“The Science of Can and Can’t”


I’ve been following Chiara Marletto (and David Deutsch before her) for more than a decade as the idea of a “Universal Constructor” has become an even more generic concept than the “Universal Turing Machine”. A machine that can do arbitrarily creative stuff in the physical world as well as perform arbitrary information processing tasks. (It helps to let go of any mental picture of a machine as a mechanical device or of a computing machine as an electro-mechanical device – rather a machine as any “system” that does stuff.)

Her new book …

“The Science of Can and Can’t”
by Chiara Marletto

… I’ve already mentioned and part/pre-reviewed once or twice as well as referencing numerous interviews about it. (For example, this one with Sean Carroll, this one with The Dissenter – both allow her to describe her ideas at length in her own words.)


[It’s several months since I read and reviewed the “imaginative” introduction – a house move and a new job intervened – but the last few evenings I’ve read it cover to cover. Recommended.]

The subtitle “A physicists journey through the land of counterfactuals” nails her main topic beyond Constructor Theory. That is the idea that most if not all of physical science, and its chances of finding solutions to any number of long-standing problems, is improved by thinking in terms of meta-laws about what’s possible or impossible (counterfactuals) rather than laws about what is (facts).

She works through examples from the physics of simple mechanics to thermodynamics and living systems illustrating how counterfactuals can work and how testable thesis can be derived. It’s written very simply for lay readers and interspersed with thinly-disguised autobiographical (?) fictional passages about formative and inspirational experiences within and beyond physics.

Quite easy for me to sympathise with the meta view of counterfactuals as constraints on the processes of evolution and emergence. I’ll leave it to expert scientists as to whether identifiable scientific leaps are actually enabled.

In many ways I already see Boltzmann / Statistical / Entropic thinking in thermodynamics being about bounds and constraints on the possible rather than exact “what is”, so it is the one area (Chapter 6) where I didn’t quite understand how her counterfactual take is new or an improvement. I might have been left underwhelmed if it were not for the realisation of the importance of the information-theoretic thread running through the whole. (As it is, I will undoubtedly re-read chapter 6.)

The real revelation is not simply that physical process are information-theoretic. In thermodynamics at both human and cosmological scales information-based arguments have been used on the entropic limits to behaviour of matter and energy – from single particles passing through two slits to knowledge of black-hole event horizons. Information is practically the complement to entropy after all – and these already look like counterfactuals, as I say.

No, what she does is show that the counterfactual view brings limits to information and knowledge into physics itself. Knowledge and limits to what can be known cannot be dismissed as matters of human subjectivity. There is a good deal of explanation of the significance of and differences between information and knowledge – the latter being information that sustains itself for re-use as it passes through creative processes. Not new concepts to anyone who has followed information-independent-of-physical-embodiment arguments through physical, biological and mental evolution (a la Dennett say, DNA anyone?) but firmly pinning definitions of information and knowledge as part of physics itself.

Dennett has left information as something disembodied from physics for now, subject to evolution in rational discourse, and many others (myself included) see information as something prior to physics (as well as prior to mental, metaphysics if you like, pan-proto-psychism if you prefer). Marletto bringing it objectively within physics must surely encourage more orthodox scientists to take the information-theoretic view seriously – however sceptical they might be that physics has any specific problem(s) requiring such a solution. An alternative view can’t be a bad thing.

That I think is the masterstroke of The Science of Can and Can’t, bringing information and knowledge within science.

But that’s not all. In her final fictional piece and in her own pen-picture she makes clear not only her physical science credentials and her Italian literary aspirations but also her recognition of the significance of epistemology. Her fictional speculation on the young Alexander being tutored by Aristotle and even planning the library at Alexandria makes clear the importance of the abstract, that discussion and open-ended dialogue beats pedagogy and debate on the tangible.

“The purpose was to have *conversations* with the great philosopher. The boy did not enjoy regular classes that much; but the conversations were a different matter: They were open-ended, exciting and far-reaching.

Abstract does not mean ‘unreal’.”

(Her emphasis in the original.)

Eco meets Rovelli? The literary skills may still be aspirational, but the abstract ideas are second to none.

Rationality According to Pinker

Start the Week – Rationality in an Irrational Age – BBC Sounds

So as defined by Pinker in his own words,

“Rationality is using knowledge to attain [human] goals.”
(Qualified by the fact that it cannot tell us what those goals should be, the focus being on knowledge & methods, and on concepts “such as logic, critical-thinking and causation”.)

