George Floyd Meets Wittgenstein

George Floyd Meets Wittgenstein

Otherness is neither absolute nor meaningless, so it’s important we understand what it is if we are to be more constructive than simply engaging in binary battles between ideological extremes.

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I need to write two posts, but they’re closely related, and this probably isn’t either of them. It’s my usual preamble, so that the posts themselves can be free of that distraction.

Prompted to write at this moment following a Twitter dialogue with Mark Hammonds on Wittgenstein (Witt or W to his friends and/or enemies), following some words of Frank Ramsey (Witt’s precocious translator) being quoted because of Anthony Gottlieb’s New Yorker review of Cheryl Misak’s new  biography of Ramsey.

(Oops tw sp “Ramsey” and “Gottlieb”)

I have a very particular take – aired here many times before (*1) – on how we should use “W” stories in our futures. It’s a passion of mine because like so many topics taking sides in “camps”, it sets up potentially destructive binary debate on what are in reality much more subtly nuanced ontologies across many dimensions of reality. The identities of meaningful “things” that exist in ontologies is my day job. It really is. And it’s the origin of my two decades and counting interest in what philosophies of ontology and epistemology have to say about the reality of … life, the universe and everything … which includes … my day job.

But firstly, immediately prior to today, the whole BLM eruption following the George Floyd murder and the widespread police brutality in responding to protests and curfews, egged on by the #fuckwitinchief in the White House. As ever it’s about the otherness of identity, in this case BAME minorities, but also recently and ongoing the feminist & LGBT+ “TERF wars”, before that and ongoing all the other binary choices Hillary (or Bernie or Biden) vs the fuckwit, Covid19 (or Brexit) on lockdown vs free-movement. The freedom fetish as I’ve dubbed it. But let’s stick with the otherness of identity.

It’s neatly summed-up in that Danish TV2 public information film that’s been doing the rounds recently – including as a ubiquitous “duty of care” moment on inclusiveness in the day-job context. It’s important to the message that it makes you smile, despite the seriousness of the BAME / George Floyd context of its immediacy.

The point is we have many identities, memberships of many classes, on many different dimensions, overlapping on many Venn diagrams. In fact our individual identities are the sum of those sets. We can’t fundamentally choose any or all of our identities, but we can choose which (or which subset / pattern of) identities are appropriate to any context we operate in. The point – neatly summarised by Robert Frost as “Good Fences” (*2) – is *not* that we’re all the same, that differences – fences – are inherently bad and must be minimised or removed. It’s important to maximise the common ground, the overlap, but the individual classifications and identities remain real and important to understand, in context.

We give different things different names for good practical reasons. The dividing lines between classes, the distinctions between this and the other, me and you, the names we give things, are real and necessary for our world to function. They’re good fences, patterns by mutual agreement, but easily moved between contexts and across which the evolution of constructive dialogue is always possible. They’re rarely brick-walls or impenetrable fortifications to be defended at all costs. In fact there are many different kinds of distinction, whose relative values where they come into conflict require understanding. There’s no absolute freedom to choose. Human rights and freedoms are relatively important, but it’s important not to fetishise them as literally paramount or absolute.

Very few distinctions – a very small few – are individually fixed or definitively ruled “by the science” in all evolving contexts. But neither does that mean that all differences should be treated arbitrary or relatively meaningless. None should be imposed ideologically.

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Notes:

(*1) See > Ian’s take on W as an “elaborate, backfiring – but ultimately useful – joke”. In brief,  Witt’s shows two extremes – logical positivism (in TLP) vs linguistic games (in PI) – to be equally absurd, yet idolised by both camps of idolaters who failed to get the absurdity in the “joke”. Reality lies between.
(TLP – Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus)
(PI – Philosophical Investigations)

(*2) See > Ian’s take on Robert Frost’s “Good Fences” and G K Chesterton’s “Gated Road in the Forest”.

See Also:

Rules for Guidance of the Wise

Identity Politics

Vive la Difference / Différence / Différance

Negative Press and Scepticism?

Several social media threads sharing and either supporting or ridiculing this Lawd Shugga view – no happy media.

It’s not just the press / media / journalists themselves – they’re doing their jobs by holding to account – questioning and finding-fault in public policy statements – but it’s the whole public discourse these days. Critical thinking leads to the received wisdom that criticism – by fault-finding – is forensic, objectively scientific, so it must be OK, right?

