Still not quite finished my final thorough read of Dennett’s Bacteria to Bach and Back (“B2BnB”) and, apart from his focus on “words” in linguistic development, I’d still say the whole is an improvement – a consolidation, clarification and most importantly an evolution – of his life’s work. Highly recommended for that reason, as I’ve said.

How much it actually advances his thesis – on the evolved reality of conscious self – in the wider world of “accepted fact” is of course a wide open question.

Julian Baggini is one of many published reviewers of B2BnB and one for whose philosophical intelligence I have a lot of time, and I was moved to add this comment to his Prospect review:

I think the following is key when it comes to those critics who demand an answer to their “hard question” – how to explain “subjective experience”.

You quote Dennett’s response: “if you debate on your opponents’ terms, you have already lost. To win, you must set the agenda. His bet is that if you understand consciousness in the right way, the Hard Problem will be exposed as an artefact of an outmoded way of thinking—a pseudo-problem”

Yes he uses the throwaway “life’s too short” response in his conclusions, but the real answer is in the quote above. Notwithstanding the need to (eventually) have agreed, documented versions of Dennett’s ontology of consciousness – to satisfy the expectations of rational philosophy – I’d be interested in your own view of his speculative bet?

All too easy to predict his (existing) critics view, he does it himself. A large part of his book is in fact a plea to suspend disbelief on that bet. So, in that spirit …. are you a critic or a betting man?

He does of course address many of his critics points in B2BnB as well as in much previous work, but he makes no apology here for sticking to his own agenda to work through his arguments his way. A strange loopy journey to evolve our understanding of our evolved conscious self, rather than fit simple syllogistic logic to the arguments of others.

So no prizes for spotting that there is more work to be done before his critics can be satisfied and brought on board, but I tend to agree with Dan, that this is work for the rest of us. It cannot be a criticism of his omission in B2BnB.

Lots of positive philosophical pieces on Martin McGuinness trajectory from murderer to peacemaker. R.I.P. The realism expressed simply by Tony Blair “You only make peace with your enemies” speaking on BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning.

With ever more conflict and potentially conflicting views on any number of issues swirling around us the lesson is important.

It’s about balance.

When the conflict is based in real significant difference – Secularism vs Islamism say – then the balance has to be between drawing attention to the need for the root difference to be addressed, and the need not to turn the topic into a dividing issue in which the entire population must declare itself to be “with us or against us” in some universal campaign.

For mainstream media, like the BBC, the editorial balance is between not to overly publicising the difference, creating distorted or exaggerated impressions, whilst nevertheless reporting key examples in the process of debate needed to support constructive public action.

UN freedoms of thought and expression, includes rights and tolerances for different religious and non-religious positions. It supports secularism, that people may hold and express multiple religious and non-religious positions, but that these positions must not form the legal basis of social arrangements.

Like many Arabic / Muslim / Koranic terms “sharia” means many different things, but put simply:

Sharia “law” can never be tolerated in a free secular democracy.

Sharia “counsel” could be a valid part of community governance, provided all participants understand and have access to their secular rights, freedoms and responsibilities.

It’s the difference between democracy and populism. We need a few key credible commentators to tirelessly point out the difference and abuses to the media and the rest of us. What we don’t need is a growing mob using the (real, factual) difference as a rallying cry. The “we vs other” narrative. Populism wants to use abuses of the underlying factual difference as a weapon to win against the other, the would-be losers. In a democracy, the prevailing majority cares about working with the interests of the minority.

It’s not about denying factual truths, it’s about recognising their significance and understanding how to achieve the best outcome.

[PS BBC Radio 4 Jonathan Freedland’s “Long View” on William of Norwich and the Jews … same story … nothing new under the sun.]

I mentioned Dan Dennett’s latest book a couple of posts back, expressing some slight reticence that, having read and appreciated pretty much everything else he’d written, I might not find much satisfyingly new in his latest. I shouldn’t have worried.

If his last work Intuition Pumps was a greatest hits collection of the many individual Thinking Tools he’s developed and worked with, his latest is a consolidated restatement and evolved update of the overall message of his life’s work to date.

Having first skim read, to get a feel for the contents, index and references, I’m now around one third through a careful read of the whole. So, whilst indeed little is entirely new, the careful organisation of what we’ve learned in clear and witty language, stripped of errors and distractions is immensely valuable and readable. And it is equally clear that this was his explicit objective.

