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Larry Krauss giving BHA Darwin Day 2017 Lecture
(From 10 or 11 Feb, Euston or Camden)

[These are just contemporary notes recorded whilst watching the video. Not edited into any coherent piece in sentences.]

Dawkins intro too flippant about “something from nothing”. Krauss actually no better than “all things complex from almost nothing”. (Empty space ain’t so empty, as Krauss himself says later. His previous book admits as much, but the “Science-PR machine” doesn’t.)

Hmmm, “illusion of design is an accident of our (particular) existence” …. anthropic perspective is therefore real, man!

However, proper scepticism – not over-claiming here. That’s a good sign. (He is a good communicator, so long as he reigns in his arrogance about what is known, and people understand his barbed asides simply as gags for a laugh and not to be taken as valid arguments against the things he attacks or dismisses.)

Anyway: Evolution requires a “population – a population of galaxies in his case”. Good, some hope of an evolutionary explanation to come.

And “Goldilocks / Fine Tuning” – anthropic again. Not special in any privileged sense, but specifically real in terms of it actually being our perspective. Not merely a trivial or tautological statement.

“The kind of nothing that is not nothing. Space and time themselves – and even the laws of physics – are emergent and quantum variables” of this not-nothing.

“Redefinition is simply learning.” OK, it’s why Dennett says hold-off on your definitions while you can (and science generally says always be prepared to change them).

“Plato is his favourite philosopher(!) – really the cave”. (I think this may be the limit of Krauss philosophical knowledge, apart from his “sex with small boys” joke.)

(Aside – This scientist says and does – “apocryphal stories useful even if not true”.)

(Why is he describing Faraday / Electrical & Magnetic fields / Maxwell / Speed of Light / Einstein / Relativity / Time-dilation / Space-time / Feynman / Quantum-mechanics / Fermi / Standard-model-forces-and-particles / If-it-works-copy-it? Ah – increasingly not mental crutches in Larry’s opinion, unlike Faraday’s pictures of rays?!? OK progress is finding two things explained as manifestations of some same new underlying physics and so on. Honestly no difference in the nature of explanation between Faraday and Feynman’s diagrams – both models (crutches of some kind) on which to hang stories of what’s going on.)

Progress – “evolution of physics” (our physical understanding actually – see anthropic) is where “two correct but mutually inconsistent statements brought together by a better statement”. OK, but that’s anthropic. But where is he going with this in terms of cosmic evolution? Ah “the Muon experiment” – OK proves relativity time dilation – OK “Herman Minkowski – unification of explanation of time and space as one thing”. But why is he telling us this whole story?

Ha! He notices that implicit question.
“don’t worry I am leading somewhere”.

“Myopia” (anthropic perspective). Ah. He’s selling superconductivity “spontaneous-symmetry-breaking” as a “Higgs explanation of the particle appearance of mass. So now even EM and weak nuclear forces are unified as electro-weak”, etc. “Accident of the Higgs field frozen in the state it happens to be in our universe. LHC proof of these Higgs postulations. LHC engineering stats.”

“Humanity searching for reality” (evolving better models of reality, I’d say). He’s giving Darwin credit for this process – greatest observing and explaining scientist. Hmmm. I’d agree about the status of Darwin, but not that Krauss story is demonstrating this, he simply states it (in the context of this Darwin Day audience).

“We, and the universe that supports us, are simply a Cosmic Accident. The one we’re in is a natural selection – Cosmic Natural Selection.” Hmmm. Using Darwin’s words doesn’t make this true or explain why.

He even says it himself. We ARE choosing to believe this universe was made (evolved) specially for us. Pure accident it was this one, sure, but Higgs values and the particular set of standard model and cosmological constants are precisely why this is the one we’re in. That’s no accident.

As Dawkins says, great science communication, but like “Something From Nothing”, “Greatest Story Ever Told (So Far)” seems to be a fraud, a denial on this evidence. Great rhetoric and a great potted of the history of the evolution of “our model” of fundamental physics in there, but.

He knows his physics, but no evidence he knows Darwin (or Dennett or metaphysical underpinnings of his physics). A very entertaining “act” nevertheless.

It was cringeworthy that so many obituaries, and one-line social-media quotes linking to them, chose to lead with the quote that “121 submissions of ZMM were rejected by publishers before William Morrow’s single acceptance”.

