Dawkins (and Coyne) Doth Protest Too Much

A second review vignette from Dennett’s greatest hits.

As I’ve said many times when Richard Dawkins sticks to evolutionary biology, he’s a great writer and a credible scientist, but when he joins (leads!) the science vs religion fray all he does his display his inadequacies as a philosopher, politician or general factotum saviour of humanity. (Jerry Coyne less / more so, but with less pretence.) Unlike Dennett, a colossus straddling both science and philosophy, or (say) Bronowski before him.

Dennett also considers Dawkins a great writer on evolutionary biology. Chapter 38 of his “Intuition Pumps” is, almost in its entirety, a 3 page direct quotation from Dawkins “The Ancestor’s Tale” to which Dennett feels unworthy to add even any editorial value. [A passage inspired by Matt Ridley on the subject of the metaphor of genes not so much as words or sentences as stock-phrases or sub-routines, to continue Dennett’s unbroken computing thread.]

In fact, in the next chapter Dennett introduces Dawkins (and Coyne) as “two of my most esteemed colleagues and friends” … as a prelude to demolishing their positions.

Remember Dennett’s book is about thinking tools, methods and processes for making progress, and a recurring agenda theme is discovering error and learning from mistakes. Here he is pointing out the dangers of overly defending a strongly held position, investing in defenses, exaggerating the territory held, raiding enemy territory, generally behaving as warlike thugs – being the worst form of argument if your objective is progress.

It’s a corollary of Dennett’s “intentional stance” that the world of possibilities is a multi-dimensional “design space” and so many of his metaphors involve R&D and Engineering. Questions of what things are designed to do, how they came to be designed the way they are, and how any such designs came to be implemented at the expense of others. If it quacks like a duck, why not use the word design? Remember real intentional systems with designs in mind do arise in this real world, so why make the intentional stance – the very idea of design (with purpose towards meaning*) – some kind of taboo to be vilified at every turn. Understanding is better than denial.

“I disagree with the policy [of denying design], which can backfire badly. They [Harvard medical students] seriously underestimated the power of natural selection, because evolutionary biologists had told them, again and again, that there is no actual design in nature, only the appearance of design.”

The biosphere is utterly saturated with design, with purpose, with reasons.”

Turn the other cheek to your perceived enemies and listen to your real friends, Dawkins, and maybe Coyne and other lapdogs will follow their leader.

[Did I mention? Dan Dennett “Intuition Pumps” is a thoroughly recommended read – I see it made Brain Pickings books of 2013 list too. Read and learn.]

[(*) intentionality itself concerns “aboutness” – the idea than syntax (structure in the world) might entail some semantic (meaning) – some aspect of one thing being about (or significant to) another. Linguistically and practically, it’s a short step to intention and purpose (and design), and indeed the intentional stance positively advocates this leap, but it’s important to bear in mind that intentionality itself is more fundamental to the underlying facts of the matter or not, as the case may be.]

Hold Your Definition

Blogging after quite a hiatus, more of which in the next post, and reading a first book since October, the two not unconnected.

Received Dan Dennett’s “Intuition Pumps – and Other Tools for Thinking” as a Christmas present. No secret here on Psybertron that I’m a big fan of Dennett, and Intuition Pumps is a retrospective reflection on many of his meta-thought-experiments about thinking, collected from his previous 45 years of writings. Many re-writes of pieces he’s published and presented several times himself and many, as he points out, anthologised multiple times by other editors. So in a sense, nothing new.

But Dennett’s voice is always readable and what this compilation brings is the selection and editorial commenting and re-phrasing, a cleaner re-phrasing of the core points stripped of any potentially misleading clutter. Dennett himself, as well as his reader, has learned a lot in 45 years. Even then, after 8 sets of 70-odd one-tool-per-chapter over 400-odd pages, there’s a whole chapter on what got left out (and where to find them). Not-included include the famous Where Am I examples derived from the Brain in a Vat thought experiment, nor the eight examples known as Quining Qualia.

