HTLGI2022@Hay – Mostly Meta

Just a quick diary of my 4 days at the IAI “How the Light Gets In” festival in Hay-on-Wye 2 to 5 June 2022, from a logistical & meta perspective first, before I get down to any people and significant content.

Being also the Jubilee holiday, the main car-park in Hay was free so I took advantage of driving in and out each day from a hotel 8 miles away. Events were entirely on the riverside site on the English side of the border this year (the opposite end of town from the McMillan book festival also in Hay) with none in the Globe or Globe Field, nearer the bridge.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday were mostly dry and bright -properly warm June sunshine most of the time – just a bit cool and breezy on the Saturday morning. Saturday night, Sunday morning however came le deluge. Having been torrential overnight – run-off debris all over the roads – in the morning leaving the hotel the rain had stopped so I drove into Hay as planned. Unfortunately as I arrived in the car park the rain had started again and continued to teem as I sat and waited before maybe getting the wet weather gear out of the boot. After about 40 mins it looked set-in so, cowardly, I gave-up and bailed-out. (The main regret being my missing the pro-trans-activist “debate” with Peter Tatchell and “BobbityP” – the significance of which will become clear in the light of “DocStockK”s participation at the event.)

Out of the 250 sessions on offer, I properly attended 19 and part-witnessed / eavesdropped a handful more. (I will add the IAI.tv video recordings when published.)

Couple of meta-comments for the organisers:

      • Re-arranging talks, timings & locations is inevitable, but need better way of notifying these, both from the reception desk and at the tent venues.
      • Inner Circle / Salon tent needs better sound and wind screening from the rest of the site. (And Ferris Wheel engine too close to the Circle tent.)
      • Great standard of well-serviced toilets for a festival event, but noticeable how much the women had to queue – probably twice as many needed?

Thursday I actually only managed to attend one philosophy session, I didn’t arrive until ~4:15 pm after a lunchtime meet-up with Sam and checking into the hotel beforehand. Sadly by the time I arrived two of the events I’d earmarked for Thursday pm had been re-arranged. I missed “Nature, Friend or Foe” with Yuval Harari and Slavoj Zizek, (and missed “The AI Hoax” with Mazviita Chirimuuta) but I did get to see:

“The Status of Things” with Paul Dolan, Mary-Ann Ochota and Steve Taylor hosted by Gunes Taylor. I’d expected a bit more of a metaphysical take on the significance (or not) of objective Things, but it was mostly about human-level consumerism, resource-consumption and stuff-possession. No real surprises.

Live music with the Cable Street Collective – regulars at Hay.
Driven by excellent bass and synth-drum riffs with guitar and horn highlights and – so important to the reggae / Afro-beats groove – fronted by the tremendously engaging Fiona Jane. You will dance along.

“The Demons of Thermodynamics (Entropy)” with Katie Robertson.
I may write-up more of my many notes on this one, but suffice to say excellent from a Leverhulme prize-winning early career philosopher of physics I’d not come across before. Significant for me, all her model examples – the usual gas-molecules in boxes, ice-cubes in glasses of water, and combustion engines – she naturally called “systems”. Telling I thought. All the way through the laws of thermodynamics from the minus-first and zero-eth up to the 2nd Law, and local entropy reversals … stopping just short of “Free Energy Principles” and “Systems Thinking” in the evolving life of conscious organisms. Part of her current research she responded when asked. (Also saw her in the Fundamental Stuff debate later.) A keeper methinks. One to watch.

“The Crisis of Ageing” with Aaron Bastani. With he and his Novara Media being the enfant terrible of division in UK politics of the left, his reputation precedes him, but this was my first face-to-face engagement. Smart and articulate, and provocative when necessary. Ringing alarm bells for the shift already upon us – ageing older-old demographic in a soon-to-be-declining UK (natal) and global population generally. Not news but a reminder not to take our eyes off this ball in ongoing political strategies. (A recurring theme at previous HTLGI’s as well as this one, later …)

“The Ignorance of Experts” with Julian Baggini, Ellen Clarke and Ben Burgis hosted by Gunes Taylor. With a title prompted by Feynman’s famous quip and current content driven by Covid epidemiology experience, this ended up being mostly about epistemic uncertainty and doubt generally. Julian- Plurality. When it comes to experts no one expert is expert in everything. Ellen – Underdetermined – most expert opinion based on theory is underdetermined in terms of matching data to theory. Predictions and recommendations invariably based on values – generally denied and often quite diverse. Ben – Default position must be to trust expert advice. Policy is much more than facts and science. Julian -“Follow-the-Science” is a smokescreen for politicians. Ellen – Transparency of more empirical data and theory to non-experts sounds good, but can just increase confusion and uncertainty when what is needed is clarity. (Will maybe write up more notes on this one).

