Street Epistemology Update

Dave Harding posted on a recent Magnabosco filmed SE session. (Update in the sense that I posted on these earlier examples 3 years or so ago.) These are rough notes in preparation for a dialogue.

SE = Street Epistemology
SM = Socratic (Questioning) Methodology

Interesting that David concludes this subject actually questions him back, as I noted too. Anyway, my rough notes:

Selective – one young passer by, who happened to chose “the God of Israel as the one true God” as a confident belief. Selection is no coincidence. (And this is a very naive subject – by definition – still in school and too busy for interaction with any wider ideas, on her own admission later.)

Where she is right now is because of her Christian church upbringing. Aware of this late middle / early high school. I want to follow what’s true. Looking for truth. Needs a firm foundation. (Seeking notice, not justifying that it is or even saying what it is.)

(Still not said what is believed or any reasoning why – just the wish / seeking.) Just claiming 100% belief, but recognise even that leaves her with questions to wrestle with. Confidence nevertheless remains 100%. (That’s what I’d call faith. Proceeding “as if” true, despite open mind to modification – metaphorically true in Peterson/Harris terms)

(Ought to be prompting some questions of what 100% belief means – given still questions. Switches to opposite, though, non-belief?)

Actual truth is independent of her confidence. Check. Confidence in belief doesn’t discount the possibility of being false. (ie she doesn’t doubt this false possibility, even though she doesn’t doubt this belief. Not willing to lower her confidence, even though open to doubt. Mentions “proofs” – so we need to ask. (We already have “faith” on the table, but now we have “proof” – problematic I’d say – but she introduced the term, guessing that’s what Anthony meant by justification / reasons I’d say.)

Main proof. It’s about changing you – whatever religion it is. (OK. I don’t hear any proof?) The personal experience of change. (She – and Anthony – should be exploring the nature of that “experience” and change?)

(Switch straight to alternate case of someone else’s experience of a different religion? Her example too close, he suggests Hindu Vishnu hypothetical?)

Main, but not sole “proof”. Faith? How is that different to maintaining 100% confidence despite acknowledging the risk of falsehood.

Not necessary to know everything, so why drop level of confidence on incomplete proof.

(Actually think the problem here is limits in the skill of the facilitator / questioner.)

Recalling “drills” of what she’s been taught – but yes, she is saying faith and belief are synonymous (my point earlier) hence his questioning is not actually analysing (separating) anything.

Accepting evidence exists on trust, without first hand experience of it.

Circled a bunch. Yes, not actually settled on much.

Objective – truth. Questions are best method for test whether is belief is true – no argument. The analytical part, but is not the creative / constructive seeking part?

There is a season. More questions, always. Leave to think about.

(Yes she would be good at the SE method. And yes she will probably continue to be thoughtful in her beliefs)

This was a pretty benign encounter – thoughtfully increasing thoughtfulness. Still see basic limitations to SM / SE process to naive questioning side.

(His one-sided post-summary of her “honesty” …. hmmm.
See steelmanning by contrast.)

Overall, however, much better than the bad-faith examples I’d reviewed before.

David naturally links his own conclusion to the MoQ.

Encouraging intellectual thought like this is moral
according to the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ).

Sure is moral, though should not be encouraged to the exclusion of intuition and action. And, that’s true according to many a perennial philosophy, including Pirsig’s MoQ.

And if the objective is simply to get someone to start their own internal conversation with questioning – it’s all good. In this specific example, the line of questions seemed a little “random” – switches of subject at points when obvious sequential questions had arisen – still encourages questioning, but maybe less “productive” as time-limited discourse. Leaves me with two fears. One, no evidence that the Q&A changed Anthony’s thinking anywhere? Two, as well as “thinking” she clearly took away some “assumptions” about what she thought she was getting from Anthony – that were probably misleading guesses, I’m guessing – dialogue really needs to happen over extended multiple human encounters. (Need some Rappaport / Steelman cycles in there.)

