The Enormous Vroom / Vrooom

Was reminded by David Matos of one of the earliest reviews of Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. “The Enormous Vroom” by R.Z. Sheppard in Time magazine, April 15, 1974, the day after publication, and the same day as George Steiner’s “Uneasy Rider” in The New Yorker.

I’d forgotten it (and on-line copies had disappeared until I rescued a copy) but I recalled that opening paragraph instantly:

Like the pool hall and the tattoo parlor, the motorcycle usually gets a bad press. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) terminated his romance with himself aboard a British army bike, which he had named George VII. During the ’50s and ’60s, Hell’s Angels on their Harley-Davidsons turned in convincing performances as Visigoths at the gates of suburbia. Easy Rider could not keep off the grass, and Evel Knievel, that star-spangled Icarus of the carnival circuit, gives young minibike owners potentially lethal delusions of grandeur. But now, during the lull in the great gas panic of ’74, comes a 46-year-old Minnesotan and writer of computer manuals, who makes the motorcycle not only respectable but also a focus of mental and spiritual health.

It resonates with me not simply because it summarily captures the “culture-bearing” fit of the book, but because of that opening reference to T E Lawrence, another hero of mine. Like all good myths the tone is perfect even if the facts are wrong. (Although he’s often pictured in army private uniform on the Brough SS100 he called George V (10 years before his death), it was very much his bike. In fact he owned eight of them and had a close association with Brough, their designs and performance. George VII, the later one he died on in 1935, was also known as Boanerges, the name of he gave his first Brough Superior. George VIII was on order but undelivered when he died. Easy when you have Wikipedia, which Sheppard didn’t. And, personal interest, Boanerges was also the name of our engineering mascot vintage motor at Imperial College, London.)

Uneasy Rider carried the cachet of Steiner’s “stellar” reputation, but Sheppard’s Vroom is every bit as good, and part of the marketing of ZMM on its original publication.


[Post note: One intriguing suggestion from David Matos comment in his own FB post, the motorcycle with sidecar that Pirsig had been driven by his parents round London and England back in 1933 may have been a Brough!]

CV19 and Irrational Science?

I posted this thought, before the UK lockdown:

I also got into a “dialogue” with Massimo Pigliucci when I posted this in response to Jim Baggott’s piece at IAI “Science in the time of coronavirus
Exploring the tension between scientific reasoning and human irrationality.”

It went nowhere, because Massimo seemed to think I was disagreeing with Jim and the exchange went on to have nothing to do with what I’d actually said, which was in fact a suggested paraphrase of this early paragraph from Jim:

Actually, irrational behaviour is not so difficult to understand. The simple truth is that we have created for ourselves a world that is far more complex than any individual human mind can ever hope to fathom. We have invented extraordinary social structures to help us earn a living, care for us, protect us from harm, and to manage trade among ourselves in an increasingly connected world.

Twitter is a useless medium for actual dialogue, other than sharing links and pithy rhetorical exchanges. Massimo, when he’d lost track of what I’d actually said, simply repeated that since I was disagreeing with Jim (I wasn’t) I needed to provide an example.

I didn’t have in mind any other example than the same one Jim had. That the received wisdom of lockdown might not be as straightforwardly rational as the “science led” rhetoric of the politicians would have us believe. (At which point this is in danger of becoming a debate about narrow and broad definitions of rationality and more to the point, the “quality” of any rationale based on your chosen rationality.) As an example, it’s too complicated for Twitter rhetoric, hence this post (as in, hence Jim’s post too).

The CV19 (UK Lockdown and Social Distancing) strategy is basically about saving lives from premature CV19 death, and protecting the NHS from anything that might reduce their effectiveness in that aim, by minimising spread of CV19 infection in the population in order to minimise the viral-load-over-time on health-care and other key workers. (If you disagree that’s a fair summary, help me with that reality before engaging in any subsequent argument.)

So, back to the “science-led” rationale.

