40 years after publication of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, an extended and updated version of the 1974 CBS Ideas radio interview of Robert Pirsig by Tim Wilson. (Hat tip to Mark Richardson on Facebook.)

Fascinating stuff to add to the timeline. The basement with the “roller-skate drawer”. The MoQ given its intended name for the first time. The emotional telling of the ECS treatment episode. [Here a post I made the day I visited the basement.]

[Probably explains high number of Pirsig-related hits on my pages in recent days.
And the continued high hit-rate today.]

I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that” is the title of both the latest book by @bengoldacre and his #londonthinks talk tonight @ConwayHall

Strangely that title is my conclusion from both of the last two Ethical Society and Humanist talks I saw last week – so much so that having drafted a piece on those two together,  I can now see me enlarging it to cover all three talks in one post.

[Post Note : Scrap that. Not as advertised.  Old TED Talk “Better Data” on Statins et al. Cheap laughs and no new content, but good points included:

  • Psychology of statistics and down-side risk is real problem even for official practitioners and management of medical options – perverse decisions in terms of optimum outcomes.
  • Big data approach is real option for public health, despite being largely marketing jargon in so many fields. Again perversely it is easy to justify one-off expensive clinical trials with lower value (even negative value) outcomes, than to do cheap easily-randomised long-term statistical analyses on “freely” available GP records – because of privacy rights risks perceived with the easy option. Wrong view of risks again.
  • (It’s not about making “data” publicly available, but making available public data into proper “information” for decision-making. Since there are many ways to manipulate statistical data, we need to be able to trust who is turning data into information for us, ‘because psychologically it’s not intuitive for us, Joe public, to interpret data directly without a proper statistics & risk lens. I’m guessing Ben’s agenda is to sell the industry such a lens and trust is pretty much my earlier “authority” topic – ie who says?.)

 But not the talk advertised. Left before the Q&A. Oh, and I now see the new book is just a collection of Ben’s previous posts and articles, hence why no new content. Be really interested to know the context of the title quote.]

It’s pretty well known that following his joint discovery of the structure of DNA with Francis Crick (helped by Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling amongst others), James Watson made some dubious suggestions about racial differences based on DNA – disgraceful by today’s standards. It’s also quite likely as “men of their time” that Watson (and Galton, referenced) actually held sexist and racist world-views, and even pursued misguided agendas based on such views. I have no reason to either deny or justify any of the above. I repeat, I’m not disagreeing.

What I would take issue with in Adam Rutherford’s Grauniad piece is the denial of any racial (or gender) DNA differences. (I bring in gender simply because Rutherford already brings in Watson’s sexism alongside his racism – no reason to conflate, but we can draw on analogous examples.)

Now, gender-wise there are DNA differences (*) that result in physiological and physio-chemical differences between the sexes. What significance(s) you attach to those differences and what consequential behaviours you attribute to them, or counter-behaviours you propose, are a whole ‘nother kettle of fish – a veritable minefield of ethics and political correctness not to mention mis-directed reductive science or scientism. But denial of difference seems neither scientific nor in any other way rational or valuable, and indeed to deny or misrepresent any such differences can only obscure human value. Vive la difference is my typical positive reaction in gender difference cases.

Race is a very slippery concept scientifically, but then even species is a bio-genetic concept whose boundaries are ill-defined and variably-defined depending on which aspect of significance you are proposing to use for what purpose – no less a minefield than gender. (We are evolutionarily fortunate, that none too close hominid cousins exist today, for human species definition to be problematic in practice. Gender-wise there are of course definitional border-line cases, but sufficiently uncommon statistically that the grey areas definitionally-speaking can be addressed by gender re-assignment if the individual so desires – proper understanding helps address the reality of such cases in practice. Race is a totally distinct concept from either species or gender, however ill-defined it or they are.)

The nicest irony is that genetics – the field he founded and Watson transformed – is precisely the subject that has singularly demonstrated that race as a scientific concept holds no water.

It holds water with great difficulty, that’s for sure. However objectively ill-defined, denial of difference cannot be the best course. I’d be very interested in whether “holds no water” is really just a statement of failing to meet certain scientific objectivity criteria in defining racial difference, or literally no demonstrable difference at all. Which specific references this alludes to. Ill-defined is not the same as non-existent – it just means understanding is more complex and problematic. Denial is not really a valid alternative.

Vive la difference I’d probably say again. Better to understand than deny.

As a humanist, I’d say Watson is human too, fallible like Rutherford and the rest of us.

[(*) Post Note : Of course another part of this minefield is that DNA genes are themselves over-definitively-objectified in the reproductive, developmental and evolutionary story – a whole ‘nother story.]

[Last laugh to James Watson . Gets $ 4.8m for his Nobel Prize medal .]

[Last last laugh to Usmanov. Ian Sample in the Grauniad.]

And to join up the dots between the last post and a couple of others recently.

What social media misses is any concept of authority.
Ooooh anathema – free expression and science fact denies authority surely?

Well no. We do of course use the concept of friendship – in terms of who shares what with circles of known sources – to confer some level of trust and filter out noise in the tweets and posts we receive. But its very non-specific trust, unless we spend a great deal of effort organising our circles and lists.

What we need is some authoritative tags that perform a kinda “Snopes” function in near real time. Not just fact / fiction / but partisan / interest warning flags. Tags that can scale priority of visibility, without directly limiting freedom to express. Tags that automatically get copied with any Reply or Retweet or M-retweet.

[BTW I recently subscribed to (and unsubscribed from) Quora – a Q&A based social-media micro-blog – where in principle anyone can ask a question (and use it to make a rhetorical point, naturally), but only authorised responders assigned by subject matter are allowed to correspond. Sadly for the topics I was interested in, the questions were too basic / trivial or the responders too obviously following limited agendas. But nice try. Might subscribe again if I have time to interact more, but in current form not working for me.]

Just a quickie. A story on BBC R4 Today this morning. These recent photos of parliament showing empty and full houses for different debates, circulating on social media and used to suggest how badly MP’s see their priorities. They’re fake. No shit Sherlock?!? Some discussion about how social media readers are less critical in their judgement of what they find, and how stories, particularly those with images, spread like wildfire.

So to repeat my long standing memetic lesson – ideas spread and multiply not according to the quality of their content, but according to (a) how easy they are to spread (their medium and the simplicity of their presentation) (b) how catchy the content is to the receiver – how much it appeals to existing beliefs and preferences (ie consistency with prejudices).

Fact of life,  ideas with real quality and content are both more complicated in their expression and more complex in their relationship to existing “knowledge”.

(Counter example – also on R4 Today this morning, interviewing Cleggy. The question continually put to him was “flip-flopping” on some policy decision. His defence was changing your mind was not flip-flopping. Flip-flopping is changing your mind back and forth multiple times. But flip-flopping has simple onomatopoeic ring to it, so it will stick to Cleggy. R4 is as “guilty” as anyone – ie it’s not a conspiracy it’s a natural evolutionary problem we need to learn to understand and deal with.)

