Search Polarises Extremes

A simple illustration that non-AI search algorithms are the cause of polarising memes that dominate public discourse.

You know from experience that Google search terms out of context can return irrelevant items, so you think as you start to type what are likely to make key terms relevant to your particular interest. Finding something specific or finding out about something, explicitly or implicitly, you have a search strategy in mind – even if it is a completely neutral, I’ve no idea where to look or what I’m looking for specifically – looking for ideas. That’s your experience and your (human) mind working so far.

However, Google offers a helpful type-ahead of previous and popular search strings, even before you’ve completed the first word you had in mind. To save typing and mental effort, how often do you find, yeah, that string might do the job, and click on it. Relevant early returns? If not go back, continue typing a word or two, and pick one of the alternative strings offered? Obviously, Google’s prioritising of the returns gives its own set of skewed prejudices, a commercial attention-grabbing game of SEO and the like, but the very act of selecting a previously trended search string skews you to popular options. The non-AI search algorithm has intercepted your own human-intelligent strategy. Binary extremes emerge naturally, even if your original intent was neutral.

(My own strategy at this point is to notice if there is a wikipedia item near the top or to the right, and select that first – read around the subject – find contentious hot-topics to avoid if possible before continuing. But it takes effort, so inevitably the search-strings and returns offered dominate the traffic, and the traffic reinforces the algorithms, even search-string clicks that don’t return any relevant items!)

Jaw-War? – Let’s Not Carpet-Bomb Dresden.

The Rhetoric of International Dispute 101 – a Noddy / Abbott guide

Are we outraged? Shall we do something about it? Shall we have Jaw-Jaw or War-War? Let me think. Shall we ask the public if it is in favour of armed intervention that might lead to war? Poll? Referendum? Debate?

No-one is in favour or War-War. Never met a single soul. Anywhere. Ever.

Question is, are you a pacifist activist, or are you a politician of state? More to the point, do you know the difference?

What we’d all prefer is Jaw-Jaw. Actually we might prefer to be lying on the beach, but that’s another story. Let’s get people around the table to talk. Let’s get independent mediators to facilitate that and to independently assess the facts of the outrage brought to the table. Good so far. We’ve brought the horse to the water. Now what?

What are the motives and aims of the people around this table to find solutions? What are the aims and solutions desired by each party? How many parties and aims are there, in fact? Have we been here before? How much do we already think we know? How many of those issues are beyond the immediate outrage? Which reminds me, has the outrage stopped yet?

We need things to focus the mind on the immediate as well as solve the Gordian knot we call The Middle East question. Don’t mention the Jews / Israelis. Rats, just did. Now what? Repeat. We need something to focus on the immediate whilst we wrestle with the (practically) timeless.

We need Jaw-War.

Whether at the conference table or in Trump tweets / diplomatic missives the rhetoric must include real carrots and sticks. Real risk and reward. Real skin in the game. And they need to be credible. Not hollow threats or impossible promises. These  need to be chosen carefully and delivered precisely, surgically, because there are few second chances once promises and threats are broken and mistakes are made. And choosing carefully means with immediate care, care in the moment as well as care for the bigger picture. It does not mean slowly and exhaustively debating every option, now. No stone unturned.

Carefully chosen because each sanction, rhetorical or physical, has limited use. We won’t be carpet-bombing Dresden again any time soon. How did it come to that? Seriously, that’s not a rhetorical question, ask yourself. How did it come to that?

At the same time, ie simultaneously and continuously, those making the immediate Jaw-War decisions, need to take responsibility and be held to account. It’s tough at the top. As well as our institutions of our free democracies, we also need the standing Jaw-Jaw table. The conference that never ends. We can be sure that in the time of some future immediate outrage, that steaming pile of unresolved issues will still be there on the table. You may recall that was the conclusion last time we carpet-bombed Dresden.

No-one wants War-War. That’s failure. Total disaster. We’d all prefer the Jaw-Jaw alternative, but to get that we need integration, not binary choice.

We need Jaw-War.