And it’s his response to the question of why humanity is (appears to be) losing its mind, contrasting the peaks of rational attainment with the prevailing level of seemingly irrational public discourse. Amen to that.

Explicitly my own agenda for over two decades (and implicitly on the case since 1970’s Bronowski), BUT with such a broad definition from Pinker we will need also to recognise also that:

Using knowledge to attain (human) goals is Politics
Using knowledge to attain (human) goals is Cybernetics
Using knowledge to attain (human) goals is Game Theory
Etc, etc.

So in fact such a broad definition of rationality tells us nothing and what we really have is a shift back to focussing on definitions:

Which kinds of information count as rational knowledge and
Which ways of using it count as rational.
And our working definition of rationality then becomes:
Information represents rational knowledge if … [knowledge rules]
Ways of using knowledge are rational if … [methodology rules]
(And how valuable are things that fall outside those rules?)

[Aside: Information vs Knowledge? There have been many attempts at making distinctions between Data > Information > Knowledge > Wisdom (*). None are wrong, they just address different intended applications. At the human scale, I tend to use Information as indicating forms available to individual human interpretation and Knowledge as indicating forms available to shared human use. Data and Information have levels and associated definitions as fundamental as physics itself. One particular Information > Knowledge distinction I like is that of Chiara Marletto which suggests we think of Information as copiable and Knowledge as a form that is self-preserving through processes of use, even at physical & bio-chemical levels below cognitive intelligence.]

In situations where the knowledge is non-contentious representation of objective information and where causal paths are predictably non-contentious we have what I think of as Rationality-101 – the easy bit.

So sure, when dealing with “pre-Rational” humans who don’t see the need or don’t have the skills to check the objective truth value of information made available to them or understand basic logic and modern science of cause and effect, Rationality-101 has significant value. Value in educating the young or naïve and in compensating for their ignorance of implicit political motivations and biases, including their own, or the unreliability of anecdotal knowledge or received knowledge from authority of power structures. Thanks to Lee Beaumont for giving me the pre-Rational contrast with my own post-Rational agenda.

However, Rationality-101 as caricatured above is only part of any solution to human progress. More scarily, if we persist in using it where we’re dealing with post-Rational issues – modernism or scientism – it is actually counter-productive. This is of course the point that Post-Modernists from Wittgenstein onward have been trying to make. Anyone suggesting PoMo’s were somehow intent on destroying science are missing their warning that post-Galilean science has its limits. I tend to brand myself PoPoMo to recognise that there is a growing caucus of rational scientists and philosophers that do get it, and are working to fix the fundaments of science itself, even space-time and causation, not to mention those human goals.

Meantime we simply need to accept
that “scientific” rationality
isn’t the answer to everything.

(If I’ve significantly missed what Pinker says rationality is – objective, positivist, scientific – I’d like to hear from you.)

To conclude, many people since Gödel have seen the bootstrapping problem of how to change the foundations of the edifice we’re operating in – the whole cannot include its own definition. Obviously we’d like to use rationality whilst trying to fix or replace it, but this is quite different to the evolution of the contingent content within the body of rational knowledge. This isn’t just Trigger’s Broom (or the Ship of Theseus). This is meta on several levels. I used to call it Catch-22. Pinker himself has been using the (jokey) riposte that people who argue against his thesis using rational argument are actually confirming his thesis. And many people – enlightened positivists – have equally gently posted memes mocking this.


I counter with Dennett pointing out the problem that:

if you agree to argue
only on your opponent’s basis,
then you’ve already lost



[Post Note – (*) Wisdom is the property we’re really seeking, since we can never fully codify rules of Information & Knowledge, rules being for guidance of the wise, etc. Interestingly, Matthew d’Ancona who wrote that excellent piece on the deep rational issues in the “TERF War” for Tortoise, also wrote a shorter follow-up piece focussing on Wisdom in The Standard.]

Smearing of “Authenticity”

OK, so my timeline is as dominated by “TERF War” / Misogyny issues as ever, despite clearing out loads of redundant follows. As I sad in the “Culmination” post a couple of days ago – with links to two pieces making the same point – this topic simply will not go away, because it is in reality a much deeper and very scary problem with our collective rationality.

The new thing for me here is the active conspiracy theory angle. On the same day (Friday?) someone on Twitter shared @ me “THE FAR RIGHT AND ANTI-TRANS MOVEMENTS’ UNHOLY ALLIANCE” and someone on Teesside Sceptics Facebook wanted me to indulge in a postmodernists conspiracy against scientific rationality discussion, again with a far-right “link” to  abuses of post-modern ideas.

