Had to capture this one.

Been drafting a piece on Robert Frost’s quote for some time now:

“Good Fences Make Good Neighbours.

However I have, in fact, used Robert Frost’s quote in so many contexts recently that maybe the actual post is now redundant.

The essence of the Frost quote is that agreed boundaries are valuable, say between science and philosophy or between rationality and religion, but more generally in “agreeing” working definitions for pragmatic modelling reasons. Too often a naive participant one one side or the other will want to insist on a hard and fast dividing line, and/or one that draws line to their maximum apparent advantage.

The Chesterton quote is about wanting to remove a “fence” – or any other institutional structure – because you don’t understand (nor agree) with it’s existence. The point being it must be maintained until the one side understands why the other has it there.  I see no reason, is no reason.

“There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

Actually very closely related to Dennett’s “hold your definition” and “Rappaport’s rule” too. In constructive debate it is better (more honest) to accept that you may each be using different working definitions (working understandings) of a concept; declare what they are by all means to help the dialogue, but do not attempt to “agree” or “impose” them as definitive – constraining the dialogue – until after the diaogue itself has reached mutually constructive progress. Late-binding definitions. Rappaport’s rule is an extreme variant which says, don’t even raise negative criticisms of your iterlocutor’s position (apparent argument, definitions, meanings and understandings) until they are able to thank you for re-stating their own position better that they themselves. Something to aspire to at least.

In fact – objective definitions are fetishised and there are alternatives.

I’ve been largely offline for a week visiting Florence, and in fact did very little reading whilst I was away. Florence was too fascinating. So, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Black Swan” and “Antifragile and Simon Blackburn’s “Truth” and “Hume remain incomplete and un-reviewed despite enjoying the gist I’d already gleaned from all four. Their styles could hardly be more different. Taleb writes like he tweets, aggressively and bluntly, if a little repetitively. In Blackburn on the other hand I hear his suggestion of Hume’s studied Edinburgh accent in everything he writes.

Rab C. Nesbitt meets Miss Jean Brodie? Tempus fugit however, and I may never now get round to completing those tasks.

Conversely, lying in bed ths morning, I read Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics in one sitting. I’ve been a fan, intrigued anyway, by Rovelli for several years, since he seemed to hold enlightened views on where the gaps in the foundations of knowledge really lie. Apart from noting his book had become a surprise “cult” best-seller, I’d not actually read any reviews, so was surprised to find how short and “primary” it is, aimed at the total novice lay-reader, with a limited attention span alluded to several times. A collection of articles from an Italian newspaper Sunday supplement apparently. Everything of his I’d read before has been much more technical and, whilst I might not agree with – or understand in sufficient detail – everything he says, I always feel he is on the right track.

His Seven Brief Lessons itself is an up-to-the-minute potted history of fundamental science. For me very little “new” in any objective sense. The summary of Loop Quantum Gravity (combined with zero mention of string theory, and only passing reference to super-symmetries) (*) did give me actual new knowledge. For anyone having read Gribbin & Charlesworth’s “Cartoon History of Time” and having grown-up with the inspiration of Carl Sagan and Jacob Bronowski to read about the likes of Einstein and Galileo, Bohr and Heisenberg, Gell-Mann and Feymann, and then embark on a life (60 years and counting) of wanting to understand more, then I’m not really Rovelli’s target audience. For me, everything Rovelli writes evokes Sagan (eg: we are stardust, evoking Lucretius and Blake and the hippies) and Bruno (eg: on the unfortunate Bolzmann).

We are stardust.
We are golden.
And we’ve got to get ourselves.
Back to the garden.
(Joni Mitchell – Woodstock)

However, I read Seven Brief Lessons in one sitting, without making any notes, so I will almost certainly go back, re-read and gut it for more jumping-off points of interest. For, despite being 99% “old hat” for me in terms of raw content, and plenty of points of disagreement on what he chooses to say, the brief narrative is full of important messages.