[Post Note – and here also picked-up by The Spectator.]

A quickie – Several scientific commentators suggesting www.sciencenews.org is on a par with www.physics.org when it comes to posting low grade speculative (mischievous?) non-science into wider public media. [Previously here, When is Science News? with footnotes added.]

Latest example from Sabine Hossenfelder on FB
(Super-duper-symmetry maybe ? I said, tongue in cheek.)

Science depends on authority – not on free publication. People who reject authority are militant freedom extremists – anarchists we used to call them. But of course there is interesting information behind the story – on what might be wrong with the “standard model(s)” – but it’s not “science news”. Not news from science to the wider world of applied reality, it’s part of the churn within science, which may still be newsworthy, but needs to be presented as such, with suitable disclaimers.

[Post Note : And as well as footnotes to the “When is Science News?” link above, some more here, again from Sabine:

More technical clarification on the above story:
Oh, and notice “an entirely theoretical construct” (the mass in the news story), but yet again the Gravitational Constant is part of the argument – the contingent aspects lie deep in this space, a lot could unravel.

And more follow-up to what went wrong with BICEP story:

So it goes.]

I mentioned noting that one of Rebecca Goldstein’s earlier works was Incompleteness – the Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel. Since Gödel is an existing interest of mine, and Goldstein’s writing has never let me down yet, it was a no-brainer to obtain a copy. (I’ve since also obtained a copy of her fiction The Mind-Body Problem – effectively I’m now working my way through her entire back catalogue. *)

Gödel and friends

The fact that Gödel had associations with Einstein, Wittgenstein, Von Neumann, Turing, the Vienna Circle and more, means that as well as official biographical material there is a wealth of anecdotal and indirect material to work with. And despite Gödel’s own meager introverted publishing record, the meticulous unpublished material he left behind (nachlass) proves to be another fascinating source.

Too many touch points with my own agenda to mention them all, suffice to say both Gödel and Wittgenstein were at odds with, and misunderstood by, logical positivism as well as each other. A fascinating love-hate triangle so well suited to the Goldstein treatment I’ve come to love.

Mach and more

Interesting to again find Mach as an original influence at several distinct points, so many topics lead back to Mach (and hence for me to Boscovich before him **). Only four (long) chapters, the third of which is a semi-formal description of what Gödel’s theorems actually did formally prove and how they did it. A necessary task given how misunderstood and misquoted out of context Gödel can be. A considerable amount of detail on Wittgenstein; unsurprising given the relationship to Gödel. A name-droppers list of players, but everyone of them alive on the page. Great writing, some turns of phrase I found significant to my work:

Describing paradoxes as part of philosophy since the beginning – Epimenides’ Liar’s Paradox, Russell’s own set theory version and more, she goes on to say:

(p91) Paradoxes have often been found lurking about in the deepest places of thought. Their presence is often the signal (like the canary dying?) that we have managed, sometimes unwittingly to stumble on a deep and problematic place, a fissure in the foundations.

The foundations of mathematics in this case.


One influence on Wittgenstein:

(p95) Otto Weininger, a quintessentially Viennese figure who had argued that the only way for a man to justify his life (for a woman there is no way) is by acquiring and cultivating genius.

As mentioned, there follows an extended section on Wittgenstein, his Viennese origins and influences, and those influenced and (failed to be influenced) by his work. On The Vienna Circle (p97) “reading Tractatus exegetically like the Torah” despite Wittgenstein disowning them and going to great lengths to offend them with his in-your-face displays of mystical readings, and:

(p103) Wittgenstein’s attitude toward the inherent contradiction of the Tractatus is perhaps more Zen than positivist. His insouciance in the face of paradox was an aspect of his thinking that was all but impossible for the very un-Zen-like members of the Vienna Circle to understand.

There’s lots been said about Wittgenstein’s motives towards Russell in writing Tractatus, and personally I consider it a long joke at Russell’s expense, using logic to put logic in its place, Goldstein writes:

(p103) Whereas the early Wittgenstein had laboured hard with Russell on problems of logic, the later Wittgenstein came to regard the entire field as a “curse” (while Russell, disheartened by his earlier labours with Wittgenstein – his inability to understand him – withdrew from the field and wrote best-sellers).

Talking of the Vienna Circle, particularly Waissman and leader Schlick, idolising Wittgenstein and his Tractatus, despite his rejection of both the Circle’s logical positivism and their failure to understand his position, she quotes contemporaries:

(p105) “[Schlick] returned in an ecstatic state … He adored him and so did Waissman … like others of Wittgenstein’s disciples, the Circle members came to imitate his gestures and manner of speech [and dress].”

Continuing, she describes his famous concluding aphorism as both a succinct summary of his actual position, and an expression of his exasperation at the failure of the Circle to grasp the limits to (their) logic he was exposing. “That whereof we cannot speak we must remain silent” was interpreted by the positivists as saying that there was nothing beyond the bounds of [logical] language that was worth saying,  whereas of course he was saying the opposite. Having said all we can say with logic, we can say nothing more with logic and, since that [formal] language is largely tautological and/or trivial, what we have said is of little significance and all the really important stuff is beyond such language.

(p106) “For Wittgenstein there really was ‘that whereof we cannot speak’. The ethical or – what amounts to the same thing for him - the mystical is both real and inexpressible. He believed that he had explained all that can be said [formally] in the Tractatus,  but as he told one potential publisher, what he had not said in the Tractatus – because it could not be said – was more important than what he had said:

“I once wanted to give a few words in the foreword which now actually are not in it, which however I’ll write to you now because the might be a key for you: my work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one. For the ethical is delimited from within, as it were, by my book; and I’m convinced that strictly speaking it can ONLY be delimited that way. In brief, I think: All of that which many are babbling today, I have defined in my book by being silent about it.”

He took himself to have demonstrated how little one has actually said after one has finished saying all that can be [formally] said.”

Back to Gödel

Anyway, fascinating though the interpretations of Wittgenstein remain to this day, the point is the parallel with Gödel and his incompleteness, and the wider point that we’ve inherited from Aristotle’s mis-directed systematisation of what he thought he’d learned from Socrates and Plato. Given my own experience arguing with information modellers on the place of “First Oder Logic” or “Predicate Calculus” in real-world industrial applications, the passages starting p150 where they are poetically re-branded Limpid Logic by Goldstein, appealed to my sense of irony. Logically true, even tautologous, but not of direct practical value. Or, as an early (engineering) mentor of mine was fond of saying “10 out of 10, useless” whenever one of us juniors presented him with some design or calculation.

