Fewer Signs of Greater Safety

I’ve blogged several times, and get 100’s of hits on the subject of removing road traffic signs increasing actual road safety – since I mentioned the Netherlands experiment of some years ago and a UK study of that experience.

[Background] Last year the German city of Bohmte scrapped its road traffic signs in a similar experiment, and I hear reported today that it has indeed proven a success. Not a single RTA since. [Google]

[Remember this is traffic flow instructions / preventions road-signs – do this, do that, no this, no that – we are talking about, not informative directions / locations etc ….]

More on Theism vs Atheism

A “chain-letter” post from Sam at Elizaphanian (he calls ’em memes – yuk!)

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?
Rev Sam – The denial of theism.
Psybertron – Theism cannot be denied, it’s a fact of life. Atheism is a label use by theists for those who don’t share the same theistic basis of belief. People labelled “atheists” don’t believe in lots of things, so would never specifically choose atheism as a label, but they do care what peoples’ bases of beliefs are so neither are they agnostic. [Ref Sam Harris earlier]. The basis of belief is the core aspect at issue. Non-theistic is my best choice if forced to choose a label.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?
Rev Sam – Church of England.
Psybertron – Me too, but not very. My mother continues the family tradition, but it was never an “issue”. The family drew its own conclusions.

Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?
Rev Sam – Atheistic.
Psybertron – Useless.
(ID & IDC have metaphorical value for both theists and non-theists, but are a total red-herring when it comes to the core issue of “the basis of belief”, and are a lost cause as far as any valuable debate is concerned since being hijacked by extremists and whacko’s on all sides.)

Q4. What scientific endeavor really excites you?
Rev Sam – Lots. I’m particularly interested in neuro-psychology at the moment.
Psybertron – Lots also. Not sure neuro-psychology is science entirely, but it is a very interesting non-metaphysical interface, where scientific rubber hits the road of philosophy of meaning. “Evolutionary Psychology” is of course Psybertron’s primary agenda – if it has to be reduced to a single label – so very important to me, along with its relationship to the bio-evolved neural systems. Most intriguing scientific domain remains theoretical physics – getting perilously close to metaphysics (after Max Born) – current research in “Quantum Information” takes my vote, with (understanding) “Anthropic Principles” a close second.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?
Rev Sam – Give them a better sense of intellectual history, especially Christian intellectual history.
Psybertron – Hear, hear ! History = evolution of ideas.
(Ditto the theist communities, naturally. Education, education, education.)

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?
Rev Sam – You can’t do it unless you’re called, and if you’re called you can’t do anything else.
Psybertron – That is probably true of many callings in life. As a “parent” I would still ask testing questions about “Why?” – in order to understand the “child’s” understanding of that calling – so as to be in a position to advise and encourage.

Q7. What’s your favorite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?
Rev Sam – I don’t have any favourite theistic arguments.
Psybertron – Favourite arguments ? Refutation ? What overrated concepts. Why would anyone favour refutation ? Much more constructive things to do in life – like extending understanding and finding something worth believing in and acting on.

Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?
Rev Sam –  er… bearing in mind where I’m coming at this from, probably that God=meaning.
Psybertron – So close. That is not in the least controversial to me as a non-theist.
[The label we give to the ineffable metaphysical core of everything] God = “significant information” [at the core of everything from sub-quantum physics to cosmology and everything in between, including genetics, biology, evolution, nuero-psychology, neuro-philosophy and evolutionary-psychology.]

Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?
Rev Sam – I’ve never read Harris so can’t comment; Hitchens is a journalist with attitude but not much more; Dawkins is a gifted writer with a good understanding of biology but not much more; which leaves Dennett as the best of the bunch. He at least has some greater breadth.
Psybertron – Dennett easily – read most things he’s written – though Harris is coming up close on the rails; Still more of him to read, but he is much more subtle in his philosophy (epistemology) than the sensational headlines he generates. Hitchens I haven’t taken seriously – for the same reasons Sam suggests. Dawkins is the non-theists biggest handicap in life – he just doesn’t get it – and needs to be countered if we are to make progress.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?
Rev Sam –  Oo. Lots to choose from, but it’d be a toss up between Osama bin Laden and Peter Akinola.
Psybertron – I really don’t think I’d want anyone to abandon their theistic beliefs. [Oh, how could I forget – Tony Blair gets my vote]. I would want theists (and atheists) to abandon misguided rationalisation of some of their actions and motivations, but concerning their theistic beliefs, I’d say never stop questioning and increasing your understanding of them – after Socrates – the unexamined life ain’t worth it. Abandon blind faith as a basis of belief. Put your faith in a process of meaning, you can even call it God if you like.

