All posts by Psybertron

I posted a holding post last when Sean Parker – founding president of Facebook – publicised his concerns at the monster they had created and linked to a few other sources I’d gathered.

I see in the last couple of days Chamath Palihapitiya a former VP of Facebook added fuel to that same fire.

I’ve said it before, free expression is fine, but progress requires proper dialogue and that requires both attention and respect. Saddest aspect for me, is that many decent people who intuitively understand that, and are actively campaigning for human good, also fall foul of social media misuse. Below is an anonymised (false name) piece I sent privately to a friend in public science just two days before I posted the Sean Parker story:

Social Media Bollox:
Social media spreads mostly total bollox when it comes to public science.

Take my mate Joey.
He’s an engineer like myself, so his understanding of physical science (and human ingenuity, incidentally – that’s engineering) is surely well above your average Joe?

He also cares and is committed to the improvement of public understanding of science especially in how it affects society through politics and media. On that score he’s probably in the top 0.01% of the population. Despite being busy with actual domestic and professional responsibilities and travel, he nevertheless runs and participates in multiple groups in multiple physical locations as well as social-media sites often posting links to new articles and events late into the small hours. Hard to imagine greater care for and commitment to the issues.

Top man.
Yet, being busy across multiple commitments, when he does post something, we get the initial click-bait headline with maybe an initial observation or question, real or rhetorical, positive or negative.
Has he had time to read and digest the actual piece? We don’t know.
Was his initial observation or question considered in that light? We don’t know.
Has he noticed if any of his audience has responded, with their own observations and do we know if they actually read and considered the piece and his initial comment? Has he noticed that his real questions were answered, and/or additional links & references provided? Neither he nor we know.

Let’s be generous,
say in his busy schedule he spent an hour noticing and linking (say) four articles and events and posting their links with initial comments to (say) two different sites / threads. So, for any given 24 hours, what is sitting on the public web are (say) 8 instances of a click-bait headline each with a brief comment representing maybe a total of 8 minutes consideration. 99.5% of the web content, including the content he/we’ve contributed, is of this quality – bollox for short.

It is this bollox that 99.5% of passing browsers see 24/7, and give a few moments consideration to. It is this bollox that registers or conflicts with our existing mental models (memes) – more memes reinforcing or reinforcing their clash with other memes. Any subtle, creative, progressive content is crowded out by this domination.

It’s not that Joey doesn’t know or care enough.
It’s that posting web content without expressing initial careful considerations, or without constructive dialogue to some shareable points of new agreement or hold-point from which to continue, adds no value AND fuels prejudiced positions. Social media timelines and threads are ephemeral, if you haven’t time for the necessary dialogue when posting in real time it won’t happen, you won’t pick-up the thread, so don’t do it. The clue is in the name social. If you want correspondence-paced dialogue use mail / email or dedicated moderated sites.

No proper dialogue, no actual knowledge.
Social media spreads mostly total bollox when it comes to public science, unless in the context of real caring inter-human dialogue, no matter how good or well-intentioned the original poster.


Previous post:
The memetic free-for all – even when fun – is seriously damaging all our interests.

And: The feature that social media channels concentrate “not necessarily good” stuff in ways that should disturb us. James Bridle on “Something is Wrong on the Internet”. Clever meme in itself.

I have a string to my agenda I call “The Court Jester“. It’s not just about our “freedom” to mock, but also about how it is an essential part of progressive dialogue – dialogue towards human progress that is. Once we understand the limits to logically objective argumentation in human decision-making, proper dialogue is all we’ve got going for us and humour is an essential part of it. The court jester analogy reinforces the point that who mocks what and whom and in what context matters as much as the fact of the mockery and the freedom to do it.

Hitsorically those who mocked were recognised as such and had the leeway to play the fool – the court-jester – and mock the powerful and in doing so express criticisms and prick concsiences publicly that might be politically incorrect or personally insulting if done directly by anyone else. The king is dead, long live the king, reinforces the distinction between human individuals and our social roles. For all its grotesque extreme forms, PC’ness really does have its place in separating valid criticism (including mockery) from personal insults to individuals. But this court-jester role-play aspect is just one of several reasons why the context and nature of humourous mockery matter.

In these days of instantaneous expression via social media and on-line commenting its all too easy for anyone to fall into the role of joker, even if they are not a socially recognised “court” jester such as Frankie Boyle (say, my archetype). In fact it’s almost expected, de-rigeur, and many threads are simply wags trading comic takes. All good fun.

Except, we do still need to be concerned at the public message left in the ether.

I do it myself, casually too, like this example this morning. Hopefully the irony is self-contained. The emphatic multiple God references in the original (US) tweet were already ironic. My additonal (UK) comment simply extended the ironic “thank God” meme, but in contrast to secular (UK) politics. The latter is self-contained in the 5 word sentence. I don’t think there is any other meme released into the environment beyond the original context?