Cringeworthy because it’s not at all relevant to Pirsig’s work, simply part of the #Outsider mythology created as a continuing part of the marketing of ZMM, quoted from a jokey aside in an interview, about only needing one acceptance for publication.

It was for rhetorical purposes, like most of Pirsig’s presentation of his own work. It’s written to be read and shared.

For a fact-checking generation (*), the facts are obviously more complicated than that simple statement, as already noted in my own #Pirsig biographical timeline. (The timeline benefitted from clarifying correspondence with Bob, and my biographical resources were shared with Mark Richardson when writing his own book, who further corresponded with Jim Landis, Bob’s original editor and champion at Morrow. The facts are as clear as they’re ever likely to be. Roughly – Proposal and sample chapters mailed to 120-odd publishers > addressed to pre-researched named-individual publishers where possible to get attention > 20-odd expressions of interest > one ~$3000 dollar advance made by Morrow / Landis to secure deal and …. the rest is history. And note that most of that happened before the ZMM Road Trip itself; the writing of the book for publication was long term, pre-meditated and planned project. Bob’s a writer, not a prophet of a moment of revelation.)

Dan Bloom has done his own fact-checking blog and checked his story with Jim, Mark and myself. He’s right that too many journos and social-media pundits have use the apocryphal quote in ignorance of the detail, and in doing so helped reinforce the mythology. In context that’s no bad thing, in fact given the quality of Bob’s work it’s a very good thing, but it does show how easily “false” facts become fake-news when unchecked. In that Dan is right and I have myself chastised a few on Twitter who should know better than doing so without checking. One journo simply quoting another is not a fact check.

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(*) People who believe the world is (should be) made (solely) of objective facts. A topic highly relevant to Pirsig’s work.

Many tweets and memorial pieces coming in, still every 20 seconds or so via social media – most “so long and thanks for all the …. fish” one-liner memories, linking to some already published mainstream obituary. Some like SeymourBlogger @AbbeysBooks (followed by Jim Landis) have their own very specific “learnings”.

Re-reading ZMM (Part 1)
Re-reading ZMM Part 2

Seymour has clearly read more of the “Foggy Froggy” Post-Modernists than I have. I’ve read enough (mainly Foucault) to appreciate what I think I need to know – always dangerous – but have always since branded myself as a “PoPoMo” if I ever need to claim a label in response to some pejorative “PoMo” criticism. After Radical Empiricism, we have Speculative Realism, and more. But I digress.

No detailed review of Seymour’s thesis is possible here – I don’t actually know what it is – but several points to note. Like any of us with very specific reasons to hang our hats on what we learned from journeying with Pirsig, the writing and presentation is a bit idiosyncratic – “crowning” Pirsig – breathless, weird even, but with good reason.

Alterity – what Pirsigians call SOMism or Subject-Object-Metaphysics, what I simply call “identity politics” – the simple fact that by long established convention (an evolved cultural memeplex) all objects (even ourselves) are defined and identified in relation to us as subjects, however arrogantly we “greedy-reductionists” continually claim “evidence-based” objectivity.

Irreversibility – In “Quality” thinking there is a very important distinction to be made in the way things evolve through time. Pirsig’s MoQ (Metaphysics of Quality), contrasted with SOMism, is a framework of evolving Cultural (Intellectual and Social) layers built on top of Life, built in turn on the Physical. The contrast is simply that in this framework there are no fundamental objects other than the “quality” of interactions dynamic or static patterns. Lower (older evolved) static patterns and layers become latches for higher (newer) ones. Pirsig actually influenced many in the Total Quality Management business during the 1980’s; the big name gurus, like Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence with Bob Waterman) as well as many pragmatic individuals directly or indirectly. Anyway, there is something in Pirsig that highlights the 2nd Law, that reverse entropy gradients can only ever result from localised intentional processes, and furthermore, only a subset of this “constructive” activity occurs in ways that are reversible. My original (engineering) mentor, worked with a welding guru, known as Tad Boniczevski who was forever warning us in our engineering specifications to be careful in applying quality management processes and checks to recognise those where “parts become irreversibly incorporated into the whole” as opposed to those that didn’t. Different rules must apply in practice. Reversibility is very much the exception, one of ingenuity.

There is a lot more to recommend in Pirsig; too much to mention again here and many people have thanked Pirsig for many different kinds of inspiration but the technical philosophical and quality stuff is a rich seam.