Healing The Unhappy Caveman

I made a reference to this book by Chris Wilson earlier and started a more thorough review … below.

Chris responded before I had published … so appended below is our initial exchange to my incomplete review. We can use the comments below to continue the public dialogue.

Psybertron asked “What am I missing ?”

I mentioned briefly earlier that I had started to read Chris Wilson’s “Healing The Unhappy Caveman”. Chris (the Enlightened Caveman) is someone I’ve communicated and corresponded with before, so I know we have a lot of common ground, but we are approaching our agendas from opposite ends.

Chris here is writing a self-help book for people who need enlightening that human brains evolved long before our cerebral minds, and that reasonable thought requires mental effort if we are to avoid being slaves to our genetically programmed emotions. Assuming people need that advice, Chris’ main thesis is that such effort is worth it, and the reward is a more reasonable outlook on achievable happiness, than the conflict and frustration we might achieve if we allowed primitive animal competition alone to drive our lives. Can’t argue with that.

Writing for the layman in a brief book Chris describes much mental and behavioural evolution involving collaborative economic models, as well as critical rationalism. Presented simply, no doubt this might appeal to his target audience. As a reviewer, the problem for me is continually having to discount my own starting position – namely that most decision-makers in the current world are too rationally sure of their own rationality – I’m approaching the problem from the hyper-rational end, not the absence-of-reason end.

Socrates had long since told us that the unexamined life is not worth living, but there are plenty of clues that Chris is on the right agenda. The idea that rationality requires evidence, the need to understand what is evidential, and that actively “embracing” life is crucial to gathering such evidence. That reasoning requires “discernment” of what actually matters, and the fact that there is a kind of economics at work in deciding when the effort is worth it and when to take a holiday. Chris uses an “ages of man” device in the life story of a maturing individual called Hank to illustrate his points. Lots of good stuff simply presented.

But now, an admission – I’ve only read half the book; the whole of the first half, plus the final chapter “Bringing It All Together”. I found quite a few sentences to baulk at in his deliberately simple presentation of human mental evolution, but I was stopped in my tracks by this “[In criminal trials] prosecutors present concrete evidence, defense lawyers present  extenuating circumstances, and voila, sympathy takes over in the minds of jurors, rendering them helpless to see the truth.”

Surely we have more respect for the average juror than that ?
In my agenda truth is far more than “concrete” evidence.

So I skipped to the summary chapter to see where we were headed with this.
And my disagreerment seems to remain … we have some problem around the concepts of Happiness / Reasonable / Good. As a simple self-help starter the book succeeds … but are some of the messages so simplified as to ultimately wrong or am I missing something ?

The Enlightened Caveman responded

Hey – finally some legitimate criticism!!  Whoopee!  Here goes…

To your most pressing issue, I can only say that I am using the emotionally-swayed juror as an example – one that we’re all familiar with, if only anecdotally – of a situation in which someone pressed the right stimulus button and the amygdala and its ancient processes blocked the cognitive mind out of the decision-making loop almost entirely.  It certainly wasn’t meant to be a generalization of all jurors.  It also wasn’t meant to imply that no emotion should ever come into play in a court room, so if others also take those ideas away from it, I’ll mark that as a MISS in the effective communication category.

In general, I think your sense that you may be somewhat distinct from the target audience may be correct.  The vast majority of examples of how evolutionarily evolved emotions might manifest themselves – both in hunter/gatherer groups and in modern groups – are deliberately simplistic, almost cartoonish, if you will.  My only real alternative there was to go down the usual path of science writers, which would have meant describing a bunch of experiments and results and then tying them to modern characteristics and behavior.  I actually sort of tried that at first.  It made the narrative seriously tedious and took the focus off the bigger point – that our specific emotions evolved to solve social problems and those emotions often render our more modern cognition mute.  So I opted for over-simplification in the hopes that readers might seek out the references to gain more detail.  (The references are the next level down in detail – the pop-science writers, who themselves cite actual papers and actual researchers.)

