Cosmic Clickbait

Just watched and listened to a whole 2 hours plus interview of Avi Loeb by Michael Schermer, about a book I’ve not read: “Extraterrestrial

As a dialogue it’s not good, particularly in the 20 to 40 minute period, where Loeb is frustrated at Schermer’s line and talks over his new questions. Sabine Hossenfelder drew it to Twitter’s attention. In fact the latter hour is much better dialogue – did you watch the whole Sabine?

I happen to agree with Loeb on the strength of this interview alone, that it does not require extraordinary evidence to demand (funding for) more evidence. Pure hi-res photographic observation, that would provide evidence for any number of phenomena and/or theories, by simply observing interstellar debris passing locally to our solar system.

The problem being discussed (by Schermer) is two-fold:

      • One – the Galilean psychological point that observation fits existing world-views in mind. Absolutely. In fact it is part of Loeb’s position that extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) is taboo – ridiculed – as a potential explanation. A prejudice of humans to fit patterns to incomplete evidence – human faces and bodies in fuzzy images, etc. A given by all parties here. Also – anthropic perspectives, another taboo – the Tim Minchin song / the Anthony Hopkins story – on statistical outcomes, survivor prejudice, etc. Schermer is too naïve in citing this stuff as if sophisticated intellects don’t already get this – quite insulting to Loeb (and me).
      • Two – the real problem – the memetics of popular science book and media publishing. The book has a click-bait subtitle suggesting “evidence for” the existence of ETI, and Schermer accuses Loeb of too strongly implying that in the book – cue the media frenzy for or against such possibilities driving book sales. Loeb backs off on this, naturally, sticking to his main claim. That observation is worth funding – especially simple discriminatory hi-res visual observation, built on zero doubtful theory. If we look, we will see what we find. That doesn’t require extraordinary evidence, even if drawing potential conclusions from the eventual imperfect evidence might. The claim is a demand for more evidence.

The real issue with the second bullet is the taboo created by the first bullet that degenerately skews the search for and the interest in new science.

And, lots more whataboutery from Schermer … about convergent evolution and long-run explanations of god-like intelligence and multiverses. Too smug and self-promoting for me. Exactly as with the anthropic / teleological inevitability / pan-psychist taboos. This is my main agenda – science leading itself (and the rest of the science-led world) astray by an orthodox scientism.

I’m with Loeb. I’d fund visual observation illuminated by our solar system on a par with whacky theoretical-based endeavours like dark matter and dark energy searches. The theory of visual observation is pretty sound, without extraordinary evidence. (And I would share Loeb’s impatience with Schermer’s attempt at misdirecting the interview agenda early on.)

Sounds like intelligent readers are on-side. Here is the review from The New Statesman:

“The book is not so much a claim for one object as an argument for a more open-minded approach to science – a combination of humility and wonder”

It’s almost as if Schermer is deliberately interpreting “interstellar visitor” to necessarily be, or be a product of, an extraterrestrial intelligent being. Whereas, Loeb’s point is wouldn’t it be cool if it was, and anyway it would be really easy to observe future “visitors”, so we should. Anyone open-minded would agree.

(Sounds like an interesting autobiographical memoir included in the book, Spinozan theology and more. Might be worth a read for meta-reasons.)


[Post Note: The object Oumuamua is the subject of the original extraterrestrial speculation.]

[And click-bait closer to home:

And from the generally considered slow-news channel Tortoise.]

Wittgenstein’s Bath Mat

Mopping up a few notes from my reading of Cheryl Misak’s biography of Frank Ramsey … and came across one gem that should rival Wittgenstein’s Poker.

She gives us Wittgenstein’s Bath Mat.

Others, including Anthony Gottlieb’s review in the New Yorker, also highlight this little story:

“Lettice [Frank’s widow] and Wittgenstein stayed on friendly terms after Ramsey died, until one day she threw out his old bathmat and, outraged, he cut her off. As she remarked, he made ‘a moral issue out of absolutely everything.'”

(Actually, a bloody good review that, from Gottlieb,
as you’d expect. Worth reading in its own right

Only Love is Unforgotten

Must be getting sentimental in my old age, but I’ve just watched Seasons 1 & 2 of “Unforgotten” (6 Ep’s each) over two long evenings this weekend on Netflix. Not sure how we missed them when first broadcast back in 2015, but I guess we don’t watch that much ITV. (See post note re Seasons 3 & 4)

Lots of reasons it’s a genre we like in TV crime dramas, probably going back to the Nordic Noirs  (The Killing we watched in the original Norwegian in Norway) and peaking in the likes of Line of Duty (and culminating most recently in the Icelandic Valhalla Murders) but Unforgotten is pretty special. Pretty obviously convoluted multi-threaded whodunnit’s at root, as old as Agatha Christie – more gruesome crimes, victims, suspects, motives and opportunities than you can shake a stick at. Yet, full of love.