Just had a weird reading-linked-articles (Tennis-Elbow-Foot / Cow-Lake-Bomb / Rock-Paper-Scissors) experience: Ian Stewart is a popular maths writer I’ve enjoyed, but probably barely referenced here other than as the author of “Does God Play Dice? – The Mathematics of Chaos“.

I was also aware that the “non-game” Finchley Central was a forerunner to ISIHAC‘s Mornington Crescent, ever since Doug Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas reference to it. But, I hadn’t twigged Ian Stewart was the inventor of Finchley Central in his time as editor of Warwick maths magazine Manifold.

If you follow me here on Psybertron, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Hofstadter and his connections to my hero Dan Dennett – the evolution of things complex, conscious and intelligent from nothing. One of the key contributions to my own agenda is Hofstadter’s game Tabletop (whose name has it’s own weird word-association evolution) but whose content, I now realise, is fundamentally a variant of Mornington Crescent (or Finchley Central).

In a game of no rules (a non-game) where the “board” permits any move of any piece  you might imagine, the progress – to something interesting – is by “conceptual slipping”. The basis of MC/FC is anyone can win the game at any time they choose after the first move, all moves are permitted, but the point is to spin it out into something interesting for as long as you can and still pre-empt your opponent’s winning move.

In Tabletop, and one variant of MC/FC, a strategy is to have some meta-rule (eg by some metaphorical association, A is to B as B is to C etc ) that allows you to make a next move but which looks random to your opponent. In that variant, an alternative way to beat your opponent is to guess their meta-rule before they make their winning move, or use that same (guessed) information to make your own winning move before they do. [The meta-rule may be very simple or pseudo-random to start with – when you first conceive it – but repeated, recursive, algorithmic action over many cycles can make the individual moves indecipherably complex – meta-(n x meta)-rule-result – from outside your head. That same feature makes it impossible for any outsider to know if you’ve been breaking or changing your own rule. The rule may be that there is no rule, other than the mental connection – the conceptual slipping – inside your head.]

The final synchronicity is that I’m pretty sure it was our maths master “Ester” Pearson, he who first introduced me to the Registry Assembly Programming exercise published later by Dennett, who also introduced us to listening to ISIHAC on the “Home Service” radio during our lunch breaks in 1972.

Just started reading a startlingly different book “The Master and the Margarita” by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov.

I’d never heard of him or the book before I picked it up from my mother who is doing a University of the Third Age (U3A) course in Russian Literature. She was given the book by an old maths and physics teacher of mine from school, who was in turn given it by his philosopher brother. An always interesting feature of much Russian literature is understanding the prevailing political censorship and endorsement context – and the punishments for transgression – at the time it was written. This certainly applies to M&M.

M&M was first published in Russian in 1966 and in English in 1995, but was written in the final years up to his death in 1940. Born in 1891, between 1922 and his death, Bulgakov had in fact written many hybrid books and dramas of various genres playing satirical games with or against his censors, many now available in Russian and English.

All I can say so far is M&M’s seriously weird and compelling. Some cross between Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses and Neil Gaiman American Gods but written in 1930’s Russia!

I may be distracted for a while, but I’ll be back.

Sad to hear of yesterday’s passing of Bob Pirsig, aged 88, at home after a period of failing health. Thoughts are with Wendy and the family.

Bob was my seed-crystal – the catalyst that triggered all manner of connections between the super-saturated collection of issues and thoughts that already had me on my “What, why & how do we know?” agenda, here at Psybertron. That is I’m not one of those originally inspired by reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” on a post-hippie lifestyle-seeking journey. There can be no doubt the culture-bearing zeitgeist of reconciling romantic yearnings with the classical yoke of industrial technology is probably what connected with and inspired his millions of readers. This New York Times piece is better than any obituary or overview of Pirsig’s work I could do here.

For me it’s more personal and I told my own Pirsigian story in this conference paper and these slides back in 2006. And, for all my Pirsigian resources see the Psybertron Pirsig Pages which includes a Robert Pirsig Biographical Timeline and many, many more links.