But as I say to “initiate” thinking – all good. Epistemology 101. (ie This is primarily about testing epistemology rather than creation or synthesis of the causal taxonomies / ontologies required or implied. Anthony implied several times the “basket” of reasons would have some logical / causal hierarchies / and dependency networks / heterarchies – so I know he understands this. Even in a 45 minute engaged and lively encounter, the only real “content” achieved is the questioning thought.)


[Post Note: and here Julian Baggini on the problem with Plato and the fact that after getting us to first-base, the Socratic Method is more of a hindrance than a virtue. Another aspect of “easy but ultimately wrong.]

[Post Note: Compare and contrast, as well as joining some dots. We see from earlier “SE/SM” examples, linked in the intro, that one of the credible philosophical drivers here is Peter Boghossian (not to be confused with Paul Boghossian). If his Wikipedia bio is to be believed he makes a virtue out of Socratic Pedagogy. So we part company at first-base – interestingly, dealing with educating prisoners (yet another level of interrupt!) – so OK for Edu101 – first-base as I say. Anyway, the dots – (Peter) Boghossian is also behind this PC Bias in Social Science Research project – a variant on Sokal. Not sure Socrates can handle the levels of irony needed here.]

Reason and the Gods

The content and quality is somewhat undersold by the title but this session from IAI HTLGI (not sure which year?) has some fascinating examples of the key dialogues.

Titled “Reason and the Gods”
Subtitled “The necessity of religion and spirituality”

Gottlieb ultimately falling back on – “but what do we mean by religion” – when asked to address some specific assertion about the inevitability and need for religion, by Baggini in the chair. Need to (at least implicitly) classify an ontology as part of the question. Sure, wide / shallow definitions – land-grabs – always kill the dialogue, but in good faith the parts and layers present or absent need to be addressed separately. There are a whole range of “religious” components – and on many dimensions too, from:

  • The spiritual feel of more than the objectified individual in a material world
  • Meaning of life in the good(s) lived for – Maslow and all that.
  • Theistic and non-theistic framework and physical/literal and metaphorical and/or ritual conceptions of these.
  • Dogma and denial or intolerance of alternatives and formal authority of texts and priests and organised ritual, etc.
  • We’re talking about some or all of these (and maybe some more independent aspects I’ve missed) when we talk about religious belief, and whether or not we need a comprehensive religion to satisfy the need for any one part (if at all).

Woodhead – voices a counterbalance to the “all you need is love” and golden-rule consideration idea, that is, you also need truth and courage etc. There’s a word for this amorphous collection of personal good – Virtue (after virtues).

Anyway, the main reason for posting was the people.

  • Julian Baggini I already know and like (much referenced here). In this dialogue Baggini is chair and handles it well, with his knowledgable ability to summarise and ask the next question.
  • Anthony Gottlieb I’ve never seen or heard speak, but was a big fan of his two books “The Dream of Reason” and “The Dream of Enlightenment” (Both of which I saw as supplemented – even completed – by Kenan Malik’s “Moral Compass” – which is relevant topic-wise though he’s not part of this dialogue.) Gottlieb, as my one comment above suggests, is cast as the anti-religious atheist / rationalist / humanist role in this dialogue, so I suspect doesn’t do justice to the nuances of his real position.
  • Linda Woodhead I’m aware of but not previously registered any of her contributions explicitly. Came across as an excellent considered defender of the place of religion, with all the subtleties in the detail. Must follow-up.
  • Myriam François I’d not come across at all before. She was a breath of fresh air. Proper assured dialogue in the role of SOAS Islamist / Journalist in this archetypically God vs Reason caricature. Must follow-up.

Zionist Set-up of Israel was Racist – Obviously.

The Zionist set-up of Israel was historically – obviously – racist. By definition, a lot of “Western Empire” activities were. And equally obviously modern-day Israel is a state that needs holding to critical account for its actions like any other.


But this is not what the Labour party anti-semitism arguments are about.