I’m an epistemologist, not claiming anything wrong with the epidemiology science. What I’m claiming is that the strategy is not science-led. Perhaps surprisingly, I’m suggesting it could be a good thing that it’s not, although unfortunately by making that the core of the policy, the politicians have cut actually themselves off from a better, broader rationality.

I’m also not claiming wrong or casting any doubt on diagnoses of death, from or with CV19. Health professionals put contributing factors as well as proximate causes on death certificates. It may be an imperfect science, but it’s sincere and professional – even if overall awareness might put it more in the spotlight as a potential factor to be tested for.

The first irrationality is the idea that lives are “paramount” in the sense that death and risks of death as countable facts must be minimised above all other factors. This is a religious act of faith. It is not science-based. No amount of good science based on that premise produces (good) science-led political advice and rules.

The idea that “saving lives” is paramount. There’s worse things than dying, and quality of life extended in an individual who may have other conditions predicting premature death is essentially subjective, even if objective quantifiers are created in order to assess. Premature is itself subjective in elderly who have achieved a “good” age. Simply replacing all these subjective components with the idea of maximise a where a = greatest possible age, or minimise d where d = any death, is nonsense. If in doubt, ask an elderly loved one.

Anyway any coronavirus management decision is ultimately about the quality (and quantity) of extended lives vs the unintended consequences. And they’re unintended in that they are unpredictable to anything like the same extent – not even precautionary ignorance – as the CV19 death toll as a numerical count.

And they’re not just economic and ecological consequences, but displaced life & death health consequences. Non-referred minor symptoms that turn out to be life-threatening. Psychological causes now of physical ailments later.

Sure the epidemiological science can be as good as the epidemiological knowledge, and statistical predictive knowledge based on uncertainty and a precautionary approach to unknowns. But however good it is it’s still only epidemiological science and single measure of success. No matter how many daily graphs we get shown, a single numerically quantifiable measure. We actually have a choice about what to be precautionary about.

A science-led politics is only as good as that choice.

The reality of all conceivable unintended consequences is not only as complex as the whole human cosmos, but there is no single measure or set of measures about which to be precautionary. Being precautionary about ignorance, of what we could measure and predict with knowledge in principle, is no protection about those factors we cannot even attempt to model at the time we need to make decisions. And, many of the factors are essentially qualitative.

Furthermore none of these possible histories will be repeatable. After the event(s) we will be able to attribute causal whys and wherefores but these will only as good as history written by the survivors. Conclusions will be in no way scientific. 20:20 hindsight at best.

Decisions – eg lockdown strategies including exit strategies – can be science-led in only a very narrow sense. In fact – if acknowledged – they require a much broader from of rationality. A political wisdom. If unacknowledged we are locked into a course of action based on a kind of tunnel-vision. The irrational fetish that “science-led” is the only defensible rationale. Something I’ve been calling Catch-22 for several decades.

Fortunately there are alternative voices being heard. Last weekend it was Jonathon Sumption in the Sunday Times (which I’ve still not actually read in any detail). This morning it was Dr Spiegel on BBC R4 Today

Science can’t tell you what you should do.
– Spiegel

To believe it can, is irrational.


Margaret Wertheim – Pythagoras’ Trousers

Way behind on both reading and writing, but have read two great books I need to review / gut. Firstly, below, “Pythagoras’ Trousers” by Margaret Wertheim, subtitled “God, Physics and the Gender Wars“. The Pythagoras connection follows on from my read of Philip Goff, but I’m still not sure where I picked up the reference. My initial response in a short burst of tweets:

[The rest of this post is that “gutted” content for ongoing research. As a review it doesn’t do justice – but highly – Highly – recommended.]

The (hopefully) historical gender politics of science remains a fascinating read in its own right, but as I say in that last tweet:

The blind spot of orthodox science
re its god-like foundations
becomes a bigger obstacle to progress every day.

Very much the same premise as Philip Goff:

Galileo and Newton were successful with their physics precisely because they worked within a narrow range of purely physical properties … they did not hanker after mathematical formulations of sin and grace … quaint absurdities of a confused past.