Firstly the relative estimates of what is unknown vs known with any “scientific” certainty about the natural world is huge.

“on the edge of what we know,
in contact with the ocean of the unknown”

Myth (and vision & imagination, neither of which are exclusive to or excluded from science itself) cover far more of the natural world than does science fact. Even leaving aside any debate about whether anything is ultimately unknowable to science, or any definitions of truth and knowledge or science per se, the scientifically unknown may always be shrinking, but always very large. Significantly so if, like Rovelli, you believe humanity has a very short and insignificant life-span on cosmic scales.

I say, we are literally special, as in individuals of a species of a genus.

Time (past, present & future, and even causation itself) really is the weirdest and least understood fundamental concept. Great that the Loop Quantum Gravity model brings it within, rather than beyond, natural science so we have some chance of evolving their understanding.

I can see why Smolin rates Rovelli’s work.

Bringing brief summaries across several schools of physics (and wider topics of psychology and philosophy) it is noticable, and in fact Rovelli warns, that use of language cannot be uniquely defined across all. Not even the word “reality”, with which I wanted to disagree with Rovelli’s use on a couple of occasions. There are boundaries between fields of study for practical management reasons – philosophy and physics to name but two – but these boundaries are “porous”. They are fences and not walls, so to use Robert Frost’s words “good fences make good neighbours”. Good scientists understand the value of their friendly neighbourhood philosophers.

The border is porous.
Myth [and vision and imagination] nourishes science.
Science nourishes myth.

Really noticable is that new theories that got taken-up and thrashed-out in detail by armies of future scientists, were often just ideas. Inspired in the sense that they came to someone – creatively and imaginatively – as a new way to visualise some existing problem, but nevertheless one of an infinity of possible (better) hypotheses. Those new ideas can come from outsiders and appear madness to existing experts in the field. One person’s annoying “autodidact” in their field, may be an experienced expert in another meta-field. Remember those fences. History is written by those that win, and winning is simply being useful for a generation or three.

Seemingly impossible madness we can do anytime, but hindsight takes a while.

In the model I appear to share with Rovelli, the whole natural world is one of continuing interaction and flow of information – even those things we call objects, even the fundamental particles –  and somehwere, somehow, time is about the entropy of information and causation the force driving it. It is also noticable that Rovelli is comfortable using the word God for unknown causes, yet I don’t for a moment believe he believes in any omnipotent supernatural being as a personal causal agent.

Causation moves in mysterious ways.

Fascinating to be reading Rovelli after our week in Florence. The amount of relgious devotional art and reliquaries of bones and artefacts of the saints is absolutely staggering. Shocking in a salutory way. Of course patronage was part of the politics of its times. But that patronage of religious-wealth and power-politics preserved in its buildings and their collections is a history lesson in both art and science as well as the human players. [It’s got me researching where the Medicis crossed paths with the Borgias and Savonarola again.] Wonderful irony that the Galileo museum holds and displays his fingers as preserved religious relics. I have a general downer on the particular Galileo myths – history written for the convenience of the victors and all that – but there can be no doubting that the ceilings of the Medici’s Uffizi record a breathtaking scope of art and science history as well as religion.

The Large Hadron Collider was not built in a day.

To conclude, and the reason I had to write this meta-review right now without having collected any notes and references, Rovelli closes with his take on the “I” of free-will. After earlier chapters rasing the apparent subjectvity of time and the apparent subjective distinction between reality and the known, Rovelli reveals he is essentially a compatibilist like Dennett and myself. My will is real, as is the I of me and my. We’re built of determinist physics, evolved and living, chemistry and biology. It may be a hard problem – impossible even, I suggest – to explain subjective experience in an objective way, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Questions like “Could I have done otherwise?” – with hindsight – are meaningless because the true nature of time and causation in the best accepted standard models of physics remain problematic, not because me and my will are unreal.

Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is a great little (80 page) read, even if, it seems, you’re not his target audience; “written for those who know little or nothing about modern science”. The content is brief, but the style is enthusiastic and inspiring.