[Post Note: It had to happen. Implied and actual criticisms of Diane Abbott always get cast as sexist-racist:

I’m a “Corbynsceptic” and all the Corbynsceptics I know are fellow humans. Corbyn and all the “Corbynistas” are also fellow humans.

I’m sceptical – as the original post here is an example – that Corbyn / Abbott etc are making the gaffe of conflating activism with politics. And they’re doing it with the content (policy) and with the process of getting the best outcomes to happen (politics / rhetoric / media-interviews / debate / diplomacy etc.) Both. Both of them. All of them … Owen Jones, Paul Mason, John McDonnell you name them. And they’re all individuals. Good in parts, ideas and actions. Well all except Owen, but that’s another story 😉 I’m a big fan of Paul Mason in fact, but that’s another story too.

If by “Corbynsceptics” Stephen Bush meant the “Corbynista vs Corbynsceptic” memeplex he does indeed have a point. The standard content and patterns of communication (memes) reflect the archetypes on which they hang (caricatured identities of difference) and in doing so reinforce them to the point of polarisation. It’s a natural evolutionary process that information goes through. We humans have to do everything in our power to steer our communications away from those archetypal polarising caricatures. Corbynista or Corbynsceptic, we owe it to ourselves.

Bush may be right, a Google of media references will indeed prove his (and my) memetic point. As I say, it’s a given, a natural phenomenon. My criticism is that he shouldn’t be reinforcing it?]

It’s Never Too Late for Sartre

Mentioned before that, apart from hearing their voices via the excellent writing of Andy Martin, I’d kinda resigned myself to never really getting to grips with Sartre or Camus in any technical philosophical sense. Those strange foggie-froggies that predated the even foggier (mostly French) PoMo’s destined to be left in the mists of time as I ploughed my own PoPoMo furrows.

Sartre vs Camus – The Boxer and the Goalkeeper
(aka Philosophy Fight Club) by Andy Martin

So I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon this 2 minute explanation of Sartre’s Existentialism by Open Culture, narrated by Stephen Fry.

(Hat tip to Dr Jim Walsh of Conway Hall Ethical Soc, who tweeted the link.)
(Shout out also to excellent collection of resources at Open Culture.)

Obviously, I have little idea if it’s a good summary in any objective sense, but it is very simple, very clear and eminently sensible to my mind.

Having said it’s sensible – humanity is something we shape by shaping ourselves individually because there is no absolute or god-given template – was there ever any doubt? Obviously the freedom implied is scarily nihilist and relativist to anyone concerned with moral cohesion, and who isn’t?

Now where have we all heard that before? Sartre’s freedom is our life-sentence – to a “lead role in a cage” to “trade heaven for hell“.
Existentialism because of that nature of our existence.

Fear doesn’t change facts, it shapes our real world responses, so long as we’re allowed to understand them. And I can see now that, whilst their characters and appearances and voices were chalk and cheese, Sartre and Camus were of a piece.

A little enlightenment?


[See also – Sartre vs Camus – The Boxer and the Goalkeeper (2012)]

[See also – Anglophone understanding of French thought (2017)]

[See also – Pairs or Triples, it’s about relationships. (2018)]

[See also – Finding a voice (2018)]

[Post Note – also need to follow-up the infuriating conflation of existential (as in threat) with existentialism. Never the twain.]


A recurring topic. Just capturing some thoughts / links prompted by (partly) hearing Alberto Manguel reading from Packing (and more to the point unpacking) My Library on BBC R4 Book of the Week.

The mnemonic of unpacking books.

Obviously resonances with Eco and Borges, but also Alexandria and much more.

[Eco – Ur-Fascism, The Rose, Queen Loana
(also Tartt / Caldwell&Thomason)]

Here Dublin from New Year visit 2018 …


Panrelationalism – Everything Comes in Threes

Triples, Triads or Trinities

Every layered, taxonomic or network model of anything.

1D – The identity of every thing being distinct from not-this-thing and the distinction made.

