Are We Nearly There Yet? #htlgi18 #htlgi2018

So many intellectual inputs and opportunities for dialogue of which barely a tenth can be grasped over a weekend at Hay on Wye, at the How the Light Gets In HTLGI 2018 Festival. [Meta – specific sessions and update on the weekend experience here.] Below is my summary of the messages I heard in the content of a dozen or more sessions out of hundreds on offer:

Setting the theme on Darkness, Authority and Dreams, Hilary Lawson highlights our fears that no matter how recently we were feeling that we’re almost there with the modernist scientific enlightenment project, the more we seem to inhabit a new dark-ages of post-truth conspiracy. We are all Post-Post-Modernists now with a lot more work to do and the hope we can do more than merely dream of doing it. I know I call myself PoPoMo.

[Having seen more of Hilary Lawson this time than any previous HTLGI attendance, it’s fair to say I feel I understand more now than when I first came across his concept of “Closure” in 2003 and read it in 2009.]

The actual theme on the ground in 2018 was very much moral epistemology: what do we mean in practice about what we say we want? And this ranged from the wishful objectivity of algorithmic information in our tech-mediated lives, to the counter-intuitive seeming-subjectivity of the fundamental sciences. All human life is here, fortunately.

Before that, however much we look at the imperfections of love and hate and the meaning of life, we see that these are timeless pre-Socratic questions. And we sense that we may be no closer to arriving at answers because the very idea of full and final objective answers is a misguided quest. We can never even be nearly there. Even time it seems is timeless.

These first two questions – are love and hate forever entangled in good and bad? and does the meaning of life have any meaning? – set the scene on the Friday evening with Renata Saleci, Rowan Williams, Robert Rowland-Smith, Michael Crick, Steve Taylor, Julian Baggini, Helen Lederer and Joanna Kavenna. Frankly, on meaning as the human driver, and on the balance of immediate and long-run goals, I came away with Abraham Maslow. Your experience will vary, but there is an evolutionary hierarchy starting from yourself and your loved ones surviving to live, culminating in your striving towards our best contribution to wider humanity and the cosmos.

[Aside – I intended to follow-up with Steve Taylor and, on another topic, with Julian Baggini, but our paths merely crossed. Baggini’s own post-festival notes.]

[Aside – Also, since then Baggini has published his “Meaning of Life Redux“:

“I took part in [the] debate about the meaning of life …
the thought that bugged me most was: Not again!”

And yet again I respond with my yes, it’s all already been done by Maslow (*). The Meaning of Life Redux Redux I say. There really is no further need to look anywhere else for an answer to this question. (*) and yes Maslow comes with caveats about spurious prescriptive objectivity – like all rules, it’s for guidance of the wise.]

So, beyond ubiquitous questions of the True and the Good, several other topics converged on two main threads.

One is, whether we’re talking of culture in terms of creative and aesthetic arts or we’re talking of knowledge about facts-of-the-matter in public life and institutions, one real focus was clearly the democratising and algorithmic processing of information, the benefits and threats to humanity of power and interests.

The other, conversely, even when talking actual physical science, fundamental objectivity turns out to be a misguided function of aesthetics and human limits to knowledge at the level of fundamental information in both time and space.

I shall take the second first. It’s important to notice, that this is not simply imperfections in current models of contingent scientific knowledge that will be forever refined by the ongoing scientific process. The “tweaks” – like Dark Matter and Dark Energy – seem to be getting larger, not smaller. There are informational limits to what can ever be knowable such that current best models may themselves be fundamentally wrong rather than simply imperfect.

Two theoretical physicists with concerns for epistemological boundaries of their art are Sabine Hossenfelder and Erik Verlinde. Both might agree that science has been “fucked-up” by humans. Hossenfelder’s take on the problem is that we are Lost in Math in our misguided search for aesthetic beauty and elegance. She may have a point, but I don’t buy what it is yet, so we may need to read the whole book when it comes out. Verlinde on the other hand, as well as his own presentation and individual sessions, became the effective focus of two other group discussions, where the enormous significance of his proposed new theory of gravity is beginning to emerge.

In one session on gravity, theoretical physicists Verlinde and Hossenfelder were in discussion with practical physicists Catherine Heymans (telescopes at the cosmic scale) and Jonas Rademacker (accelerators and detectors at the micro scale). The current interest in gravity is due to serious doubts driven by the scale of unknowns implicit in having had to postulate Dark Matter and Dark Energy. In another Verlinde was joined by Huw Price, Alison Fernandes and James Ladyman on the reality of time.