One thing the editorial revisit brings, is rephrasing that counters any misleading interpretations introduced by earlier wise-cracking zingers intended to demolish adversaries. With hindsight, rhetorical put-downs may have overstated one’s argument and missed important lessons. The one example that pleased me most, given that I share Dennett’s belief that computer systems modelling does still and will continue to bring a great deal to the philosophy of mind and the brain-mind-consciousness problem, is the backtracking on the homunculus-as-infinite-regress view. The regress is of course finite, if each “controller” is a system of less intelligent controllers than the previous level, eventually the substrate really does comprise the dumb building blocks of chemistry and physics.

Intentionality and the intentional stance feature prominently of course, as does evolution as algorithm. The whole engineering take on evolution as problem solving – ladders, cranes and sky-hooks, scaffolding and staging, etc – gets an outing, whilst the many-layered properties of computer architectures maybe represents the single greatest part of the material.

In fact, I reckon chapter 24 on “Register Assembly Programming” should be compulsory education for all early secondary schoolers (7th/8th graders) independent of specific subject teaching. I vividly recall Hester (Mr Pearson) our Maths teacher recently converted from French teacher, running exactly the same pupils and boxes of beans exercise in class (though the beans may have been bits of paper IIRC). At the time I assumed we were learning how new-fangled computers worked (around 1971 this would have been) but what Dennett does is bring out and list explicitly the “Seven Secrets of Computer Power” – lessons of computing, not rules about computing, but rules about the world in general. [Post Note : Added my summary of Dennett’s rules here. And a later important reference here. And already linked above – the educational resource page.]

[Aside – Listening to Angie Hobbs on BBC R4 Saturday Live – wholeheartedly agree that philosophy needs to be taught in primary schools too, but the fascination with the analytical and rhetorical demolition tricks of paradoxes and pointless pre-socratic arguments must be supplemented with the tools of constructive solutions too. Otherwise philosophy remains the caricature counting angels on the head of a pin. From the mouths of babes – what do philosophers do? – pointless arguments about nothing all day long.]

If I may paraphrase that and the two subsequent chapters on algorithms and virtual machines – competencies in this layer as systems or patterns in an underlying layer of repeatable parts: Turing (and von Neumann and Church) already said it all; all advances since are about speed and power, not about any new rules or mechanisms; vis Rule 7, there are no new rules beyond Rule 6, full stop, end of.More complex layers are simply built upon less complex underlying layers, ad infinitum so far as necessary, and the whole is substrate neutral, any physics will do.

As I said none of this is entirely new to me, but one aspect I’d never seen explicitly, but maybe I absorbed osmotically from engaging with Dennett, was my own aversion to definitions. Throughout the book so far he uses the “sorta” operator, to allow approximate ontological definition within taxonomies. (Throughout this blog I use “kinda”.) Sure most of consciousness and intelligence, in fact most aspects of even dumb development through branching decisions – evolution itself – depends on the competency of making distinctions, detecting and acting on significant difference. But that doesn’t depend on tight definitions of those distinctions. It depends on their existence and significance. Like species, distinctions are defined with hindsight only. Rationality is 20:20 hindsight. So, as a philosopher who has straddled the border with science, with strong scientific sympathies (eg as one of the 4 horsemen in the science vs religion wars) Dennett remains resolutely a philosopher; even a whole chapter on that – why be a philosopher?

“One of [Dennett’s] guilty pleasures is watching eminent scientists, who only a few years ago expressed withering contempt for philosophy, stumble embarrassingly in their own efforts to set the world straight […] with a few briskly argued extrapolations from their own scientific research. Even better is when they request, and acknowledge, a little help from us philosophers.”

“There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, just science conducted without consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions.”

“We should quell our desire to draw lines. We don’t need to draw lines. [Distinctions yes, but not with tight definitions.]”

“The intentional stance is the strategy of interpreting the behaviour of an entity by treating it as if it were a rational agent …. [with sorta consciousness, sorta intelligence, sorta beliefs & sorta aims in sorta life, etc.] ….

Define your terms sir! No, I won’t, that would be premature ….