It’s about truth AND reconciliation. Freedom to state (historical) truth is one thing. Appropriateness of when and where to say it is another.  Reducing the multi-layered / multi-timescale complexity – conflating many issues – into a single present-tense sound-bite / poster-slogan is a disgusting move.

Freedom of thought and expression is enshrined in UN. Reminding and assuring people that still exists (generally) in one set of (specific) rules on anti-semitism and holocaust denial is a distraction. A dangerous, divisive, diabolically-motivated distraction.

Rules are for guidance of the wise. It is plain wrong – dangerously misleading – to refine rules to cover every conceivable situation, every exception, every counter-exclusion. Formal rules should focus on their point.

There, I said it.

Literally Physical

I’m in the process of watching and listening to the three four recent Sam Harris / Jordan Peterson conversations.

[So far I’ve only watched the odd clipnow watched and annotated below, the whole of Parts 1 and 2. First one and first half of the second are excellent – second one degenerates into spurious assertions too complex to be properly discussed, despite brave efforts of Bret Weinstein.]

[Also, although I’d already captured the links from Peterson and Harris, the prompt to start this thread and actually watching them, was a tweet by Godless Spellchecker that shared one small clip – from late in Part 1 it turns out. I wish I hadn’t. Sadly that is just a religion-bashing-with-zero-attempt-at-understanding sound-bite. The conversation and Harris are much better than that. Utterly unrepresentative clip for a private agenda.]

Anyway, before I do, I’m prompted to post my starting position, as I often do, in order to keep myself honest on any eventual opinion.

Harris I have problems with – as one of the four horsemen, he is one face of “new atheism” that appeals to many of the objectively reductionist  types. Even though I question his credentials for the positions he holds, he is a good writer though, and through his many recent “conversations” what he is missing, with that “scientistic” position when it comes to facts and evidence, is becoming more apparent. Dennett gave up trying to educate him, but eventually they made up and parted friends. Some other recent conversations I saw him as “chastened” by what he didn’t understand, a sure sign that he may be starting to appreciate what that is.

Peterson is controversial – polemical by design – but is nevertheless an interesting thinker. More to the point he sees the value of actual conversation over and above any logical argument content of such dialogue. It’s a feature of the IDW (Intellectual Dark Web) he inhabits in dialogue with other controversial thinkers, when not in the blinding spotlight of publicity (BSP) he clearly also seeks. For me that irony is his point.

Stephen Knight is one of the post-new-atheist on-line personalities with his Godless Spellchecker podcasts of interviews debunking supernatural religious myths – and related cultural evils – as he would see it. Good luck to him I say. Me too. But, like Harris he has the same initial blind spot to his own thinking. Seeing all argument, and even conversational dialogue, in terms of physical evidence for physical facts.

He repeatedly emphasised “literal” in pointing out JBP’s difficulty answering SH’s question about a “physical” resurrection. In fact when challenged he insisted it was obfuscation (by me too) not to accept literal as synonymous with physical.

Quite simply, any talk of “god” and supernatural “miracles” is a branch of philosophy called theology, no matter how much a physical scientist qualifies his question with “literally”. The irony is that literally is literally about words, and the scientistic fallacy is to conflate the word with the object represented. To reify it in the physical world. Anyway, time I watched the Harris / Peterson dialogues. Back soon.

[Post Note after Parts 1 & 2 – why would anyone (Godless Spellchecker) pick up on that one “SH has a go at JBP” snippet from near the end of Part 1? The whole dialogue is EXCELLENT. Very bad faith by Godless Spellchecker.]


Maybe not that soon!
(4 x 2 hours of material?)
Part 1

Excellent. JBP starts with what I call Rappaport’s Rule, after Dennett (JBP refers to psychologist Karl Rogers) … the only way to start progress.

So, JBP on SH – Structuring ethics on something solid – avoiding two catastrophes, religious dogmatism and moral relativism. Yep says SH.

And, objective to minimise suffering / maximise well-being (kinda) Yep. (Classic Utilitarianism, though SH disowns the ism later.)