Neither gravity nor time exist as fundamental components of the cosmos. Both, like all other forces, particles and even laws are emergent. They are emergent as patterns of information, information that exists fundamentally at (something like) the Planck-scale level.

The dynamics in the Verlinde / Hossenfelder / Heymans interaction were fascinating and I wasn’t the only one to notice:

[That’s my face in profile on the extreme right hand edge of the pic, incidentally.]

You’d think that experimental physicists have little to fear from the theorists? Except of course that enormous investments in their very large kit may have been justified to look for the wrong things. They need to hope that null and surprise results from already justified experiments still add to our new models and body of knowledge. The theories of theoretical physicists are of course competing very directly for our (hearts and) minds.

Heymans and Verlinde have collaborated on at least one paper looking at hypotheses that might be amenable to experimentation. Hossenfelder has written at least once critiquing Verlinde’s work. One comment of hers from the stage about mathematical rigour was almost certainly intended as an attempt at humour but came across as a unnecessarily barbed for a public discussion. Cough, shuffle.

Contrary to Hossenfelder’s point I get the feeling that focussing on mathematical rigour at the expense of meaningful human metaphor risks garbage in, garbage out?

All acknowledged however that far from a necessarily self-correcting virtuous cycle, between multiple theories and multiple experimentation strategies, that is presumed for science generally, there is in fact a much more vicious cycle of null findings and inconclusive critiques that mislead our knowledge when each is targetted specifically at the other. The creative and the serendipitous have their own value.

[Verlinde’s is not the only theory that suggests all else is emergent from a fundamental quantum information level. This is a position I have already bought. For more discussion of gravity, time and information, in a science AND humanities context, see here. PoPoMo Epistemology.]

A corollary of such theory – for science – is that:

Even the best model(s) of physical reality
can only ever be valid locally (spatially and temporally)
from a human sense-making – anthropic – perspective.

Other than these context-specific models and emergent relationships between their objects, there can never be a single unified explanatory and directly causal theory of everything.  Whether there is an absolute reality-out-there or not, and whatever that may be, we can never model all of the physical and ideas of a multiverse and/or universes beyond any horizon are meaningless. Alternatively, emergence from fundamental information may be the only fundamental model of reality.

Now, if even science is having to come to terms with the parochial nature of our best possible science, the post-modern humanities ought to have a field day, right? Well no actually. Remember we’re all post-post-modernists now. There is no slippery slope.

With little else besides information – available data – actually being fundamental, even objectivity is emergent from dialogue. We can’t choose our own facts, but we really do have to agree what counts as objective evidence for the facts we choose to use.

However fundamental information itself is, the other side of the coin is that all human life is now seen through an information technology lens. Whether that content purports to be scientific, cultural or political, it has been democratised and processed for our consumption and interactive experience. Notwithstanding the truth, good or otherwise of such content, there is enormous interest in both the benefits and the risks to humanity in the remote human interests and inhuman power inherent in the algorithms of big data and artificial intelligence.

Dare we dream lest they be nightmares?

Not surprisingly, given the scene-setting theme, a great many of the sessions fell under this umbrella, so just a selection of voices heard here.

On the objectivity or otherwise of truth in general, Matthew d’Ancona, Hannah Dawson, Hilary Lawson and Robert Rowland-Smith agreed that however objective we might agree certain facts to be, even historical ones, they could never be absolute or final. Dawson was new to me and I need to follow-up. Excellent, wise but entertaining session covering a lot of ground that no summary can really do justice: Objectivity has its limits and nowhere should we seek to make it absolute. Facts don’t change minds, but nevertheless we need “digital literacy” for popular understanding of  information dynamics. Meantime, journalist d’Ancona in particular, “having entered the philosophical debate via the tradesman’s entrance” was not giving-up on the pragmatic idea of weaponising objective truths to fight against nefarious conspiracies and alt-facts of powerful interests. Alan Alda’s Hawkeye character in MASH in the combat-zone of daily politics isn’t really concerned with the medical-research of metaphysics.

Timandra Harkness led a session on big data with the title Numbers vs Narrative with Anders Sandberg, Noortje Marres and James Ladyman. It stuck mainly to the general opportunities and risks of algorithmic delivery of content, but pretty much conflated all the big-data / AI topics, with lots of good examples from Marres and Sandberg. The latter is a noted optimistic futurist – and futurism is about making stuff happen rather than prediction. Marres and Ladyman both brought up “spurious objectivity” and the constraints on “displaced understanding” that needed to be designed into technology and the risks understood by human users. The algorithm vs judgement debate invariably needs to lead to balance – machine algorithms as tools to support human judgement.