Many philosophers cannot work that way; they [believe they] need utterly fixed boundaries to their problems and possible solutions ….”

A recommended read, whether you’ve read Dennett before or not.
A sorta greatest hits, selected by the author himself.

Post Note: Nice to see this Dennett extract quoted by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, on the event of Dan’s birthday 28th March 2014. (Dennett credits these as Rappaport’s rules, but this is the version Dennett presents in Intuition Pumps.)

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  • You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  • You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  • You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  • Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

These the first three rules I call elsewhere:

“Respect, respect & respect”.

Dot Griffiths

If you’ve ever read the on-line version of my masters dissertation, or any number of references in the blog to the “softer” aspects of organisational behaviour in “governance”, or the gender differences in world-views and decision-making behaviour, you can’t fail to have noticed my references to the three women I had the honour to be taught by in my brief time at Imperial College Management School.

Sandra Dawson, Karen Legge and Dot Griffiths. Sandra has since moved on to elevated pastures new. Karen left for Lancaster before I finished my masters. Dot, who’s been at the college since … since before I did my batchelors there, and my tutor at the time of my masters … has retired from Imperial only this week.

A real inspiration.

Dot with her book


Vive La Differance

I’ve always believed this, and believed that the cross-wiring was part of the reason.

The “connectome maps” reveal the differences between the male brain (seen in blue) and the female brain (orange).

I hope this is good science – need to follow-up the reference source (*). Of course following Pinker’s hint, being (genetically) “hard-wired” may only account for 10% of behavioural differences, a proportion that can be dwarfed by the plasticity of formal upbringing (40% parent & teachers) and informal environment (50% peer groups of all kinds). But a the level of talking generalities and understanding them, the differences are clear (and valuable when understood, independent of any pro-anti-feminist agendas).

Basically, the (whole) problem is – men (typically in positions of relative authority) are wired serially and have to “learn” to switch sides of their brain to get a balanced view, for women, it simply comes more naturally.

[(*) It’s a Princeton source, so presumably good stuff, if not misrepresented journalistically. The abstract seems pretty clear.]

Roberto Unger

Heard Roberto Unger talk last night on BBC R4 Analysis, at LSE with a student audience I believe, on the subject of democracy and freedom.

Suffice to say he reinforced my points in the recent “Everybody Wants a Revolution” series of posts.

Democratic freedom comes with “obligations” – not to be confused with coercion and enforcement – we are all individually free to ignore our obligations, so long as you’re prepared to take the social consequences.

Similarly those obligations involve taking action towards social solidarity – helping others – in addition to using those freedoms to make your own way in the democratic world.

Disruption can be a valid tactic, but the aim should always be towards solidarity. Refusing to engage in the current political system, not voting, can have protest value, but is not constructive. Interesting in societies where voting is “compulsory” (see above) not voting has greater visible impact and value. In any event the aim must be towards something better, having some idea of what it might take to be better – greater value to the whole.

[Links to add later.]

Geronimo and the Lord’s Prayer

I blogged recently on having seen Roy Harper at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester in October, and having been very disappointed in his well below par, distracted, forgetful performance. In compensation I’ve been listening to his back catalogue almost constantly since, including his epic (one of his many epics) Lord’s Prayer, a complex 20 minute poem / modal song in seven parts variously voiced over atmospheric background music and sung to melody and accompanying musical arrangement (*). It’s one amongst the immense back catalogue I’ve been revisiting since the summer when looking forward to the autumn concert – where I discovered total recall of every word, note and nuanced sound, despite previously not listening to regularly for 35 years or more.

Tragic to hear last week that the reason for his distraction was the fact that the week before the concert he’d been formally charged on child sexual abuse (9 counts, 1 12 year old girl) in 1975/78. I’m still struggling to imagine how his lifestyle at the time could have led to such a situation, but as someone else commented, he has never been the kind of public celebrity likely to attract false attention-seeking accusations.