The invention of feminism:

In opposition to Aristotle, Averroes held that men and women were essentially equal … As the deeply Aristotelian high middle-ages gave way to the first stirrings of renaissance humanism … academic misogyny was the target of a feminist attack by Christine of Pisan (1364 – 1430) … in her “Book of the City of Ladies”. “If it were the custom to put the little maidens to school … to learn the sciences as they do the man children … they should learn as perfectly.”

First of several significant mentions of Roger Boscovich

Wow. Only the second person besides myself to make this “standing on the shoulders of giants” statement about Einstein:

Whereas contemporary physicists who talk about the “mind of God” are following in Einstein’s footsteps, he in turn was following in Boscovich’s.


Dostoyevsky – The Idiot

I’ve started to read The Idiot several times, got as far as Myshkin arriving in Petersburg once or twice, but never got as far as realising his “Prince” character was the “Idiot” – as the naïve and well-intentioned voice in a complex world of love, money, ambition and personal motivation. Dostoyevsky’s strategy to communicate his message, like Tolstoy’s Levin in Karenina, or the child noticing the emperor’s (lack of) clothes.

All makes sense now. Thanks to a Tweet yesterday, I was prompted to listen to the whole of a BBC R4 dramatization in 4 parts.

(Thanks to an approving Retweet by Andrew Copson.)

It’s all there. Not just the Prince, but the strong feminist woman, outcast in a world where the other female characters were second class citizens. Recommended

[Talking of strong feminist women, also recently read Margaret Wertheim’s “Pythagoras’ Trousers – God, Physics and the Gender Wars”. Also highly recommended.]

Is Matter Conscious? No it isn’t, but …

[Posting a draft from 2017]

As a rule of thumb, any headline phrased like that kinda question was almost certainly created by an editor as click-bait and invariably demands the obvious answer “No”. So despite being Tweeted by @AnitaLeirfall – generally a reliable source 😉 – I didn’t actually read it beyond a skim of the opening paragraphs – another noddy introduction to the “hard problem” – yawn, right? Anything that looks like click-bait is a turn-off, right?

That was until today when this Twitter response turned up:

So much for my rules of thumb. Spinoza is a trigger for me. Always had a soft spot for him since a survey of my philosophical position showed me to be largely Spinozan (even though I was ignorant of his work at that time, 15 years ago) and found myself subscribing to the view that “Spinoza is the most lovable of philosophers” since I subsequently read Rebecca Goldstein on Spinoza. There is very little new under the sun I find, so coincidentally, whilst the article –  in Nautilus magazine by Hedda Hassel Mørch – mentions mainly Leibniz and Russell but not Spinoza among earlier thinkers, Russell was of course the source of that lovable Spinoza quote.

The bottom line is it’s a long read which does start with some essential introductory material but which works its way to the concluding suggestion that, whilst matter is not conscious per se, matter comprises the same proto-conscious stuff as consciousness itself. Pretty much the panpsychism of Spinoza – pantheistic in Spinozan terms, but he was for all practical purposes an atheist blasphemer.

Descartes 1650
Spinoza 1677
Leibniz 1716
Newton 1727
Boscovich 1787
Maxwell 1879
Mach 1916

Read it, all of it, I’m not going to summarise the whole thesis here, just reinforce it with some of my own recent conclusions. The clue is in the title, the whole title, including the subtitle, not just the click-bait headline:

Is Matter Conscious?
Why the central problem in neuroscience is mirrored in physics.

Spinoza was of course dealing with how life itself and Descartes’ res cogitans could be reconciled with res extensa – the duality whose vestiges stubbornly remain in the hard problem of consciousness to this day.  In those days the matter of res extensa had no equivalent hard problem; atoms were still presumed indivisible as Democritus intended, and apart from sharing the properties of material objects, they didn’t even have mass until posited by Newton. Materially, these were simpler times. As Mørch has subsequently indicated, Spinoza’s contribution though recognised as immense, was not relevant to parallel hard-problem(s) of duality **** parallels in wave-particle duality, quantum weirdness and even later speculative components underlying even the quarks, photons and all the other particles of the present day standard model of physics. Strings, Quantum-Loops, you name it.