In the same way as Hilbert had been trying to turn mathematics into a closed and comprehensive (and necessarily consistent) set of axioms, Gödel had the same aims in the “pure” logic of mathematics before discovering his proof of its impossibility. (Russell had been trying to do the same by adding additional practical rules to the set of axioms.) And, in the same way as Wittgenstein’s own disciples failed to recognise his message that all the important real world stuff lay outside their closed systems of logic, Gödel, despite announcing his result at the 7th October 1930 conference in Königsberg, actually failed to have any effect on the mainstream, until Von-Neumann took his message back to Princeton and afterwards helped to spread its significance. In the same way as Wittgenstein had turned logic on itself in Tractatus, Gödel Numbering had turned numbers back on themselves to prove their inadequacy.

Ultimately Gödel lived out a life of paranoia in Princeton, where only Einstein was his mental equal, discoursing during their mutually cherished daily walks. As a contemporary young student at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies, Goldstein was clearly inspired by their stories, not only to understand the technicalities of their deeply philosophical topics, but to turn their living narratives into literary form. With the right appreciation, Goldstein could be seen as a modern-day Dostoevsky IMHO.

I side with all of Einstein, Gödel and Wittgenstein; they were right even when they knew they were wrong, their genius was accepted in practice, and their contributions to their respective fields considered pivotal, yet despite their mythological public personae, the mainstream of life continues to this day as if they’d never existed. We still worship the (rational & scientific) value of logic and objectivity, and give them priority over, merely tolerating, even to the exclusion of, the (irrational & unscientific, human) values of the mystical and ethical. As Schumpeter would suggest, and Kuhn after him, a single human lifetime is never enough to cause a global paradigm shift in society at large – in politics and economics. It takes three, baby.

[Aside – on p124 is that an error in use of the word “acute” in the description of sketch 2? Page references based on the W W Norton “Great Discoveries” hardback 2005 edition.]

[Post Note (*) – one thing to note about Goldstein is that her writing alternates between fictional literature and historical biographical works, both with science and philosophy themes. I was taken by a recent remark from Lisa Jardine as to how good writing of history based on documented records always requires creative fiction, and it comes to mind as I read Goldstein. Jardine is a historian by profession, but had the writing of her very personal biography of Jacob Bronowski in mind when when she said it.]

[PPS (**) – when is someone of this stature going to research and write on Roger Boscovich (1711 – 1787) I wonder.]

Interesting and provocative talk by Graham Bell at Central London Humanist Group meet-up last night.

A bit of a curate’s egg: Partly a call to humanists to be political – involved in policy of what should be done – and partly his own idiosyncratic call to socialism a la Cuba, at least as a case study. The connection being the overlap of interests between socialism and humanism where, barring the atheistic element, either might be a sub-set of the other (Discuss).

The non-partisan call to political action focussed on a survey of third-party perceptions of humanism. Fairly clear in terms of what it claims to be against (the dogmatic, the supernatural, the irrational, etc), but massive confusion over what it is for, with part of the confusion arising from the difference between humanism (its substantive content) and humanists (their functional actions), the latter often used to infer the former.

Quite rightly and naturally, many different individual humanists and humanist groups have their own agendas, from militant campaigning to more thoughtful developments. Humanism defined by this functional variety couldn’t be anything other than broad and confused – even paradoxical (and perversely, if you are a campaigning organisation, that divide & conquer effect might suit your agenda). What is missing (*) is any substantive agreement on what humanism itself is and what it should be for policy-wise.

Freedom(s) – sure. Democracy – sure, if you can arrange the real thing. Natural Rationality – sure, but as defined how and by whom. Mostly, but not entirely, the humanist audience such as last night’s espouses a “left-leaning (social), free (democratic)” political stance, with different levels of reaction against the risks and excesses of also espousing capitalist, market arrangements, from zero to militant. My response to this is as follows:

The freedoms of thought and expression aspect is reasonably well captured, though that is not definitively humanistic. Democracy is inevitably imperfect in practice in terms of freedoms to influence, which raises the question of how “should” free democratic arrangements be improved. Addressing “should” questions with natural rationality leads us straight to natural ethics or morality, as Graham also noted. Partly that’s about the process (as free, and as democratic as you can make it work, see above) and partly it’s about values, things with inherent worth. ‘Twas ever thus.

What is missing is a set of values to which humanism subscribes. Remember these are “values” not fixed targets or definitive aims, more principles and guidelines. If we believe morality evolves naturally, then we need to allow values to evolve. I picked-up two examples to illustrate the kinds of things that need to be covered:

(1)  A topical discussion in “left-leaning, free-democratic”circles is that the intellectual left does not properly value conservatism, or in Graham’s words “tradition” cited as an anathema to rational thinking. It’s a common knee-jerk to reject it. Freedom and natural rationality says that all “should” decisions are open to free consideration of all possibilities, debated on their own values, merits, evidence and consequences. However, natural evolution relies on both fidelity and fecundity. New arrangements mutate from old arrangements, but must mostly be near copies of previous arrangements, on each cycle of implementation and change. Natural rationality recognises the natural value of conserving “traditional” arrangements – questioning them sure, but not rejecting them out of hand, or relegating them to the same level as all other conceivable options, simply for being traditional.

(2) Another example came out of a contentious difference of opinion over income disparity in capitalist market economies. Hilary Leighter (a humanist celebrant) commented from the floor that the “worth” of  a human was their humanity, not their bank balance or income, and therefore wealth disparity was really only a secondary humanistic concern … except (apparently) where such differences were between “huge” and “tiny” cases. Clearly financial wealth differences are value judgements not numbers. What they really value is relative freedom and influence in the “free democratic” social-econo-political arrangements. Wealth disparity is a surrogate subjective measure of the success in the complex workings of the whole system. There is a value lurking in there, worth making explicit, but it’s not going to be defined (and certainly not agreed) as a quantifiable difference or ratio.

[Post Note : couldn’t help noticing in the post-talk discussions in the pub afterwards, that Wittgenstein rules. So little of the language of free discourse can be definitive. Still fun though.]

[Post Note (*): IHEU statements on “What is Humanism” – better than BHA paraphrases, some detail worth working to improve – following the “when it comes to values, less definitive is better” approach.]

Hat tip to David Morey on Facebook for a link to the excellent BBC blog by Adam Curtis. The blog is The Medium and the Message, and the particular post that caught my eye is The Vegetables of Truth from over a month ago.

