All posts by Psybertron

It was a couple of years ago I noted E M Forster quotes turning-up with increasing regularity in my blog postings on knowledge and consciousness, and I mentally added Forster to my reading list. Last night the BBC TV started broadcasting a new serial dramatisation of Howard’s End. When one newspaper review compared it to Downton (!) it drew angry responses from Andrew Copson and Peter Cave.

Yes, the whole Upstairs-Downstairs / Downton genre risks misrepresenting intelligent social commentary – even a la Jane Austen, but in our case watching Ep1 of Howard’s End last night we were more recalling Ishiguro’s “Remains of the Day”. Must correct the Forster omission in my actual physical reading list. Recommendations anyone?

Prompted by this click-bait headline on Pan-Psychism from Philip Goff in Aeon magazine.

“Panpsychism is crazy, but it’s also most probably true.”

“… physics tells us nothing about the intrinsic nature of the entities it talks about, and indeed that the only thing we know for certain about the intrinsic nature of matter is that at least some material things have experiences.”

As recently as last Wednesday my own position came up when I was talking about the evolution and nature of consciousness. Whatever nonsense(*) is talked about how the observer-effect influences physics – collapse of the wave function, n’all that – it remains certain that there is some “spooky” relationship between consciousness and physics. I made only a passing reference, but clearly it rang bells with the audience in the discussion it started. [(*) Be great if people could simply remember that Schroedinger’s cat was only ever a thought experiment intended to demonstrate how nonsensical it appears!]

It’s partly a problem of human metaphors that precede understanding in physics generally, physics as a model that works without deep understanding, but let’s stick with the specifics of this problem.

Panpsychism is a common suggestion, though it’s not always clear what is meant. It’s not necessary to suggest that highly developed consciousness itself underlies the real physical world, that might indeed be time for the men in white coats with the straitjacket, though obviously it will always underlie our subjective model of it. Consciousness itself, evolved and distributed unevenly throughout sentient species, is however only one metaphor away from the forces and other effects “sensed” by and between other otherwise non-sentient physical objects. Whatever physical objects “have” it’s quite different to our own experience of advanced intelligent consciousness, but nevertheless related it seems. There is also no need for the dualist thought that two distinct physical and psychical types of natural stuff exist and that some supernatural effect creates relationships between them.

I tend to think of the connection as a common basis in proto-consciousness, a “psychical” (non-physical) component of consciousness that is necessarily present throughout the physical world even if not generally manifested as consciousness. And this proto-conscious component is far from mysterious or supernatural. In both fundamental physics and evolved biology this common component is simply information – significant differences between points in space-time. (Points not particles notice, without any intrinsic properties of their own, but with all properties and particles, psychical or physical, deriving from information integral to these point distinctions.)

Fundamental (Shannon) information is both proto-physical and proto-psychical. Not crazy and probably true.


[Previously on Psybertron – “significant difference” as a fundamental component is a recurring theme, first used with this integral information meaning back in 2005. And IIT is an exciting recent development in the physics of consciousness. Also a different topic on the face of it but with many more of the consciousness-as-evolved-information references and links.]

Hat tip to Jim Walsh for tweeting a mention of Kurt Goldstein. I frequently refer back to rehabilitation of the much-maligned Abraham Maslow, and discover that in his time as editor of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Goldstein was influential on Maslow and is the source of “self-actualisation”. The term is an awful “Americanism” but is nevertheless an important concept.

I noted when doing my own “review” of Kevin Laland’s “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony” that the main reason I was reading and reviewing it was because it was to be the subject of Massimo Pigliucci’s next “in depth book club” review. In this in depth series he tends to review in detail chapter by chapter, and Massimo’s review of Laland’s chapter 1 is now published. Interestingly the focus is precisely one of only two I highlighted. The uniqueness or otherwise of humans.

Laland – “The fact remains that humans alone have devised vaccines, written novels, danced in Swan Lake, and composed moonlight sonatas, while the most culturally accomplished nonhuman animals remain in the rain forest cracking nuts and fishing for ants and honey.” (p.10)

Pigliucci – As I reported recently I was accused of “arrogance” when I stated this simple conclusion during a panel discussion at the New York Academy of Science. But the fact remains true, regardless of pious and well intentioned pleas for getting ourselves off the evolutionary pedestal. As Kevin says later in the chapter, yes, in a trivial sense every species is “unique,” but humans are unique in a highly interesting way, which is not comparable to the uniqueness of dolphins, birds, or what else. Indeed:

Laland  – “Herein lies a major challenge facing the sciences and humanities; namely, to work out how the extraordinary and unique human capacity for culture evolved from ancient roots in animal behavior and cognition.” (p.11)

Pigliucci – As I have pointed out, even brilliant biologists like E.O. Wilson don’t get that culture isn’t going to be reduced to biology, and therefore that the humanities are not, and never will be, a branch of the biological sciences.