Particularly polarising in another session was the unpleasant disagreement between the pessimism of Rupert Read and the optimism of Anders Sandberg and Kate Devlin, refereed by Mark Salter. There was an element of talking past each other, and whilst I might have plenty of disagreement with green politician and theologian Rupert Read myself, he does in fact have a point about the precautionary principle when applied to matters of degree that turn out to be category errors. As the title of this session suggested, Beyond Human can be either transhumanism or inhumanity depending not just on your perspective but on what in fact we’re proposing. Certain kinds of human augmentation by algorithmic AI – with loss of subjective autonomy – could indeed have catastrophic inhuman downsides and well-informed public agreement on taking risks is absolutely essential, even if futuristic individuals are prepared for risky experiments on our behalf.

A round-table dinner and discussion with Margaret Boden entitled Human Thought and Creativity was almost completely hijacked by a similar big data / AI risk-benefit debate. This ranged across several topics from personal care to meaningful employment and the value of artistic products in a post-automation economy. In that format most of the best contributions came anonymously from the audience. Boden herself raised the distinction between algorithmic AI’s designed for specific uses and more Artificial General Intelligence. I recommended that a model for a post-automation economy designed to avoid a professional elite existing uncomfortably alongside those displaced to “bullshit jobs”, even if not literally unemployed, was a primary part of Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism. Dashiel Shulman pointed out that already 100,000’s of US truck drivers were at risk of redundancy from automated driving technology. Others pointed out that even with personal care occupations, the key factor may be the human attention and caring, even if 95% of the mechanics is simply “heavy process”.

The Edge of Reality session with George Ellis, Nancy Cartwright and Hilary Lawson chaired by Phillip Ball continued the debate at the metaphysical level, warning that mathematical and logical abstractions are not “real” and don’t actually do anything in the real world. They’re about “tools” that work for humans. Continually striving to get an absolute grip on “the real” is a religious notion.

A discussion on Democracy and Culture with Warren Ellis, Kristen Sollee and John McWhorter chaired by Serena Kutchinsky was focussed very much on the democratisation of culture (and not to do with democracy as a form of governance). A very entertaining discussion on the many examples – good and bad effects – of fragmentation through social channels and new technology networks. Particular focus was the sense that algorithmic feeds were displacing human gatekeepers. Gatekeeper was too restrictive a term, but there was good agreement that the net effect on creative media was wholly positive and that business models could, should and probably therefore would naturally value human curators and influencers. Loved Ellis quote that “we’re a workaround culture” in terms of how humans will always find convenient uses for technology whatever it is originally designed for. Put me in mind of Popper / Deutsch – that all life is problem solving and humans are a “universal constructor” of new solutions. One specific creative suggestion from the audience was that if provider channels were using algorithms to prioritise attention and delivery, that there was clearly a market for a provider to open-up their algorithmic black-box and offer personalisation tools as a mixing-desk for individual algorithms. This adds a whole new dimension of possibilities for curation and influence of personalisation algorithms. It’s probably all there and just needs opening up.

Having been a participant in the earlier session on objectivity of The Truth, Hilary Lawson hosted a particularly fascinating discussion on the absolute and objective nature of The Good with Michael Ruse, Paul Boghossian and Naomi Goulder. A philosophy full-house and impressive all. Plenty of good-humoured disagreement – picking on examples from the front row – disguising deep agreement at many levels.  Highlight for me was Ruse referring to me as “young man”! I found myself thinking of McIntyre’s After Virtue. Apart from the inevitable convergence on the absence of any literally  absolute objective good, even if objectivity could be agreed by dialogue, there was a strong leaning towards some effectively absolute hierarchical aspects of the good – where matters of degree become Platonic kinds for practical purposes. Whether taking the Individual Character <> Individual Intent <> Actual Outcomes in Action view of where the good resides, Goulder, the philosopher-of-action provided a good summary of where the effective absolutes lay. They’re only objective and able to be treated as effectively absolute because we rely on reflection as opposed to dogma in our internal as well as external dialogue. The Intent may seem the dominant view, but only in the context of the Character, and only with honest evaluation of action and likely Outcomes. Evaluation relies on values we come to treat as absolute after reflective consideration and agreement. The kind we find in stories. The values we hold dear may not be absolute, but they are maintained above the fray by our widely shared agreements. If Goulder provided the summary, Ruse and Boghossian are past-masters in story-telling.