Well it’s OK in moderation, it’s not the point of the exercise, the point is positive human progress. It’s the same problem as this (from existential comics):

Destructive criticism and undermining by sketpical questioning is so much easier than constructive, synthetic understanding. Social media and ironic memes mean everyone is an expert in pedantic debunking – or ridiculing – every would-be fact these days.

Same problem too in the “whataboutery” of the previous Massimo Pigliucci post. Critical questioning is never ending, every why & because is followed by another why & wherefore, or / and another thing, what about … No rule or proposition (in the real world, beyond an axiomatic system) is 100% fool-proof. Rules are for guidance of the wise, etc. They all require positive intent beyond a healthy dose of critical thinking.

Criticism is cheap. Creativity is valuable. Whitehead was right “creativity” is the most fundamental reality.

Problems, Problems – Life, the Universe and Consciousness

Life, the Universe and Consciousness” is a forthcoming book by A T Bollands (Natural Philosopher). It’s a meme of a title, a nod to Douglas Adams I’ve used several times before myself.

It’s a good version because it captures the three elements – living, physical and psychic – which are bound up in so many of the controversial conundrums of … err … modern day science. Anyway, he’s started a series of tweets laying out the 12 “intractable problems” as he sees them, P1 to P12.

I’ve never identified specifically 12 hard problems resolved by a new philosophical worldview, although my own thesis is that these are in general solved by already available alternate – non-orthodox – views, ancient and new, most of which are self-consistent beyond their own rhetorical choices of language.

ie my position is (a) that scientific orthodoxy is the problem, and (b) that alternative views exist that solve it. However I’m interested in a new 12 point formulation of the problem, whether or not they’re really just multiple corollaries of three or four problems, or maybe reducible to a single issue? In fact, in his opening post he does call it “the Big Problem” in the singular.

They are P0, followed by P1 to P12 under this pinned tweet, with all the dialogue under the 12 replies to the original. (Good use of Twitter.)

      • P0 – We are pretty sure the 20th century scientific worldview provides the correct foundation for understanding the world around us; we just can’t understand why there are so many intractable problems that cannot be solved, given this worldview. (P0)
      • P1 – We are pretty sure that humans possess consciousness; we just don’t know why, given that every material thing is made ultimately from simple non-experiencing material things, and whenever we combine such things, we expect to create another non-experiencing material thing. (P1)
      • P2 – We are pretty sure that human brains create consciousness; we just don’t know how, given that it’s inconceivable how brain processes, involving non-experiencing matter, could possibly create consciousness. (P2)
      • P3 – We are pretty sure that only animals with larger, complex brains possess consciousness, we just don’t know which ones, since we don’t know the physical, functional or behavioural characteristics of animals that possess it. (P3)
      • P4 – We are pretty sure that humans and other animals evolved to possess consciousness; we just don’t know how, since we cannot see when consciousness evolved or what evolutionary advantage it could have given us. (P4)
      • P5 – We are pretty sure we have free-will and consciously choose how we act; we just can’t see how, given that the behaviour of all matter in the universe is determined by the Laws of Nature. (P5)
      • P6 – We are pretty sure the behaviour of everything is determined by the Laws of Nature, we just can’t say what these are, because our best theories of physics – General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – are incompatible and cannot be reduced to a single underlying theory. (p6)
      • P7 – We are pretty sure the theory of Quantum Mechanics provides an accurate description of the sub-atomic world; we just don’t see how, since the world it describes does not make clear, coherent sense. (P7)
      • P8 – We are pretty sure, from the General Theory of Relativity, that the universe began with a Big Bang; we just don’t know how or why, since there was nothing that existed before the Big Bang that could have caused it. (P8)
      • P9 – We are pretty sure the fundamental Laws of Nature were fixed at the time of the Big Bang; we just don’t understand how it was they were finely tuned to enable Life to exist some billions of years later. (P9)
      • P10 – We are pretty sure that Life began on earth around 4 billion years ago; we just don’t understand how, given that the chances of a living thing capable of evolution emerging by chance were vanishingly small. (P10)
      • P11 – We are pretty sure that living things exist; we just don’t know how they are able to maintain their ordered existence, far from equilibrium with their environment, in defiance of the second law of thermodynamics. (P11)
      • P12 -We are pretty sure that Life exists; we just struggle to say what it is, despite multiple attempts to define a clear and meaningful distinction between living things and non-living things. (P12)

Obviously, given the nature of twitter timelines, I didn’t see every point in real time, but I interacted with a few I noticed along the way.

