The following is really only a draft (from 15th Dec 2016) but prompted to post after seeing this tweet exchange today:

I’ve reacted against this “post-truth” meme, that somehow we’ve morphed into a world where lies have replaced truth, where “fake-news” has displaced facts, and that this is something new and real.

In fact all that is new is that ever more ubiquitous media clamour for our attention by turning every topic into a battle between polarised opposites. Polemics have always been part of debate, but debate and reality have always been more than a choice between fact and fiction, and fiction has often contained more valuable truth that facts. As old as history in fact. All that’s new is the ever expanding ubiqity of media and the crowding-out all but extreme opposites and sensational interpretations. Memetic click-bait. There have always been headlines – the original marketing click-bait – but now some expect headlines and 140 char tweets to be a valid summary of the story or …. get out of my sight, scroll on.

Interesting how many “BTL” comments and social-media threads spend time debating “but that headline is false, it doesn’t reflect the content of the story and reference material”. Well no, but now you’ve linked to it, it’s the content we’re supposed to be evaluating. It’s the content the writer put their effort into. We’re increasingly meta about the motives in the media messages – second-guessing agendas than we are concerned with the content. We’re in danger of seeing the medium as the only message.

In fact we’re in a world where we no longer understand what truth and reality are. The only test being if it’s not a true fact it must be false. That’s never been true, except for abstract objects confined to some logical truth-table.

More truth in fiction, it has been said many times before.


[Post Note: This piece from Peter Pomeranstev writing at Granta on “Why We’re Post Fact”. Hat tip to Terry Waites posting on Agora Critical Thinking’s Facebook page.

It’s a good piece, a good summary of the situation we’re talking about, and Pomerantsev draws heavily on Svetlana Boym’s work amongst others. Reinforces my view that what’s changed is the technology, which is not to blame the technology, but recognise that the technology exposes the underlying human reality. As he says in conclusion “an audience which has already spent a decade living without facts can now indulge in a full, anarchic liberation from coherence.”

I might reword “a decade living without facts” as “decades forgetting what truth is” – losing our grip on the necessary balance of facts and stories that make up truth. All truth is made up?]

Doumentary Series – Why Are We Here? In four parts.
Blog background info here.

Hat tip to David Morey for the links.

The following is simply raw running notes of content topics.

Almost whole scope of my own agenda and writings. David Malone has pretty much the same rational-atheist position as myself, though I didn’t know that when I reported on being impressed with him at Hay on Wye 2016 and 2014.

Think the series loses its way a little in episode 3 and parts of 4, arguments less coherent either way, and maybe loses the focus on the question in the title. Becomes much more focussed on the existence and/or necessity of God or not.

But overall very good. Recommended and a useful resource for all the contributing talking heads from science and philosophy.


Part 1 – Meaning Seeking Beings – with or without “God”.

(David Malone and Ard Louis with many sources who have been speakers from Hay on Wye / How the Light Gets In : Marcello Gleiser, Alex Rosenberg, Peter Atkins, Denis Noble, George Ellis, Simon Conway Morris, John Cottingham, Roger Penrose, Frank Wilczec, Semir Zeki, Gregory Chaitin, Ben Okri, Sunetra Gupta, Frans de Waal, Jane Goodall, Martin A Novak, Molly Crockett, Gwendolyn Patton, and maybe a few I missed?)

Reductionism > success in science > Scientism – determinist bottom-up causation explains everything real, exclusively, end-of. No free-will etc.

Emergence > the whole is more than sum of the parts > evolved patterns and systems causally effect their component parts.

Illusion of Self

Fine Tuning – for life and intelligent human life – anthropic

The Multiverse – more “universes” than “particles” in this universe

Universe(s) from Nothing

Evolutionary Layers – Physics > Chemistry > Biology > Cognition different “laws” in each phase of evolution of the universe. (Cf Physical / Living / Social / Intellectual after Pirsig?)

Convergence – evolutionary recurrence of patterns & forms – directionality in results of increasing complexity.