Unforgotten has some obvious attractions for me and as a UK drama generally. Lots of 70’s and 80’s London cultural locations today and, thanks to the passage of time since the original crimes, lots of picture postcard drone shots of wider UK locations – Southend, Cambridge, Brighton, Salisbury, etc so far. They had me at the pub venues.

Seasons 1 and 2 had deep social issues (racism and homophobia in S1 and child-abuse in S2) behind the historical crimes. (I was at the anti-nazi-league rallies in London in the mid to late 70’s – got me again – the daily IRA threat in London, Vine Street and the “Old Main Drag” experienced only through the Shane MacGowan lyric – there but for the grace.)

And through all of that, the really striking aspect of Unforgotten is the people. The stories, the scripts, the actors – the A-list casts – and their acting. Police caring for each other in the office day job really stands out; caring for the victims and the criminals as victims; the victims and criminals as family members. Everyone is someone’s son, daughter, father, mother, partner, brother, sister. No-one is exempt from dealing with a problem from a difficult past.

The forensic aspects of decades old cold-cases are an obvious – but light-touch – element. The thing that cements Unforgotten into a coherent whole is the humanity, the care, the love. Need to make space for seasons 3 and 4.


Post Note:

Season 3 (6 Eps) – not quite as good, slight wobble in the believability of the police incompetence story line as Cassie makes a blunder that leads to a death (and doesn’t get suspended)? And her “overworked & married to the job” personal life gets a bit cliched? Though even her blunder fits the “positive” non-cynical overall vibe – a genuine mistake, not punished. But, generally still very good in terms of cast, script, acting and the atmosphere of love – despite the twist of real evil in this one – to the very end. (The high drone shots around the victim’s grave becoming a bit of a signature meme.)

(Season 4 (6 Eps) – will watch in 2 blocks of 3 once broadcast. No spoilers please.)

Misak on Ramsey – the Best Consequences of a Life Lived

Having finished “Frank Ramsey – A Sheer Excess of Powers” by Cheryl Misak (2020) this is a round-up review. I have a particular interest in the topic, in my Ramseyian take on Wittgenstein, which made it an especially satisfying read for me, but as a read I cannot rate it highly enough.

The evocation of the times and the players living in the 1920’s Cambridge-Bloomsbury-Vienna triangle is a joy throughout. Apart from the chapters on his childhood and earlier schooldays prior to Winchester, and the final chapter on the expressions of grief and the consequences of his sudden and early death, the book is packed with discussion of Ramsey’s ideas in mathematics, economics and philosophy and their interplay with the other intellectual giants of his all too short days.

I’ve already blogged several posts in the course of reading, and already indicated that, even as a biography, it really serves as a reference work / textbook to be read and referenced many more times. Previously:

Ramseyian Pragmatism”.
A Vienna Interlude“.
The Hypocrisy of Debate“.
Ramsey, Wittgenstein, Gödel and the rest”.

I don’t intend to add a lot more here …

Ramsey’s worldview serves as an excellent obituary from my perspective. Misak provides her own obituary for Ramsey, concluding the final chapter of the biography with a selection of his own words, but on the preceding page we find her own summary:

“His own approach [to the meaning of life] was in line with the rest of his philosophy. We can evaluate the best of the various outlooks on life and see which have the best consequences. In his assessment, the key to meaning in life is to be optimistic, thrilled, and actively try to improve conditions for people now and in the future. Live as fully and ethically as you can, was his conclusion. Ramsey understood that [for most people] inequalities get in the way of being thrilled by life. He put much effort into making the world a fairer place.”

I’m still left with wondering what represents the best collected Ramsey works for the 21st C. Clearly Braithwaite did the most in 1930 & 31 but as Misak points out he frequently made his own interpretations that missed Ramsey’s true trajectory in a world distracted by Wittgenstein and The Vienna Circle. Mellor published more in the 1978 & 1990. Equally clearly Misak has done the most to elucidate Ramsey’s legacy since her 2016 “Cambridge Pragmatism – from Peirce & James to Ramsey & Wittgenstein“. As a careful academic work Misak (2020) has an excellent bibliography, but I wonder if there is a Ramsey Reader in the pipeline?

Such an excellent read I’m left wanting more.


Next up – another fix of 1920’s/30’s philosophical intrigue:

David Edmonds (2020)
“The Murder of Professor Schlick
– The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle”


Ramseyian Pragmatism

Nearing the end of my reading of Cheryl Misak’s biography of Frank Ramsey in the chapter Wittgenstein Comes Home [and below, the penultimate chapter on the necessary layering of philosophy].