Pirsig’s philosophical work is criticised as naive in the sense that he never attempted the “philosophology” necessary to set it and develop it within the orthodoxy of mainstream philosophy. He wrote rhetorically about his own instructive experiences and his readings of the Greeks, Kant and James, take it or leave it. Of course, if you do choose to take it, it comes with two great novels, US road-trip / buddy-movie, father-son baton-passing, tormented madness as enlightenment, even a little engineering, motorcycle-maintenance and boat-rigging interwoven with his philosophical Chautauqua on quality, virtue, ethics and morality. You name it, all human life is in there.

In 2008 I effectively signed off on my own Pirsig research with this retrospective post, prompted by publication of Mark Richardson’s Zen and Now, and Mark E. Lehnertz review (on that page). My last significant reference was when reviewing “Shop Class as SoulCraft” by Matthew Crawford in 2009.

I’m quoted as claiming:

“The Metaphysics of Quality
is the best framework
for the whole of reality”

Although I don’t often write about Pirsig, or even refer specifically these days to his work, I do still hold his MoQ as “the best framework for the whole of reality“. I really do mean that. One way or another, everything I do, I hang off that mental picture. All the other great philosophers, like Hume and Wittgenstein, and even the latest and greatest works from Dan Dennett and Carlo Rovelli to name but two.

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[Post Note: Talking of Philosophology (Comparative Philosophical Criticism) which Pirsig rejected and thereby excluded himself from mainstream philosophy, it was only a few days ago I picked-up on this tweet quoting Lewis Gordon speaking at #APAPacific17

Hat tip to Chris Meyns.]

[Post Note: And so many mainstream media pieces, too many to link to, but here a formal obituary from the Guardian. Hat tip to David Morey.]

Heard Ed Atkinson of Citizens’ Climate Lobby UK speak last night at Teesside “Skeptics in the Pub”. Although they’re already a decade old, and I have long-standing interests in the energy business and in climate change science and policy, it was the first time I had really been aware of CCL and their very specific climate policy.

It was a very impressive message.

Given my underlying epistemological scepticism – “Yeah, but how do we know?” and the fact that I am sceptical about both scientific & political climate-change predictions – particularly those that claim to be objectively evidence-based and quantifiable – many assume I must be a climate-change sceptic.

In fact the existence of Anthropogenic Global Warming and the need to do all we can to minimise CO2, volatile-hydrocarbon and low-grade heat emissions from our human activity has always been a no-brainer. Simply common sense. 1st and 2nd laws. As an engineer, where there’s a will, there’s a way. The problem has always been politics and political economics.

The beauty of Ed’s talk was that, whilst he did throw up a few graphs and numbers to illustrate the scale of what we’re dealing with, none of his conclusions – or the CCL policy recommendations – are particularly dependent on any actual numbers or calculations assumed. Basically, which things will drive the relevant factors in the right direction with greatest predictability & manageability and the least unintended incentives to corrupt & game the system.

It needs the caveat – all other things being equal – we’re talking about the carbon economy part of the whole global economic activity here, where businesses and governments will have plenty of other drivers and incentives in play. The point of the CCL proposal is to apply the economic controls at points where they are least in conflict with the other drivers on activity and investment.

Simply:

  • The Carbon Tax or “Fee”. Leave fossil fuel in the ground or, if you do extract it, tax it progressively at that point of extraction.
  • The Benefit or “Dividend”. Divide the tax take to be paid equally and directly to all individual participants in the economic and ecological environment through existing tax allowance and benefit payment schemes.

The beauty of this approach is that it addresses the tragedy of the commons directly by putting government taxation in the role of the common interest, and giving the individual interest – environmental and economic – directly back to the individual. The market looks after the rest. The individual makes the lifestyle choices as the consumer, and the whole supply chain for energy, goods and R&D is then driven from that end. If that’s not enough, governments (with public support) can still provide subsidies from general taxation to the development on alternative energy technologies, without upsetting the incentives in the main scheme.

Particularly encouraging is that the simplicity and predictability, the avoidance of regulatory bans and risk of market shocks, means that more conservative Republican political and big-energy big-business interests appear to see this as the best option of a set of worse taxation and regulation choices. It could be win-win.

Seems a no-brainer to support this recommendation.

Plenty of lively discussion from an audience committed to the issues and a talk that had inspired much interest. The big take-away, beyond the detail and mechanics of the policy scheme itself, was the realisation how much any such scheme would be dependent on global / international government agreement to implement. Particularly salient in our time of increased noise for nationalist interests. However with China already committed to massive alternative energy investment and other western trading blocks already collaborating, even if the global agreement can only ever be partial, we nevertheless all benefit as the major part of the “commons”.