And in this thread started by Tom, there is irony at several levels – in the originally science-fictional reference to the reported actual-scientific investigation story and in the XKCD cartoon version of my own response also added by Tom. But the final commenter at the point I snipped the clip below, adds two new levels worth discussing. Nothing personal, a very typical witty on-line comment, but worth unpicking.

Now, I have no doubt that Andrew was being ironically humourous in his remark, and at several levels intentionally. The “pray” is ironic contrasting religious hopes with the science content (if any, my original point) of the story. Lol. The second level is the hope (whether religious or simply human) that there is intelligence out there, given (unstated) that we don’t have enough of it here on earth. Chuckle, chuckle, ho, ho, ho.

But this leaves open ended the meme – however genuine or ironic – that alien or artificial intelligence is somehow going to be better for humanity than our own. And it leaves it open ended in a public thread outside any well-bounded court-jester context. Now that’s a scary thought, that anyone here and now might believe or hope that?

And why does this matter? – The very next post!

Fascinating thread on LinkedIn where I would normally go to interact only on professional matters. The article is a spoof as the most recent edit indicates – World News Daily Report is a satirical publication – but the comment thread from those unaware of that fact is enlightening.

Enlightening because all three positions are represented: The cynical scientistic types defending the privileged position of science; The faithful religious types in “hallelujah, thank god, I told you so” mode; And most interestingly the enlightened types who get the underlying point of the satire.

Everything, including conscious intelligence and the physical, are evolved from dynamic information patterns. This “proto-consciousness” is indeed fundamental in ways that are not yet well understood by many, and purposeful intelligent design is naturally evolved like everything else. The religiously faithful and objectively reductionist positions are simply two (human) ways of dealing with the unknown detail – a humanity of the gaps where physics moves in mysterious ways. Arguments from either position are simply irrelevant to the other. Science is not politics is not religion.

Expounded many times  on Psybertron, most recently collated here in “Teleology Without a God“.

This is a somewhat hurried post as an opportunity to join up some dots on secularism.

Firstly I read “Secularism – Politics, Religion & Freedom” by Andrew Copson, Chief Exec of Humanists UK (HUK / BHA) and Chair of the International Humanist and Ethical Union last week. I had intented to write a review after asking Andrew some questions at his talk to Durham Unversity Students Humanists Thursday last week, but sadly snowfall that day meant I was unable to get across. Long story short, it’s a great little read, non-contenitious as a history of secularism, and with an open-minded expose of some of the outstanding conflicts and issues for the future of secularism. (Anyone interested in deeper 19th and 20th C history of the various rationalist, sceptical, humanist, secularist organisations in the UK and beyond can read “The Blaspheny Depot”.)

What is particularly gratifying, is the humanist focus on secularism, a welcome change from the interminably misguided god vs science wars of new atheism of the 21st century so far. HUK are a campaigning and related services organisation so naturally target current political opportunities in their work. Aside from the history, Secularism in Andrew’s book boils down to two things. Firstly non-established religion, no direct or preferential religious doctrine in the arrangements of civil state governance. And, secondly support for universal human rights in general and specifically the UN declaration on freedom of thought, religious or otherwise. The former is behind many HUK campaigns from parliamentary reform and marriage arrangements to education in general. The latter is pursued internationally in the #FreedomOfThought work of the IHEU.

This is all good.

Leaving aside the secular anomaly of reserved seats for Bishops in the Lords, the UK’s second parliamentary house, there was an interesting debate earlier this week initiated by Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s worth listenting to the debate as a whole, and not simply inferring the Archbishop’s motives from a selective reading of his statements. Predictably HUK have reacted to his suggestion that religious schools teach “ethical values” to criticise him and his motives, and to pimp their campaign against religious schools.

The point missed in this warlike campaigning against religious ethical values is the paucity of shared values generally in civil arrangements and education. The problem with the universal (human individual) freedoms basis is that the only value it promotes is freedom of the individual, and the complementary responsibility and tolerance of the rights of others. As I say this is “all good” but it leaves a significant hole in education and human development. This is the topic of the debate, built on real UK examples of failure.

The (secular) humanist worldview needs to concern itself with humanist values beyond individual rights and a generic responsibility for human ecology, and a rationality beyond science.

Important point of content that we mustn’t lose, despite despicable fake-news communications. Wreckless (public) communications from one state leader cutting across local politics of another – emphasising / stoking hatred of difference, when what we’re (all) trying to do is resolve and reduce it. The kind of hatred that gets those killed who are working hardest to resolve it for us.