So, we may be nearly there after all.

Physical science or humanity itself,
the only absolutes are the raw data.

Concepts like The Truth, The Good and The Real can be made objective by human use, but seeking their ultimate absolute nature remains a fool’s errand, a religious quest. The information is fundamental. All those higher objects and values we treat as objective in the logic of our considerations are emergent. Emergent from dynamic patterns of interaction in information.

“… to sustain a culture in which intellectual enquiry is valued and supported, people on all sides of every debate have to stand together to defend the shared intellectual values that make it possible.”
Julian Baggini

#HTLGI2018 Update Meta

Compiling my Hay-on-Wye 2018 How The Light Gets In report, starting with the meta stuff below, content report is here.

Mid-day Friday to Mid-day Sunday this year. My third time. Last year being a fallow year for the event. Previous year weather was excellent, combined the event with some days walking in the Brecon Beacons & Black Mountains. Year before that was very wet and grim the whole weekend. This year has been wet, but never heavy, except for one heavy storm middle of the day after which it’s been glorious. Some electric storms in the hills Saturday evening, but no more rain locally. Sunday started damp and got gradually wetter, torrential at times, until I bailed out 2pm Sunday.

Decided to attend this year a while ago and bought a weekend ticket some weeks ago, but was actually in two minds right up to final cancellation dates for bookings. Quite a few people I wanted to see, new and old, though only a few specific new topics and contributors in the fields I’m most interested in. After a relatively poor start, maybe deliberate, two old chestnut philosophical questions, “Love & Hate” and “The Meaning of Life” proved as frustrating as you’d expect for the participants as well as myself, given the one hour format, but been pretty good since. More in the content report.

Biggest difference this year is the different use of the two site format, three sites if you include the original Hay Book Festival at the other end of town. HTLGI has had two sites in previous years, but most of the intellectual events have been on the Globe Theatre site and the alternative art and entertainments alongside the Riverside accommodation site the other side of the Wye. This year there are many more of the intellectual events mixed in with the alternative events (see problem in final footnote) on a new Riverside site this side of the Wye, but further down Newport Street, across the English border. Considerable shuttling back and forth between the two sites to optimise which sessions you get to see – especially with/without umbrella!

Anyway, I’ve participated in:

Love & Hate with Rowan Williams, Renata Saleci and Robert Rowland-Smith, chaired by Michael Crick.

Meaning of Life with Julian Baggini, Helen Lederer & Steve Taylor, chaired by Joanna Kavenna.

New Theory of Gravity by Erik Verlinde

(Friday evening I missed-out so far seeing Mark Lilla whose session clashed with the above, and missed out seeing George Ellis talking on the self. Mark Lilla I’d heard on BBCR4 earlier in the week together with Hanna Dawson and both sounded worth seeing.)

(Ordering of things in the printed programme meant I missed a couple of Saturday breakfast opportunities separately with Erik Verlinde and/or Steve Taylor, that I had mentally earmarked to attend. When I got back on track with Sabine Hossenfelder on Beauty and Human problems with current state of science at 10 am, the start was at least 15 minutes late and I hadn’t spotted it was a 2h:30m double session that would clash with other plans. So I missed that too.)

The Illusory Nature of Time with Erik Verlinde, Huw Price and Alison Fernandes chaired by James Ladyman.

Big Data – Numbers vs Narrative with Anders Sandberg, Noortje Marres and James Ladyman chaired by Timandra Harkness

Truth and Lies with Matthew d’Ancona, Hanna Dawson and Hilary Lawson chaired by Robert Rowland-Smith

Dark Universe with Erik Verlinde, Catherine Heymans and Sabine Hossenfelder chaired by Jonas Rademacker

Beyond Human with Anders Sandberg, Rupert Read and Kate Devlin chaired by Mark Salter

Edge of Reality with George Ellis, Nancy Cartwright and Hilary Lawson chaired by Phillip Ball

Human Thought and Creativity Salon & Dinner with Margaret Boden

The Good with Michael Ruse, Naomi Goulder and Paul Boghossian chaired by Hilary Lawson

Democratisation of Culture with Warren Ellis, Kristen Sollee and John McWhorter chaired by Serena Kutchinsky.