Previously so far:
“Ramseyian Pragmatism” (this post).
A Vienna Interlude“.
The Hypocrisy of Debate“.
Ramsey, Wittgenstein, Gödel and the rest.”
Final round-up:
The Best Consequences of a Life Lived

The current chapter, after Ramsey’s contributions to Economics and Mathematics, concerns the last year of his interactions between Wittgenstein’s return to Cambridge in January 1929 to Ramsey’s death in January 1930, and Wittgenstein’s subsequent reflections.

A grumpy and defensive Witt clearly respected Ramsey’s brain above any other at the time (and obviously later gave him top billing in the credits to his own work) but still found Ramsey’s critiques “tiresome”. This was partly because whilst Ramsey focussed on the theses in front of him rather than revering, let alone seeking, any fundamental, sacred or transcendent metaphysical angles, his brain nevertheless got there faster than Witt could keep up with. Getting there being recognising that the Tractatus needed “upending” rather than simply “fixing” on Witt’s subsequent journey to the Philosophical Investigations – the “later Wittgenstein” as we know him.

The paradigm shift like so many Schumpeterian waves, or evolution of any new species, starts as a heretical mutation and becomes a common sense reality with hindsight. A hindsight Ramsey never lived to see. And yet Witt reflects:

“That short period of time, as Schopenhauer calls it, between two long ones when some truth appears at first paradoxical and then trivial to people, had shrunk to a point for Ramsey.”

So much more in the preceding chapter(s) about what became known as the Linguistic Turn, the pragmatics of language in use in the informal games of otherwise formal language. In Misak’s summary:

“They would both come to the conclusion of there being no foundations for knowledge independent of humans.

Ramsey was cheerful about that,

and Wittgenstein anguished.”

Finally for now – consider co-evolution – like all evolutionary processes causation and influence are two-way or circular – “their views evolved together”.

Despite massive evidence to the contrary, I still hold the view that there was some mischievous fun in Wittgenstein “playing” the difficult absolutist on his way to “coming-out” as the human-linguistic pragmatist. There can be no doubt that my impressions of Wittgenstein are thoroughly Ramseyfied with hindsight (a co-evolved species called “Ramstein” anyone?).

And, that debates about exactly who meant what, when, are of merely academic interest in relation to the human-scale pragmatism. The academic value is that we learn – from Ramsey, Wittgenstein and Misak – that knowledge is a human-scale evolutionary process. (Those parts described by a closed system of logic and axioms being empty tautologies.)


A few additional thoughts from the penultimate chapter, where Misak is piecing together what Ramsey’s version of pragmatism might actually have been.

Positive of Peirce yet surprisingly dismissive of James based on a somewhat “believe whatever works for us” version of  his thinking, largely because that caricature leaves reality open to the supernatural, god and the like.

Yet, very much recognising the naturalistic fallacy. That, even when we have constructed a natural picture of reality, we still need to consider what is actually good, that what is natural isn’t necessarily good. Even a natural is, is not the same as the human ought. We may associate this old idea with a 1739 Hume, but that’s yet another footnote to Plato:

“And what is good, Phaedrus?”

Misak speculates that Ramsey’s posthumously (ie selectively by others) published position suggested the reason he didn’t complete the project in the 6 years between his 1923 critique of the Tractatus and his death in 1930 was essentially one of complexity. Once you’ve dispensed with a one-dimensional reductionist view of causation we undoubtedly have a multi-layered world of emergent or supervenient entities involved in two-way or circular processes of causation between the layers. Many have since developed such models.

A process view I’d call it, but not a single reference to Whitehead in the whole biography other than as Russell’s earlier co-author in their Principia. The older man with his dissonant contemporary – metaphysical – ideas had obviously been banished from these intellectual circles by the logical positivist fashion (and his emigration to the US)?

“One obstacle, perhaps surmountable, is that it would be impossibly complicated. For instance, if the primary language [of formal logic] is concerned with a series of experiences, it needs ‘time order’ and a structure for things like colour and smells [the secondary language of subjective experience]. But the really insurmountable obstacle is that ‘if we proceed by explicit definition we cannot add to our theory without changing the definitions, and so the meaning of the whole’. That would be a disaster for we need to be able to explain how [an apparently physical] concept such as mass both evolves and retains its meaning.”

Of course, that’s only a disaster if you’re a logical positivist. To the rest of us it’s evolving reality.

“all ‘useful theories [must have] more degrees of freedom’ than the primary system – ‘the dictionary alone does not suffice’. Neither does the dictionary plus the axioms, unless we are happy confining ourselves to a finite, primary system much less rich than the theory itself.”

Very exciting that Ramsey had come to the conclusions some of us have learned more recently with Dennett, Pirsig, Smolin, Rovelli, Tononi et al.