Neo-Darwinists’ fear of Creationists – throwing out babies with the bathwater

(The sneering arrogance of Rosenberg and Atkins!)

Objective data vs relationships

Part 2 – The Reality of Ideas

True empirical knowledge through sensory perception – all our “objective” knowledge of reality is filtered through our lens of consciousness.

Mathematical Absolutes – beyond physics of reality – just as real, but a deeper “degree” of existence – after Plato effectively

Abstract “imaginary” mathematical concept like “i” > even basic QM depends on it.

Dirac Equation > Eugene Wigner

Truth & Beauty – scientific truths appear to be related to elegance – simple beauty and symmetries – of some kind. Beauty that “rewards” the subject.

Creativity – stuff emerges from asymmetry or broken-symmetry – the asethetic of imperfection.

Randomness – creation is “sexy” – randomness – unpredictability – is possibility of / opportunity for creation. (Not the religion of randomness – everything is chance – of the scientistic atheist.

The Sublime – true beauty is close to terror, where angels fear to tread – “awe” response to transcendence. Religious “sentiment” at peace with science.

A Different Kind of Narrative Truth – stories, narrative – making sense of reality. Even science has narratives and imagination. Stories of the facts, or stories as tempting illusions that we understand the facts.

Truth as more than those things that can be “proven”? Can narrative contain more “profound” truth than explicit content.

Part 3 – Moral Absolutes (?)

Part 3 – The Animal Within – a moral animal – a sense of knowing right from wrong

Genes – The Science of Morality? Morality as the ultimate emergent property of genes. I’m thinking what you’re thinking – Game theory compromises?

Red in Tooth & Claw? Science too narrow and pessimistic to tell us what is morally right or good.

Our chimpanzee brother. Ard Louis’s own story.

Cooperation – Evolution’s Missing Law?

Fairness & Empathy – our better nature – the Capuchin monkey unfair reward experiment.

The Moral World – religious belief?

Differences of degree and/or kind? Degree evolves to be kind – “new species”

Knowing Good – Choosing Bad – The Milgram experiments – Moral uncertainty, can’t really get inside the other person’s head.

Is ought ever a scientific question? Instinctive empathy is real. There really is a moral compass. Are they fundamental aspect of reality, like mathematical laws?

Part 4 The Moral Compass

Nihilism – A world without values. Cooperation, coordination and division of tasks (and empathy & altruism) are things that evolved by necessity at stages in our social evolutionary history.

Liberation theology of MLK

Instinctive emotional tendencies that are post-rationalised.

Moral Decisions – Emotions vs Ideas – or more like a mixture / balance of the two? The motivation comes from the sentiment before cognitive rationalisation.

More rational to believe in god? Sure, more than to be sure there isn’t. Like David, nothing I believe requires existence of a supernatural omniscient agent. My kind of atheism.

The Case Against Godscientific standards of logical argument and evidence. Leaves possibility of a god outside of physical science – transcendent god.

Unfinished Business – An afterlife? Undecided questions of how we came to be?


Plenty of respectable people this morning pillorying The (socialist Daily Worker) Morning Star for seeming to “celebrate” the “liberation” of Aleppo by forces led by “fascist” Assad and supported by Iran and “imperialist” Russia and – whilst many of said forces now reported to be slaughering innocents.

(Note that Tatchell was probably also reacting to their criticism of his recent “stunt” – on that same front page.)

Slaugher is never to be celebrated, even if capturing the regional capital represents some kind of success in the strategic picture. Honestly have no idea what particular information the Star’s journo’s thought they were commenting on at they time they prepared the story. (Lyse Ducet reporting from Aleppo on @BBCR4Today this morning conveyed the awful facts amid the confusion.)

More significantly, we’ve no idea how much we can expect such forces to be led and coordinated given the context, but I’d presume there were plenty of opportunists tagging along to fight against … their enemies … whatever, terrorists, rebels. What’s in a label?