“What the World is Made Of” with Rupert Sheldrake, Paul Davies and Katie Robertson, hosted by Dallas Campbell. Too many notes to summarise and not much new unfortunately. Ended-up being a conversation around what is even meant by the reality of existence – but covered everything from Democritan atoms of “stuff” to strings, relations and information. Kastrup, Smolin and Whitehead all got positive mentions, sadly Deutsch & Marletto’s counterfactuals did not, although prompted by Katie the distinction between (conceivable) possibility and actuality took up a fair part of the dialogue. Interesting – to maybe damn with faint praise? (Much impressed with Katie on Entropy earlier.)

(Sadly missed Simon Baron-Cohen on “Revolutionising Our Idea of the Brain”. Also missed “Moral Facts and Moral Fantasy” with Zizek, Kavenna and Blackburn with Chang hosting!)

“Gravity: A New Window on the Universe” with Paul Davies. Carrying on from the previous debate I was keen to see the already famous Paul Davies in person again. (Previous students – Jessica Flack and Sara Imari (?) – have impressed me.) Synopsis from Einstein onwards of predictions and developments around Gravitational Waves – up to the planned LISA GW detector. Essentially providing a new non-electromagnetic medium for cosmic observation – including the “ringing” from the big-bang. Mysterious that GW also travel at the speed of light in the “vacuum” of space.

“Truth, Prejudice and the University” with Kathleen Stock, Aaron Bastani and Tommy Curry, hosted by Rana Mitter. “Should we root out intolerance” – obviously focussed on recent Cancel Culture generally.  Tommy – impressive, new to me – Tx A&M (@Austin) and Edinburgh experience, focus on White-Supremacist vs CRT and different style of identity politics / trigger-warnings / colour-blindness between US and UK experience. Aaron – problem is partly groupthink and partly basic risk-averse capitalism of the education “business”. No longer really the intellectual academy. Kathleen – emphatic “Yes” (we should fight it). The education (business) environment is saturated in moralisation, a whole industry focussing on “harms” and “training in diversity” at the expense of exposure to contentious ideas. New @Austin project part of response to this. (See Kathleen Stock on Material Girls later). Again much of the dialogue came down to understanding objective-truth / natural-reality / social-construction. (Eric Kaufmann in the audience to back-up the objective evidence of the culture wars.)

(Clash – missed Simon Baron-Cohen again in “Necessity and Lies” with Rebecca Roache and Hilary Lawson, hosted by Samira Shackle – the latter being editor of New Humanist, one of the collaborating partners at HTLGI this year. Rationalist Association staff on hand distributing free copies of NH. Interest – I’m a member and previous trustee of RA/NH.)

(Skipped 2.5 hour session (!) with Zizek on “Heaven in Disorder” but stuck my head in a couple of times as he was cracking jokes with his academy “classroom”.)

“In Search of a Cleaner World” with Chris Huhne, Lierre Keith (video link) and Mike Berners-Lee, hosted by Elizabeth Hilton. Interesting, but I made few significant notes. Lierre strong on the overlooked externalities of many so-called renewable / sustainable solutions. Chris strongest on existing policy and being positive about progress. Mike on the many calculations and less intuitive dependencies between population and consumption. Agriculture and husbandry a massive element at many levels. Reversal of population growth and demographics again a big factor. Summary – it’s complicated, not always intuitively obvious and what is really needed is genuine sustainability of long-term policy and multi-factor targets and measurements.

(Clash – skipped “Love and Other Drugs” with Anders Sandberg, Ella Whelan and Keith Ward, hosted by Myriam Francois. Strangely, Peter Sjostedt-Hughes not on that panel?)

