet21 is particularly interesting for me in that it is clearly actively facilitated by Francis Sealey, and that it represents in the face-to-face domain exactly what I was trying to achieve with Joining Up The Dots / “Dots’n’Threads” and eventually throwing in my lot with the practically moribund “The Global Circle“. One to watch.

Very interesting session in the Wilson committee room at Parliament’s Portcullis House last Tuesday 9th September. It was a MeetUp organised by GlobalNet21. I was busy with several other events last week, so taken until over the weekend to publish my notes.

Peter Hain (Lab) and John Mann (Lab) as the main speakers. [Caroline Dinenage (Con) had to pull out due to constituency business.]

Both MP’s Hain and Mann contrasted their own political careers – starting out locally engaged and (single) issue focussed, and finding themselves drawn into the process of democratic government – with those of modern “career” politicians. Typically starting with a politics related degree, internship experience with party or offfice, working in related politics or journalism field until securing candidacy (council or parliament), thereby becoming MP, junior minister, spokesperson, minister and finally PM. So many candidacies actually go unopposed. Coming from and becoming part of the Westminster press / academic / government “bubble” – and in so doing, reinforcing the bubble. Reinforcing the detatchment of polticians from “real life” of their constituents.

In parallel was the apparent decline in voter engagement and turnout statistics over the decades, though there was some suggestion these things did go in cycles. The idea of Halcyon days is simply nostalgia. Interpretations of current low levels could be an apathy due to most things being comfortably OK (the normal interpretation), or a specific message of public dissatisfaction with the political process and arrangements (though no-one felt the need to mention the Russell Brand effect even once during the whole evening).

Counter-intuitively, career politician or local activist, the time for working on engagenment is not necessarily in the run-up to elections, where both lobbyists and candidates understand the game of securing maximum counts for least effort, least commitment and minimum difficult, complex debate.

Similarly, engagement is not necessarily through policy setting and agreement. Strategic policy may often be the window dressing – the language and narrative expected by “the bubble” – but tactical action, using actual power to address specific value-adding issues is what draws public support for specific MP’s and hence their parties. Mann challenged the academia members of the bubble to use his advice as a case study for what it really takes to secure votes.

Parties and the “two-party system” were a topic too. Despite much wrong with the byzantine machinations of party organisations and activities, and with the effect of casting all issues adversarially, parties do in fact perform a valuable function in providing the platform, advice and vehicle for raising individual constituent issues into the government political process, getting both active individuals and their issues on to the agendas for debate, decisions and action.

In these days of ubiquitous electronic media, it is the otherwise most disenfranchised that are, relatively speaking, most empowered. Anyone however “ineloquent” of whatever social status can and will add their voice to a debate, a campaign, a petition. The downsides however are the ease with which cynicism and reactive or simplistic positions can spread, and given that real life is limited by resources and priorities – not everything can be most important or “paramount” – the empowerment to communicate raises expectations that can easily lead to disappointment, frustration and reinforcement of the said cynicism. A vicious circle I call “the memetic effect” in this blog – the catchiest but not necessarily the best ideas capture maximum attention.

There is a sense in which the public needs to understand that limited resources, conflicting priorities and unintended consequence over different levels and timescales mean not every issue can be solved by simple yes / no decisions. Basic “civics” education is so important for public understanding of the complexities, though clearly the more transparent and honest political dealings can be, the complexity needn’t be over-complicated. Explaining the difference between complexity and complication is err … complicated. Real priorities can be more readily apparent, the more people appreciate the real processes needed.

Interestingly, despite the counter-intuitive rejection of the value of “policies” per se, it is nevertheless clear that agreed values and shared human aims are fundamental to achieving consenus and focus on real priorities. Value itself is created by action, whereas policy statements of value simply support the process, and rationalise the decisions.

Many other specific ideas for improving the process came up. In no particular order:

Open primaries for candidate selection were recommended and a number of MP’s including Mann had used and promoted this concept. They are not a silver bullet – by the very virtue of being open – they are open to abuse and manipulation, but they are part of the reforms needed to encourage two-way engagement – candidates with the public and the public with the process.