[That’s twelve sessions in total. Twelve out of hundreds that is. Missed many thinkers and talkers I’d hoped to see. Paused to see only a couple of entertaining bands: Roving Crows – amped-up Irish folk and Open Arms – good mix. Missed the Turbans and missed Orb late night Saturday. Didn’t catch any stand-up.]

[Noted some bad feeling with louder bands, co-located not just on the same site this year, but even the same and adjacent tents, not appreciating they could only be “background music” to intellectual discussion and debate – particularly some of the lunchtime sessions. Mixed use of the sites is going to require some more creative choreography of times and locations? And I say that as someone who loves a viscerally engaging LOUD gig.]

“Experience the thrill of the highest level of discourse available on the planet.”

I’m repeating myself a lot recently, about “proper dialogue” needed for progress and about the “fundamentals of information” at all levels, physical and emergent. For quite some time now, there seems to be a convergence on key themes that need to be addressed. Also ironically, whilst that suggests time to focus both on actually having proper dialogue and on creative writing rather than reading and reacting, I am at the same time torn between conflicting demands for several simultaneous project priorities; personal,  domestic, charitable and business as well as intellectual.

Aaagh. Everything suffers. Little is achieved.

However, repeating myself, and compounding the problem(!), I am reading the truly wonderful “Beginning of Infinity – Explanations that transform the world” by David Deutsch. It’s so good, I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t noticed and read it when it came out in 2011, because (a) I loved his “Fabric of Reality” back in 2005 and (b) his Universal Constructor take on humanity would have fitted in so well to my”knowledge dialogue”agenda all this time.

Thanks to the conflicting time pressures above, despite its almost unputdownable nature, I’m reading it in intense but disjointed bursts, without any organised note-making. I’m just now finishing “Optimism” (chapter 9) after posting my notes up to starting chapter 6 (of 18) last time I posted.

He’s still taking great care handling the double-edged anthropic perspectives: being misguided as principles, whilst nevertheless fundamentally significant.

Levels – step changes – in the reach of newly created explanatory theories, with emergent causation between objects at different levels. An infinity of levels stretching out ahead of the 4 or 5 we have already encountered. Wherever we are, we are always closer to the beginning than the end. Explanatory theories are always addressing current known problems, but their reach with only minor adaptation is a resource for solving future unknowable problems. There are indeterminately long gaps between the original (intended) solution and discovering the future (usually unintended) universal applicability to create new solutions in the domain. New future domains are created only when we create a good new explanatory theory that turns out to be universal.

The optimism referred to is the kind that predicts knowledge is the key resource to respond to future human crises – even asteroid collisions or nearby cosmic gamma-radiation bursts!

[There are still nevertheless explanatory gaps in why DNA-based life and human intelligence are somehow universal, but they are.]

“The Principle of Optimism
All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge.”

That’s explanatory knowledge, not predictive knowledge of future unknowables. Good knowledge has explanatory reach. We know why that happened and how to best react to it, not we can predict that it will happen.

“The unpredictability of the content of future knowledge is a necessary condition for the unlimited growth of that knowledge.”

“Problems are inevitable, and progress is solving them.”

Hence my paraphrase of Popper – “All Life is Problem Solving”. Popper is a recurring source for Deutsch, here and in his previous work.

[On Dennett he mentions only his 1991 Consciousness Explained work, dubbed Consciousness Denied. In fact Dennett’s denials are of the illusory appearances of qualia and consciousness. Accepted takes on what those are are misguided and should be relinquished if we are to create good explanatory theory – but that’s a longer aside, and much water under the bridge since then. The underlying digital information model is key to both, either way.]

[On AI he adopts AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) as the real thing in contrast to the weak algorithmic machine learning usage that has become general AI currency. Artificial Creativity – proper AI following properly evolved A-Life.]

“The idea that there could be beings that are to us as we are to animals is a belief in the supernatural.”

Compare that quote with my own earlier statement: “Our dignity – our value and meaning – is in being good at being human. That’s what we should value – even worship and have faith in – above all. If we ever do meet a being we genuinely consider more human than ourselves, only then would we have more faith in that.” More human or superhuman in a sci-fi culture-shock sense or in a theological sense.

All these are simply holding notes for a more thorough piece. For now I can only reinforce:

“Science has never had an advocate quite like David Deutsch. He is a computational physicist on a par with his touchstones Alan Turing and Richard Feynman, and also a philosopher in the line of his greatest hero, Karl Popper. His arguments are so clear that to read him is to experience the thrill of the highest level of discourse available on this planet and to understand it.”
Peter Forbes in the Independent (March 2011).