Equally obviously, given my existing metaphysical position, I disagreed with most of the “We are pretty sure that …” statements, in the sense I’m pretty sure they’re not true. And pretty clearly they are grouped in topics:

      • The nature of consciousness & free-will? in P1, 2, 3, 4, 5
      • The nature of the physical world & its laws? in P6, 7, 8, 9
      • The nature of life? in P10, 11, 12

An odd order to me, given my evolutionary understanding: Big Bang > Physics > Life > Conscious will and the recurring questions.

      • What is physics and how did we get from zero to physics?
      • What is life and how did physics come to life?
      • What is wilful, intelligent consciousness and how did it evolve from life?

Good sign that P11 has the 2nd law in there – It led me to presume Bollands may hold a metaphysical / ontological position similar to mine. One public paper of his is a case for pan-psychism, but it seems that’s not his position. In fact all dialogue suggested he didn’t agree with any of my informational / pan-proto-psychist takes – which left me intrigued. The inevitability jumps out of the 2nd law at me.

[I should be clear “my metaphysics” isn’t some wild new grand unified theory of everything (TOE) like some crank hanging round the public library. My position is simply a statement that the answers to all these “problems” are already out there in mainstream science and philosophy which has simply been drowned out by the orthodox memes of objective science in our modern days of “science with everything”.]

Popper said “All life is problem solving”. I await Bollands’ further thoughts in anticipation.

Stoical in the Face of Metaphysical Doubt?

A thread with Massimo Pigliucci ended with this tweet from me. (I’m guessing he muted the conversation at that point):

It had started with this Tweet:

The “whataboutery” & “strawmen” digs are about more than this particular thread. It’s not the first time we’ve been here.

In fact almost all the points he raises in the course of the thread are in that opening statement:

    • the thing we call a computer;
    • a name for an information processor;
    • given it seems information processing is more generally embedded in many things more fundamental than “a computer” by any other name.
    • there’s no doubt plenty of it happens in a brain / mind.
    • (The thing we call “a computer” has changed within the past century, from a person to a man-made-machine.)

Suffered the same problem as this previous dialogue with Massimo.

In fact I’ve accused him of overly dogmatic statements of his own position before as well. Obviously highly pragmatic – a Stoic – dealing with the practicalities of “living a better life” here and now, but taking the whole of modern science as an almost unquestioned given. Pragmatic thing to do, if it ain’t broke – and is self-correcting – don’t fix it kinda attitude, but to me, a lack of curiosity (?) in where things might be improved – problems solved – by metaphysical thinking at the foundations of modern science.

The final tweet (at the top of this post) was preceded by this one from Massimo:

Those, to me, are the strawmen. The rhetorical suggestion that I need a lesson in understanding ontology and epistemology relating to any metaphysics underlying my understanding and philosophy of science, life, the universe and everything – the whole enchilada – when we had in fact been talking about “what is a computer” within the limitations of a Twitter thread.

[As it happens my own metaphysics couldn’t be more concerned with addressing both ontological and epistemological issues in scientific explanations of reality. My concerns with the theory couldn’t be any more pragmatic either – as an engineer, applied science is my day job. As it happens my specialism is information engineering in support of (individual and social) human decisions – cybernetics.]

Maybe as a Stoic, Massimo doesn’t really have any interest in metaphysics? I’m only interested in it because it seems to be at the foundational boundaries of physical science that some of the toughest problems persist in our descriptions – and our knowledge – of reality. Questioning the foundations – the orthodox presumptions – seems unavoidable if we are to fix such problems?

Maybe I’ll get a chance to dialogue with Massimo beyond the confines of Twitter at the London HTLGI this autumn, if this Covid19 lockdown ever ends?

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My metaphysical thinking?
Scattered throughout this blog. If in doubt, ask.

Those problems in need of a fix?
Well by coincidence, see my next post “Problems, problems”.