In this shouting-match “immigrant” clearly means those of recent (few generations) immigration still subscribing to original ethnic and/or religious cultural values. The (real) elephant in the room being shared values in a secular state – the net accumulation and integration of all past population movements and evolutions. Integrated, not “multi” cultural.

The problem with focussing on the immigration rather than “alien values” is it leads to walls and barriers more alienation and more hatred, terrorism and death. The guy is a fuckwit.

The early version of this Edward Witten interview by Natalie Wolchover – since corrected – was criticised for suggesting his M-Theory was the only current model (with any worthwhile credibility) attempting to unify quantum and gravity fields. His idea of (M-em)branes combining multiple string theories in multiple dimensions beyond 3 is now 22 years old.

What is interesting from the interview is that he talks about it like an umbrella for a series of dialogues across multiple dualities, but which he “can’t imagine” actually resolving into a meaningful model of reality. Simply a means to the process of investigating the relationships between different quantum interpretations through mathematical dialogue – a two-way dialogue that stretches – and therefore contributes to – mathematics itself. Not just unimaginable, but:

extremely strange
that the world is based so much
on a mathematical structure
that’s so difficult

Whether it eventually models reality or not, it’s clear it will not be a model which inhabitants of the real world will find meaningful. Quite opposite to any suggestions of elegance or beautiful simplicity that might emerge when mysteries are resolved – not that that kind of intelligibility is itself any more fundamental than any other mystery.

Also interesting and related – I’d forgotten it originated with Wheeler – is the discussion of “it from (qu)bit” idea – the more general idea that information is the more fundamental layer of physical reality. The discussion gets tantalisingly close to the observer conundrum, that reality really does depend on the observer – the interpreter of meaning in the information – in the act of observation. Unfortunately, the (condensed) interview ends too soon.

These points are related if like me you do believe in fundamental information. Also strange in the thread of tweets that lead to the correction that there are more candidates than M-Theory, that I didn’t see mention of Quantum Loop Gravity.

My reading of Carlo Rovelli on QLG is that it is fundamentally information-based and appears to depend of mathematics much closer to home – analogous to Navier-Stokes equations of compressible fluid dynamics. Witten does conclude by saying:

“[Wheeler] was talking about explaining how physics arises from information.
[he] wanted to explain the meaning of existence.

I tend to assume that space-time and everything in it are in some sense emergent.
… you’ll certainly find that that’s what Wheeler expected in his essay.”

Me too. Everything is emergent from information. If Witten sees M-Theory evolving towards an information-based explanation, then I’m interested again but still hoping to see QLG taken seriously.

“Causation is seriously weird” – has been a mantra since the earliest days of this blog. Even in 2005/6 I was wearily referring to causation being the issue “again”. And part of that is the weirdness of time itself and the tendency (!) for cause to precede effect. And that’s even with cause transmitted by forces between Newtonian billiard balls, or the sun rising over the gravitationally orbiting earth. Things only get weirder with quanta. I last riffed on the topic in the spring of this year, reacting to a whole conference on the processes of causation. At any level causation is little more than a metaphor for prediction based on experience. There really is no fundamental explanation available.

One need to get a handle on this basic, seemingly tangible and objective, if-this-then-that causation is because there plenty of knottier cases we also need to understand. Cases where we have emergent “objects” – complex systems with their own behaviours, behaviours which in turn “cause” effects in their component parts. Top-down, reverse or two-way causation. Chickens and eggs. Fundamental questions not just for physical (biological) evolution, but for individual consciousness and will, and for social systems of governance beyond the individual. Historically ancient philosophical concerns that still – unsolved – underlie everyday life in the 21st century.

So I was naturally interested in the Santa Fe Institute (SFI – 16 Nov 2017) news story advertising:

New paper answers causation conundrum.”

Which refers directly to …

Coarse-graining as a downward causation mechanism.”

… by SFI’s own Jessica Flack, published by The Royal Society in their Philosophical Transactions.

I particularly like the fact that despite a biological evolutionary context, it starts straight in with a self-evident social governance example. I really did write the paragraph above before opening the paper.

” … the idea that higher-level features can be a cause of behaviour by lower-level components.
On the one hand, this seems self-evident.
Governments make laws and laws constrain individual behaviour …”

I also like “coarse graining” as a handle. One of the things oft referred to in my earlier examples is that in settling on our metaphors for causation, we invariably aggregate effects at the current objects of interest. Like any ontology this is something deemed useful, nothing physically fundamental. A promising read. There’s a tremendous feeling of convergence in the air, of important ideas crystallising and coming together at last.

(Oh, and it gets better, the first two references are from Studies in the Philosophy of Biology by Donald T Campbell edited by Francisco Ayala, who I mentioned way back in 2004 in exactly this context, and who is linked with Francis Heylighen’s work. What goes around comes around. And the paper is Templeton funded!)