And yep, dogmatic fundamentalism of any kind, not just religious. (But not all dogmas are created equal? Sure. Cults resemble religion even if not strictly religious or theistic.) THE PROBLEM IS DOGMA – agreement reinforced. [Science is at risk of dogma as any religion.]

Hence primacy of “freedoms of thought and expression” – the antidote to dogma – enshrined in UN. Everything is in the details.

The only thing wrong with religion is dogma – this is not a joke. (Man, SH is setting-up some straw-man, JBP hauls this one back into the dialogue.) Anyway, joke aside, dogma is the problem. True belief has to be more than  cultural or religious heritage. (Chimps example – inherited culture deeper than religion and politics. [Sticklebacks, I’d add, too.])

Good people corrupted by religion – ISIS recruit example? Hmmm. Lot of “ifs” in the elaboration. Unpicked by JBP. Conflated claims of truth and understanding. Non-allegorical unambiguous (bad) content of Quran … sure. Pretext or veracity. Not sure where we’re headed here. Who’s arguing?

SH cracking jokes to score points? Still not sure who’s arguing – 14th century religious values and practice are dismantled by rationality, etc. And obviously old text could be better if written differently – this is the Irish argument. “I wouldn’t start from there.” Fine! [Dreadful partisan audience! Both ways!]

Whole (narrative) vs parts (sentences). However bad the parts, the whole provides context. OT is brutal. Harris is obsessed by “the text” – Christian, Jewish or Islamic. Psychological truths “in the rubble” not in all parts.

Straw-man! End of the book is not excusing the categorically bad.

Psychological truths is JBP’s thrust (unsurprisingly). Infinite interpretation of ANY narrative, including the would-be objectively factual one.

Fundamentalism beats subtle theology – sure – that’s memetics. We agree it’s dangerous. Things need “grounding” even where not cast in dogma.

Back to grounding values in (objective) truth. The old “is to ought” chestnut, without some interpretive framework? Not best captured by stories? No SH. No-one’s saying we lose grip on objective reality, it’s simply saying that’s not the same as moral value.

Abstractions are fictions, powerful and useful. (Why not extend good/bad parables to heaven and hell?) Aha – literal and metaphorical truth, we’ve arrived. (Bogging down, suggests Weinstein.)

No JBP’s not playing devil’s advocate – he agrees with you that hell is bad – he is simply saying that’s not an objective truth. An intuition that is (typically) captured in stories – even hypotheticals written by SH.

Yay! Evolutionary Heuristics! – in lieu of impractical objective calculation – to enable us to function in the world. (Again vague / multiple interpretation loses out to clear literal dogma – in a bad way, sure.) Memetic advantage says SH, as I already said above? Instrumental evolutionary advantage summarises Weinstein.

(The asymmetric memetic war is the real issue – my agenda. We know dogma is the problem, yet we allow simplistic memes to mislead our discourse.)

And we end on Dostoevsky!

Kinda Q&A – Weinstein by popular audience demand.

[?JBP wrote Maps of Meaning before E O Wilson coined consilience?]

[Different belief patterns in different cultural contexts. No self-consistency of belief patterns – Godel & Logical Utilitarianism! TIG Dissertation?]

[SH is now into straw-men – arguing against suggestions of moral relativism, even though they have been explicitly discarded.]

Own it! What game? Don’t understand, me too. Ah, now we’re getting the “literal” reincarnation question. Obvious why there is no clear cut answer. – He doesn’t even literally (physically) believe in god, as he has said several times. Weinstein understands this is a long topic. We’re down to “the word” and “literal” again … it’s complicated, how long have we got [2hrs later].

[The whole dialogue is about metaphysical / theological relations to physical science – absolutely right to hang onto that despite insistence on a physically -literally – phrased question.]

Part 2

Steelmanning (opposite of strawman – ie Rappaport again, see Part 1) Restating position of each as seen by the other, better than the other.

Both pretty good. The POINT of this kind of dialogue. SH gag – “you write my next book, I’ll write yours” – is the key point.