One thing is sure there can be no shortage of “sectarian” scores to settle on arrival. Expressing outrage at the needless killing is one thing, but choosing who to target for blame is a bit rich coming from Westerners who had no stomach to intervene.

We have responsibilities for (and interests in) the mess known simply as “the Middle-East situation”. No coincidence Aleppo was one of T E Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom long before Sykes-Picot.

And George Osborne agrees.


[Post Note: Balanced piece from Robert Fisk in The Independent.]

[Post Note: And another balanced and typically blunt piece from Nicholas Taleb with a hat-tip to Fisk.]

I always class myself as a rationalist-atheist-humanist-secularist, and support as many such-minded organisations through subcription, membership and participation as practically possible. Sometimes I can come across a bit luke-warm when the campaign of the day is explicitly anti-theist, anti-religion, preferring to consider more nuanced arguments and to remind humanists that religious theists are humans too. I tend to reject the binary received-wisdom of critical-thinking focussed on finding fault with what we’re against. I’m defined by what I’m for.

So let me say without qualification that the Freethought Report 2016 is an unmitigated good. Now in it’s fifth year, it is a tremendous piece of work to compile and publish in collaboration with all manner of international organisations through the UN.

It’s all too easy to abbreviate the applicable UN rights as freedom of religious belief, an impression compounded in acronyms, handles and hash-tags with variations on “FoRB”. The full UN mandate covers freedoms of expression, thought, religion and belief, including non-religious belief. The shortest possible form being FoRoB or FoR&B maybe, that is

Freedom of Religion and/or Belief.

Ahmed Shaheed’s foreword highlight’s this point that we do the non-religious a disservice if we overlook the inclusive nature of the freedoms defined.

The positive side of what we non-religious might believe has been fraught with the fact that the word belief is itself contingent. Saying the contingencies are in science and objective evidence is fine for 20:20 hindsight, but can’t fully do justice to all our human futures. The blurrier contingencies of more subjective beliefs and values are often left unspoken but in any event, intellectual debate is no substitute for committed action.

The Freethought Report is unflinching in documenting all cases of abuses of free thought and expression and, by totting-up scorecards, presents national governments and local activists with clear and inescapable evidence in a public UN context. It takes a great deal of bravery and determined effort to produce.

The report has previously been available electronically, but now Freethought Report 2016 is fully indexed and searchable on-line. There is no hinding place for delinquent governments. Well done to Bob Churchill, the IHEU team and all their international collaborators.

In between writing, reading and filleting good books on topics of the day as far as my social-knowledge and decision-making research agenda is concerned, I like to catch up on the great books. They’re great books for a reason, and the reason is often timeless.

It’s three weeks since I posted for some reason. I cleared my decks in order to attend the Meaning 2016 conference in Brighton, drafted a very long post of reflections of that. Good, positively recommended, but at the same time disappointing. Needs a bit of editing before I post publicly. See, the new business and economic models are genuinely exciting, yet nevertheless timeless. Innovation is overrated – there’s really nothing new under the sun. The excitement is that pockets of people pick-up on their value and resolve to work towards them, not that they’re new.

In fact, my main agenda is to address why pockets of goodness do not generally spread. The memetic effect, that simplified “received wisdom” spreads much quicker and more easily than good ideas.

Even behind the great firewall of China again, as I was on business earlier this week, I had full VPN access to the rest of my world this time, but still barely posted, even on social media. Didn’t even snap and share any selfies walking around the old town parts of Chengdu, all bejazzled for the Christmas tourists. Pandas anyone? When I wasn’t being over-fed by the hospitality of my hosts, I was reading.

Anna Karenina is one of those great works, like Tolstoy’s other magnum opus, that I must have started, even read up to a handful of chapters, half-a-dozen times. Already familiar with his “unhappy families” and even Vronsky at the horse race – but always too distracted to read on through the patronymics, familials and informals to actually get the point of greatness. And of course I must have seen two or three film and TV dramatisations over the years, not to mention the meme of recalling Anna everytime I’ve set foot on a snowy windswept railway platform, typically for some reason at Slependen, Oslo, in my memories. Meme upon meme.