To your concern about having to discount your hyper-rational position, I’m not sure why you have to.  I share the exact same belief, but mine is based upon the notion that most of us go through life thinking we know who we are and why think and feel the way we do – thus, that we are rational agents for our own ends.  The central argument of my book is that our evolutionary baggage says different. More, a big source of the frustration and unhappiness that many feel is directly attributed to that misunderstanding.  This means we really do need to understand more about where our minds came from and how they react to our modern world in order to be the rational beings we think we are, which ultimately leads to happiness or at least a reduction in unhappiness.

I guess I need a specific example or two of how my descriptions of evolution challenge your views of human economic interaction.  The core of my discussion has to do with hominids who worked together in groups succeeding while others who did not dying out.  The effects of kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and status-seeking on that are pretty well established – at least in the evolutionary psychology field.  So are you disturbed by the assertions or simply my communication of them? 

And then…if we have disagreements about happiness/reasonable/good, upon what grounds?  I’m building on the likes of Bertrand Russel, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Popper, so did I get something wrong, or do you disagree with them?

Not to make this more work than its worth for you, but more info will help me better clarify my work.  I remain convinced that the content in the book is valuable to the layman (or anyone, for that matter).  I am not, however, even remotely sure of whether I’ve succeeded in getting the content across effectively.  By the state of your review – and reading – it’s probably fair to say I haven’t, at least in your case.  That’s ok – everyone tells me the first book is the hardest to write and is often the worst;-)  The second is already brewing…

I do want you to know that I greatly appreciate your willingness to share even this with me.  You’re the first to come back with anything I could actually respond to.

Psybertron continued with this suggestion

Simplest first response Chris …. If you don’t feel my starting point is too negative … is it OK is we do this debate in public – it might add more value. I post my “initial review” on the blog and I paste in your initial response – and we use the comments to develop it …. ?
As you describe it our central view is still remarkably similar – my perspective / drivers are a little different, and I am making more distinction between bio/genetic evolution and mental/memetic evolution than you seem to want to …
I can see your readings of Russell, Kant and Popper all too clearly … I’m saying those guys arguments fail – good in parts, clearly, but not good enough.

Russell remained emprisoned in logic (Wittgenstein showed him the way out of the fly-bottle, but Russell never got it – oh how we laughed.)

Kant also remained too sure of goodness and happiness (morals) being logically tractable – very Germanic 😉 (Godel shows us that is an impossible dream.)

Popper got it in fact, but most readings ignore his better / important (ethics) stuff (Nick Maxwell picked-up where Popper left off – a philosopher of science who was a student of Poppers)
More coherent stuff later. This is worthwhile for me too.

And the Enlightened Caveman agreed to continue in public

Sure – I’d welcome a public discussion.  I’m intrigued to learn how the failings of the three philosophers relate to my arguments.

So what next ? I guess the ball is in my court having questioned the value of the philosophers that Chris cites. Continued in the comment thread below …

Kurt Vonnegut

I’m only a recent convert to Kurt Vonnegut having not read him until after his death last year, when I picked-up and enjoyed “Cat’s Cradle“.

I’ve Just finished reading “Slaugherhouse Five”, his biographical account of lives, inlcuding his own, that intersected in the Dresden bombings. Wonderful writing – pointing out that more civilians were deliberately killed in Dresden than Hiroshima or Nagasaki put together – but taking in time-travel, sci-fi, Christianity, Dostoevsky and a great deal of humour along the way.

Struck by this Tralfamadorian quote about Darwin ” – who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements.” Yes but, no but, … poignant whether it comes with odd or even levels of irony.

The Victrolas & The Daisycutters

Mentioned before what a great venue Huntsville’s Crossroads was even when it’s only 20/30% full, thanks to the multi-space layout, but on Friday we saw what it looks like when even fewer turn up. The bands struggled to generate any atmosphere with the sparse audience on a rainy night in Huntsville.

Nashville band The Victrolas headlined on the night – the reason I went, since Tommy Womack has some co-production interest with them, and as you know I’m a fan of Tommy’s work. As advertised they were “country rock”, and I have to say they didn’t really do it for me. Competent with presence, but not enough original spark, and the limp atmosphere surely didn’t help.

Despite that atmosphere, Wess Floyd and the Daisycutters also from Nashville, were a different kettle of fish. Four guitars, including the eponymous frontman, different anyway. Full on, manic stage presence at all times, some catchy tunes and choruses, and variety in the guitar styles with one doubling up on the tinyiest but effective keyboard I’ve ever seen used for a stage performance. With the front three bouncing off each other, I have to say the back line, the excellent bassist in particular, really held it together; I guess that’s the plus of being a six piece. A band I’d definitely travel to see.