Focus is metaphorical vs “literal” truth. Except they stick to the sacrifice / deferred-gratification angle. The “metaphorical” angle is simply the “as if” behaviour, even where not literally true. Fiction is more useful than fact “sometimes” but relatively few and far between says SH. Emotional – irrational – attachment to gun safety – low-cost / high-risk-consequence. JBP strong on many “fictional” stories derived from – evolved from – empirical experience. Not “invented” a priori. Obviously.

SH position, says Weinstein, Why would anyone NOT unpack the literal truth of these “as if” truths? [This is so much better than “trolleyology”!]

Pascal’s wager – unattributed – by SH.

Rational (“cash”) based approach will always beat a traditional religious based approach. Sure. That’s about allowing reason to question (and change) dogma – but the conservatism has value in resisting stupid and dangerous – less than perfectly informed – new ideas. Where is there anything remotely contentious here? What is stupid is to throw conservative tradition out with the bathwater.

We’ve already agreed literal dogma is the problem. But “facts” need to include subjectivity. Value of a thing is not intrinsic to the assembly of its component parts. Jeez, the hypothetical statement that emotional (subjective) value is in detectable brain states. This just the crazy reductionist problem. Reflected in the brain(s) sure, but not deterministically (objectively reductionist) related. Objectifying the subjective – obviously – that is the problem, presuming only the objectifiable components of the subjective have value. SH getting too dismissive here. This is just a practical vs theoretical argument. In an ideal world we would aim to use the most objective rational resources to make our decisions – but life’s too short to exclude timely available traditional and subjective resources that have not yet been objectified (may never be).

This second half is more adversarial. SH is using spurious strawmen metaphorical arguments – this is falling apart. Pretending to care. No-one really lives their life the 100% rational way. Weinstein spots we have passed through the core here. Can anything sufficiently complicated – the mid-east problem – really be grounded in one person’s (or an impersonal no-personal)  rationality. A blank sheet of paper without the context and history of populations?

Naturalistic fallacy – natural selection isn’t naturally good. Absolutely – just look at memes, where popular = “best” by definition. [Not all evolution – biological and/or cultural – is progress. Coincidentally I’m currently reading JBS Haldane “Possible Worlds” collection and he makes this warning in “Darwin Today” back in the 1920’s. Very enlightening.]

Valuing “all” the variables – no we don’t, we encapsulate many sets of them in handy metaphorical, goods – heuristics – in real time. I agree this is the crux.

Jeez! – more trolleyology – orphaning my child for the life of another. This is not moral philosophy SH! It’s not. Such extreme, binary examples that prove this is NOT how real everyday moral choice works (like Schrodinger’s cat). A though experiment that illustrates the absurdity. SH is just not a credible moral philosopher.

Explanatory reasoning reach – SH get’s this – but it’s not exclusive. Reason (conscious, conceptual cognition) or die. More spurious strawmen – Batman and superheroes. Jeez SH. Good faith has left the building. Back to Weinstein.

Believing in the power of stories without believing what we shouldn’t believe? Sorry SH, you’ve lost your grounding. But intuitions ARE statements of faith – even local / temporary / tentative ones. (Not “dogmatic” faith, sure, we’ve already rejected those.)

SH on real AI now.

Weinstein summation of JBP “Some large fraction of [tradition] must be honoured.” Yep, agreed. (Divided brain … excellent. Good vs evil on a lansdcape of order and chaos.) (Spurious “eastern” noddy argument – sure there is a spectrum of evil and ignorance – who’s arguing. The Whitman brain-tumour defence. These are very complex arguments – SH unsuccessfully argued these with Dennett earlier.)

Good people ruled by bad ideas? – are evil people. People ARE their ideas – a very complex network of them. Back to free-will and “could have done otherwise”?

Universal good and evil – in a “right mind”. Categories don’t exist. We have the whole world on the table now – no chance of new progress.

“Well being” is good and we should ground our values in fact. Who’s arguing? All we’re acknowledging is that we have [useful] values that are NOT (yet, maybe never) grounded causally in such objective fact.

