Life, the Universe and Nothing New Under the Sun?

Although I’ve not being doing much original writing recently – very busy at work, home & garden, and learning some semantic-web programming(!) – I’m still following the panpsychism traffic via twitter and via hits on the blog. I still owe Tim Bollands a considered review – he’s in good company with my “close but no cigar” verdict. He’s really looking for understanding rather than agreement so he deserves at least that. (Update, review done.) However, some old blog links getting hits the last two days, that joined-up some dots in my evolving evolutionary information thesis. Spooky, as I used to say.

A piece that intrigued me way back in 2002 – like the “e to the i pi =-1” (Euler’s Identity) linking 3 irrational “numbers” – a thought that linked quanta, information and life. (Not to forget that same identity is very close to the integration of singularities in turbulent flow – Navier-Stokes – at all scales.) Anyway, Apoorva Patel’s first piece linked above was Quantum Algorithms and the Genetic Code. On a re-read today, as well as that initial “Wow!” at the linking of quantum mechanics, DNA and information processing, it is fascinating in its own right on evolution as an information processing algorithm. Something that has since become central to all of my thinking.

Despite all the consciousness “hard problem” and “zombie” distractions with David Chalmers work, or other people’s interactions with it, recalling in 2005 that his important book on the topic “The Conscious Mind – In Search of a Fundamental Theory” actually made a big impression on me in terms of the fundamental nature of information. A name-check to David Deutsch in the same piece. All roads lead to IIT, EES and Universal Constructionism (UC). I suspect Bolland’s Universal Life (UL) may in fact be close to UC, despite quite different philosophical gestation, since ultimately his definition of life is about living things “making themselves” (not just reproduction and sustenance but assembling from increasingly “atomic” but equally living components. The distraction for me in all these things is choosing baggage-laden words like living and conscious, to describe the “lower” levels).

David Lavery’s (2004) “Evil Genius” time-travel narrative idea to explore different philosophical metaphysical views of consciousness, especially the Cartesian turn where it went off the rails into scientism and objective dualism. A story which strangely links to this other book idea of my own which started here as “Ishmael’s Daughter”. (I have quite well-developed off-line versions of this project as a bio-travel chautauqua in the manner of a Pirsigian but watery US “buddy-movie / road trip” – Lila meets Zen and the Art?Oh, wait, Pirsig already did that.)

Life the Universe and Consciousness #2

I previously devoted a whole post and made several other references to a new book by A T Bollands “Life the Universe and Consciousness.

Although addressing many of the same issues, problems with physical science, which are driving other current philosophers in the direction of panpsychism, Bollands is a “Universal Lifer”. In his book we find out for the first time what that means.

As a self-published project Bollands has made good use of Twitter to market his thinking into many of the discussions clustered around Goff and Kastrup. As well as the on-line extracts we have been treated to his Twelve Intractable Problems as a thread of tweets. (The topic of my previous post.)

I’d not completed my read yet, so as usual the start of this “review” post honestly lays bare my own prejudices and pet-hates on initial acquaintance. My main reason for reading, as ever, is to find convergence with my own cybernetics agenda, how systems regulate their own existence in their environment, and my own pan-proto-psychist thinking towards that. That self-regulation is very close to definitions of life, and the response to the environment is very close to definitions of consciousness, from good-old thermostats upwards. So the fit is clear.

As well as the Twelve Intractable Problems which take up half the page count and a chapter each, the short introductory chapter is a selective potted history of world-views from Aristotle to Copenhagen and Kuhn. His point is to set out a blueprint for how problems with existing knowledge get resolved and solved. This he bases on the enhancement of the Copernican revolution by the likes of Descartes, Kepler and Newton questioning and fixing the beliefs on which earlier models were based. Seems straightforward enough, so we await how these are applied to each of the 12 problems and his eventual Universal Life conclusions.

The Douglas Adams allusion which originally caught my attention in the title is continued in chapter epigraphs so far, Dirk Gently as well as H2G2. I also like his “bag of beans” allegorical tale as individual beans become aware of their fellow beans and their bag.