(If I’m reading Misak right, all those quotes within quotes are from Ramsey’s original 1923 critique – not from his nachlass? I’m going to need a good published version of Ramsey’s actual work and nachlass – distinct from editorial selection and critique. Wonder which that is in 2021?)


[Post Note – Final Round-up of Misak on Ramsey here.]

[PS – as well as the question above, also spotted maybe three typos in the 500 word first-edition tome – which isn’t bad. The only one I kept ready access to was this one: First sentence, last para, p399

“That’s not to say that Ramsey there was any value to be found in these realist philosophers.”

A verb of some sort missing between “Ramsey” and “there”.
Presumably a “didn’t believe” or similar, after editing maybe a triple-negative form from the original sentence?

Important sentence because I’ve now started reading Edmonds on Schlick and he seems (?) in his introductory chapter, to still hold the logical positivists in higher regard than the later pragmatists. I find, like Misak, that Ramsey clearly found:

“Such realist (as opposed to realistic)
philosophies … not to his liking”

It’s why I’m here.]

We Are As Gods

My first reference to the long-now idea – without referring to The Long Now by name – was this 2005 post about a technical / engineering exercise to create a sign the would physically and meaningfully survive 10,000 years. A sign sited to warn future humans not to accidentally disturb a long-life nuclear waste dump. Amazingly – contra link-rot – that exercise itself has survived 15 years on the web.

I remember much more recently being a little embarrassed at not recognising that Stewart Brand of 1968 Whole Earth Catalogue fame was one of the prime movers associated with The Long Now Foundation. At the time of the link above and most subsequent links in the blog it was Brian Eno’s name associated with it. Hat tip to @Longnow Foundation for this notification on my timeline:

We are as gods, so we might as well get good at it.

A Vienna Interlude

“Vienna Interlude” is a chapter title from Cheryl Misak’s biography of Frank Ramsey, which I’m reading slowly between diversions domestic and professional. Still a little less than half-way through the whole, it’s a wonderful sketch of Cambridge, Bloomsbury (and Vienna) circles of the 1920’s. As with the words of Rebecca Goldstein, Margaret Wertheim and Alice Dreger before, I am absolutely smitten with Misak’s voice around the history and humanity of thought. Without analysing what that might be … understated, sympathetic and intellectually knowing (obviously) … it just rings good and true.

Tucked up on a cold, wet and windy afternoon with the log fire for company, I simply paused to capture this longish quote regarding The Vienna Circle being enamoured with Wittgenstein and their initial understanding of his Tractatus:

“They consigned to the dustbin of meaninglessness all unverifiable, non-observable propositions. Metaphysics, ethics, religion and aesthetics were all either to be revised so as to be stated in scientific language, or else to be abandoned as nonsense.”

Seems my existing caricature of their scientism is thoroughly confirmed. Later she continues:

“That there was some tension between Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle is [] understandable. They shared a project – what Ramsey called in his Critical Notice the ‘non-mystical deductions’ in the Tractatus or ‘new theories of propositions and their relations to facts’. That was a source of mutual attraction. But Wittgenstein thought that indicating or gesturing at all the things that are, as Ramsey put it, ‘intrinsically impossible to discuss’ was his most important contribution. The members of the Circle tended to sweep under the rug Wittgenstein’s bookend remarks [] about the importance of [the] ineffable []. Like Russell, they didn’t know what to make of them.

Wittgenstein was unimpressed with the Circle’s disregard of what he took to be the main contention of his book. Nonetheless, Wittgenstein would meet with members of the Circle, on and off from 1927, until 1936 when Schlick, with whom he was especially friendly, was killed by a mentally unstable ex-student.”

[My emphases]

That “Schlickicide” is the topic of David Edmunds book I have lined-up to read next. A little earlier in this same chapter, Misak muses on Ramsey’s harbouring the entirely mental exercise of “Wittgensteinicide”.

Loving the fact that the core philosophical points shine through the dark-historical period-piece. Cabaret (Goodbye to Berlin) or The Sound of (Viennese) Music with added fashionable Freudian psychoanalysis? A little earlier Misak – in the understated  laconic Gibbonesque style I suggested – is introducing Irishman Adrian Bishop, “known for his infectious humour, literary puns and louche lifestyle [] from an aristocratic background, openly and promiscuously homosexual.” with the footnote:

“He would go on to be a spy in the Middle East and either fell or was pushed to his death from one of Tehran’s most expensive hotels.”

Would that all philosophical texts were such a marvellous read. I said in my initial review, it is also superb “academic research” in its comprehensive yet non-intrusive referencing and, for my own project, I really should be making more technical notes, but it is just such a good read. One to savour.

Detailed notes will have to wait for a later read. Reading on.


[PS – I notice Misak has an earlier (2016) book that fits my interests too: “Cambridge Pragmatism: From Peirce and James to Ramsey and Wittgenstein”.]