Being on Facebook, the latter is a lost cause, but I did read and back-research the awful “Unholy Alliance” piece and many of its links. To be clear, shit happens, but I’d already dismissed it as just so much “US litany of guilt by association” – certainly in terms of the named (mostly) UK participants in the Women and LGBT interests of the “TERF War”.

(If there was any reason to do so, I could write-up some deep examples from that … so many people smeared, hard to know where to start. Basic starting point, the main issue is that nothing in any UK activities I’m supporting is remotely “Anti-Trans” and that’s the term used throughout the unholy alliance piece. Obviously some “conservatives” will naturally be anti-trans or transphobic, but if the TERF War is about anything other than fighting unhinged rationality is about the conflict of rights with “Self-ID-Only-(M>F)-Trans-Rights-Activists” – TRA’s for short – and the ideology being used to shut down free discussion on any related sex and gender topics.)

Anyway, over the weekend, as well as various “protests and counter-protests” in response to the @DocStockk bullying case – and many more coming to light eg @JoPhoenix1 – the TRA case best summed-up here …

… there was also a post from Jolyon Maugham suggesting without being clear – and ignoring all requests for clarification – that an international “Filia” feminist conference, also being targetted by the protests, was somehow funded by far-right money. (Certainly that’s the message his followers picked-up from it.) Disgusting veiled smears against a group of women organising a conference. Guilt by merely suggested association.

Frankly, this is why treating it as a war between campaigning and lobbying factions – and taking sides – is never going to resolve itself. That’s always going to involve attack and defence. It comes back to care for the individuals – Women, LGBT, the lot – and I’ll continue to defend those I see defending themselves and others in good faith.



Post Note 1 – mind you, talking of the US perspective as we were briefly, this is an alarming case to say the least:

(BTW, big shout out to James Dreyfus (*) who like @Glinner has now dived-in to career-threatening depths into this cess pool in defence of people he cares about.)

Post Note 2 – also topical but no time to review here, the Nolan Podcast and reactions to BBC and other institutions withdrawing from being led by StonewallUK, now an actively “TRA” lobby group. I’ve been trying very gently for a couple of years to get Michael Cashman and Peter Tatchell to engage with the conflicting rights aspects on rational grounds but fear both have withdrawn or “flounced off” as some would have it. Sad because these are important political players. I defend our appointed second chamber and Michael is an otherwise much loved member with a long Stonewall history. All very sad as I say.

Post Note 3 – and to bring the agenda full circle:

(*) FYI … James Dreyfus story

Chomsky meets Dennett

Had an interesting thread on Twitter to day with Simon Jacobson. which ended with this exchange:

Don’t often read Chomsky since I’m never quite sure of his agenda anymore, but given the good-faith recommendation I dived straight into this one. Very interesting. Below my gutting / summarising Chomsky’s words with my annotation – check / indented.

Chomsky says …

Thought & language are creative processes.

Although remembered as a philosopher, Descartes was primarily a scientist working in the “mechanical” Galilean orthodoxy of his day.

“But [Descartes] discovered phenomena that appeared to escape the reach of mechanical science. Primary among them, for Descartes, was the creative aspect of language use, a capacity unique to humans that cannot be duplicated by machines and does not exist among animals, which in fact were a variety of machines, in his conception.”

“Appeared” to escape mechanical science. Sure. Probably true then but not now – the idea of a “machine” moving, transforming, copying and creating stuff is much more generic than a literally “mechanical” device. Universal Turing Machine, Universal Constructor, etc. Use of language is manipulation of information, information which may be physically / mechanically embodied (in fact must be possible to be so) but which is independent of that embodiment. The idea of a “machine” has evolved since Galileo and Descartes even if the mechanical machine meme lingers in our minds.

Descartes invented res-cogitansalongsideres-extensa.

Descartes, and Newton after him, had difficulty reconciling the “occult” interaction between these two and indeed between different res-extensa “at a distance”.

Contrary to popular conception of the ghost in the machine, it was res-extensa that Newton exorcised as unintelligible. Locke and Hume agreed.

The fundamentals of nature remained in obscurity – an absurdity conveniently ignored by Newtonian mechanics. “The goals of scientific inquiry were implicitly restricted: from the kind of conceivability that was a criterion for true understanding in early modern science from Galileo through Newton and beyond.”