There are inevitably pet-hates too. More of the Galileo mythology. And despite references to Chalmers, Smolin and (later) Dennett, they are limited so far as I can see to their earlier works. Chalmers (Hard Problem, 1995 and 2002), Smolin (Trouble with Physics, 2006) and Dennett (Consciousness Explained, 1991). The latter two in particular have been part of my own co-evolving thinking right up to the last couple of years, along with Rovelli, Verlinde and the IIT crew.

To be continued …

The Quality of Being

It seems Goff and Kastrup have fallen out. With a great swell of interest in pan-psychism and idealism stoked by these two in the last couple of years it was no surprise they came together to compare notes recently.

They’re not new to each other. Goff was actually an academic referee to Katsrup’s PhD I believe. I’ve had them both in the “close but no cigar” camp for a while. Much common ground with each other and with my own position in terms of the issues they are resolving in “science-informed” orthodoxy of current philosophical views of the world, both ontological and epistemological. Each making their own needlessly but importantly different choices in framing their metaphysics. Pity. But from my perspective much scope for narrowing those differences to the insignificant. Close but no cigar, as I say.

I’ve not really diagnosed their falling out, other than noting the Twitter traffic arising.

My own position I’d call “pan-proto-psychist” in these terms, but I’d call the metaphysical proto-stuff “information”. Significant difference between things, the stuff that gives things identity, is information (in the von Neumann sense), knowledge in the participatory awareness sense of one adjacent thing with the other. Very much Whitehead’s creative process reality, as I discovered in the last year or so.

What I didn’t expect to find was people making reference to Galen Strawson as a positive source of views on pan-psychism. I had him in the analytic, logical-positivist camp, wrongly it seems.

Reading Strawson’s “Mind and Being—the Primacy of Panpsychism” I further didn’t expect to find him translating “Sein und Sosein” as “being and quality“. I’ve a lot more reading to do, but this sparked another great synthesis for me.

The radical empiricism of Wm James was dubbed “Quality” by Pirsig – the pre-conceptual (in-the-moment) sensing of one thing by another. It’s this inter-objective sensing that gives rise to possible thoughts of psychism. Adjacent things being “aware” of each other even if neither is “conscious” in the orthodox everyday sense. It’s that process, an event of one detecting a coming together – a nexus – with the other that is the most fundamental “atom” of anything else physical or psychical. Hence pan-proto-psychism for me. Pirsig built his whole Metaphysics of Quality on this. I’ve simply arrived at the same view calling this property of the Whiteheadian nexus “information”.

[Hold: Need to come back and link references. Needed to capture the thought for now. Adding detail below:]


After that reading …

Mind and Being – The Primacy of Panpsychism ( Strawson 2016)

[First 19 pages – need to extract notes – admits to significant recent change of position from Strawson since (say) 2003 – explains my confusion.

Very like Whitehead approach to “doing metaphysics” – setting-up a few axioms then arguing why these provide “best” explanatory solution to known situation and known issues.

Being is as being does – and all science is about observation of what things do (external), never about any intrinsic (internal) nature – a la Goff – so readily denied by scientists.

A very important new read.]

You don’t have to call it ‘materialism’ (‘physicalism’) if you don’t want to.
(He does, because as he says, even “physics” is just an abstract set of rules – structural relationships – with no such thing as intrinsic physical nature behind it. I don’t because “physics” comes with all that baggage of misplaced concreteness. As he says several times, these are just terminological differences – what we choose to call things. Closely related to the  things I say about the reality of memes relative to the (much more intangible) reality of (say) genes and species readily accepted by most.)

[22] In the case of experience, the having is the knowing.
(James / Pirsig “radical empiricism”. Foucault “savoir”. Knowing in the “biblical” sense. Directly acquainted … he says … any non-experiential concrete reality is, by contrast, wholly ungrounded … radically and irredeemably verification-transcendent belief. A “posit” (* See figure here). We know the experiential is real and we also  know—about as well as we know anything in science—that it’s literally located in the brain)

[23] human experience is neural activity.
This is by now far beyond reasonable doubt.
(Mostly neural. Mostly brain. Neural/brain plus other endocrine / biochemical interactions with the physical.)