Very much my agenda, that science has lost its way, and has become too big and powerful as a socio-political driver, distorting both science and society’s perception of it. Adam’s particular point here is the dominance of risk aversion and the public misunderstanding of risk, and how the politics of science feeds into this. Although risk perception has been a topic of mine, my particular focus has been the motivations of science (and humanism) against issues has lost sight of what they’re for, and led to distortion in both the practice and reporting of scientific rationality. In fact science confuses itself between claiming objective neutrality, enabling a glorious future, fighting against irrationality, whist claiming the accidental position of humanity in nature and denying purpose not only in the cosmos generally but even denying individual free-will. Science is seriously fucked-up, which wouldn’t be so bad if it hadn’t got itself into a position where its façade of scientific objectivity gave it a preferential gloss over any alternative arguments branded as subjective, irrational or simply “unscientific”. The common point is that news being “scientific” carries weight way beyond the actual quality of the science and its motivations. Being motivated, rather than presumed neutral, means that conclusions publicised, even used the set public policy, are not just suspect, but downright perverse.

There are two – parallel – universes of science. One is the actual day-to-day work of scientists, patiently researching into all parts of the world and sometimes making amazing discoveries.

The other is the role science plays in the public imagination – the powerful effect it has in shaping how millions of ordinary people see the world.

Often the two worlds run together – with scientists from the first world giving us glimpses of their extraordinary discoveries. But what sometimes happens is that those discoveries – and what they promise – get mixed up with other social and political ideas. And then the science begins to change into something else.

Well said. His headline refers to the recent 7-a-day fruit & veg story raising the stakes over the 5-a-day policy being so clearly suspect and motivated by something other than science. So much so that I think I just dismissed it with a Facebook quip and said no more about it at the time. But Adam is right. This is just another symptom, more evidence that science has lost its true place in society. It’s just one recent example, but Adam provides a little history of public perceptions of science. I too found the tremendous positive vibe in the documentary about the Chernobyl workers seeing the job they needed to do as an end beyond any risk to their own lives. He ends on a further positive note:

As an antidote – here is a beautiful film about vegetables. It’s a documentary made in 1972 about a leek-growing contest in Newcastle. It is very camp – with lots of men discussing the length and diameter of their leeks.

It is also all about statistics and numbers – because it is the measurements that will decide the winner. But in this case it’s not about the fear of death. It’s all about pride and glory in the vegetables – among men who lead the unhealthiest of lives. Constantly smoking and drinking as they talk about their beloved vegetables.

Watched Alice Roberts & Brian Cox (with Brian Blessed in tow) in Space, Time and Videotape last night after also watching Episode 5 of Cox’s Human Universe. All in the interests of research you understand, basically I’m not convinced this kind of “science” programming actually advances, or even has much to do with, real science. Interestingly in the Videotape program, the topic of good media-based science communication and education actually comes up as a topic, so it’s possible to use one as a case study of other other.

The 5th episode of Human Universe is about the future, and scientific knowledge we can use to predict it. Leaving aside personal issues of style for now, like previous editions, the mix of words per volume of dramatic visuals and sound-track is extremely low. It feels like maybe 2 sides of A4 actual content in the 40 minutes. Consequently we hear Brian stating the wonderful truths he holds, never explicitly admitting which are opinion (implicitly it’s all his opinion) or offering what science any are based on. No real explanation based on these and never doubting or suggesting even the existence of any serious alternative debate or conjecture, let alone airing any. The only evidence offered is typically technological (archetypically space-travel) and/or lavish graphical simulations (eg of Andromeda colliding with the Milky Way). Together these are simple to present and attention-grabbing, but not science. I already consider this very misleading. But note also, in spite of several references to scientific knowledge allowing us to predict the future, and to plan our human escape from the inevitable demise of our earth, there is no hint of limits to this predictability. Determinism is implied and the choice is simply ours. (Contrast this with Sagan in the later program, illustrating the chaotic nature of multi-body gravitation. Compare also with Burke “explaining” orbital mechanics of earth-moon space-flight – a “dab on the brake-pedal”. This stuff can be done well for the video-media generation.)

When it comes to the Videotape program, it’s interesting despite the fact that some real, scientific heroes are lined-up for the evening ahead, Cox refers to Alice and Brian as his heroes, somewhat devaluing any real scientific heroism I’d say, but anyway, some thoughts on the content of Videotape first:

Early on there is a classic example of conflating technology with science. There is a healthy focus on worlds out there, and the relative position of earth-bound humans in the whole scheme of things (so much more could be said here) but typically, as I say, they choose to show space-flight. A brainless meme. The spaceflight example shown is Apollo 13 – a wonderful story of the risks and heroism of human-geo-spatial exploration – (such a gripping human drama, they even made a feature film of it) – but not one mention of any science. (In fact the film is heroic for engineering more than science I’d say, but then I’m probably biased.) Later when we see James Burke kicking over the remains of the Apollo program (*), we hear him opine that the public thirst for novelty meant that public funding had to move on from supporting more of the same space travel, and that there were really no visible scientific explanations for the technology-assisted exploration programme anyway. So true.

It was excellent to see true examples of science media heroes: Bronowski, Feynman, Sagan, Moore and Burke all feature.

One highly spurious discussion arose. After showing a montage of three Bruno clips – including the impassioned Auschwitz moment, purely for its Cromwellian point on the contingency of believed knowledge – it is noted that he expresses opinion when referring to contentious debate between Gauss and Hayek.  The spurious discussion arising is a (typically tittering) mention of creationism vs evolution. That is not a scientific debate. There are plenty of scientific opinions and debates to be had about evolution, but creationism isn’t one of them. The Dawkins / Wilson differences – on the existence of group and/or multi-level evolutionary mechanisms above solely genes – simply denied as “woolly” by Dawkins – were highly topical, just this weekend. There is real scientific debate, even if Dawkins chooses dogmatic denial.

We see Bruno describing Newton on gravitation, and pointing out that whilst Newton did the elegant simplifying maths, he really did not offer any scientific explanation or hypothesis for gravity itself (nor even for mass). To this day, gravity remains unexplained and full of conjecture at all levels from the sub-quantum to the cosmic. Even with Higgs explaining mass differences in the electro-weak model, mass and gravity are largely unknowns – just look at CMBR patterns in echoes of the big-bang, dark matter & energy explanations of inflation, gravity waves research, and more. Genuinely exciting areas of scientific hypothesis and research.

Brian does admit to an explicit “marketing” agenda – banging the table in search of funding for science and for science media content – mixed in with the desire to educate they share. For me this conflation of science and marketing, in collusion with media’s own “viewing figures” agenda is pretty fundamental to what is currently wrong with the portrayal of science. There are a couple of points where Brian mentions the editorial policies of science programming, and whether he and Alice and fellow modern day science celebrity broadcasters are restricted from exposing differences of scientific opinion. Brian states several times that he sees debate on scientific disagreement as valuable.

For me this is the biggest chink of hope here – that this debate exists.