[Post Note (*) To be clear, Loop Quantum Gravity is the branch of fundamental physics research that Rovelli is promoting. Will say more about other public scientist writers backing other horses. Never forget it’s all a sport – the game of life – which brings me back to Hume. See next post.]

As “Islamist” issues of every kind rumble on, I have often found myself pointing out that an elephant in the room is “modesty”. It makes me priggish to even mention it. Of course, when cultural taboos are enforced by patriarchal tradition, women come off worst in the more extreme interpretations of how much exposed flesh is considered inappropriate. But it’s not just women and it’s not just concerned with the distraction of sexual attraction. It’s all of us and it’s about bodily functions and personal body care generally.

Whatever the current level of cultural tolerance of exposed flesh, and whatever the state of evolution of cultural norms, it’s always going to be non-zero and it’s always going to be context dependent.

Setting precisely objective enforceable and quantifiable norms as laws and bans is also never going to be the solution to differences, except as temporary and pragmatic political statements. Appropriateness is about values; values shared culturally.

In the case of the Burka / Burkini total cover-up extremes, and the lesser variations on veils and head-scarves, and beyond the specifically Islamic cultural variations, there are:

  • Modesty per se.
  • Patriarchal domination of women’s freedoms.
  • Non-secular signalling – wearing and display of overtly religious symbols in secular contexts generally.
  • As well as the myriad of contextual variations; from lard-arsed chavs and gentlemen of a certain age wearing leggings and cycling shorts in public to olympic competitors in all manner of skimpy and skin-tight costumes. Too much information, about covers it. Conversely, this can’t be the first time I’ve admitted that I find the eyes-only forms of veil can be very sexy – a little information can carry a lot of meaning.

However, too far from “the norm” implies either a specific context or a specific statement being made, even if the statment is only one of careless ignorance. Freedom of expression is not absolute. Freedom of choice is never entirely free of cultural expectations.

The recent French burkini ban enforcement on the beach in Nice shows how easily the law is made an ass by inappropriate bans. Interesting that the meme erupting from that outrage involves many surfing nuns, Victorian bathing costumes and other historical fascist skirt-length-measurers.

Between repression and gay abandon, there is a wide spectrum of freedom and respect. Norms evolve with culture, and culture is not simply religious. In fact many religious taboos and norms are themselves appropriated conservatively from their pre-existing cultural surreoundings. For those lifestyles involving outdoor toil in hot and/or dusty conditions, near-total cover-up is common for both sexes. For women in particular covering up to avoid leathery tanned skin is a fashion motive first, driven by sexual attraction, and class aspirations. Fashions and what makes people attractive change with time and culture, but skin cancer has become a more permanent concern. What was a traditional veil in one culture has evolved into “slip, slap, slop” marketing in another. Most traditions arise from practicalities before dogmatic and extreme adoptions.

I guess this is really just a conversation starter. But the inescapable element for me is that the focus must be on the balance between the cultural acceptance of shared values and the tolerance of difference from the norm. Jurisdictions need boundaries, not for enforcment of formal bans and laws, but for governance of evolving cultural norms. Interventions across borders – between jurisdictions and their cultures – can be driven by basic human rights, but not by a wishful single level-playing field in terms of cultural norms. Even suggesting that some things are “normal” can be a red-rag to the PC-bulls out there. One of the most unsettling displays of “abnormality” I experienced was a pair of Hassidic Jews on a plane – overtly fashioned as such to start with – going through elaborate prayer rituals taking up aisle and exit space, complete with various props. Am I allowed to mention they were overweight, sweaty and smelly too? All I could think was, is it really necessary guys, that you subject us all to this. Does that make me an anti-semite?

For the burkini ban fiasco, the underlying “modesty” and “freedom” motives are massively coloured by the secular political messaging on all sides. Values for a secular culture.

The reason it’s an elephant in the room is not so much because Islamic culture – and secular extremist reaction to it – has got it wrong, but because secular culture hasn’t necessarily got the modesty-freedom balance right anyway. The politically polarised extremes ignore the elephant.