He makes no apology for the “strange loopy” nature of his story, with no simple linear narrative, and the need to suspend disbelief and rehearsed objections, as we start somewhere in the middle of his story and cycle several times, on multiple levels, through the topics that make up the biological and cultural evolution of mind. Like Darwinian evolution itself, our understanding of of what consciousness is, must cycle through the process of understanding how understanding works. Living is how life works.

Reclaiming “intelligent design” from the supernaturalists, and reclaiming “teleology” for what purpose intelligent designs evolve naturally, have long been central to Dennett’s agenda. The attack-being-the-best-defensive nature of so much science vs faith debate means it has become taboo to even countenance such thoughts. But think them we must, it’s only natural. Science’s own position on such topics have themselves become politicised dogma. Suspending knee-jerk objections is essential to making progress and Dennett pulls no punches in demanding the space needed to develop his story free from all dogma.

I can safely say From Bacteria to Bach and Back is the book for anyone yet to get to grips with Dennett’s explanation of how mind has evolved to understand what it is to be conscious. There can scarcely be a higher agenda. Highly recommended.

[More later.]

[Many good reviews, critical and otherwise, of B2B&B in every credible publishing outlet since its US release late last year. This in the New Yorker is particularly fine for its angle on the quest of Dennett’s life.]

[Prospect Interview and Julian Baggini review, which I may use as a sounding board for my own review.]

Interesting find on Nautilus by Jorn Barger7 Major Experiments That Still Haven’t Found What They’re Looking For

Not digested the quality of the piece yet, but an important clue to the limits of science, to “complete” a “consistent” world-view.

[BTW Jorn – the original blogger – is typically sparse on Twitter, his Google+ remains on-line as does his blog spot RWAux project, even though its 4 years since he gave up tweeting as Robot Wisdom, and that original Robot Wisdom blogging project is long dead. Hundreds of dead links in my own blog. In the early days he was pretty ruthless with idiots on the web, just like Taleb, and I was assigned to his “kill file” in the days of bulletin boards and JISC mail exploders. Guess we’ve both matured ;-)]

I’m a great fan of Dan Dennett, and have probably read just about everything he’s ever written. Apart from his “Consciousness Explained” which failed to live up to its title – “hardly!” I commented at the time – I’ve pretty much gone along with Dan on his own evolving understanding of evolutionary consciousness. He’s part of my journey.

The last book of his I read and reviewed, “Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking was a kind of greatest hits with little new for me, but nevertheless highly recommended for newbies.

Since then his presentations describing the centrality of information to the evolution of complexity, both biological and cultural, and his efforts to set Sam Harris right on misunderstandings over free-will and consciousness have been most exciting to me. (Although I made references to it, I never did follow the Harris / Dennett rapprochement to its conclusion.)

Anyway, his latest “From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds” has been widely promoted and reviewed already, and I’ve not read it yet. As well as alluding to Doug Hofstadter’s “Godel-Esher-Bach an Eternal-Golden-Braid” (GEB / EGB) and the “Minds-I” work on which they collaborated, his latest appears to focus back on the conscious mind. I’m guessing the two recent explorations probably appear in chapters of the new book, but at the same time I’m nervous there may not be a lot new for me.

Dan and others shared  interview / reviews in Prospect Magazine, The FT and The Guardian, and other blogged reviews by Hyporion and The Washington Post and by Nagel in the NYRB

Anyway, I have some reading to do, before his latest arrives. Vive la Différance has been a recurring “information” theme for me too. Intriguing.

I’ve expressed before the underlying belief that Anne Marie Waters heart is in the right place and her actual understanding pretty deep and nuanced … and heartfelt. (Though I was once moved to update that opinion. And again here on “modesty”.)

Politics is a dirty business, requiring tough choices guaranteed to “offend” at least half your audience. Hypocrisy is inescapable. Apart from my occasional expression of exasperation at her use of sarcasm, I’ve mainly watched her political campaigning from the sidelines as her growing twitter following – fueled by Breitbart and the like, lapped-up the 140-character rhetoric.

This morning however a-propos of nothing in particular, she posted this:

Where to start?

No time or need to be “nice”. Really? I say what about love of humanity? “What’s so funny ’bout ….?” Tough love, sure. Collateral damage, sure. But no time or need to love our neighbours?

A simple binary choice we “have” to make. Where is that “written”?

“Good fences make good neighbours” I say.