Earlier, a clip of Burke being interviewed by some (student intellectual?) audience is shown. The point suggested that Burke’s science programs were all hook (gimmicks) and no content (science or scientific explanation) – which incidentally Burke handles very well. This is a large part of my own agenda, though I see the mechanisms as more memetic, than either ignorance (incompetence) or conspiracy (intentional media marketing & science funding collusion) – to be better understood rather than simply criticised. Alice does pick-up again that the effort needed to create science media content and the practical and editorial constraints are considerable, possibly underestimated by their critics. Sadly when this topic arises Alice dismisses it (with more tittering) pointing out that the Burke’s intellectual inquisitor was wearing a cravat, so who was he to accuse of gimmicks. Oh how we laughed. That is not even close to a scientific argument – pure ad-hominem.

It’s ironic that the extremes of physics and the complexities of evolutionary mechanisms are where maximum speculation, contention and debate exists, and therefore where the maximum excitement for ongoing science resides, and yet our top media scientists operate under some editorial or self-imposed taboo (lest those of dogmatic faith spot a weakness) against exposing real science. Let’s ramp-up this debate. Hooks are good, but let’s up the real scientific content.

[Links will be added if debate is taken up.]

[Aside (*) – Earlier in the Burke montage we also see a slo-mo sequence of an Apollo blast-off. Always awe-inspiring, but enhanced by the overlay of two emotive passages from Carmina Burana. It was only 3 weeks ago I made a reference to this Carmina Burana meme, specifically as used by James Burke – in a eulogy / reading at my father’s funeral. A piece of music devalued by over-exposure out of context in popular media. The significance to my father – whose passion was historical maps and exploration on earth – was the human content and language of the piece. which resulted in the piece being very familiar in our household long before it became an overused media meme.]

Been debating this Register article shared by @jonmbutterworth, with others over on Facebook. As an engineer in the information management domain, I’m obviously very interested in and impressed by the IT challenge here.

100 Peta-Bytes so far,
27 PB in the past year, and
400 PB per year by 2023

Once collected, the possibilities for massively modular and parallel collaborative analysis, and alternative (say) neural network analyses, etc, … the sky’s the limit if the IT architecture supports it – hence the article. But of course that doesn’t make it “intelligent”. A human mind processes huge amounts of raw data daily, but it doesn’t store it as is, for later analysis. It is processed starting in real time experience with inferences, compressions, associations, and continues to be shuffled and re-shuffled between the conscious and subconscious and new associations thereafter. Refining the “remembered” world model we hold. But that’s not the really interesting thing here.

What is interesting is what this says about CERN / LHC / ATLAS Physics. Firstly it says nothing directly. It’s about an area of spin-off technology – unrelated to the particle physics – that benefits mutually from CERN needing it. (Think space-race and Teflon-coated pans.) But secondly, what it seems to suggest is something like this:

“We have so little understanding of how our physical theories explain reality, that we can’t decide in advance what we’re really looking for, so we’ll up the sample rate, record as much as we can, post analyse it, and hope we get lucky.”

And of course we will get lucky – some interesting and significant patterns will be found, interpreted and related to some aspects of the developing physical model. But this doesn’t change the basic point, that the physics is a long way from being completely explanatory of reality in these areas.


Just a quickie: People keep telling me that Sam Harris supports the idea that Free Will is an illusion.

I don’t support that view, and despite finding quite a few things to disagree with in what Sam Harris says, I generally consider Harris a heavyweight intellectually when it comes to philosophical thinking. People also tell me he cites Libet in support of his view. If he does he’s wrong, he’d be misinterpreting Libet (as many do of course), but something tells me people must be misunderstanding what Harris is saying. So I decided to check up this one point …

Indeed, in his book Free Will – immediately after the thought-provoking and ambiguous case-study on criminal responsibility which he uses as an introduction – he launches straight in with the simple, unequivocal, declarative statement:

Free will is an illusion.

His emphasis. QED surely? Well, no. A few sentence later he adds:

Free will is actually more than an illusion.

My emphasis. And a couple of paras later:

That we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions …. [is false].

My emphasis again. Agreed. For now, I rest my case.

Some, indeed many, maybe even most, aspects of our conscious will are illusory,
but our free will is nevertheless real.

Indeed what Libet shows – think of a professional tennis player returning a serve – is that the crucial core of our conscious will is the power of free-wont over the major part of our decision processing, maximally delegated for reasons of efficiency and speed, to lower, more mechanistic, pre-programmed, biological functions. Permissive supervisory control, for those who prefer a cybernetic machine view. The permissive control is so consistent with other relationships between brain and mind functions too.

That mechanism of free-wont still requires a more explanatory, less reductionist description, but we shouldn’t doubt it exists.

[A quickie – so refs and links will be added as needed if anyone wants to discuss.]

Noticed this before, but prompted to share it …. The menu at the top of the Guardian Home Page typifies what’s wrong with science media reporting:

Science appears as a sub-category of news at the second level, not a higher level sibling of news, alongside, say Culture, Business, Technology and more.


Science “news” –  is predominantly about the process of science of interest to scientists and those with a particular interest in science – things suggested or published as a result of research or experiment. Without gaining the authority of a wider scientific community they are not in themselves new additions to the body of known science, but rather candidates competing for attention (and funding).

Still of wider interest for publication, sure, but better couched for what they are. Wonder how things got that way? Must check out other media channels.

[Post Note : Good one from Sabine Hossenfelder on Facebook. I know it’s only the Daily Mail, but some scary members of the public read this stuff:

I don’t know about the APS, but the German Physics Society allows every member to give a talk at their meetings, pretty much regardless of what the talk is about as long as at least the title has something to do with physics. They clump these people in the alternative session where they can discuss their conspiracy theories among each other. Somebody should have told the daily mail folks that a talk abstract on the website of a society page is not an indicator for scientific quality… It’s kinda funny though.

“UFO expert Nigel Watson, author of the Haynes UFO Investigation Manual, told MailOnline that Dr Brandenburg is not the first to suggest Mars was ‘murdered’ by nuclear explosions.”

Very funny, agreed, but it illustrates the point – that science requires “authority” not simply freedom of publication.]

I’ve picked-up where I left off with Thomas Nagel’s View From Nowhere, having put it aside to deal with some domestic priorities and then being captivated by Rebecca Goldstein’s latest.

So back to Nagel. After some good stuff about his problems with the unsatisfactory incompleteness of reductionist objectivity generally, he embarks on a review of various modern philosophical view points grappling with the subjective-objective dualism in various forms; idealisms, Kantian transcendental-realism, Wittgensteinian word-games, and so on. True to form, he opines:

I change my mind about [x]
every time I think about it,
and therefore cannot offer any view
with even moderate confidence.