I’ve just finished reading the Penguin Classics Pevear & Volokhonsky translation, whose cover blurb includes:

“[T]he vividly observed story of Levin, a man striving to find contentment and meaning to his life – and also a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself.”

We probably all know Tolstoy as a “devout Christian” and of course I’m an atheist, rationalist, humanist, so it would be easy to be prejudiced against Levin’s (ie Tolstoy’s) enlightenment. But it’s an enlightenment I feel I share.

I know in fact.

The word may translate as God, but it is God as in “the good” – no superhuman, supernatural, omniscient, omnipotent, causal agent here. Church too, but not as organised religion or ritualised superstition, simply as socially shared knowledge of the good. And knowing that it is good in the collective action of individuals and not in any disembodied rational conception of scientists and philosophers. Beyond words. Rationality is our most powerful tool, but love is greater, being neither thing nor tool.

Good philosophers know this. Good people enact it. The good man Jesus and Christ the scoundrel anyone? Jeez – even good humanists know this.

A lot of agriculture and “what about the workers?” Oh, and – spoiler alert – sadly, Anna doesn’t make it through her paranoia. Too great to do justice in any actual review or selection of quotes.

Simply, a great book.

There’s no view from nowhere.
[Via PressThink Top Ten Problems.]

That’s not just a lesson for science (after Nagel) it’s also true of objective journalism. Objective journalism is in danger of being politically-correct, false-neutral, bogus-balance “platforming”. Perversely, the more scrupulously neutral (I’m talking to you BBC), the bigger this problem.

No-platforming is not censorship of free-speech, it’s a publishing and retailing choice. [BBC and John Lewis] If you’re going to give a platform to hateful bollox, it needs to be in a context of explicit challenge, not reasonable openness.

You can help me sing the song
And it’s all right, baby, it’s all right
They can tell you what to do
But they’ll make a fool of you and it’s all right
Baby, it’s all right
We’re on a road to nowhere
[David Byrne]

The core of this post I almost drafted some months ago, but thought it might have been a bit sour grapes, a bit jealousy even, certainly patronising. Honestly patronising. Whenever I’d have written it, it would have been honest, but sometimes you have to ask yourself, speech may be free but is it always worth it. Keep counsel, choose your time, choose your battles.

Triggered to post today because I found the same person is guilty of sharing/liking fake information on social media and, as I write this, not having noticed or retracted, not even acknowledged, let alone apologised. I’m not bitter or anything.

A young mum of twins, post-doc science researcher making her way in some branch of particle physics. Drawn to her originally because of her catholic taste across many different branches of science, already rubbing shoulders with a few “greats”, focussing on public “sci-com” blogging it seemed, already being picked-up and quoted in other media. Good luck to her. Seriously, I wish her well. Patronising, I know. No, I’m not bitter.

Recently as well as her “Back Reaction” blog feeds into her social media channels, she also has a personal channel where she post and links political and social content. You know – liberal, anti-Trump – aren’t we all? This is the context where today’s fake-post gaffe arose. So, interestingly, within minutes of her re-tweeting this post:

She liked the fake tweet version of this story:

I replied pointing out her gaffe, but as I say, no ackowledgement so far.

However before today, I had already stopped trying to interact with her – over a year ago – on alternative physical and philosophical views of particular science stories, when it became clear her echo-chamber was reinforcing her (scientific) prejudices, and her attention was drawn to her own growing audience. The accepted position was received wisdom. Total scientistic rejection of the value of any philosophical thinking or questioning. No point my simply being a pain in the ass. Only so many hours in the day to address “somethings wrong on the internet”. And I’m not bitter.