Earlier she had posted:

It’s a trope, or a meme, in this environment that people scream “culture (religion) is not race“. All classifications are binary – simple set theory, you’re either in or out – but classes like race and culture are concepts not real world objects. The members of those classes are real human individuals and they are neither defined nor identified by being assigned to any given class. However we define race(s) and culture(s), it’s a matter of identity politics, who identifies who with which. Race (like gender too) is no more hard and fast than culture in defining people and groups of people. We can define binary classes fine, but people are members of many neighbouring and overlapping classes. Race and culture are immensely complex and entangled “properties” when talking about actual people; humans we love.

Good fences (class definitions) make good neighbours (people). But let’s not confuse people with classes, fences with barriers.

Andy Martin has written another great piece for The Independent. Topical – as in Piers Morgan and the usual opinionated #Celebs / #Trump / #Brexit / #Corbyn bollocks that fills all our bandwidth – but spot on with the underlying subtlety of what is really going on.

We’ve lost perspective of real truth, we’ve got this expectation that it must be consistent in our every expression and complete in the sum total of our expressions.

Not appropriate or timely to “review” what Andy has written – go read, he’s far wittier than I – but my immediate response was to shout out for Brunsson – who made his name back in my (mature) Masters’ days on “Management Hypocrisy”. With (yikes!) almost 30 years of philosophical, metaphysical and epistemological study since then (mostly in the last 15 or so) my agenda has moved on from management in business organisations to governance (cybernetics) of human affairs at its most profound and general.

My Brunsson references are largely replaced by Gödel / Wittgenstein / Einstein – best summarised here, after Rebecca Goldstein – and also the likes of Shannon / Dennett / Rovelli.

Hypocrisy, contradiction, exceptions and paradox are not flaws in truth, they are an essential part. The essential part. The part we need to understand. “Exceptions that make the rule” sounds like a wise-crack but the cracks are how the light gets in. Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the enslavement of fools.

It may be scientific to seek internal consistency in any given model we hold, but life ain’t scientific. Important though science is, we need good fences between the scientific world-view and real life as lived and governed by our decisions.

What actually happened was Trump watched a “fake” news item on Fox.

Sure Sweden has taken a lot of refugees and immigrants displaced from Islamic cultures, Sure it has it’s share of problems, and surely Islam has it’s own share too. Don’t we all?

But rather than “last night”, the news story was a misrepresentation of a report from 4 or 5 years ago, when journalists were investigating “Sweden as the rape capital of the world.” And not just a misrepresentation, a complete perversion. (a) the story was, Sweden “doesn’t” have a particular problem with rape, and (b)  most of the “problem” immigration has been after the story anyway. Like all statistics, you need to understand how to interpret. Recapped in a recent BBC R4 More or Less.

THAT’s why Trump has taken umbrage against mainstream press, for calling him out. [BTW, if you’ve not seen it, this Jon Sopel documentary on the history of presidents and the WH press corps is a must listen – 99% of it pre-dating Trump, so listen right through. (UK only, you will find YouTube copies of “Documentary: The President and the Press”).]

My main memetic agenda is that bad information spreads better than good, and I’ve been drawing attention to it for 15 years so far. What I hadn’t anticipated was a White House administration getting it’s intel from Fox and Breitbart. The archetypal bad information sources.

Bad information is easy to digest, short attention required, simple apparent logic, snappy presentation style, attractive sound and light shows, …. and easily manipulated to dubious agendas. Obviously good information can benefit from these features too, but there is necessarily more bad than good to start with, and the good generally has some nuance and complexity that needs understanding, and it’s precisely this feature that gets lost in the memetic arms race. Simply bad information spreads better than good.

For any one truth, there are many alternative half-truths, misunderstandings and lies (and ironic gags). By blurring “c”onservative news channels with the alternatives, in media where alternatives spread faster than facts, actual news of reality gets crowded out and alternative facts are mistaken for reality. The alternatives can make you think about the one truth, but are not themselves alternatives to it.

Anyone with a brain knows this. Unfortunately the White House’ brain is missing.

This would be a temporary 4 years glitch were it not for the 15 year agenda I already mentioned – which means all aspects of life are already infected. Not just popular and social media, but even would-be rational, expert professions, from economic and political governance to popular science and science itself. In fact it’s governance – literally cybernetics – of anything, that is infected everywhere. Received wisdom based on flawed understanding of flawed “expertise” is worse that good advice from your grandmother(*).

We all have our fair share of problems, Islam included, but we’d be better at deciding on best actions if we knew good information when we needed it.


[Post Note : (*) And here Taleb expresses the same view:

Onward and upward.]