Specifically here [x] is free-will / autonomy, but this is very much Nagel’s style – to claim progress only in identifying problems with accepted “objective” views, but feigning that he has no alternative to offer. Understandably, those “philosophy-jeerers”, who are his real targets, simply point to the lack of progress with philosophical answers as justification for their charge of irrelevance. Anyway, having now established that the exclusion of the subjective causes problems for explanations of free-will and ethical responsibility, he continues:

[The] sense of an internal explanation [for my autonomous action] exists – an explanation insulated from the external view which is complete in itself and renders illegitimate all further requests for explanation of my action as [simply] an event in the world. As a last resort, the libertarian might claim that anyone who does not accept an account of what I was up to as a basic explanation of action, is a victim of a very limited explanation of what an explanation is – a conception locked into the objective standpoint and which therefore begs the question against the concept of autonomy. Why aren’t these autonomous subjective explanations really just descriptions of how it seemed to the agent – before, during and after – to do what he did; why are they something more than impressions?

Of course they are at least impressions, but we take them to be impressions of something, something whose reality is not guaranteed by the impression. Not being able to say what something is, and at the same time finding the possibility of its absence very disturbing, I am at a dead end.


I have to conclude that what we want is something impossible, and that the desire for it is evoked precisely by the objective view of ourselves that reveals it to be impossible.


the interaction between objectivity and the will yields complex results which cannot necessarily be formed into a unified system. This means that the natural ambition of a comprehensive system of ethics may be unrealisable.

I’m much impressed again, as I was with Goldstein earlier, that Godel is telling us something here. If we exclude the subjective – to preserve objective consistency in our epistemology and ontology – we must accept an incomplete model of ethics. ie a realistic world model (including ethics as well as ontology and epistemology) must include or integrate the subject, not treat it as the other half of a dualism, the awkward part, best attacked with spurious charges of moral relativism, etc.

Particularly notable also that he exemplifies the “libertarian” as a victim of inadequate understanding. One of my issues with humanism in its more strident forms is the easy scientistic acceptance of determinism, with free-will as “an illusion”, combined paradoxically with the active personal interest in righting all forms of humanitarian wrongs against individual freedoms. Either humans have potential freedom, constrained by the misguided power of responsible others, or they don’t. Which is it?

I’m banging on these days about the centrality of “Love” in so many humanist messages, whether philosophical or religious. The original “common ground” on all sides.

Given my opinion of the moronic Russell Brand, about whom I blogged several times earlier in the year when he hit the media with his half-baked guff about “the hegemony of the political classes”, I’m not about to send him or his publisher £13.50 for a copy of his book on the subject, of which the reviews and counter-reviews so far only confirm my opinion. His main qualification to speak on the topic seems to be the vague visual resemblance to Che Guevara(*). But kudos to the creativity of the front cover (**):


We need to help change our politicians and political process through …. love …. not revolution.
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding, Russell?

(If we drop the R, the same Love exists in evolution.)
(**)And of course the same visual word game in the title was used by Ron Paul in the US in 2008.)

[Post Note : (*) And how did I forget his @RustyRockets twitter avatar is a Che-a-like anyway. Only went to look at the progress of the PARKLIFE! trolling campaign, which I’d not noticed since the original tweet a couple of days ago. Magic. And for posterior completeness, the original Craig Brown review and the original original Earthman Johann tweet.]

[Post Post Note : and Brand hits back with his own witty self-deprecating you-tube parody. Look, fair play to Brand for getting the question of proper democratic participation higher on the agenda, though with devolution and reform agendas all around us in recent years, it was already there. However fucked-up typical western democracies are, non participation cannot be a healthy message – unless you have a serious alternative to offer.]

Continuing through Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex and finding it sooooo good. In fact I’m loving it.

Despite two previous mentions [here][and here], I failed to mention that Larry Krauss is set up as the archetypal scientistic philosophy-(and theology)-jeerer. So, so true, and given the order of events last week – the culmination (so far) of my own long-running run-in with Krauss’ disingenuity. – restrained of me not to have mentioned it yet.  The “tumbleweed response” so far. The ignorance, The dishonesty. The horror.

Still not quite finished Googleplex, but after waxing lyrical about the three chapters majoring on love, I was quite simply blown away by the next chapter Socrates Must Die, hence the need to blog again before I’m finished. A mini textbook within the overall plot providing a wonderful readable summary of Plato’s world in historical context, the philosophy project he started in tribute to his first love, Socrates. No matter how much Plato you’ve read and interpreted yourself, I’d suggest Goldstein’s loving interpretation will be hard to beat. (And so many more Greek sources I’m going to have to find the time to read in a new light.)

For now a long quote from that chapter, to speak for itself:

The Euthyphro, which is one of Plato’s earlier dialogues and deals with the relationship between theism and morality – an issue still fraught for us today – [… takes place the same day while Socrates is … awaiting his turn to appear at the preliminary hearing on the charges against him … and it is Meletus who has brought the anti-Athens indictment against Socrates.]

Unwilling to squander any opportunity for meaningful discussion, he falls into conversation with a diviner-priest named Euthyphro, a priceless character whose sacerdotal vanity cannot be pierced. A self-declared expert on all things holy. Euthyphro has come […] to indict his own father on a charge of homicide for having accidentally killed a hireling, who had himself killed another worker in a fit of anger. Socrates is amazed to hear that Euthyphro is so secure in his moral certitude as to charge his own father. (The ancient Athenian codes of family loyalty make Euthyphro’s actions seem all the more questionable.) Euthyphro responds with the tell-tale conviction of the self-righteous.

Socrates immediately launches in, having his fun, declaring that Euthyphro alone can save him [Socrates] in this his moment of need, by instructing him on the nature of piety and holiness so that he can present himself as chastened to Meletus – though “Meletus, I perceive, along presumably everybody else, appears to overlook you.” With an interlocutor as deaf to sarcasm as to philosophical subtlety, Plato’s Socrates proceeds to formulate a line of reasoning that will prove to be of fundamental importance in the history of secularism, one that will be adapted by freethinkers from Baruch Spinoza to Bertrand Russell to the so-called new atheists of today, persuasively arguing that a belief in the gods – or God – cannot provide the philosophical grounding for morality.

Plato begins the inquisition innocently enough, with Socrates asking Euthyphro, “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it’s holy?”. Plato uses this question to pry apart the notion of an action’s being divinely ordained from its having moral worth. The argument is formulated in terms of “the gods”, but is without loss susceptible to the substituting of “God” for “the gods”. Plato’s argument, in a nutshell, is this: If God approves of an action, either he approves of it arbitrarily, for no reason at all, or else there is a reason for his approving it, so that it is not an arbitrary whim on God’s part but rather he has a reason for his approval, that reason being the independent moral worth of that which he approves. If the former is the case then how does this arbitrary whim, even if it is a divine arbitrary whim, confer moral value. How can something be good just because someone up there feels like calling it good, when, if he were of a different disposition or in a different mood, he could just as easily call the opposite act good? But if the latter is the case, then there is a reason for the divine normative attitude, and that reason is the reason both for God’s approval and for the moral worth of that which he approves.