“Material Girls” with Kathleen Stock. Obviously related to her book of that title, but based (conveniently) almost entirely on last week’s statement from Warwick Pride as a case-study in cult-like narcissism and closure to dialogue based almost entirely on victim culture. This stuff writes itself without the courage to resist from the academy (see earlier “university” session above). Overtly diverse participants at Hay (apart from obvious self-selecting educated middle-class demographic) plenty of gay, lesbian and assorted ambiguous sex and gender and “furry” presenting individuals amongst the mix of sexes, races, nations and cultures, and yet all bar one question from the floor was sympathetic to Kathleen’s position, about dealing with work and family / parenting consequences of woke / culture-war language and the virality of social media generally spilling over into the physical world. Kathleen keen to point out that the bottom-up resistance to the misguided institutional agenda would not have been possible without Twitter. Not sure whether there was an active boycott of this session by the TRA community or a fear of speaking-up in public but there was no protest or even counter argument. Just a single audience comment suggesting that whilst Kathleen’s position was courageous it was explicitly harmful to Trans, with no specific example or argument. Kathleen’s response was to invite for a discussion over a drink afterwards? (Interestingly the TRA session later, on the Sunday, was set-up with no feminist or LGB “GC” counter-representation … ho hum. See Tatchell on Desire and Tatchell on TRA.)

Round-table Salon / Dinner with Hilary Lawson, Bjorn Ekeberg and Mazviita Chirimuuta. Always interesting for the side conversations with guests as well as the named thinkers. Although advertised to be on “Limits to Science” – disappointingly no strong threads on exactly what those limits are other than Hilary and Bjorn’s existing positions. Hilary strangely on how we should attribute – and continue to encourage – science success given it’s obvious limitations when it comes of actual reality (again). Probably too subtle for the range and level of starting interests around the table. Mazviita was a revelation – acknowledged as a kindred spirit – philosopher of perception and mind-brain science. (If I’d arrived early enough on Thursday, she’d had “The AI Hoax” session of her own – damn! Still did see her again in the Virtual World session later.) A new connection to follow-up.

(Catherine Heymans, Peter Sjostedt-Hughes and Peter Godfrey-Smith on the other table. The dinner conversation and wine was still flowing as I left around 9:45 and skipped all the musical / entertainment options later on the Friday evening.)

Philosophy Breakfast with Anders Sandberg. I’ve experienced and been impressed by Anders before. A futurist technophile embracing the new, his main agenda is about not overthinking and fearing future possibilities but influencing the future we might want by embracing available possibilities now. No argument with that as a strategy. What was interesting was that the “boys toys” techno focus – and repeated use of Elon Musk as his case-study left a strong impression of the autistic left-brain objective-things agenda, overlooking all the social consequences and desiderata amongst the more diverse guest interests. Now, we do know Anders full agenda does indeed recognise the importance of the social angle, and indeed his participatory strategy is precisely to expose and drive these as we work with imperfect technologies now. However, the very real impression created lots of interesting side conversations.

(Those conversations and some session changes meant I missed a few options. Didn’t see Ruth Chang on her “Challenge of Choice” framework – pretty central to my own agenda, so I’m regretting that. I did catch the closing stages of Denis Noble “arguing” with Richard Dawkins about (real) Lamarkian mechanisms ignored by a purely Darwinian genetic mutation and selection view. Ultimately (for me) this is really just a matter of emphasis and it’s a many-times rehearsed argument between old adversaries. I’m regretting that too. Genes are indeed involved at many levels, but there are many levels with many other organelles and proteins involved too. Particularly dumb – well disappointing to Dawkins anyway – question from the audience about very basic ape to human evolution that showed that the whole point of genetic / selection evolution had nevertheless passed-by unnoticed. Oh well …)