Talking of back lines, I don’t think I mentioned Katie Herron ? Surely the tinyiest waif of a drummer you could imagine, but so strong standing in with Electric Voodoo in Humphrey’s earlier in the week. Her regular band is Trial By Jury. Must look out for an opportunity to see them. By coincidence Katie was in Klatschie’s, when Rob Aldridge (another one for the future) got up to jam the other night too – mentioned him before too I think.

Ob-Platte or the next best thing ?

The whole world in a grain of salt. Where to start ?
You don’t need me to point out that these are anagrams of each other.

Tabletop, BattleOp, Ob-Platte, Potelbat, Belpatto, Platobet.

But what are they ? It might help if you knew that they are the title of Chapter 8 of Douglas Hofstadter’s book “Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies” (Computer models of the fundamentals of thought.) The book is a collection of papers in collaboration with Daniel Defays, David Chalmers, Robert French, Melanie Mitchell and Gary McGraw with prologues by Douglas Hofstadter, all compiled in the mid-nineties.

If I was to sum up the book / collection I’d say that whilst it seems at first to be a study of thought processes – strategies to find answers to problems – it is really an analysis of “the concept of concept”, which proceeds through abstractions, analogy and “slipping”.  At a simple level an analogy has some self-evident sameness to an original subject. But, how self-evident or more-subtly-creative that analogy is, turns out to be a matter of looking for that sameness at different levels of abstraction – lateral thinking, hunting for the “essence” – the Platonic form. But in typical Hofstadter style, the whole book is actually one long number, letter, word game. So much so that if you don’t share his enthusiasm for searching for patterns in near-cyclical sequences (of numbers, letters, words, etc … fonts even) the near-repetition is a long slog. The whole book is a million ways different ways of expressing A:B :: X:Y . “Get a life” you might think. Chapter 8 is worth the slog.

At the simplest level A is to B, as B is to C, as C is to D, etc … is the definition of a series. Given a starting situation (the known history of the series so far) find the next term, given what you can infer about the “is to” relationship. The point is the “best” next may not be an obvious value, but involves a sense of “elegance” or “creativity”. The archetypical example for me …

What is the next number in the series 0, 1, 2, … ? 3 obviously, right ? Well how about 720! What you’re missing is that the relation A is to B, the essence shared by A and B, is n(n!) ie the series is 0, 1!, 2!!, 3!!!, 4!!!!, etc … Think about it. If someone actually asked you the question “What is the next number in the series 0, 1, 2, … ?” surely the very first thing you would know for sure would be, well presumably, since you’re not a two-year old, the answer’s not 3 or you wouldn’t have asked me right ? And in fact your first response would probably be that rhetorical question – to confirm that premise.

Chapter 8 takes this by analogy to this – given the history of the world up to this point – what should I do next, shall I have a donut for breakfast, or what decision / action should my government take next in the current situation ? It’s about decision-making strategies. Occam (or Buridan’s Ass) might lead you to say the best answer is the obvious one (the 3, or either bale of hay will do), but the point is the obvious answer is not the only possibility, nor necessarily the best in the overall analysis.

Looking at the strategies for finding the more creative “better” answers what is most striking is that the problem domain may appear closed and bounded (as in the Tabletop) analogy – all explicit knowledge and choices are laid out in front of you on the table – the “best next thing” reasoning involves thinking which is abstracted above it and slipped more broadly sideways (outside the explicit problem domain).

[Tabletop game described further here.]

Choosing your grain of salt involves its relationships to the whole world of possibilities; evaluating / filtering the most significant relations is the tricky, creative bit.

When I say “do this” and touch my nose – you already knows (by analogy) that I mean touch your nose. “This” is the same by analogy. The Tabletop process simply extends this to – if I touch this object from my perspective of the table in front of us which should you touch next from yours. In all but the most trivial tit-for-tat cases the choice involves analogies – patterns of related essence – well beyond what actually exists on the tabletop – the theatre of operations.

Q. What is the Ob of Nebraska ? A. The Platte. Because the Ob is to Siberia (a large river flowing across its desolate wastes) as the Platte is to Nebraska. If that really was published in 1890 by Belpatto then the whole anagram sequence is truly spooky. Meta-fascinating