Integrative long-term evolved (subjective) value networks. Tools – rationality – are valued here and now.

Yep, good reasons don’t scale, bad reasons do in fact. Contrary to SH earlier claim. (Every gun is loaded. Valuable if not true.) Basic memetic argument – popular beats good.

I’m done. Not hearing anything new beyond my starting position.

(Need to read JBP’s posts about these dialogues:)

Facts and Values/Science and Religion: Notes on the Sam Harris Discussions (Part I)

[Post Note: Seems a fair summary to be, including the “steelmanning” of SH’s position and responses pretty much aligned with my take above. As I’ve said several times above – who’s arguing?]


Facts from Values? Not without an intermediary: Notes on the Sam Harris Discussions (Part II)

[Post Note: Also seems OK, but this is a deeper comparative review of the two positions beyond the 5 hours of dialogue, based on their two books. Maps of Meaning and The Moral Landscape. Neither of which I’ve read yet. I can’t buy and read books fast enough these days. Gonna have to start using the library(ies) more for research. Anyway, all looks credible, but can’t verify against the book contents.]

On facts, values, rationality and stories: Part III of Response to Harris

[And Part III of JBP’s response is effectively a chapter taken from his “Maps of Meaning” on Stories as the mediation between Facts and Values.]


Schrödinger – What is Life? / Mind and Matter

Working my way through a number of perennial philosophy references provided by Bruce Adam, initially in response to my After the Fireworks” Pirsig piece, and some subsequent posts. In fact I already collected most of the links in the “Perennialism” post.

I have the Clifford and J S Haldane materials ready to read.

Bruce also provided links to some on-line archive copies of Schrödinger – “What is Life?” and  “Mind & Matter“. I’d already read, liked and blogged reviews of these way back in 2004.

Out of curiosity I opened my copy of Schrödinger. The specific pages Bruce referenced – with Huxley’s “Perennial Philosophy” were heavily annotated by me at the time:

The final note to the Epilogue of “What is Life?“:

And later in “Mind & Matter“:

That Schrödinger quote on Huxley: “fit to explain, but difficult to grasp and liable to meet with opposition” – same problem I was having with “meta” in my previous post. Same problem dealing with anything tainted with “woo”.

Quick skim also reminds me of Schrödinger’s references to Spinoza and to some of the same Sanskrit / Upanishad terms and concepts picked-up on by Pirsig. What goes around comes around. I mused on that in my 2004 comments too.

[PS – One of the most irritating things about the man’s damn cat, is that so many people quote it without realising it was only ever a thought experiment intended to show how ludicrous the theory was around uncertainty and superposition, NOT as a means to visualise a physical possibility AND by concentrating on this trivial, social-media-friendly-cuddly-cat erroneous item, the quality of the man’s actual thought and writing is practically consigned to oblivion. Grrrr.

That was one thing Stephen Hawking got right, “When I hear of Schrödinger’s  cat I reach for my gun.“]

[Post Note: And ha, apparently it is 75 years since Schrödinger gave the What is Life Lecture:

And this image sums up the regretful state of his damn cat. If only!]


One day, the point of this “Meta” topic will stick with my readers, but for now this is just a holding post to collect previous attempts and add a few new inputs that might help me clarify it.

Back in 2011 I had Meta and Meta#2 attempts (*). Meta itself as a concept runs through many hundreds of posts and topics here, hardly surprising when so much of my over-arching agenda is at the metaphysical boundaries of physical reality. And my use of the term is the same root, same intended meaning, but sadly the meaning in use has ended up very one-dimensional …. which is going to take some explaining.

[(*) In fact those two explicit posts are not attempts at all, but simply references to usage, so they don’t add anything. Ho hum.]

Anyway, the problem is meta-meta and more:

The net practical result of “meta”
is that “things”
are not defined by “words”
with clear “definitions”.