That makes God’s approval, normatively speaking, redundant – he is, as we say today, a rubber stamp. In neither case – whether the approval is arbitrary or whether it is not – does the supernatural approval make any difference to whether an act is genuinely right or wrong.

What is still referred to as “the Euthyphro Dilemma” or “the Euthyphro Argument” remains one of the most frequently utilised arguments against the claim that morality can be grounded only in theology, that it is only the belief in God that stands between us and the moral abyss of nihilism. Dostoevsky may have declared that “without God all is permissible”, but Plato’s preemptive riposte, sent out to us across the millennia, is that any act permissible with God is morally permissible without him, making clear how little the addition of God helps to clarify the ethical situation.

The argument Plato has Socrates make in the Euthyphro is one of the most important in the history of moral philosophy. When it is joined with another of Plato’s claims, namely that a person’s action is virtuous only if he can supply a reason for its being so, the Euthyphro Argument demonstrates the need for moral philosophy. We humans must reason our way to morality or we will not get there at all.

[… …]

This moment in Socrates’ life, as Plato has rendered it, is sufficiently important to step away from it, and reflect. It has a bearing on the question that is always hovering over this book, as it traces the sources of philosophy as we know it, and that is the question of philosophy’s progress.

If one evaluates what the Greek philosophers did solely in terms of Thales and Co., then of course one will conclude something like “Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then ‘natural philosophy’ became physics and physics has only continued to make inroads.” But this is to focus on only one type of question the ancient philosophers posed to self-critical reason, the protoscientific questions that awaited the mature sciences. It is to ignore such questions as those that Plato has Socrates raising with Euthyphro […] It is to ignore Plato’s argument  that, since religious authority can’t answer these questions, we had better get to work on formulating the reasons that make right actions right and wrong actions wrong.

It is also to ignore the work that has since been done, not only on the normative questions of ethics but on the normative questions of epistemology, the work necessary to speak about rationality at all. It is to ignore the conclusions to which philosophy-jeerers freely help themselves, most certainly when they speak in the name of rationality.

When the philosophy-jeerers are also scientific, the their jeering frequently takes on religion as well as philosophy. Typically they do not differentiate between philosophy and theology. Anything that isn’t science is philosophy/theology. Lawrence Krauss, whom I keep mentioning only because he conveniently articulated a viewpoint that many scientists share, lumps philosophers and theologians together.

Such jeerers should pause and reflect on this moment of the Euthyphro.

And there is so much more to recommend.

Clearly that passage on why philosophy matters even where physicists believe they already have all bases covered is what failed to materialise when Larry Krauss talked with Mary Midgely and Angie Hobbs in “Philosophy Bites Back” at How The Light Gets In earlier this year.

More on Spinoza and sub specie aeternitatus embracing the whole cosmos.

More on re-admitting the poets to Plato’s domain.

More on the inescapable “elitism” angle that, when it comes to moral reasoning, not all men are created equal. Inescapable in the sense I concluded this independently before and always struggle to introduce the concept into more naive conversations about the mechanics of free democracies.

Friday I’m in love, with wisdom (again).

My investigations here started 15 years ago into information, particularly as knowledge in a decision-making context, but it’s been some years since I decided governance was the umbrella term for that agenda – the basis for enacting best decisions – for any groups of people or constituencies of any size.

Furthermore, wherever the information does not simply represent “objective” evidence forming the basis of a “logical, scientific” rational decision considered non-contentious by the stakeholders, then governance involves rational agreement on value-judgements by the group. Not all values can be reduced to objective logic, but most values are fundamentally based on love. Love of fellow man individually and collectively and what’s best for us and our cosmic environment. The qualitative nature of such values, particularly expressed as love, do not sit well with those who cling to the supremacy of logical positive, scientistic rationale of falsification and critical argument. But love it is. Even humanists agree. [Here][and here].

I’m no scholar of Plato, but anyone researching the philosophies, can’t fail to notice they are reading footnotes to Plato. And clearly for all it’s faults Plato’s Republic is the de-facto check-list for constructing a state governance manual. When I read Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza some years ago, I drew much the same message of love summarised above. Amor Vincit Omnia. Currently I’m reading her Plato at the Googleplex a good 2/3 through as I type. Borrowing the literary structure from Plato and from her earlier 36 Arguments, she places her subject character at the centre of a “speaking tour”, a sequence of dialogues in narrative time interspersed, in the current fiction, with historical chapters summarising the relevant original dialogues by, and contemporary writings about, Plato. In that sense her latest is a tougher read than 36 Arguments where (with hindsight) the Spinozan allusions are woven directly into the fictional narrative, and the 36 actual arguments are relegated to an appendix so as not to interrupt the narrative flow.

But, Googleplex nevertheless works really well. At the end of the 4th chapter (delta) Plato at the 42nd Street Y, there is a real cliff-hanger (or perhaps a gag I’ve not got yet) but it goes into a sequence of chapters majoring on love, love and more love as the basis for wisdom. Love in all its guises – Erotic, Platonic (as we typically misunderstand it), Carnal, Any-Which-Way-Orientated and Complicated in the modern-relationships agony-aunt sense. The language is really well crafted and necessarily varied too as the author puts her words as well as Plato’s in many different characters including 21st century Plato himself.

In a footnote in the Chapter I Don’t Know How To Love Him, this turn of phrase made me smile:

Eros is the full-on obsessional “in-love” experience,
the kind that makes people do crazy things,
like move from New York to Boston.

Given that I already made a privacy-invasive comment about witnessing the awkward (to me) presence of Ms Goldstein “in-love” in Cambridge, I’m pretty sure this note is autobiographical – and clearly vindicates the central theme, that personally invested love is …. what it’s all about. Real world rationality needs to welcome that crazy little thing called love, back into its domain.

Now, to resolve that cliff-hanger.

I attended the session organised by The Skeptic Magazine at Conway Hall last night involving Richard Dawkins and Larry Krauss introducing a showing of their film “The Unbelievers”. Having already seen the film, I was able to hear Michael Sandel at an earlier event, and arrive at the Dawkins / Krauss event during the break between the showing and the Q&A.

The evening:

One thing I did hear, that might colour my already negative reaction to the film itself, as Larry pointed out, they’d had a fair amount of critical response even from their natural supporters in the God vs Science debate, but the agenda and editing of the film itself was entirely down to the group of individuals that documented their earlier speaking tour and produced the film. The film didn’t necessarily reflect in any balanced way the overall Dawkins / Krauss agenda. Fair enough, but disingenuous to promote it as if it were.