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Post Note:

Great piece here by John Horgan on Paul Feyerabend, which includes a great 4 part piece by Massimo – alongside Carl Sagan – defending more anarchic market-place of alternative ideas – famously astrology – in the face of overly authoritarian / dogmatic scientific positions.

I was tempted to tweet this in response:

“Fascinating that @mpigliucci reference in there – because in several recent dialogues I’ve been biting my tongue not to accuse him of being overly dogmatic about his own scientific position and dismissive of alternatives. (Great pieces by both John and Massimo.)”

Doubly fascinating Massimo expressed the scepticism I do, that the best ideas necessarily win in the market place. In fact my position is that they don’t. Memetics says the ideas that win are those that are simplest to communicate and fit most closely with prejudiced positions.

Calling Out Celebrity Supporters of Gender Self-ID

The cast of blue-tick players is @glinner – Graham Linehan – vs –

The recent round started with this Tweet, for which Glinner has got a fair bit of stick @tagging in the cast and thereby encouraging a “pile-on”, but so far none of those tagged has addressed the substantive issue(s).

When it comes to the TERF War, I’ve already said many times Glinner is on the right side of this. (Along with others like J K Rowling and Martina Navratilova). A large part of my own efforts is to rectify the fact that women’s contributions to my main agenda – cybernetics [in the original intended sense(*)] – are criminally overlooked. Self-ID has also been a long-standing topic in that space too. Identity full stop. Self-ID is a great starting-point for all socio-political constructs, but it is always bounded by natural science. The reason it crosses my agenda so much is that so much of the business of science is itself a matter of political choice – memes, orthodox and radical. (But that’s a longer story.)

Glinner – long short story, as I’ve said many times – is on the right side of this, and has made a conscious choice to put his career on hold – maybe damage it irreparably – whilst he makes a nuisance of himself campaigning on the subject. The gloves are off, he’s breaking more than a few eggs, annoying a few in the process – shit happens.

Frankie – I’m a big fan of, for his wise political commentary wrapped-up in his immense creative and ruthless wit – the “raw truth teller”. Many positive references to Frankie in the ongoing subject matter of this blog. I’ve certainly let him know over Twitter that opinions he’s expressed on Gender Identity are uncharacteristically wrong, disappointingly so.

Billy – is a national treasure for his socialist campaigning. Like most campaigners, sometimes on the naïve side of complex reality even as his heart is always in the right place. I love him as much as anyone but again, on Gender Identity – he’s fallen for the “freedom fetish” and landed on the wrong side of this one. I’ve let him know I think so on Twitter too.

Owen – is a professionally nasty twat, but one that seems (or seemed) to be influential in the more naïve (brother Corbyn) reaches of the modern Labour party. He is young after all and suffering from the delusion that he’s a journalist. (Naturally, I’m already blocked.) Owen perpetuates and spreads the “Glinner is anti-Trans” mis-info that reinforces the TERF meme.

In fact, recent pre-Keir policy pronouncements by the Labour party – not yet corrected (?) – are a major part of the problem in the UK. Turning a complex set of socio-biological isuues into a political minefield where individual freedoms have become the weapons of choice – the rights & freedoms fetish. Misguided, like all ideology. (Another long story, much covered in this blog.)

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(*) Cybernetics as in – the governance and management of the world (especially the bit with human influence in it.) The combination of men and women in that is not only greater than the sum of the parts, and in so many areas it is overlooked that the female contribution is greater than the male component. That’s been my mantra since it formed a conclusion in my Master’s research in the late 80’s. Women need men like a fish needs a bicycle, etc.

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Biological sex / gender is as real as anything else we consider real (*) in everyday life – a great piece from Jonah Mix – and as close to the metaphysical level of my own agenda as anything I’ve seen. (This is what trolleyology is for, though it’s an actual train in the example.)

Alice Dreger / Intersex & Gender Dysphoria – this is not a new topic for me. This post from last year gathers together my 3 or 4 most considered pieces on the topic back to 2015. And “Identity” policy in general is a long recurring theme, referenced in these older posts.

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Couldn’t resist capturing these two recent tweets for posterity:

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The Enormous Vroom / Vrooom

Was reminded by David Matos of one of the earliest reviews of Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. “The Enormous Vroom” by R.Z. Sheppard in Time magazine, April 15, 1974, the day after publication, and the same day as George Steiner’s “Uneasy Rider” in The New Yorker.