(aka “Galileo’s Error” – in fact in the 21st C many a new pan-psychist might say the res-cogitans IS the more fundamental reality.)

“[Locke] wrote that just as God added to matter such inconceivable properties as gravitational attraction, he might also have “superadded” to matter the capacity of thought.” Until the late 20th C “decade of the brain” the absurdities remained ignored by all but historians.

[Physics > Chemistry > DNA > Evolution]

‘The “new mysterianism” [of Owen Flanagan]  is compared today with the “old mysterianism,” Cartesian dualism, its fate typically misunderstood. To repeat, Cartesian dualism was a perfectly respectable scientific doctrine, disproven by Newton, who exorcised the machine, leaving the ghost intact, contrary to what is commonly believed. The “new mysterianism,” I believe, is misnamed. It should be called “truism”’ Most of science continues to ignore this reality.
Sorta … (except “machine” has evolved, see above.)

Deutsch as an example of modern science still seeing only limitless progress continuing its current trajectory (ignoring reality).

Ha. Deutsch is of course one of those pushing the idea of a machine back to its information-theoretic universal-constructor fundamentals.

Honesty should lead us to concede.

My position (and Dennett’s) is that this whole mind-body dichotomy – (and the ongoing ignorance that it’s the body, the physical/material aspect, that is the least intelligible) – is best resolved by recognising their common foundation in information and computation. Persisting with “we have made no progress resolving this mystery” is to cling to outdated conceptions of science predating its new epistemological ontology. “It’s all still a mystery” isn’t much of a metaphysics, or indeed much of a critique of anyone else’s 🙂

Good read. Chomsky is clear in his thinking and writing. I just think Dennett, Deutsch and many more (EES / IIT) are much more advanced than Chomsky’s considerations here.

“TERF War” Culmination?

Reaction to the recent bullying of philosopher Kathleen Stock at Sussex Uni has maybe brought this awful “war” to a head? A “TERF War” as a symptom of wider culture wars, cancel culture and woke identity politics in general.

As someone with no direct skin in the games of Feminism and LGBplus rights it has always been a question of would-be rational (progressive) discourse being disfigured by ideology vs freedom of expression as a human right (for short) and the fact that what we (really) mean by free speech is incredibly complex and problematic. (How long have you got? – no amount of “rules” can avoid being gamed by those acting in bad faith, so good faith respect for the point of having rules is infinitely more important than the objective detail of any rules.)

In the “TERF War” my instinct is and always has been to defend the women (and lesbians and gays and trans and minors) on the receiving end of the ideological bigotry, the lack of care and the downright targeted threats and violence. (Ref – dozens of my posts here and hundreds if not thousands on social media). The woke word-salad beyond women and LGB has become convenient cover – in  many cases probably ignorant cover – for misunderstanding the care and good faith aspect of freedoms. Simply adding the crass “be nice” rule cannot fix this.)

Several things happened in the last two days whilst the Sussex Uni management and the UCU traded public statements “condemning recent events” (a euphemism for  each side’s take on the bullying of Kathleen Stock).

One, a statement of solidarity from philosophy academia in support for the defence of basic freedoms, independent of any specifics of Stock’s beliefs or statements or even the topic in contention – “Trans”. (The original list here.) Significant not for the numbers – though it is now growing fast – but for the sheer range of philosophical and political positions of the many signatories.

Two, a piece by Matthew d’Ancona in Tortoise, being quoted by many:

“Why do all conversations always end up being about trans?”

“If you think this [TERF War] is being fought on a level-playing field, you haven’t been paying attention.”

“The truth is the trans debate is unavoidable because it is really a crossroads, and one that leads in all directions in our culture: to freedom, censorship, identity, truth, scientific reality and Orwell’s “secret doctrine”.

And more generally:

“Defeating this cult is the intellectual and political calling of our age.”
– Denis Kavanagh

“The ‘TERF wars’ are only marginally about trans issues.”
– Mark Hammond

Trans-gender rights being “used as an excuse” in a Letter to The Times from the “trans community”. Something has changed with wider recognition of what this “war” is really about, with what is at stake. In my own recurring words:

“What passes for rational public discourse,
our very rationality as individuals, is at stake.”

—– —–

[Hat tips to many feminist, gay/lesbian and trans friends on social media. @Katoi @Jebadoo2 and many more. And acknowledgement to @Glinner who took the first hit in the early days of this “war”.]