The parallels between subjective-objective duality in the hard-problem of consciousness and the dualities between waves and particles, between quantum-mechanics and general-relativity of fundamental physics have been apparent, at least metaphorically, since Copenhagen and Schrödinger. But increasingly since then, more physicists, wrestling with unifying those decidedly weird and non-intuitive divisions, have been prepared to countenance that the metaphorical parallels may in fact be mirrored more explicitly in the physics itself. Mørch’s article describes that mirroring as potentially total – that both dualities are dissolved if physics stuff is actually comprised of the same psychic stuff. Not necessarily that the material particles of physics are conscious per se, but that they are made of the same proto-consciousness as consciousness itself.

I subscribe to a “point-particle” view of the universe, all of it. Everything is derived from (comprises / is caused by / is supervenient upon) – the relations – significant differences – between these otherwise property-less points of possibility in space-time. In this view – information both as bits and as dynamic patterns thereof. Significantly and coincidentally, until Newton added tangible mass Leibniz had held Democritus atoms to be such point-particles. Between Newton and Einstein (and Bohr and all the other quantum and relativity physicists) there had been Boscovich, Maxwell and Mach attempts at explaining physical material properties and forces in terms of simple (atomic) point-particles


Post Notes: See the comment thread and my last comment.

In small connected world mode – following-up Hedda Hassel Mørch connections (the author of the piece above), I find the IIT / Tononi connection AND I found Margaret Wertheim, author of “Pythagoras’ Trousers” (1995). Fascinating book in it’s own right – majoring on the mythologizing of Galileo and Pythagoras (a la Koestler and Dreger) leading modern science astray, BUT ALSO the only source I’ve seen other than L L Whyte to recognise the Boscovich model. Those points of “all possible being” to use the Heideggerian metaphor – “all conceivable possibility” to use Marletto & Deutsch. This is an important vein of research.

And the Pigliucci <> Goff dialogue has concluded. And Jerry Coyne has dived into irrationally defending orthodox science rationality against pan-psychic suggestions. Science orthodoxy as religious dogma is a major component of the Wertheim thesis above.

Philip Goff Round Up

Two things happened last week that made it essential I pick-up my Philip Goff thread.

    • Firstly there were a number of on-line philosophers – who should know better – reacting to Goff’s taboo-breaking promotion of pan-psychicism. Pigliucci, Churchland, Baggini, etc, (all people I otherwise respect) and more to the point their on-line hangers on, got quite hostile, to the point of misrepresenting and dismissively ridiculing what Goff is actually saying. A few of us responded in his defence –many tweets here. (Similar happened last year when Bernardo Kastrup was promoting his idealism.)
    • Secondly, having signed-off from considering Goff, I found myself at a meeting of North-East Humanists where Goff was the speaker on his topic of pan-psychism. An excellent talk and subsequent discussions, that reinforced how close I am to agreeing with Goff in my own position.

So, …

[Holding Posts for now:

Contemplating formatting the consolidated review for wider publication, beyond the blog. IStillOU]





Hypocrisy – In Bad Faith

Hypocrisy has been a formal topic of mine since my late-1980’s / early-90’s days (Brunsson, Argyris, Action Theory, et al). Great Point of View “On Hypocrisy” by Will Self this morning, pointing out two key things.

(1) Hypocrisy is an essential / inevitable / necessary part of social order in a functioning civilised society, but

(2) there is a world of difference between bad-faith and good-faith hypocrisy. Compounded levels of irony can become a disguise for bad motives in thought, speech and action.

Hear, hear!

Reading (& Writing) Catch-Up Jan 2020

Happy New Year everyone, just the one resolution here.
Not posted since November and not read much either.
Kinda(*) stalled I guess.