I agree, there is a trivial sense in which every species is unique. The numbers and distribution of hairs on the abdomen are in some sense unique for every species – drosophila or human – and indeed each may be some combination adaptive and/or vestigial. Nevertheless unique. Less trivially, I summarised it like this:

“I like [Laland’s thesis] in the sense that it does support the idea that the human mind is a qualitatively distinct and uniquely different kind in a world of many sentient species. It’s not exceptionalism in the sense that it couldn’t have been otherwise, that humans were in any sense necessarily predestined to be that species. But let’s face up to facts and responsibilities. Here we are.”

Eventually Pigliucci concludes with Laland’s assertion that

The evidence appears to point to the conclusion that human intelligence and culture evolved in a particular way.

Whether the expression “uniquely unique” says any more than unique in a particular way is semantically moot. Either way our particular uniqueness is in having a sense of responsibility for an extended environment beyond our immediate experience as individuals. As I said that’s a unique “kind” of thing – the only example of its kind – in the (known) evolved cosmos.

It’s the very opposite of arrogance. Seems we’re all in agreement?

Was the title of a talk given by “Elliot George” to the Teesside Sceptics in the Pub last Thursday. I had done some homework beforehand and was expecting to be publishing some review. However it was so dire I can see little value in compiling my notes.

Before we even get to the content, it was marred (a) by talking to excruciatingly slow text-build slides, and (b) the speaker’s indulgence in deploying for the first time some very slow and unreliable new app to control the presentation from his iPhone that simply kept failing and resetting. So damn rude!

Content-wise it was sadly devoid of any actual knowledge. Fortunate that the audience was able to drive the subsequent “Q&A” as free dialogue.


Epistemological naivety. Truth / thinking / knowing / believing / trust / faith / authority / the nature of evidence & residual-uncertainties. Hypothesis / testable-assertion / theory / model. Any distinction between scientific knowledge and any other kind. (Julian Baggini anyone?)

Conflation of intelligence with perfection / optimisation. Conflation of creation / infinite-regress-first-cause with intelligence in evolutionary design. Conflation of design with designer. The idea that apart from a few evangelical extremists we need to defend evolution per se from god in 2017. The idea that a group of self-identified sceptics needed that particular history lesson. Couldn’t even get Jerry Coyne’s name right! The general conflation of all things “god” with everything else. The devil really needs to be in the details.

Totally dismissive (and/or ignorant) of any current scientific ideas around information theory, complexity and variety in physics, biological evolution and conscious intelligence.

[Many detailed notes on actual content.]

Scary idea that as a retired science teacher message aimed at 8-year olds. God help us. (Coincidentally and ironically I happen to be discussing the evolution of consciousness with my own retired physics teacher for U3A education.)

Coincidentally, though not in fact part of my homework for the above talk, the connection with Discovery Institute and George’s nemesis Jonathan McLatchie turned up in this recent post.

Despite previously making positive reference to Max Tegmark – holding a position seemingly close to mine – on consciousness – information and information patterns at root, I have been sceptical about his book “Life 3.0 – Being Human in the Age of AI“. Too hyped a topic and too breathless the reviews by association with Elon Musk.

But I watched this 15 minute 2014 TED talk …. and it’s very good. Very, very good.

It’s about information patterns – physical substrate-independent patterns – which have emergent properties above and beyond the physics of the fundamental articles. The whole story in a nutshell. He uses the expression “we call it” – when talking about different types of “stuff” – not so arrogant as to call these definitions. We call stuff Solid, Fluid Liquid, Gas, Plasma so why not also Memory, Computronium and Perceptronium – our abilities to remember, process and perceive. Oh, look, we already use the words. (Aha! and it’s IIT after Giulio Tononi – we’re already there.)

A man after my own – also reacts to the adjective “just” – as in we are “just” a bunch of quarks and photons. We are food rearranged. We are a bunch of physics with a particular history of dynamic patterns of information. Seems like the same old dualist question, but not a question what we need to “add” to physics – but what what are the physical properties of the patterns in the physics? It’s the (information) patterns that matter. “Matter” – think on.