There semed to be implicit consensus that larger constituencies with some form of proportional / AV representation really was overdue, and disbelief that the recent opportunity to enact this had been rejected. The simplistic first-past-the-post within arbitrary constituencies was part of the adversarial election-winning distraction from real value-adding action.

Quite mixed views on an elected second chamber. Clear objective for some. General agreement on the total numbers in the two houses has become too large. Personally, I believe reform in combination with the AV ideas above, does also need some “conservative” meritocratic appointees with timescales and policy horizons beyond the next election term office. It’s not so much that the elected individuals have selfish short-term vision, but that the process can artificially impose the term timescale. Conversely several mentions of checks and balances in any system, such as “recall” being essential.

Finally, in addition to the mentions of the empowerment of participants by ubiquitous social media, several mentions of electronic voting and also the voters responsibilities to vote, including some discussion of legally mandatory voting. No time for these to be aired fully. Enforced voting was generally rejected, certainly not without actual voting choices include concepts like “none of the above”. Electronic voting perceived by many as too open to manipulation by those parties providing and running the systems, but in fact my objection is that to maintain its value, voting mustn’t be made too easy – a click from the armchair, like any other two-bit quiz or feedback form.

Overall, an excellent session. Covered a lot of ground, but necessarily couldn’t do justice to all topics. Personally, I’m already sold on the need for increased engagement. Positively inspiring to encounter real values and practical wisdom “in the flesh” – all too easy to criticise those “in power” from afar, and demand the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. Also particularly note-worthy of this event was the fact that it wasn’t run as a debate requiring yes or no agreements, but a conversation topic where the potential for change and improvement was a given from the off.

[Post Note : One to read later – hat tip to Sam @ Elizaphanian – particularly the comment thread from those “scientistic” types who see no value in “wishy-washy” topics like PPE anyway.]

Just a holding post for now. Will have to digest and comment on this later, but first impression is disbelief. (I recall being unimpressed by Wolpert when I saw him in a debate a couple of years ago, must dig up the blog.)

[Post Note: I did in fact go back to try to make some specific comments, but found myself just as speechless at the pure arrogance of the man, that it hardly seemed worth the effort to construct any arguments – far more fruitful avenues for dialogue. What I did pick up was this lone comment, which says pretty eloquently all that needs saying:

AvProtestant on 11/09/2014 10:00pm – Reading Wolpert’s comments I’m reminded of what J S Mill said of Jeremy Bentham: 

“[He] failed in deriving light from other minds. His writings contain few traces of the accurate knowledge of any schools of thinking but his own; and many proofs of his entire conviction that they could teach him nothing worth knowing.“]

[Post Post Note: Also as promised I went back to dig out my previous Wolpert encounter. Amusingly, the previous encounter was exactly like this one – so abysmal I could’t be arsed to digest and comment. The previous encounter I was thinking of was this one, and even then the best I could manage was that …

The scientists [inc Wolpert] were frankly embarrassingly arrogant in seeing no alternatives to scientism, despite significant definitional debate around narrow and broad conceptions of objectivity, empiricism and methods of science in “the view from nowhere” and truth defined anywhere from “objective fact” to pragmatism. Embarrassing that they see only scale and complexity of detail in the ultimate tractability of everything falling under science, ignoring the paradoxes (eg in the zombie thought experiment) and non-linearity in the position of game-changing intentional consciousness in the game of life as we know it.

Also spookily close to my current readings of Nagel, in the next post. The language, years apart, is so …. identical.]

It’s been said before, but here a Grauniad Science Blog by Moheb Costandi with a link to this full issue of The Psychologist which is devoted entirely to therapeutic psychedelics with an introduction from the now infamous David Nutt.

Powerful stuff. Part of a collection, for research purposes, naturally.

[Post Note : And nice to see Sue Blackmore still hanging in there.]