Work got serious in a shift from planning & requirements gathering to funding & implementation, so I’m distracted by the day-job – in a good way, for all the right reasons – and several half-completed reads / reviews got neglected. That and the dire doom and gloom left by UK GE 2019. Five more years of bloody #Brexit in prospect (still say it’s never gonna happen, except in face-saving-BINO “Brexit-in-name-only”). Actually only blogged 60-odd times in 2019, less than half the least year since I started in 2001 – mostly, in recent years, because so much more interaction happens directly on social-media, Twitter mainly in my case.

Been sticking pretty close to the Trans vs TERF battleground because it contains all the “it’s complicated” elements. Totally misguided reductive science-based “rights” campaigning agendas on the one side, real caring humanity on the other. Graham Linehan is on the right side of it, like Lewis Moonie, J K Rowling and Martina Navratilova, and Glinner’s made it his business for some time to fight this one to a conclusion, with his comedy writing career on hold. All power to his elbow. [Quite a large movement now using the hash-tag #BanGlinner in an ironic support for his free-speech.] Anyway, it’s grist to my mill on identity in philosophical realism, if I can ever do it justice.

I said I owed Philip Goff a more positive review after my fuller read, but ultimately I remained on the disappointed side. Close but no cigar.
[* Post Note – got to meet & hear Goff speak on Thursday at a meeting of the North-East Humanists. Even more convinced there is barely a cigarette paper between him and Dennett, though he doesn’t see it yet. Didn’t want to make that the main topic of – mainly linguistic – difference, when so far as I can see they are both making the same philosophical point about the damage being done by “scientism”. Much more important that humanist / rationalist / sceptic types understand the materialist error at the root of science. (Kinda / sorta are part of Dennett’s lexicon, when dealing with topics whose choice of words carry baggage that gets in the way of shared understanding – hold your definition he says, until you’ve progressed your dialogue constructively at the kinda / sorta level.)]

I read Timothy Sandefur’s biography “The Ascent of Jacob Bronowksi. Very good, highly recommended as a much needed biography, especially since the death of Bruno’s daughter Lisa Jardine meant her much anticipated memoir is now left incomplete. New to me was the amount of his philosophical thinking, ultimately foundering on disappointing idealistic naivety, but much of it along the right lines, Close but no cigar again. I have so many notes & highlights to feed into that particular mill.

Between Christmas and New Year, I’ve been reading Lionel Davidson’s “Kolymsky Heights“. Reading it because nonagenarian Mum, studying Russian literature under U3A, was disappointed to find it was a modern (1994) thriller. After previously underestimating Lee Child and Jack Reacher (courtesy of Andy and Heather Martin), (and Dan Brown’s “Origin), I thought I’d give it a go. It has amazingly positive review quotes in the cover blurbs, not least Philip Pullman’s “the best thriller I’ve ever read”. ?!? Man, it is the most tedious stereotypical garbage, with only the Asian / Siberian geographical detail to redeem it. James Bond meets Ice Station Zebra. I’ll finish it(*), if only to meta-understand the plot itself and its narrative structure, but it’s going to be a slog.

[(*) Finished it, and it didn’t improve. Reasonably exciting chase, will-he-won’t-he escape closing scenes with plenty of violent confusion requiring an epilogue to explain the outcome – spoiler – he survives and gets the girl with no discernible twist(s) – yawn.]

On the other hand, great to see Wendy Pirsig donated Bob’s Honda CB77 and related archive materials to the Smithsonian, and they published a piece on his philosophical motorcycle road trip. It was the highlight of an otherwise disappointing year in efforts to establish Bob’s legacy.

Pirsig’s writing may be more important now than ever.”

As the clinical psychiatrist advised Bob all those years ago, I’m going to stop reading and just bloody write something. This time, it starts with a resolution to quit the two decades of dithering between the textbook and the narrative fiction … I’m on it. I am resolved.