So that’s Dan Dennett, Anil Seth and Max Tegmark talking sense. Will have to watch that again, and get Tegmark’s book after all. There really is no mystery of consciousness. Onward and upward.


“Everybody knows that no means yes” is a line from Divine Comedy / Neil Hannon’s “Becoming More Like Alfie” the laddish side of 60’s sex-and-gender-liberation that evolved into “Generation Sex” – the latter quoted in its entirety below. I’ve dropped a Divine Comedy reference into a few – very few – pieces of the post-Weinstein, now post-Fallon dialogue. Is it a scandal? is it about sex? For the avoidance of mansplaining, I’ve shut-up for several weeks, and listened / observed.

Agreeing this morning with Isabel Hardman that Ruth Davidson gets it, and her position means supporting her is most likely to achieve the changes we need. [Full stop. End of] But …

My take, just in case anyone asks is pretty straightforward. If you want to take issue with me, please ensure you read it, all of it, carefully. As Isabel says earlier in that thread it’s not about flirting  but let’s start there.

Flirting – verbal and non-contact body-language – is part of the game of life, gauging respect and establishing level of common interest in any topic that excites one or the other. Often completely a-sexual, the excitement being in the topic. The topic may be sex.

Making a pass (I hate the term) – is the signal of interpersonal physical – sexual – interest (if any). This is where the minefield can go either way. Done entirely verbally it’s an extension of the flirting “game” and gauging the response depends entirely on any level of respect and common ground already established – one thing’s for sure no, no does not mean yes, even if it may mean I need you to try better for longer if that’s your interest. Taking it further, persistence verbally or making the move to first physical contact is entirely down to having interpreted the invitation to do so, and conversely interpreting the pass declined and moving on.

Of course we’re not all equal when it comes to social skills and good manners, with either clear-headed, infatuated or alcohol-impaired judgement. Alcohol is a part of the game and sharing food, and music & dance, and whatever turns you on …  life’s a complicated social game, whatever your business.

Anyone who thinks these “definitions” can or should be made tight and objective, and rules of engagement – codes of practice – based on them, is living in cloud-cuckoo land. In all walks of life – all topics – this is normal social gaming in operation. I don’t use gaming pejoratively, but …

Persisting at the pass level without confirmed consent is clearly harassment, assault if physical, rape in the extreme.

Where clear rules matter, and where the problem really lies, is in power, more specifically the abuse of an imbalance of power. There is always some imbalance of power, and there are often good tactical reasons why it is exploited with good strategic intent. Machiavelli’s Prince gets a bad press, but it serves as a parable of how complex a tangled web can be woven. But as I say, the issue is the abuse of power as means to nefarious ends, and most of the above has little to do with sex.

Focussing on the dominant-male cases, Weinstein, Spacey and Fallon say, they clearly lie on a spectrum from gross to trivial via unfortunate and sad in terms of actual details of events, but they are all abuses of power and they all involve (potential) victims. Unethical even at the thin end of the scale and criminal at the more serious physical end.

[Generation Sex]

[Well, there’s nothing wrong with a woman having two men, Every woman should have at least two men, if you don’t, there’s something wrong. I mean, guys do it all the time. Guys have a woman on this side of town, the other side of town. They have a woman in another city, why shouldn’t we? I mean, it’s the 90s!]

Generation sex
The rights
Of girls
Who want to take their clothes off
As long as we can all watch that’s okay

And generation sex
The type
Of guys
You wouldn’t leave your kids with
And shouts “off with their heads” if they get laid

Lovers watch their backs
As hacks
In macs
Take snaps
Through telephoto lenses
Chase Mercedes-Benzes through the night

A mourning nation weeps
And wails
But keeps
The sales
Of evil tabloids healthy
The poor protect the wealthy in this world

And generation sex
Is me
And you
And we
Should really all know better
It really doesn’t matter
What you say

[ It doesn’t matter what colour you are, long as you’re happy. You know, loving has no colour, you know. I’d rather be with someone that’s white and keeps making me happy than with somebody my same colour and be miserable the rest of my life.]

[Becoming More Like Alfie, reprise]
Everybody knows that No means Yes
Just like glasses come free on the N.H.S.
But the more I look through them the more I see
I’m becoming more like Alfie

(c) Neil Hannon, The Divine Comedy.

The more we look the more we see we really should do better. It’s about the abuse of power, especially in walks of life where patriarchal dominance have been slow to evolve, and therefore needs to change faster. But it’s not a matter of  more / better rules.