It may be brutal, but it’s no tragedy.

Islamism – non-secular political aspirations of Islam – are a problem of Islam and a problem for all of us, but that problem is Islamism, not Islam per se. And, like any religion, interpretation and fragmentation mean Islam has plenty of other problems with tolerance and respect for individual rights and freedoms, but there can be no doubt Sharia represents some very particular problems of Islam also exploited by Islamism. Extreme Islamism, Jihadism and political terrorism & violence in-the-name-of Islamism are further problematic levels of complication, and an important part of my agenda is to avoid conflation in addressing these many – related, but distinct – things.

In fact my thesis is that life really is this complicated and that’s as true of science & rationality, politics & culture as it is of religion & faith, but I digress.

I’ve been a follower of Quilliam and a supporter of Maajid Nawaz’s position on Islam and Islamism for some years, but have only recently got round to reading his early autobiographical “Radical“. It’s the story of his journey from youthful irreligious ethnic-Pakistani Essex “B-Boy” gangsta to extreme Islamist radicalisation and torture, and back again to being the grown-up Muslim campaigner against Islamism, radicalisation and bigoted extremism in general. I found particularly scary, shared experiences of common locations and times in London, Pakistan and Egypt.

It is a very good read.

Sure, there is probably a little over-inflated sense of attributing his own actions and qualities to taking credit for the events described, it is after all only one person’s narrative of events as he saw it, but there can be no denying the story is a must-read lesson we all should understand. There may even be a little dramatic invention in the DNA of the number 42 and in his apologising to the door out of the torture cell? But he does also give generous credit to many others along the way; Peter Tatchell and Amnesty International for example, as well as a list of mainstream party politicians and civil servants that might surprise the more cynical.

Significant, I think, that Mid-East historian Tom Holland is one of those providing a cover blurb recommendation. An important book as well as being an un-put-downable read.

Chapter 16 “Polemic” provides probably the most comprehensive statement and rationalisation of the reactionary Islamist agenda – radically political before it is remotely religious, essentially “our” self-identity politics with a vengeance. I was reminded of my own readings of Anders Breivik in the objective logic behind misguided determination behind the appalling actions.

Initially, I made many notes, quotes and connections from that polemic chapter, but thought better of presenting them all here. Just go read it.

The final redemptive section of the book starts with Chapter 24 and I was moved to share these:

[On “No Platforming”] [Hall’s summary of Voltaire]
‘I disapprove of what you say,
but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ […]

Any other stance makes a mockery of the universality of human rights. Even now as I spend and expend my life campaigning against extremism, I would still want Amnesty to protect prisoners in a similar position to the one I was in. [Guilty in actions, but nevertheless actually imprisoned for belief.] […]

But the devil is in the detail. Where I disagree with not just Amnesty but with many other human-rights groups is in their failure to highlight a clear and obvious distinction between a victim of human rights abuses, and a champion of human rights causes. […]

I will campaign against anyone who would want to torture Mubarak, for he remains a human being, but I would never want to extend to any one of the Mubarak regime’s men a human rights platform from which to address a young, impressionable crowd of student volunteers …

[Many groups sadly blur the distinction in who they platform.]
Life is more complicated than that.

And

The rehumanisation Amnesty had helped kick-start [in me] was furthered by others in prison too. […]

‘So, why did you leave the cause?’ I asked, genuinely interested.

And as we walked across the desert sand of Mazrah Tora’s prison yard, [he] looked at me a simply said, ‘I grew up.’

The way he said it caught me completely off guard. I grew up. The phrase made me pause. I had been expecting a long pseudo-theological justification [… but … H]e was too smart to get into that. Instead, he just left that phrase hanging there, and left me to think about it. Which I did.

And

Reading classic English literature did for me what [only recently] studying Islamic theology couldn’t; It forced my mind to grapple with moral dilemmas. Upon our request, the British Consul would regularly send us books from the embassy library.

I devoured the classics ….

Those of us with over-zealous adherence to our logic of life – even those of us who would claim entirely undogmatic rational logic – have a lot of growing-up to do. Nawaz eventually comes to reflecting on Breivik in his epilogue.

“Much remains to be done.”

#Solidarity