Here I’m effectively talking about the use of the word meta and/or my intended definition – usage – of it. And when I used the single level “meta” I mean implicitly meta-[meta x n] as many levels of meta piled on meta as reality consists. (A bit like irony-[irony x n] incidentally – come in Richard Rorty.)

Bottom line is
all definitions (in words)
are about intent (in usage).

One of my heroes Dan Dennett is always warning his more scientistic – definitively objective – acolytes to “hold your definition”. Definitions are things that arise from, not things you impose on, discourse, whether that discourse is dialogue or argument. (Obviously, in a closed environment – the “control volume” of a scientific experiment or formally staged critical argument, you can – and should – impose whatever rules your game requires. Real life is not a repeatable experiment, it’s a different game.) Dan’s point is that definitions obscure the things you’re trying to understand before you understand them.

But having got to the bottom line so quickly – the problem of things and their definitions – I have glossed right over my “meta” point … so I need to back-up and unpick what I’m saying.

About a year or two ago I wrote a long piece on exactly this – the misuse of taxonomies and definitions – where I didn’t major on the meta. In fact it remains in draft with many fragmentary references only to the politics of identity – how we identify individuals by definitions of their class(es). It was called “Good Fences” – about “dividing lines” we use to distinguish between things and the words we choose to represent them. (I repurposed the original Good Fences draft for one particular border dispute, but that never got published. So I need to rework it – and can emphasise this meta problem.)

So for now, the meta problem in expecting things to be definitive.

One news story today on AI replacing humans in various roles, specifically in the legal profession. Somehow in a profession driven by rules (of law) it seems self-evident that automation can bring consistency and predictable clarity (as well as efficiencies). Jeez! One, see rules. Two, the application of rules is not linear anyway. Circumstances are many-layered, relations between the layers would by inconsistencies if confined within layers. Even the layers are not one-dimensionally stacked. There is no reality without Hofstadterian strange-loops that cross levels. (This IS the meta point, if I can elaborate it comprehensibly.)

Consistency and transparency are over-rated concepts.

A second story on Twitter was sparked by Dick the Dawk’s suggestion  that he needs to write a book on atheism for kids, and the general response that someone with a little humanity and “generosity of spirit” – like Alom Shaha – would do a much better job. (In fact he already wrote “The Young Person’s Guide to Atheism”) I managed to ignore Dawkins suggestion yesterday, but had to agree with @TheosElizabeth characterisation of Alom today.

Then Liz made a plea to somehow downgrade the “boo” factor in the word “indoctrination” – the child-abuse charge Dawkins habitually parrots in this space- since we all intentionally or otherwise pass on values and stories from one generation to the next. That is clearly not bad in itself, it’s absolutely essential in fact. I responded with the counter plea that we should keep indoctrination for the more doctrinaire / ideological process and inculcation for the “better” kind.

(Aside – One of my triggers is “PC” – people flattening the playing field with broad definitions and word usage that disguise real and important differences. Usually the reason being that hard and fast definitive differences are often difficult to come by and too subtle for mean-spirited rhetorical cut and thrust anyway. I prefer we properly address the hard problem, rather than impose an unworkable simplification by banning or ignoring uses of a word.)

Anyway, Liz asked me for the definitive difference between inculcation (good) and indoctrination (bad) – hence this (inconclusive) post. The trigger was her use of “line” and “definition”. So far this is just an early attempt at elaboration on my response:

The point here is not as simple as “hard-lines” being divisive, unlike “good-fences” being collaborative. But that the defensive (definitional) processes and collaborative (usage) processes work on multiple different meta levels. It’s about how, not what. Definition is just too one-dimensional for reality.

[Work-in-Progress – Need to come back.]


I’ve been using parts of the verb “moderate” in ambiguous contexts recently, but deliberately because, whatever its etymology, its different uses are surely related at root.

Everything in moderation is a kind of plea for moderation, a middle-way between extremes – a good example here on dietary “fads” from Julian Baggini. He concludes – in this dietary context:

“The burden of proof is always on those who deny the middle path. Extreme claims almost always turn out to be wrong. Almost always.”