I’d forgotten it (and on-line copies had disappeared until I rescued a copy) but I recalled that opening paragraph instantly:

Like the pool hall and the tattoo parlor, the motorcycle usually gets a bad press. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) terminated his romance with himself aboard a British army bike, which he had named George VII. During the ’50s and ’60s, Hell’s Angels on their Harley-Davidsons turned in convincing performances as Visigoths at the gates of suburbia. Easy Rider could not keep off the grass, and Evel Knievel, that star-spangled Icarus of the carnival circuit, gives young minibike owners potentially lethal delusions of grandeur. But now, during the lull in the great gas panic of ’74, comes a 46-year-old Minnesotan and writer of computer manuals, who makes the motorcycle not only respectable but also a focus of mental and spiritual health.

It resonates with me not simply because it summarily captures the “culture-bearing” fit of the book, but because of that opening reference to T E Lawrence, another hero of mine. Like all good myths the tone is perfect even if the facts are wrong. (Although he’s often pictured in army private uniform on the Brough SS100 he called George V (10 years before his death), it was very much his bike. In fact he owned eight of them and had a close association with Brough, their designs and performance. George VII, the later one he died on in 1935, was also known as Boanerges, the name of he gave his first Brough Superior. George VIII was on order but undelivered when he died. Easy when you have Wikipedia, which Sheppard didn’t. And, personal interest, Boanerges was also the name of our engineering mascot vintage motor at Imperial College, London.)

Uneasy Rider carried the cachet of Steiner’s “stellar” reputation, but Sheppard’s Vroom is every bit as good, and part of the marketing of ZMM on its original publication.

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[Post note: One intriguing suggestion from David Matos comment in his own FB post, the motorcycle with sidecar that Pirsig had been driven by his parents round London and England back in 1933 may have been a Brough!]

CV19 and Irrational Science?

I posted this thought, before the UK lockdown:

I also got into a “dialogue” with Massimo Pigliucci when I posted this in response to Jim Baggott’s piece at IAI “Science in the time of coronavirus
Exploring the tension between scientific reasoning and human irrationality.”

It went nowhere, because Massimo seemed to think I was disagreeing with Jim and the exchange went on to have nothing to do with what I’d actually said, which was in fact a suggested paraphrase of this early paragraph from Jim:

Actually, irrational behaviour is not so difficult to understand. The simple truth is that we have created for ourselves a world that is far more complex than any individual human mind can ever hope to fathom. We have invented extraordinary social structures to help us earn a living, care for us, protect us from harm, and to manage trade among ourselves in an increasingly connected world.

Twitter is a useless medium for actual dialogue, other than sharing links and pithy rhetorical exchanges. Massimo, when he’d lost track of what I’d actually said, simply repeated that since I was disagreeing with Jim (I wasn’t) I needed to provide an example.

I didn’t have in mind any other example than the same one Jim had. That the received wisdom of lockdown might not be as straightforwardly rational as the “science led” rhetoric of the politicians would have us believe. (At which point this is in danger of becoming a debate about narrow and broad definitions of rationality and more to the point, the “quality” of any rationale based on your chosen rationality.) As an example, it’s too complicated for Twitter rhetoric, hence this post (as in, hence Jim’s post too).

The CV19 (UK Lockdown and Social Distancing) strategy is basically about saving lives from premature CV19 death, and protecting the NHS from anything that might reduce their effectiveness in that aim, by minimising spread of CV19 infection in the population in order to minimise the viral-load-over-time on health-care and other key workers. (If you disagree that’s a fair summary, help me with that reality before engaging in any subsequent argument.)

So, back to the “science-led” rationale.

I’m an epistemologist, not claiming anything wrong with the epidemiology science. What I’m claiming is that the strategy is not science-led. Perhaps surprisingly, I’m suggesting it could be a good thing that it’s not, although unfortunately by making that the core of the policy, the politicians have cut actually themselves off from a better, broader rationality.

I’m also not claiming wrong or casting any doubt on diagnoses of death, from or with CV19. Health professionals put contributing factors as well as proximate causes on death certificates. It may be an imperfect science, but it’s sincere and professional – even if overall awareness might put it more in the spotlight as a potential factor to be tested for.