Thrilling stuff indeed.

This is the quote that caused me to pause and post:

“There can be no such thing as a disease for which it is impossible to discover a cure, other than certain types of brain damage – those that have dissipated the knowledge that constitutes the patient’s personality.”


[Post Note: The later chapter “A Dream of Socrates” is a wonderful creation. Important static/closed vs dynamic/open social distinction, and the (presumably Popperian?) concept that objective knowledge comes from within. Just missing “radical empiricism”? A denial of “justified belief” in its hard sense – justified by an absolute proof chain of reasoning and empiricism that is, not the looser idea of justified by reasonable explanation. Mind-blowing corollary that whether you get your knowledge direct from a god in a dream, or second-hand from some half-literate scribe reporting hearsay from some prophet of said god, or from a fully evidenced scientific paper, it doesn’t really matter. The Socratic problem of who really said what, is not a problem when it comes to true knowledge of reality. Much acknowledgement (and use) of rhetoric and humour as part of the process, despite denigration of the sophists’ nihilistic bad-faith. Communication is hard, and flawed (Einstein’s communication problem). Interpretation of directly experienced objects and explicit physical personal communication is fallible. Most to-and-fro dialogue, even where intentionally critical can only ever really be about clarifying and evolving mutually received interpretations. Proper dialogue! All human life is here. Dogma is the enemy.]

[Post Note: The invention of “Humanism” by the Medicis, snuffed-out by Savonarola. Many mini-enlightenment “near-misses” before the real thing. The pitfalls of democracy … and so much more. Did I mention, I’m loving this book?]

[Post Note: And whilst I’m here, I skipped ahead to the chapter recommendation that led me to read the book. Chapter 13 “The Evolution of Culture”

Interesting the point at issue was the counterintuitive idea that “creativity suppresses innovation”. Not seen that explicitly yet in my read, so will have to recap. Plenty of stuff I already identify with: All analogies are false (every picture paints a thousand words) – the truth is only ever in some particular aspect, and can be very misleading if not (previously) made specific. Same with memes and genes. Very positive about the reality of memetics and addressing the criticisms. Very clear about specific similarities and differences with memes and genes and where there are misunderstandings common to both and distinctly different. Makes a point about rational and irrational memes in static and dynamic societies that doesn’t seem quite right to me, but is getting at something I consider important – bad memes spread faster than true ones. Further recap needed.]

[Note to self: New explanatory theory = Alternative basis for classification within ontology.]

[Note to self: Problems and their solutions are infinitely inevitable = same as conceivability = physical possibility.]

Top Tips from the ProTruthPledge

A current focus of my ongoing agenda has been “proper dialogue”. That is that “critical argument” is extremely limited when dealing with anything other than simple black and white situations. Reducing complex situations to simple arguments is usually the greater evil and often a direct consequence of PC avoidance of even mentioning the real knottier aspects of some important issue.

I’ve written many times on rules of engagement, most recently consolidated under my general collaborative outreach pages. I often characterise all the human interaction aspects of such rules as love & respect – or simply R.E.S.P.E.C.T – for the other party and their position. Some simple tips for civil discourse is another way to elaborate on that idea – as presented here by “ProTruthPledge” – though even here  it can be reductive of the many subtleties of rhetoric in real human communication. Basically some of the rules always need to be broken – using irony and humour, in good faith – in order to highlight points and make progress. Tips are OK, provided we are wise and don’t treat them as dogmatic rules.

One simple way to signal this kind of
collaborative truth-seeking commitment
is the ProTruthPledge.

Ever since Terry introduced me to it, I’ve been a little more sceptical of the ProTruthPledge per se, even though I’m happily signed-up to it myself. It’s about being civil as Gleb Tsipursky’s project emphasises, but civil in good faith that is, not as a matter of box-ticking. That is, if it comes to mean anything authoritative, it will inevitably be gamed by hollow commitment of those who stand to gain from arguments.

[See Rules of Rhetorical Engagement.]