“Getting Everything, Losing Everything” with Anders Sandberg, Mazviita Chirimuuta and Massimo Pigliucci hosted by Stephen Pincock. Focussing from the start on virtual reality and Zuckerberg & Clegg’s proprietary “Metaverse” branded version of it. (I despair at Meta’s appropriation of the important word meta, but I digress) Although the value (and downsides) of AI & Tech augmented reality of human experience were much argued over, “Mazviita’s Lobster” became the focus. The “experience” of eating an expensive luxury meal – like a Lobster Thermidor – in a virtual environment. (Or Anders playing a virtual but skilled sport like football) Bodily disconnected and unrisked – the psychological experience may have some value, but the psychological interactions with other participants will be “artificial” and the physical value (like nutrition) will be zero. Even with maximum “smellovision” replication of all sensory experiences, if the technology is ever developed to the point to generate the actual bodily effects – with or without food-poisoning –  can it ever have any benefit over the real thing? Good distinctions made between hedonic vs eudaimonic pleasures vs pure distraction. Also Massimo – people “will do things they shouldn’t” so regulation and moderation become ever more critical – if we thought social media was bad … Technology is NOT neutral either. (Massimo has actually withdrawn from social media other than publicising events and publications – no interactive dialogue.) David Chalmers despite his rock-star status almost entirely wrong on everything he has ever predicted. Anyway, lots of discussion again boiling down to what actually is reality anyway. Anders the optimist. Massimo the sceptic. And again Mazviita impressed on where the subtle detail lay. (First came across Mazviita Chirimuuta the previous evening.)

“The Baby Bust” with Thangam Debbonaire, Aveek Bhattacharya, Tim Palmer, and Mike Berners-Lee, hosted by (Hegarty?)
Another of these topics where the only conclusions are “it’s complicated”. Sure we should recognise the actual and forecast major decline in population globally and locally but also recognise the different timescales and local variations. Even though global population decline appears a wholly good thing from the planet’s resource consumption perspective, some parts of the world will increase consumption as living standards equalise and wealthier demographics will also increase environmental climate load which will partly compensate for total decline. Locally there will be far more problems of ageing demographics – older-old care demands, etc – and increased migrations to compensate for declines in natal working-age populations. Liberal population ethics will demand working on values that denote “a good life” not just as working careers, but for meaningful longer lives. There were both fearful and hopeful considerations. Although most of the downsides to falling-but-ageing populations through falling birth rates are about local adjustments and the benefits global, the local problems will be distributed globally too. Any solutions will be through global agreements on the valuing the well-being of all humans. A stark question from a young “furry” in the audience showed the vicious reinforcement cycle of hopelessness – she and most of her contemporary friends being too fearful – of an unsustainable world in climate crisis – to bring any children into it. Interestingly the remaining time was spent by all four speakers pointing out that this was NOT the message they were intending to give and explicitly pointing out why the best response for thoughtful and caring individuals such as herself was the hopeful one, to create a new thoughtful and caring generation. I sincerely hope she noted that unanimity and will follow-up even if not convinced on the day. (Shows the real dangers of the general doom and gloom messaging.)

(Clash – missed Tommy Curry on “A New Approach to Race” and Lierre Keith on “The Dying Planet and Patriarchy’s Endgame”)

“The Strangeness of the Universe” with Bjorn Ekberg, Sabine Hossenfelder and Rupert Sheldrake, hosted by Johnjoe McFadden. Was looking forward to the prospect of Sabine and Rupert being on the same stage as much as any content. Anyway – the point being the more we (science) claim to know about the world, the more and stranger the mysteries that appear to remain – “Might science and philosophy one day stretch to meet the universe’s strangeness?” Bjorn – Strangeness is a matter of perspective. Much science is stuck in its patterns of thought, so some major shifts in existing scientific thinking are needed. Sabine – yes orthodox science will successfully address issues with the remaining physical stuff, explaining consciousness is probably not going to happen with current methods (well that’s a start at least). Rupert – interesting that panpsychism is fashionable again (eg Kastrup), not just from micro-level physics to brains, but what about cosmic objects themselves being “conscious”. Physicalism needs radical rethink – effectively theology of Aquinas and Descartes pre-materialism. Sabine – for a philosophical view on the science of dark matter, see Dave Merritt. Bjorn – Limits to our current knowledge are not just about gaps in knowledge available but limitations of our existing mental frameworks. Rupert – so much modern science “progress” is by fudging (eg DM) in existing theoretical calcs to match observation – that is not in any way explanatory of reality – (and were back to “and what is reality anyway?”) Q – Reductionism vs emergence? Nature is organised in levels but “emergence” and not just bottom-up determined causation. Q – IF we accept monism, must it be dual aspect monism? Mind and Informational! Better late than never. Trinity better than one or two says Rupert (aaagh – didn’t capture which 3!)