2D – Levels or layers (in 2D orthogonal to any axis in n-dimensions, think onion-skins) come in threes. This layer, the next layer and the interface between the two is the most obvious. But each layer comes in threes – the layer and it’s two interfaces to adjacent layers (network node-edge equivalence). But once you unpick each distinction, it has relationships between the two (or more) things it is distinguishing, etc. Fractally, each component, each identity is a triple.

The semantic web is made of triples, OWL etc.

Most recent collection here Penrose-Foucault-Pirsig.

Relationalism. First mentioned in connection with “relationalism” being a better take than “relativism”. Panrelationalism in facteverything is relational. Sure everything is in context relative to everything else, but that’s not some subjective groundless valuation, it’s simply reality, at a pretty deep level – fundamental physical ontology – information is any significant difference – thing / distinction / not-thing. Meaning.
(Wow – More Pirsig and Mary Parker-Follett in there. Hat-tips to Matt and Rebecca too. Connections in everything.)

Physics as the Child of Meaning – John Wheeler (1986)

Very much my fundamental information ontology of epistemology, shared as I see it with many current physicists too – Carlo Rovelli for one and of course the whole Integrated Information Theory (IIT) project. Most recently noted the Wheeler origins here in Nov 2017.

[Note however that in Wheeler’s Meaning Circuit, meaning is communicated by humans, not a suggestion that information is necessarily more fundamental to the physical world itself, simply integral to the human model we call “Physics”. (See the Penrose-Foucault triad.) In IIT is is presumed fundamental to the physical world itself.]

Humanism Really is an Organised Religion

Humanism really is an organised religion, which is no bad thing.

With any luck, an enlightened one.



Mockery is not a good look, but many a true word spoken in jest – growing-up / twice-born / enlightened.

And this thread for inspiration seed-crystal:

First proposed this in response to the Oxford annual congress #whc2014

[Terry Eagleton reviewing John Gray:

“Gray also believes that humanists are in bad faith. Most of them are atheists, but all they have done is substitute humanity for God. They thus remain in thrall to the very religious faith they reject.”

As an atheist / humanist / secularist, that’s pretty much my position as far as the New Atheist humanists are concerned. And Humanity of the Gaps is a phrase I’ve coined several times.

Plenty more cutting opinions about New Atheists (Dawkins / Harris / Pinker et al) from both Eagleton and Gray in that review. But also plenty of spot on stuff:

“if you can represent the future here and now,
then it can’t be the future.”

Yes the future evolves and new species (of anything) are only known with hindsight. Political predictions, Marxist or otherwise, are wishful, hopeful, of the general direction of “progress” we want to make happen, but can never be specifically predictable.

“The popular belief that atheism and religion are opposites is, in his view, a mistake. Gray also takes a swipe at the kind of atheism that sees religion as a primitive stab at understanding the universe, one that science will later replace.”


Although Eagleton ultimately dismisses Gray’s thesis, they’re pro- and anti-Marxists, he clearly has a lot of time for his thinking. Referring to Gray as “a card-carrying misanthrope”is mischievous – sounds like we’d both listened to Gray on BBC R4 DID – neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but hopeful.

Oh, and the (George) Steiner connection … archetype of Gray’s kind of atheism according to Eagleton … and the original promoter of Pirsig (above). What a tangled web.

(Hat-tip to Elizabeth Oldfield for the Eagleton/ Gray piece).]

The Denial of Dennett’s Consciousness

[I’ve now reviewed this thread in reasonable detail
and have some additional conclusions

The Consciousness Deniers
13 March 218 – Galen Strawson

Magic, Illusions, and Zombies
Rebuttal – Undated – Dan Dennett
With Reply
3 April 2018 – Galen Strawson

I recall seeing the original consciousness deniers piece by Strawson, but not really taking it seriously. Why in 2018, I thought, would anyone think Dennett was a consciousness denier and why would they go back to his 1991 Consciousness Explained in order to attack him on that false premise?