I’ve been listening to his back catalogue again with even greater intensity. I came across this recent (9/11 2012) posting on his blog on the demise of James Edgar (James Irish Jimi Edgar Schwartz-Schmaltz, Jimmy The Ghost, artist-shaman, 1939-2012) and the story of how he and his hand-tinted encyclopedia photo of Geronimo were the original inspiration for Lord’s Prayer. The Lifemask cover described is illustrated on-line here. Although the “aboriginal” imagery of the piece always reminded me of the American Indian vs White Man angle also used by Robert Pirsig, and let’s face it “I Hate The White Man” is a recurring theme, I had completely forgotten the visual imagery and explicit Geronimo references in the original album artwork. One thing you lose in these times of disembodied electronic media.

Sense amid the none sense.

[(*) – I can’t think of a track less like “driving music” than Lord’s Prayer, unlike the more promising Highway Blues, but it’s a track I find myself constantly listening to in the car.]

WordPress Update Bugs

Oh no, it’s far worse than I feared. That last failed 3.6.x to 3.7 update followed by 3.7.1 bug fix has resulted in even greater damage than I feared. Not only do I still have to rebuild the social media and comment notification functionality, but I see now that all internal media and file links have been reconfigured somewhere – so all the links are broken in 13 years worth of content, some 3 or 4000 posts and more. Bastards. Effing bastards.

The Russell Brand Effect

The “Everybody Wants a Revolution” theme continues from the last post, and a the post before that, with a few post-notes inserted along the way.

Interesting in this Guardian interview Brand continues the “don’t ask me I’m no expert” line, and admits he’s only recently taken an interest in the topic of alternative governance, so the warning remains that “do something to change things” hand-wringing and drum-banging is really only supported by half-baked, dangerous and positively misguided advice.

Don’t Vote vs Spoil Vote choice ? The real reason to go for the latter is obvious. The self-disenfranchisement of non-voting is a technicality, and yes, as a protest it devalues the hard-won freedoms of having popular democracy in the first place. No, the real practical reason is because a spoiled-vote is a protest which is visible, countable and accountable. Not that these are themselves naturally valuable virtues, except in any “system” where it’s the count of popular votes that counts, some variant of which is likely to be true in any free democracy. (Something completely other than some form of democracy ? Unlikely – conceivable, but unlikely – see Churchill.)

The Political Classes rhetoric? I’ve said enough. We are they. It’s “our” responsibility to change things. The more people who wake up to that the better, well done Russell, but in order to take responsibility we, some of us, need to think about what better governance would look like, and how we might get there, rather than just knock the poor sods who find themselves incumbent.

Protest(s) ? Hmm. Need to understand what protest is about and for, and what is protected by democratic freedoms. Protest votes and boycotts, protest stands and marches – all valid. Best if they are visible to those who the message is aimed at, obviously, that can’t be ignored, but of course the actual message, we/they are free to ignore if it doesn’t contain any sound advice or novel ideas. Something’s wrong, please fix it, is hardy news. Protest does not include rights to interfere or break laws (see trust & respect, below) though of course every protester (and whistle-blower) is physically entitled to do so, provided they accept the legal consequences (that means you Greenpeace).

Anonymity? Unless anonymity is the point of a protest, which it can sometimes be, anonymity is not a freedom or democratic right. Obviously anonymity as cover for illegal acts and threats of mob-rule is a no-no. Guido Fawkes has symbolic value as a mask, relevant in changing governance, sure – but don’t confuse that with any right to anonymity.

Respect and trust? Related to personal responsibility for rights and actions, which count against any rights to anonymity above, there is a basic need for trust and respect between individuals. Any form of democratic governance, includes accountability sure, but depends on trusting those to whom (any) power to decide and act is delegated, and mutually those entrusted need to trust their “constituents” in return. There is no system of free democratic governance that can dispense with interpersonal trust and respect for the governance arrangements. Brand needs to be very careful of hypocrisy in commenting on personal responses to his intervention, whilst indulging in personal (even witty, humorous) mudslinging rhetoric against political classes and named individuals. The other side of any change (call it evolution, revolution or paradigm-shift) we’re going to need mutual trust and respect.