[Post Note : piece from Elizabeth Oldfield on “extreme secularism”.]

[Post Note : Ten year old story in general terms, religious headgear for police officers, but in recent days, Canadian and Scottish forces adopting Hijab option for female officers. Understandable “community policing” incentive, but blurring official secularity of state, and attracting “Sharia police” jibes. See also the later more extreme Niqab / Burka example below!]

[Post Note – and Maajid Nawaz clear as usual on the middle-ground in his piece for The Daily Beast. Recognising the spectrum across the middle-ground means we can stop ignoring the reality of the underlying issues. When we drain the swamp we notice the elephants.]

[Post Note – and Anne-Marie raises one I’ve raised before on this modesty issue, in her case to make a political point against London’s Muslim mayor, but the underlying issue is clear here:

It’s about balance, Anne-Marie.]

[Post Note – and as I said …

…. it’s not all about sexual distraction either.]

[And Matt …

… nails it.]

[And man! I’d forgotten this one:

Gross “sexualisation” of sporting attire.]

[And on the other “accomodating” side of the argument:

As Gina Khan says, who on earth thought that was a good idea?]

[Modelling with modesty?]

Cutting your own throat with Occam’s (Ockham’s) razor (Summa Logicae, 1323) has been a recurring meme since (before) I started Psybertron. Here a piece by Philip Ball in The Atlantic reinforces that the drive for simplicity can just as well be counter-productive.

Between the infinity of (general) theses that may explain an (individual, set of) phenomenon and the maximum efficiency of economy there are many plausible and potentially better explanations.

“We are to admit no more causes of natural things, than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” [restated by Isaac Newton, Principia Mathematica (1687).]

Simplicity is a practical virtue, allowing a clearer view of what’s most important in [an intentionally simplified view of] a phenomenon.

But Occam’s razor is often fetishized and misapplied as a guiding beacon for scientific enquiry. Here the implication is that the simplest theory isn’t just more convenient, but gets [more probably, correctly] closer to how nature really works.

There’s absolutely no reason to believe that.

Fetish. Yes, that’s the language I’ve been using too.

As a piece of writing this is unrehearsed an unpollished, but I wanted to record some notes before Phil Walder’s second talk on meat-eating “Should Humanists Eat Animals” at Central London Humanists on Wednesday this week at Conway Hall. I didn’t see his previous talk either, but did hear some some specific points of feedback from others. (Also in recent weeks – Julian Baggini’s TLS piece and George Monbiot’s piece in the Grauniad – exchanged info with Phil. Both have of course written on meat-eating before.) So with apologies working blind as far as Phil’s actual talk is concerned herewith some thoughts:

The ethics of human power over the life and death of animals? I see this as the key issue, everything else being corollaries or practical detail.

The fact that we have evolved as omnivores as part of the animal kingdom is an attractive argument, but also being intelligent and enlightened, doesn’t mean we should eat animals if there is no reason to. The opposite holds too, the fact we are intelligent and enlightened doesn’t mean we should reject our evolutionary history either.

What counts as (killing and) eating animals is the first definitional problem. Domesticated or wild, hunted or husbanded (?) beasts or birds of any kind? Fish, caught or farmed? “Lower” forms of shellfish – where is the line drawn. What about symbotic life forms? What about animal products that don’t involve slaughter – dairy? Are eggs slaugher anyway? Funghi? But definitions can’t be the decisive the issue.

The real ethical issue is sustainability – phsyical & biological as well as psychological & morally. What are we doing to ourselves and the cosmos?

As far as the ethics of how the animals are treated in the supply chain – right up to slaughter and subsequent handling – and how we treat those we delegate to “process” the animals, from farmers to slaughter and butchery on our behalf, or ourselves if we are so inclined.

Sustainability is a matter of respect. Respect for the cosmos as well as for ourselves and our treatment of animals.