Plenty of scientistic types, both scientists and philosophers, do indeed appear to deny consciousness, for its inconvenience in fitting the received wisdom of – objectively determined and causally reductive – physical explanations. Dennett sure is not one of them. There can be few people making greater efforts, with ever more successful arguments, than Dennett in the last 25 years.

Like many working at the boundary between physics and consciousness, Dennett often warns us that our intuitive impression, of what our consciousness is, is kinda illusory, but nowhere does he suggest our consciousness is not real. It wouldn’t be the first time Dennett has set some public intellectual straight on that point.

Dennett starts with that very point, as his justification for a rebuttal:

I thank Galen Strawson for his passionate attack on my views, since it provides a large, clear target for my rebuttal … He clearly believes what he says, thinks it is very important, and is spectacularly wrong in useful ways. His most obvious mistake is his misrepresentation of my main claim.

This kinda attack, defence and counter-attack style of argument is suited to proper rational discourse – where people genuinely follow the rules of mutual respect – but I fear it is bad for public debate. Galen’s Straw-man is massively disrespectful to start with.

Anyway, as I type I’ve not had chance to digest Strawson’s reply to the rebuttal, but I’ll be back. He really ought to be embarrassed at so gratuitously missing Dennett’s point.

[Continuing …]

I’m simply further baffled.

Dennett’s rebuttal is exactly as anyone knowing his work would expect. In addition to reinforcing the original premise, that Dennett in no way denies the reality of consciousness, he is saying that, whatever our impressions of our own consciousness are, (a) it is real and (b) it is natural, a naturally evolved phenomenon. Against Strawson he is arguing there is no reason to posit any magical or supernatural causes that must remain obscured from any natural investigation.

He quite rightly points out that Strawson’s argument is largely an expression of fear. The fear that consciousness is somehow devalued and at risk if we explain it as merely natural. That fear is of course perfectly rational, and we do well to explore how better understanding might be exploited for misguided ends as well as well intentioned purposes. Indeed that’s a reasonable statement of why people like myself are keen to understand it – to be able to take an informed position on any future developments. Lots more that could be said about potential consequences, but fear of a natural explanation is no substitute for explanation and argument. In fact, as I said in my own most recent review of Dennett, his case is as much about allowing honest processes of argumentation to evolve an explanation as it is about the content of the argument – rationality itself, I suggested.

What is especially baffling is that Strawson’s reply to Dennett’s rebuttal makes absolutely no reference to anything Dennett has said in the rebuttal or even in his most recent work on the topic. Strawson simply makes something of a selection of much earlier statements, disconnected from the current dialogue. For example, the “Zombie” topic – pointing out that we might not be able to tell the Zombie behaviour from the real thing – says nothing about natural explanations of the real thing.

Frankly, ignorant and dishonest not to address what Dennett is actually saying. If Dennett is denying anything, it’s that consciousness is supernatural.


[Post Note: And timely to see the latest Michael Gazzaniga book “The Consciousness Instinct – From Brain to Mind”. Though it’s never a good look when people mention mind and quantum mechanics in the same breath, this makes an important point:

“[Consciousness] might vie with quantum mechanics for sheer counter-intuitive weirdness, hovering way beyond our intuitions …”

Puts me in mind of Terry Bisson’s “Thinking Meat” – where advanced (sci-fi) AI beings have trouble accepting that meat-based life can actually think. No reason to conclude that consciousness is supernatural simply because our natural intuitions struggle to get to grips with its reality.

Interesting that Nature magazine concludes:

“it might all be better left to the theologians”

I give theologians a great deal more credit than the typical scientistic type, but we shouldn’t give up on natural explanations just because they’re hard to reconcile with existing intuitions. The “difficulty” in ever reconciling this may lead the likes of Strawson suggest natural philosophers are misguided in our mission. However, the real defeatists here, as I already said, are the scientists whose “greedy determinism” leads them to brand consciousness as an epiphenomenal illusion, impossible in reality. Dennett isn’t one of them.]

[Post Note: Strangely, that mismatch “triad” between

  • objective reality,
  • our intuitions and
  • our formal models

is also very close to my previous post.]