The first irrationality is the idea that lives are “paramount” in the sense that death and risks of death as countable facts must be minimised above all other factors. This is a religious act of faith. It is not science-based. No amount of good science based on that premise produces (good) science-led political advice and rules.

The idea that “saving lives” is paramount. There’s worse things than dying, and quality of life extended in an individual who may have other conditions predicting premature death is essentially subjective, even if objective quantifiers are created in order to assess. Premature is itself subjective in elderly who have achieved a “good” age. Simply replacing all these subjective components with the idea of maximise a where a = greatest possible age, or minimise d where d = any death, is nonsense. If in doubt, ask an elderly loved one.

Anyway any coronavirus management decision is ultimately about the quality (and quantity) of extended lives vs the unintended consequences. And they’re unintended in that they are unpredictable to anything like the same extent – not even precautionary ignorance – as the CV19 death toll as a numerical count.

And they’re not just economic and ecological consequences, but displaced life & death health consequences. Non-referred minor symptoms that turn out to be life-threatening. Psychological causes now of physical ailments later.

Sure the epidemiological science can be as good as the epidemiological knowledge, and statistical predictive knowledge based on uncertainty and a precautionary approach to unknowns. But however good it is it’s still only epidemiological science and single measure of success. No matter how many daily graphs we get shown, a single numerically quantifiable measure. We actually have a choice about what to be precautionary about.

A science-led politics is only as good as that choice.

The reality of all conceivable unintended consequences is not only as complex as the whole human cosmos, but there is no single measure or set of measures about which to be precautionary. Being precautionary about ignorance, of what we could measure and predict with knowledge in principle, is no protection about those factors we cannot even attempt to model at the time we need to make decisions. And, many of the factors are essentially qualitative.

Furthermore none of these possible histories will be repeatable. After the event(s) we will be able to attribute causal whys and wherefores but these will only as good as history written by the survivors. Conclusions will be in no way scientific. 20:20 hindsight at best.

Decisions – eg lockdown strategies including exit strategies – can be science-led in only a very narrow sense. In fact – if acknowledged – they require a much broader from of rationality. A political wisdom. If unacknowledged we are locked into a course of action based on a kind of tunnel-vision. The irrational fetish that “science-led” is the only defensible rationale. Something I’ve been calling Catch-22 for several decades.

Fortunately there are alternative voices being heard. Last weekend it was Jonathon Sumption in the Sunday Times (which I’ve still not actually read in any detail). This morning it was Dr Spiegel on BBC R4 Today

Science can’t tell you what you should do.
– Spiegel

To believe it can, is irrational.


Afterthought:

Margaret Wertheim – Pythagoras’ Trousers

Way behind on both reading and writing, but have read two great books I need to review / gut. Firstly, below, “Pythagoras’ Trousers” by Margaret Wertheim, subtitled “God, Physics and the Gender Wars“. The Pythagoras connection follows on from my read of Philip Goff, but I’m still not sure where I picked up the reference. My initial response in a short burst of tweets:

[The rest of this post is that “gutted” content for ongoing research. As a review it doesn’t do justice – but highly – Highly – recommended.]

The (hopefully) historical gender politics of science remains a fascinating read in its own right, but as I say in that last tweet:

The blind spot of orthodox science
re its god-like foundations
becomes a bigger obstacle to progress every day.

Very much the same premise as Philip Goff:

Galileo and Newton were successful with their physics precisely because they worked within a narrow range of purely physical properties … they did not hanker after mathematical formulations of sin and grace … quaint absurdities of a confused past.

The invention of feminism:

In opposition to Aristotle, Averroes held that men and women were essentially equal … As the deeply Aristotelian high middle-ages gave way to the first stirrings of renaissance humanism … academic misogyny was the target of a feminist attack by Christine of Pisan (1364 – 1430) … in her “Book of the City of Ladies”. “If it were the custom to put the little maidens to school … to learn the sciences as they do the man children … they should learn as perfectly.”

First of several significant mentions of Roger Boscovich

Wow. Only the second person besides myself to make this “standing on the shoulders of giants” statement about Einstein:

Whereas contemporary physicists who talk about the “mind of God” are following in Einstein’s footsteps, he in turn was following in Boscovich’s.