And hot off the press – maybe Stonewall’s disgraceful role in this whole debacle is about to become clear:

Matthew Segall

Matthew Segall (Footnotes2Plato) is a fellow traveller with whom I’ve crossed social-media tracks over several years and he’s not one of those respondents to Philip Goff in this month’s JCS Panpsychism Special, where I’ve been collecting copies of all the freely available pre-print articles.

An intriguing few are not available, below, but I thought I’d use the opportunity to pin down a touch point with Segall since one of the respondents is Christof Koch.

Christoph Koch comes out as a panpsychist? (2012)

That JCS Special?

Goff’s original outline is here.

The Oct 21 JCS Vol28 (9-10) is now here.

Missing Goff Links include:

Christof Koch – ‘Reflections of a Natural Scientist on Panpsychism’

Keith Frankish – ‘Galileo’s Real Problem’

Alyssa Ney – ‘Panpsychism and the Limits of Physical Science’

Joanna Leidenhag – ‘Why a Panpsychist Should Adopt Theism’

Sarah Lane Ritchie – ‘Panpsychism,  Flourishing and Psychedelics’

All the others appear to be available as preprints or blogs.


Quantum Theory is not Up to the Job

One of many interviews with Chiara Marletto in connection with her book on Constructor Theory (“The Science of Can and Can’t” which I started but didn’t finish yet), this one by Sean Carroll, who I consider to be one of the more grounded theoretical physicists and science communicators.

Particularly interesting because as well as (obviously) trying to get to details of Constructor Theory and Marletto’s Counterfactual take on fundamental physics, he chooses to start from the angle of why would a young physicist embark on a new topic that overturns the whole of the most widely accepted aspects of modern physics? Isn’t that over-ambitious? Surely most critics and interlocutors must come at her with questions of – Where’s the problem? If it ain’t broke what are you trying to fix? – rather than taking any details of her (and Deutsch’s) alternative theory seriously.

Unabashed, Marletto is pretty clear – in paraphrase:

It will prove to be the case that “Quantum Theory is not up to the job” of describing all of nature.

As conceived by its originators “Quantum Theory was only ever a work in progress” never intended to describe everything.

Information-theoretic aspects of Quantum Theory will turn out to be fundamentally true

Philosophically, I’m already wedded to information-theoretic fundamentals, so I’m obviously willing her every success.

As someone old enough to be her granddad, I’m also glad such a young researcher has taken up the challenge.

[Beyond that it’s a very good interview by Carroll. Marletto responds to most of them with yes, that’s a good / fair / relevant question. Could learn a fair bit about Constructor Theory from the interview.]

Misogyny 0.5

Misogyny is actually the title of my latest long-read draft of #GoodFences / #SomethingRottenInTheStateOfPolitics prompted specifically by the recent Afghan / Taliban debacle after a long series of “TERF War” examples.

This isn’t it.

Today’s prompting is the sentencing of Sarah Everard’s killer. Particularly serious from the point of view that if a woman, anyone, can’t trust a genuinely identifiable policeman in an everyday context who can we/she trust. The police and policemen have a lot to answer for here and quite rightly Cressida Dick is being challenged on this.

And it is the trust aspect that is the important feature. Several takes on the “blamelessness” or otherwise of the victim (in the sentencing statement) and on precautions women can and should take to reduce risk and avoid becoming victims. But the focus must be on the males that represent the potential threat – and social / institutional arrangements to minimise this perceived threat, to increase the trust – not on the actions of females (and minors)  as victims – aka “victim blaming”.

This has come up several times previously in the TERF War context, with many on the Self-ID (M>F) Trans Ideology activist side of that war, holding that women (and gays and minors) resisting the access of such “Trans” are somehow tarring all Trans with the threat of that ideology and the threat of violence. The fact is most violent attacks on females come from males, even if the number of actual offenders is statistically small amongst men and genuine (more than Self-ID) trans, and that young males are in fact more likely to experience direct physical violent attacks.

It’s a threat that females feel when exposed to males in confining / controlling contexts and it is for males to reduce any perceived as well as any actual threat. Those that scientistically quote the stats of how few males / trans are in fact a threat and that females should somehow “get over it”, completely miss the point. We males (cis or trans) need to care about how females feel.

[Hat tip to Jess Phillips for reminding us all.]


Tom Chivers take here. [Hat tip Timandra Harkness.]

[And a great tweet I’ve mislaid … along the lines that setting limits along the lines of a group identity is not the same as giving a job rejection to each member of the group. Banning all men from female spaces is not condemning every member of the group “men”. #GoodFences.]