Having withdrawn when I did, I missed this “Talk to a Physicist” move. She had some freetime between assignments, so she set herself up as an on-line consultant to answer lay-person questions – for a fee – on physics. Great creative entrepreneurial move. Other “experts” should do it. There is of course a platform – Quora – built on exactly this idea, but without the fee. I would have taken her up on it, since I am prepared to put my money where my mouth is, to get a few moments of quality-time attention. Quality attention matters. I have skin in this game too. The game of honest science, and good knowledge generally. But I missed it. Bitter, who me?

It was when she posted the “findings” of her expert-for-a-fee exercise that I very nearly made this post. Aparently all autodidacts with alternative physics and philosophy ideas are sad middle-aged white guys with sheds, and so their ideas are without formally publishable objective evidence, and are worthless. I made just one passing reference to her “autodidact” report, here. Really, I’m not bitter.

Nothing personal, but this is archetypal, prejudiced, self-reinforcing, confirmation-biased, echo-chamber garbage. She is no expert in any valuable sense of the word. Also today she’s just shared this (and I responded):

And she’s just the example I’ve picked to illustrate the problem – seriously, nothing personal. Science really is as politically compromised as any branch of entertainment, political or cultural media. As compromised as any win-lose debate. As compromised as any election.

The expert is dead, long live the expert.
What we need is love, and trust.
Come on Sabine, we can sort this out.

That information and communication are fundamental properties and behaviours of the universe, human and cosmic, has kinda been part of my worldview since I started this blogging project, but it’s one of those “facts” that becomes ever more clearly defined. And I don’t believe it’s just the self-reinforcement of echo-chamber and confirmation-bias. If anything, it’s a view I hold despite not many others who admit to holding.

My most recent confirmations, in just the last couple of weeks, are here;
Valuing Difference (human, cultural, political) and here,
Rovelli’s Quantum Loop Gravity (cosmic, physical, metaphysical)
Significant Bits are the fundaments of the entire universe.

A recurring web-meme is people posting “Maslow’s Pyramid” (*) of human needs, with internet connection (technology, apps and/or power, whatever) as an additional foundation layer.

Image result

It’s so wrong, it’s right or maybe vice-versa. I love it and loath it all at once.

The pyramid itself has been regularly subject to debunking and re-habilitation many times. I happen to hold it as capturing some important generic truths, even though as a simple-picture-painting-a-thousand-words it is (obviously) subject to much debate about details and contexts of applicability [see the (*) footnote].

Today Erin Noonan posted the above version on Facebook, and I was moved to respond (expanded and clarified here for the blog context):

I love this meme, because it is so wrong.
Couldn’t be more wrong.

WiFi (connectivity in the world) has to be the biggest “proof” that the rest of the pyramid (based on Maslow’s work) is 100% right – complete AND consistent.

Communication runs right through the pyramid. It’s not just an additional foundation layer in the direction of the human motivation axis. It’s independent of, and fundamental to the whole fabric of the pyramid (and everything else) from a completely orthogonal direction

So working up from the bottom of the pyramid:

Physiological – The air we breath to be able to talk and listen, is our most basic communication, not to mention the other physical senses and signalling.

Safety & Security – Protecting our physical well-being from threats also depends being able to communicate, whether it’s interpersonal (having friends check on each other or hit the alarm when threats are perceived) or institutional (who ya gonna call, 999 / 911 / 112 in emergencies).

Social Needs – The term social-media says it all.

Esteem – The fact social media runs on likes and follows, feeds our own extrinsic social worth back to us.

Self-Actualisation – The enabling power of electronic media, social or otherwise means that we’re can all be creators of intrinsic value now, whether blogging communications for their own sake or doing so as part of some other creative enterprise.

It’s no coincidence that an important feature of the pyramid of drivers is that they do indeed range from the most basic physical to the most conceivably creative.


(*) The “pyramid” is of course a 2D triangle and it’s not actually Maslow’s. But apart from that, it’s simply the evolved result of scholars of behaviour and management summarising Maslow’s work. If you ever pin down an original source, I’d like to hear from you. As something I value, I have maintained and updated my own piece on it’s current state in the world, here.