(a given that… ) pure panpsychism is the most parsimonious hypothesis about the nature of concrete reality?

We think in terms of things comprising stuff in spatio-temporal pictures, even though our physical models tell us everything (even our brain) is 99.999% vacuum (plenum).

From one intuitively natural perspective matter is quite astoundingly insubstantial, an intricately shimmering almost-nothing … When we go on to consider a brain we find many further layers of staggeringly
intricate organization—in an almost entirely empty space. Such is matter. Such is the material brain. It helps to maintain this picture when we’re wondering how experience can be physical. It helps to resist the picture of a mammalian brain as … a piece of meat that can be diced and fried with garlic; although it’s also that. Terry Bisson’s thinking meat anyone?

Those who (like [Strawson’s] former self) can’t shake their commitment to the idea that we know what space (spacetime & matter) is in some truly fundamental respect may simply be unable to engage fully with the ‘mind-body problem’
(Hallelujah! There’s an element of letting go existing certainties – allowing a crack, a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in. The anthemic theme.)

17 No Mystery – Many say that experience (consciousness) is a mystery (it sells a lot of books) . But what is mysterious? We know what experience is. We know exactly what certain types of experiences are simply in having them.

That – [E] a plurality of subjects can’t possibly combine to form or generate a single subject – is merely conjecture.
I can’t feel any deep difficulty in the subject combination problem
(Me neither. This is about a proper appreciation of evolutionary emergence of species – it’s not magic. Many experiencing subjects combining to form an experiencing whole. Why is this any more of a problem than a zillion quarks combining to form a box of meat, or 100,000 rivets – or starlings – flying in close formation? Simply show me how.)

I also believe (with William James et al) that there’s a metaphysically primordial way of thinking about what a subject of experience is given which there is, in the case of any particular episode of experiencing, no
real distinction between the subject of experience or experiencer and the experience or experiencing. (Yay!) This may contribute to my failure to feel worried by the combination problem. I don’t, however, think that this particular belief is indispensable to the lack of worry—except insofar as it’s linked to the Sein ist Sosein (Being is Quality) claim.
(You and me both.)

A Keith Turausky reference on this page too!
40 I’m mindful, also, of Turausky’s suggestion that particular experiences may be formed by subtraction—reduction—sculpting—of a base of experiential ‘white noise’ (cf. Turausky unpublished).
(It’s Free Wont, rather than Free Will. Consciousness – creativity – is about structuring not construction. Turausky, previously on Psybertron.)

P30 (Final page, before references)
[30] We should favour panpsychism(*) over all other substantive theories of the fundamental nature of reality.
(* ie everything is experiential – that the intrinsic (non-structural) nature of the energy that is widely agreed to wholly constitute physical reality is experientiality. Works for me using “experiential” rather than “conscious” – which is why I prefer pan-proto-psychism to panspychism. The crude suggestion of everything being conscious confuses many otherwise intelligent thinkers.)

The Twisted Campaign for Gender Self-Identity

I’ve been documenting my own takes on the Self-ID Trans-activism story for 6 or 7 years now – last summarised here with many footnotes added.

Like prof Alice Dreger, doctor Sarah Rutherford has been a professionally engaged researcher for much longer. She’s done the research and recently published a historical deep dive into how the current (2020) reform to the (2004) Gender Recognition Act got to be the mess it is.

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.


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 (*2). 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” (*3) – 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.



(*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 (obviously).
(TLP – W’s Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus)
(PI – W’s Philosophical Investigations)

(*2) – “Intersectionality” is a buzzword for understanding these multiple overlapping sets of identities. Like “EvoPsych” or “Queer Studies” using the word “Intersectionality” for the general idea is not to be confused with a school of socio-political academe whose baggage has hijacked the same name. (See words and “private language”.)

(*3) 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?


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”.


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.