[Post Note:

Had the same thought about “win” in the ten top tips above. Only makes sense in the collaborative “win-win” progress sense

And a related issue with Tip 10. Helping “them” learn.
Same problem as “Street Epistemology”. Disingenuous aim whilst claiming mutual collaboration, to presume you already know more than “they” do. Always mutual learning. Even if they do turn out to have been essentially wrong on some key point, you will have learned why that point is misunderstandable, and how to modify what you believe you know in order to increase mutual understanding

Science is Only Human #2

I mentioned I’m reading David Deutsch “The Beginning of Infinity and as it happens I’m reading it in that way where I can’t decide whether to crash on through or to pause and annotate, and as a result am doing neither. If I were to make a note of every point where his words resonate with my own thoughts, it would be longer than the book – a book I could have written myself. Yet at the same time, even though there is a temptation to skim across stuff that seems familiar, it nevertheless feels significant that it is so familiar. Having felt that, I am instantly regretting not making notes of each specific.

He said something significant about X, now where was that exactly? Lose-lose, except for the fact each chapter has its own summary.

Neither the title nor the subtitle “Explanations that Transform the World” convey the wealth of content – until you feel you understand his point. This is particularly disconcerting since, as I already noted in Science is only Human, I was really only intending to read one chapter – the one on cultural evolution. It’s not the book I was expecting from a quantum physicist, despite how much I identified with his explanations in The Fabric of Reality.

I find he has no qualms whatsoever talking the language of memes, and in pointing out that many criticisms of their misconceived objectivity and definitiveness apply equally to misconceptions about genes. He’s only the third person after myself and Dennett I’ve heard express such opinions.

Also, the powers and dangers of abstraction and the perils of reductionism. Causal relations really do exist between different higher-evolved levels of entity, that do not benefit from further “atomic” explanation. Not only that, they disbenefit since such attempted explanations are literally intractable. Information and knowledge processing are key.

The point of memes (and genes) is to maximise their spread relative to their alternatives throughout a population not to optimise the benefit of either individuals or population. Bad (easy) memes really do spread further and faster than good (optimal) information from our perspective. Rules of thumb can be “better” that objectively accurate information when it comes to humans optimising our objectives.

He ultimately debunks the reasoning of anthropic principles, as misconceived non-explanations. Good explanations are characterised by their reach in the sense that the more they hold for more variable conditions, including unpredicted ones, the better they are, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Things that can conveniently explain anything, explain nothing. Physics did it, is no more an explanation than God did it.Despite this he takes the significance of anthropic perspectives pointed out by Brandon Carter to be worth serious explanation. Fine tuning explains nothing other than to serve as a reminder that our physics really does have an anthropic perspective, one that so many scientists deny for political reasons. Rick Ryals is the only other person I’ve seen push that point after Brandon Carter. (Must check – I know Sabine Hossenfelder has written something on this recently).

Science is only human.

[And, surely Deutsch’s work must fit the EES (Extended Evolutionary Synthesis) and IIT (Integrated Information Theory) agendas?]

 I’m only just starting Chapter 6 of 18 – Reading on.

“There’s No Faith Without AI” – Please God, No!

As an atheist who believes in the fundamental nature of information and meaning this episode of Future Proofing on Faith – “how the functions of religion could be taken over by technology” – I found very hard to listen to.

Great conclusion from Timandra Harkness, despite some awfully confused content contributors. Good in parts, but where to start, so much wrong?

Congregationality beats mindfulness? Well OK, but how about both, time and a place for each? Some seriously confused secular spirituality. Sacks wins hands-down as usual, but Pinker is so weak anyway. Harkness even quotes Gödel back at Pinker – priceless – wonderful irony given Rebecca Goldstein is a Gödel authority. Yuval Harari and Giulio Prisco – gimme strength. And only the unreconstructed Pastor invoked God. We’ve barely scratched the surface. [Lots of previous links to add.]

Saved for another day when I have the will.
Hat tip to Elizabeth Oldfield. Grrr.


So responding to a programme that covered so much ground from so many perspectives is a frustration but what if we focus on the question posed by Elizabeth Oldfield?

My original statement of interest as an atheist humanist and a believer in the fundamentals of information crosses this automation of human value premise. We need to tease apart these two aspects:

Do we define human value by intelligence? Actually, I do, but clearly hat depends on what we mean by (human) intelligence and that’s more than simply a definition.

Whatever it is it’s more than some narrow “new atheist” view of rationality where all emotion and subjectivity can – or should – be reduced to some sort of dispassionate objective logic. That’s scientism. There are whole libraries of books on what more that is. Metaphysically, ontologically and above all epistemologically – what it means to be human over and above any other known sentient being in the cosmos. For example, something like problem solving creativity – being a universal constructor to use David Deutsch’s term. The ability to automate the problems we’ve already solved, to build them into the mundane workings and technological tools of everyday life so that, free from unnecessary drudgery, we can seek out new unsolved, misunderstood  and even unknown future problems. To imagine and create new meanings and new explanations for new things. For our futures.