Intensive production (eg US beef or mass poultry, say) shows little respect for anything. The animals, ourselves or environmental resources. What about lower intensity production, sheep hill-farming on grouse moorland as part of wider environmental management? A lot of what we consider “natural” environment is in fact the result of thousands of years of husbandry.

Slaughtermen in intensive production may be “desensitised” even “dehumanised” in what they are doing. [A famous US documentary exposed extreme practices a couple of decades ago.] Little chance for the human to show the animals any respect. One reason why traditional cultures (eg religious ones) have taboos, mores and rituals when it comes to taking the life of animals – even if reality can still be trampled-on by supply chain economics in any culture.

I say all this as someone who eats meat and animal products, though more fish and shellfish than meat generally by choice, and generally less meat than most who do. As a result of travel and exposure to many different local cuisines we eat a wide range of non-meat and non-fish meals. And would generally target sustainable sources, though busy-life, bad-habits and blind-spots mean I/we do have specific processed food exceptions. In a sense I/we could easily be vegetarian but choose not to be.

And I say that as someone who used to be fascinated by the slaugherman at work, on both cattle and sheep, at the local butcher on my way home from school. And I recall a memorable meal of fresh fish on a mediterranean quayside, right alongside the blood-bath that was freshly landed tuna being butchered. Interesting conversation with our young school-age kids. Out of sight, out of mind, is not a healthy attitude to the real ethical issues.

In summary for me, meat-eating is OK (but not essential, obviously) provided it is sustainable at both the physical & biological environmental level and the level of psychological well-being and moral respect.


[Post Note : My actual position is that we should not give up meat eating beyond sustainability condiderations. We might one-day regret long-term evolution away from omnivorousness – we shouldn’t lose the potential as a species.]

[Post Note : No sign of the recorded talk yet, but an interesting piece from Julie Burchill.]

Mentioned in my previous post that I was actively catching-up on reading Nicholas Nassim Taleb whose best-selling Black Swan I already felt I knew from secondary references, and whose later (Antifragile) arguments (and the person) I was coming to know through social media and blogging links.

As mentioned, I had received Antifragile first, but had only got started on the Prologue before Black Swan turned-up yesterday, so I switched to reading in published order. Just as well because the Prologue to Antifragile already inlcudes many references to Black Swans and the Black Swan Effect.

So, as per usual when reading and reviewing an anticipated book, I’m blogging an early review of initial impressions, so that any later conclusions and lessons learned (gutted and abstracted content) can be honestly judged as more than hindsight. I’m no more immune to cognitive biases than anyone else, so I prefer to be honest and state my prejudices up front.

Right from the first few pages – taking Black Swans (*) as a given already – I’m right with him in my own agenda:

“[This] philosophical-logical question into an empirical reality, […] that has obsessed me since childhood.”

“A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our [21st C] world […] Ever since we left the Pleistocene […] the effect of these Black Swans has been increasing. It started accelerating during the industrial revolution, as the world started getting more complicated, while ordinary events […] become increasingly inconsequential.”

That increasing complication is of course exaggerated by the degree and speed of information inter-connectivity too and, as he goes on to say later, increasingly recursive.

“Literally, just about everything of significance around [us] might qualify [as a Black Swan].”

“[Predictive, risk management business as intellectual frauds] exclude the possibility of the Black Swan.

“[Learning] with too much precision. […] Too practical and exceedingly focussed for [our] own safety.”

“We do not spontaneously learn that we don’t learn that we don’t learn. The problem lies in the structure of our minds: we don’t learn rules, just facts, and only facts. Metarules (such as the rule that we have a tendency to not learn rules) we don’t seem to be good at getting. We scorn the abstract; we scorn it with a passion,”

“Aggressive ignorance.”

And he is already telegraphing his anti-fragile thesis – ie not just being aware of and resilient to Black Swans in general, but being fore-armed with the antifragile capabilities to benefit from them – but I was already there in the previous post. Anyway enough for now, let’s finish with this one, and we’re only half-way through the 12 page Prologue:

“A new kind of ingratitude […]
a far more viscious kind of ingratitude:
the feeling of uselessness
on the part of the silent hero.”