The Q&A was pretty lively and long, most of the audience were “the converted”, the stage was preaching to the choir, yet as noted above there was quite a lot of critical questioning about the disingenuous “ridiculing” by selection of opponents in the film, no sign of the scientists looking for common ground with the religious – not even with the liberal rabbi in the audience – and suggestions that the scientists were not always being honest in their political campaigning, certainly not being as honest as they’d claim science to be. (There were of course a good number of questions about religious and scientific education in schools and from very early ages, and from younger members “inspired” to pursue science by our public scientists. Fair enough, more power to their elbows.)

I had a prepared question that fitted the very doubt of scientific honesty vs the positive agenda of science as politics driving us away from the science of reality – my biggest problem with the current topical discourse.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the opportunity to ask it, but did manage to slip a written copy into Larry’s hand as he was whisked off to the book signing session …. and it goes like this:

My preamble:

Larry is often quoted, and indeed said during the Q&A, that physics is easy because it’s all sorted bar the details and it deals with physical reality anyway, whereas biology is altogether messier. Actually I beg to differ, the fundamentals of physical science – at the levels of fundamental particles and at the levels of cosmology are hugely speculative – and consequently exciting both theoretically and experimentally, whereas biology and evolution seem not in the least contentious bar ongoing details and extensions to knowledge.  Both suffer from experimental problems in controlling boundary conditions and accounting for prior assumptions and therefore in interpreting results from indirect measurements and so on – but all good science takes care over these issues.

In the theistic creationism vs scientific cosmology debate, there is no argument which is right, the argument should really be about the science of cosmology itself – where its physical and philosophical limits lie, and what authoritative solutions are going to look like. (Public science is nowhere without authority BTW.) But, the politics of fighting against theism and creationism, is distorting the quality of the actual science. So.

The film shows Larry in one lecture talking about his “Something From Nothing”, a good read – a good book. It’s fundamental comsogeny, and definitely opposed to any kind of theistic creationism (who isn’t?).

Before that book, back in May 2006 when interviewed in The Edge Larry said, in paraphrase:

• … when you look at CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background) map, you also see that the structure that is observed, is in fact, in a weird way, correlated with the ecliptic – plane of the earth around the sun.
• That’s crazy. There’s no way there should be that correlation … telling us that our science is wrong and we’re (somehow) the center of the universe, or … something else … (but something’s wrong).

Since the book was published and recently, very topically, there are some very interesting scientific developments that call into question many aspects of the standard accepted model of cosmology, as different groups of researchers probe the CMB or perform their own first-principles research. Singularities and black holes, post-big-bang inflation theories, singularities and other things popping into existence from the energy field, including whole universes, even an infinite multiplicity of possible universes to explain this one in which human life has evolved, the quantities and distributions of mass, energy and gravitational forces being observed indirectly through the shadows of the big-bang in the CMB patterning …. I could go on. Just two recent examples:

• What about BICEP2 having to admit it did not find evidence to support inflation – despite massive fanfare. (and many others right now as we speak). Was its error a genuine oversight (of cosmic dust) or was it a political error being too directed towards proving the inflation predictions?
• What about Laura Mersini-Houghton’s team and the work to show that black holes and singularities really do not need to exist to support all these unnecessary conjectures.

My question for Larry:

So what exactly was/is “crazy” about those CMB indications, what is your latest view since your 2006 statements.

Is it possible that what is really wrong is something more fundamental about the starting point for a big bang not being a singularity, or the cosmological and gravitational constant assumptions needed to explain expansion and inflation of the mass and energy distributions in the cosmos, and the evolutionary timescales for humanity to exist – an accidental but conveniently deniable anthropic agenda.

The standard model of particle physics, completed by the Higgs Boson for the internally consistent Electro-Weak components, says nothing yet about strong and gravitational forces – yet we have a cosmological model of gravity presumed everywhere in scale from a singularity to a whole universe, the whole cosmos.

Physics is massively incomplete and speculative at these fundamental extremes. My fear for science is that by being dishonest about this in our arguments against creationist alternatives, even ridiculing moderate religious believers rather than engaging them on common ground, we simply expose our physics as being fundamentally flawed and our argument as being directed and politically motivated rather than based on the quality and integrity of the science. Science suffers.

[Numerous links and references available to support all the above – will be added in due course – but the question stands to be answered.]

Michael Sandel spoke to a large audience at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster last night, an event organised by the How To Academy, and introduced by Andrew Neil.

Very brief talk, max 40 minutes, introducing his latest book “What Money Can’t Buy – The Moral Limits of Markets“, in his usual minimally-scripted audience-participatory style, and therefore without subsequent Q&A.

Really only one point to his lecture and his brief book. Virtues cannot be bought and sold, evaluated by the markets, they need to be valued by proper public discourse, difficult though that is.

He described the tendency to not only talk in terms of market-economy, but to accept “market society” as leading to impoverished democratic political discourse. That is, not all transactions in society are strictly economic and the appeal of allowing spurious market concepts to replace difficult public debate on values is damaging.

He used audience participation to tease out people’s real views by voting – on the very topical NHS proposals  to financially incentivise dementure diagnoses, and the example (from his book) of selling to the highest bidder the right to shoot a single member of an endangered species annually to fund conservation for the population. By turning the nobs with “what-if” variations with different audience members, which naturally included several GP’s, he drew out what we really valued. Interestingly, the individual vs population example turned completely when a participant suggested a human example auctioning the right for one individual to beat their spouse, in order to fund care for the wider population of victims. Focusses the mind.

He pointed out that the very idea of incentive as a market factor is in fact a relatively new concept , not mentioned by Adam Smith for example, and mentioned maybe only once each in Presidential and Prime Ministerial speeches in the early 80’s, whereas now to “incentivise” was practically de-rigeur. The politics of a market society.

The bottom line was two linked factors – the acceptance of allowing the market to establish policy meant political debate was impoverished and a source of much dissatisfaction with the political process in western democracies. And the underlying reason for that dissatisfaction was that people inherently knew there were other values, virtues, being corroded by the market incentivisation – patient-doctor trust in the first example, human and ecological rights and responsibilities in the others, and many more. Values that would previously have been called, or based upon, the virtues.

And why are virtues “corroded” by marketisation? Because they are quite self-evidently not the variables of economic theory and textbooks. They are not “scarce” resources that are consumed, even though they are involved in transactions. The application of trust engenders more trust, the giving of love creates more love, the giving of rights creates obligations to reciprocal rights – they grow by use, they are not consumed by use. Treating them as market variables corrodes, devalues, distorts and destroys them. The market is not neutral, it has downward causation on the value of the goods involved in the transaction. They are devalued by being bought and sold, whereas intrinsically we value them.

In order to establish the social value of these goods we really need proper public discourse in politics – the kind that leaves us feeling satisfied with the policies established, so we remain supportive of their application. A difficult process for sure, but necessary. Leaving them to the market devalues and destroys them.

Not new, ’twas ever thus, yet despite the 2008 crash we still don’t seem to have learned. What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? – again.