Can we invent AI to be something more intelligent? No. By definition.

It’s a wonderful irony that information seems to be a fundamental component of the mix of chaos and order we see in the entire life history of the cosmos at all scales. That really is a creative source of new meaning and explanations of things even as yet undreamt.

The conflation however is to see applied information science – in big data, AI, patterns and algorithms, you name it – as a replacement for human creativity when it is in fact a tool. Tool use, exploiting technology, is fundamental to human creativity. However advanced AI gets it will always be an automation tool for actual intelligence, at least until it takes on a transhuman life of its own, but that will require not just AI but A-Life and actual life to outgame humans (and other as-yet-unknown intelligent beings) for cosmic resources and creativity. If we value humanity we should always plan to keep humans ahead of this game, it’s what we do naturally. And, sure, we could fail to spot a catastrophic error in executing our plans, but we’ve not yet identified any entity more creative than ourselves in dealing with that problem when it arises.

Our dignity – our value and meaning – is in being good at being human. That’s what we should value – even worship and have faith in – above all. If we ever do meet a being we genuinely consider more human than ourselves, only then would we have more faith in that.


Previously on Psybertron:

[David Deutsch on meaning as the unending quest for explanation.]

[Andy Martin and Kenan Malik on Transhumanism and Yuval Harari.]

[Dan Brown (yes, seriously, that Dan Brown) on AI and Religion and on Move over God?- I think not.]

Writing Your Book, with Jamie Bartlett

Bookmarked this Twitter thread back in February, but was reminded of it again over the weekend, so I thought I’d capture the content once and for all here:

Think this is true of all creative writing, even code and databases. In fact what you need is a flexibly linked system, where random and structured stuff hangs together. (eg see Scrivener link below, but anything with extensible mark-up and content searching.) That point about remembering old deleted lines in new contexts is something that happens to me ten times a day!

Everyone needs a schema, even a stream of consciousness where the characters lead the narrative. (Your schema can be minimalist of course, or just a seed if you have no preconceived story or message, see Lee Child as described by Andy Martin in “And Reacher Said Nothing”. For the other extreme see J K Rowling. Most of us will need something in between.)

See also first comment on flexible, extensible mark-up process. Need a low-tech way of capturing (and finding) thoughts that “feel” relevant in the moment at any time – and crash on with drafting when the muse strikes.

Copyright acknowledged.
If and when Jamie collates and publishes, I will delete and link.

I think here the message is variety and horses for courses. As Jamie says there are in fact many different tasks besides “writing” you need to make space(s) for all of them.

And as Jamie notes, plenty of side-branches with additional thoughts from others – that’s extensible mark-up 😉

Science is Only Human

Few days without any posting thanks to several glorious days in the mountains of UK Lake District (Facebook album here.) Never seen such conditions for hiking and views in dozen or more trips over 40 years. As usual I’m using down time to read, two books this time.

I mentioned Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c already, but I also started on David Deutsch’s Beginning of Infinity.

Loved Deutsch’s Fabric of Reality some years ago, but despite a common Information Quanta thread, I largely lost contact with his Quantum Computing and Constructor Theory work, except for brief interest in his colleague Chiara Marletto. [Links]

I’m reading Beginning of Infinity primarily for a single chapter referred to in a Twitter thread about the evolution of culture, but in fact from the off, it is a fascinating book. Several threads right on my own agenda, as well as more of what I liked in Fabric of Reality on the power of explanation as the core (if not the distinguishing feature) of scientific enlightenment. His Infinity refers to the basic principle that good explanation covers not just a rationalisation of experience in a falsifiable form and open to critique, but a potential infinity of not yet even conceived future experiences.

How else could we know what is really happening in stars? This statement comes very close to where I’m at on the anthropic significance of humanity in the grand scheme of reality:

Base metals can be transmuted into gold by stars,
and by intelligent beings who [unlike the alchemists]
understand the processes that power stars
and by nothing else in the universe.

And more generally:

In this book [he argues] that all progress, both theoretical and practical, has resulted from a single human activity: the quest for what [he calls] good explanations. Though this quest is uniquely human, its effectiveness is also a fundamental fact about reality at the most impersonal cosmic level – namely that it conforms to universal laws that are indeed good explanations. This simple relationship between the cosmic and the human is a hint of a central role of people in the cosmic scheme of things.