“The Mystery of the Multiverse” with Roger Penrose, Sabine Hossenfelder and Michio Kaku  hosted by Hilary Lawson. This session was really quite hilarious. Not surprisingly Sabine was nodding along to most of what the immensely experienced Nobel-prize-winning Roger had to say, whilst neither could make any sense of what Michio, one of its founding fathers, had to say about string theory. Or why several “testable predictions” of string theory depended on Multiple Universes? Lots wrong with current quantum level science says Roger who wouldn’t be drawn on any specific possibilities, but genuinely baffled why string theory thought it was any kind of answer and Michio couldn’t enlighten him (or us). Whilst essentially dismissing the kinds of multiverse view that suggests infinitely many possibilities / or choice-bifurcations exist in infinite parallel universes some discussion in favour of the multiple big-bangs and fusings between multiple universes in time passing on only boundary conditions (my position) even though lots wrong with current big-bang theories. Essentially multiple cycles of Eons of one universe. Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment was only every intended to demonstrate how absurd multiverse suggestions are, not as a constructively useful way to think about them. Still real need to reconcile QM with Gravitation. QT needs to lose multiple real-universe alternatives, even if multiple phase contributions to multiple terms in a series provide means of calculation. A tendency for people to “game” testable predictions – believing that some specific local testable predictions can verify theoretical calculations claimed to apply to the whole “unified ToE”. Roger and Sabine effectively accusing Michio and string theory of this.

“The Search for Certainty” with Simon Blackburn, Ruth Chang and Hilary Lawson hosted by Maria Balaska. Good to see Ruth Chang at last, even if I’d overdosed on Hilary and even if Simon and Hilary already know each other’s positions so well. Simon instantly reduced the abstract question of whether we could find or should seek certainty in life to every-day examples – of needing (and being able) to know things like a bus timetable with predictable certainty (where’s the problem?), whilst Hilary led with his anti-realist position that all our “closures” give us constructed certainties that are simply not there in any real world – “out there” whatever that meant. Ruth found middle-ground, that simply made me regret even more I’d missed her solo session on her “choice” framework. Homework to be done.

“Desiring and Being Desired” with Catherine Hakim, Katherine Angel and Peter Tatchell, hosted by Myriam Francois. So many levels of irony in this one. Not least (gay) Peter being the only male representative on a panel discussing male-female attraction and desire – and the (ongoing) historical downsides of patriarchal power. The (evidently attractive) Myriam putting the position of women under pressure to meet expectations of attractive presentation in dress, hair and make-up. Catherine pointing out (to the palpable shock of almost everyone else on the panel and a sizeable part of the audience) much objective evidence that women never had it so good in terms of their natural advantage in the stakes of seeking and/or choosing sexual partners (or not) rather than being oppressed victims. Bemoaning the lost arts of flirting, wooing and seduction as natural means of civilised negotiation between desire, expression and/or deciding to act by mutual consent. Fortunately, no-one suggesting women should ape men in asserting sexual dominance or that “incels” had any particular rights other than humanity. Asexuality was always a valid option. Odd that no one questioned why this session stuck to a focus on heterosexual attraction, with only Katherine making passing reference to historical female disadvantage in the orgasm and masturbation stakes now addressed more by lesbian relationships and no references to male homosexuality or any of the more ambiguous variations. (Pity I didn’t make the Peter Tatchell / Bobbi Pickard “TQI+” session the following day, to round things off … no hint in this session or the Sunday session of Peter advocating or justifying paedophilia. Bearing in mind he’s an activist not a thinker I always find him a caring reasonable human.)

So finally – live music with King Charles. Dominated by Charles Costa as the hirsute, white-suited, tall dark and sexy singer-songwriter front man, but actually a very tight funky dance-pop line-up of tunes, rhythms and harmonies around some interesting lyrics. Great fun live with an enthusiastic audience, so much more so than the handful of flatter studio produced video versions of their same songs I’ve checked-out since.

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[Post note some suggestion  that Peter Tatchell stated that they failed to get any GC feminist or gay representatives to respond to any request to join the line-up of the all TRA session on the Sunday.

Given the latter was at the event, I’d be surprised if the TRA’s did make any serious effort at dialogue. Kathleen Stock did in fact offer in her own session earlier.]

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