It’s about a culture where trust thrives on manners and respect for fellow humans.



I hate to mention it, but off that scale on which we find UK parliamentarians is Trump, the pussy-grabber-in-chief  running the white-house.

And generation sex elects the type of guys you wouldn’t leave your kids with.
And shouts “off with their heads” if they get laid.

I also hate to mention, whilst we’re hand-wringing around the abuse of alcohol-fueled patriarchal culture in the mother of parliaments <cough> Islamism <cough>. It’s several levels beyond irony. And even a more “puritanical” Christian take on modesty and temptation. These are not things that can be wished or legislated away. Counter-intuition as well as irony-levels. That modesty “elephant” is still taking-up space.

Discounting the intellectual snobbery that this is about Dan Brown, as indeed the reviewer himself suggests, it is worth a read. The headline is:

Dan Brown’s New Novel Pushes Atheism and Endorses Intelligent Design
… Wait …What?

I’ve not digested the whole yet (and there are secondary references to follow-up) but my own position is pretty close to:

There is no (need for a) supernatural god,
because purposeful intelligent design is part of nature.

Pretty sure that’s a summary of Dan Dennett’s position too. Dennett is one of the sources referenced. Rehabilitating perfectly serviceable words that have been hijacked for supernatural purposes is something he recommends. As is his warning against an objective determinism based on too-greedy reductionism. If we had a perfect physical model of the world in every detail, then you could make a case that causation literally followed every link in that model from original fundamentals to the objects and events of here and now, though even then you’d maybe need plenty of short-cuts to get any actual work done. Looks like “a (temporary) god of the gaps“, except ….

The fact is, however, that plenty of objects and causal laws in that stack are only our current best-guess and they’re still only a model of reality, not reality itself. In practice the things that need revising and better defining are not simply gaps or beyond the bottom-end of our sub-quantum physics foundation, but through and across multiple levels within it. “Hold off on your definition!” says Dennett. All models have a purpose and our model(s) has(have) our purpose(s). One of science’s purposes is “natural” to deny any supernatural god and another is “objectivity” to deny any special human position in it, as a matter of policy. It’s a kind of Catch-22.

The problem with that denial, is not that it’s not fundamentally true, but that it makes us blind to errors in the model at the myriad of “something’s not quite right” levels within it. One of the more pervasive areas of error is the appearance of causation itself, and the assumption of causal laws rather than the results of evolving meta-laws. It makes us blind to solutions that look too mysterious right now to be justified based on the physics we do currently hold authoritatively. It’s a hostage to all-or-nothing fortune. Because there’s no god, because there’s nothing privileged or designed for humans, let’s shoot ourselves in the foot.

Anyway, hat tip to Rick Ryals for spotting the significance of the article and who, beyond Dennett, has been most influential to me in seeing the anthropic blind-spot in physics as well as natural purpose and intelligence beyond random entropy in the cosmos. (More later after a detailed read and review.)


[Post Notes: Previously on Psybertron ….

It’s all about the (Shannon) information, dummy, information being the root of evolution and the complement of entropy.

Carlo Rovelli’s Fresh Spin (Nov 2016) – Quantum Loop Gravity with Fundamental (Integrated) Information.

Unger & Smolin (Feb 2015) – back to basics and the evolution of laws according to meta-laws.

The Physics of Consciousness (Jun 2017) quick round-up including Integrated Information Theory (IIT) references.

The Edge survey of Hidden Concepts (Aug 2017) – the usuals suspects with some encouraging convergences – ergodicity being the novelty.

How the Light Gets In (Jun 2016) – including some interaction with Chiara Marletto on Constructor Theory.

Deutsch & Marletto (May 2014) on Constructor Theory meta-laws (hat-tip Rick Ryals, the plot thickens)

And, away from physics, let’s not forget Dan Dennett on the evolution of consciousness (Oct 2017).

Science and Psychology Bookmarks (Oct 2017) Another round-up of relevant links.

In the light of these – still to read the Dan Brown piece above!

Now having read it, I see Brown’s work is relying on Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer, also reference by Jonathan McLatchie, particularly using the specific complexity of information arguments for intelligent purpose. These are entropy vs information arguments I buy – in principle – but (a) it’s a big step to apply it to particular complex biological evolution example design-spaces, big as in lots of work and lots of expertise needed to do and to argue and/or verify, the point I made last time I referenced McLatchie, and (b) the design intelligence doesn’t have to be supernatural, a god, as I say above. But interesting these ideas are making mainstream ripples.]