It’s more general than that of course, wherever extremes are recommended, especially in polarisation to opposite extremes. Taleb’s work is important in drawing conclusions from the “tails” of statistical probabilities, there visual insignificance can hide very significant mechanisms. As Baggini suggests, it’s really about the onus of evidence – and that’s not about quantity, weight or shouting loudest, it’s about very specific understanding of what is happening.

But I’ve also been using moderation in the sense of moderator rods in a nuclear reactor – something that basically slows down a process that might be in danger of running away with itself, towards unintended consequences, left to its own devices. And I’ve been using it in connection with mediated and social media contexts. It’s like censorship (god forbid) but at a process level. Viral polarisation is a real barrier to progress everywhere right now. 99 times out of a 100 the extreme positions are insignificant to the issue immediately to hand, and their prominence simply gets in the way of finding best solutions.

A great acceleration of “western” decline, no less.

And yes, it’s about evolution,

… all mutation and no conservation equals death.

Rules That Ain’t

There are some classic memes where smart-asses point out ambiguities, disagreements and exceptions to would-be rules. I’m thinking about two kinds here:

BODMAS” rules of algebraic computation
[Brackets, Power(Order, Of), Division, Multiplication, Addition & Subtraction] and/or

I before E except after C” in spelling of “ie” and “ei” words in English

The former tends to be the “please share this quiz” format, turbocharged with the psychological virality tag-line “95% of people get this wrong” or “only genius get this right”. They are often the visual algebra of simultaneous equations of apples, pears, bananas and shapes, sometimes a simple arithmetic string without any punctuation other than mathematical operators. Arithmetically the problem is always trivial – these are click-bait after all – but the thread of responses invariably degenerates into two camps. BODMAS vs Sequential processing (and general trolling mischief) – and the real click-spreading objective has been achieved. Sometimes the same trivial arithmetic problem is buried behind a level of visual inference.

A simple version:

A complex version (still hiding the same problem):

The latter tends to be “poem” format – constructing sentences from “ei” and “ie” words that make a point about the rules being broken – usually clever and creative, hence their wide circulation. Here’s an example of the latter:

The implicit point is they’re not really rules, have little value and shouldn’t be taught. But this is just more of the logical absolutism meta-meme currently polarising every area of life. If you can’t prove it unambiguously it ain’t true. Picture or it didn’t happen. Black ain’t white. Exceptions that might “prove” rules, mean rules should be ignored, etc.

The disagreement over BODMAS is actually trivial, and basically a context problem. In a human context the point of the rule is that rules matter, not the specific content of the rule – the specific content can get very complex depending how rarefied the maths gets beyond Arithmetic101 . A convention is needed to get an unambiguous answer. In human processing, where you can “see the whole” as well as the analysis, you are mentally chunking the problem into its constituent parts – because the parts have semantic significance – they tell you something about the real world problem represented. Increasingly sadly, the only real-world context is “here’s an infuriating internet meme”. In a machine processing context – a file is fed sequentially into a processor and processed from the top / front. One spanner in the works is that a ubiquitous spreadsheet tool, like Excel, is a human-machine interface. The formula in the cell follows a highly elaborate version of the human (BODMAS) rules – there is a level of on-the-fly pre-compiling in the app before the underlying device does the processing. It’s why Excel checks the formula before it allows you to save it.

The I before E rule is trickier, because even when you understand it, there are etymological exceptions. The basic rule, for English language etymology up to say Victorian / Empire days does hold, provided you know how the words are pronounced. My wife is, and my dad was, Scots with impeccable pronunciation. They know when “ie” is one or two syllables or a diphthong – again you have to chunk the word to see it’s parts, where it and they came from. You learn the rule because it teaches you about words, about humans, about etymology, about history … about life. (Hard to give enough examples in text form only, to illustrate this further. Phonetics of “ay”, “aye”, “ee” and compound versions, etc.)

Rules are worth knowing …. and understanding. They are for guidance of the wise and the enslavement of fools.