Silent as in those that don’t fly planes into the WTC.

I can already see the ironies piling-up, as we aim for the meta-meta abstractions needed whilst inevitably arguing about specific technical detail. But I get it already. I’m driven by the same passion.


[(*) Note: Black Swans are fundamentally what’s known as “The Induction Problem” – the failure of generalised knowledge of the past to predict the future specifically or generally (coupled with increasingly catastrophic and chaotic potential outcomes in an ever more complex and recursively connected world). Ever since Aristotle formalised what we mean by induction, people have been pointing out the problem. Most famously for us anglophones, Hume elaborated on Bishop Berkley on the chances of the sun rising (in the east) tomorrow, but Taleb (and wikipedia) remind us that Sextus Empiricus (alas the empirical according to Taleb) as well as Al-Ghazali’s debate with Averroes had already thoroughly warned anyone who’d read them. (I notice Taleb, like Simon Blackburn, is a fan of Hume, his lifestyle more than the more formal philosophy for which he is more generally known).]

Skimming my blog dashboard I find I have several, a handful, of draft pieces with reference to Nassim Nicholas Taleb and things he’s published or linked to, that I’ve not quite had the courage to post yet.

Like many, I find his argumentation style is so ruthless, he suffers no fools gladly, that even short supportive responses on twitter get the full application of vitriol – even blockage – if there is even the slightest hint of “not getting it”. With a lot of (other) people I might just pigeon-hole them down the wrong end of the autism disorder spectrum, or consider them plain arrogant and unhelpful. In Taleb’s case, it’s kinda the point.

His target is the overly simplistic, underinformed use of logic, scientific and/or statistical.

It’s ironic that right now I’m also in dialogue with Lee Beaumont on lessons in argumentation leading to better knowledge and its wiser application. The emphasis is very much on insight-seeking respectful dialogue (eg following Rappaport’s rule) whilst at the same time having access to the widest possible toolsets of logic and rhetoric from winning binary arguments and destroying fallacies to collaborative and creative synthesis of new knowledge. I suspect we and Taleb might not get off first base, or maybe we not even survive the experience.

Anyway the points is, however prickly Taleb’s style, he is onto something important about the limits to knowledge – even with the best information available some things remain essentially unpredictable or objectively unknowable in any practical sense. That much was the lesson of his Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness. I hadn’t really joined-up the dots until I was reminded of his standing-up to challenge the naive scientific certainties of The Four Horseman of New Atheism (2009, and here 2012 in The New Statesman). And of course he is more generally supportive of promoting the value of philosophy to science as it bumps up against it’s unknown and unknowable edges.

My homework has some catching-up to do. Black Swan I only know by second hand references, so I now have a copy winging its way to me. Today however I received my copy of his 2012 Antifragile and just debating whether to plunge-in or wait and read him in the order published.

Antifragile goes beyond pointing out the chaotic unpredictability that undermines naive scientific rationale, to the constructive benefit of not just being resilient to the random, but being able to positively exploit it through evolution. I’m hooked; when I did my master’s thesis over 25 years ago, I quoted Malcom McLaren’s adage:

“Thriving on chaos”

Antifragile has some impressive hype in its cover blurbs too:

Changed my view of how the world works.
[Daniel Kahneman, no less] and

The most prophetic voice of all …
… a genuinely significant philosopher.

The hottest thinker in the world.
[Sunday Times]

Some exciting – and I guess challenging – reading ahead.


[Post Note: Lee, mentioned above, has in fact already read and reviewed Antifragile, and interestingly his (negative) comments focus almost entirely on style, and the combative (boxing-match analogy) style of the set-piece god-wars debate above. The ironies pile up.]

Great piece from Peter Clive at “Mo’ Flo’ MoJo”

Grandma’s adages almost invariably contain an important element of non-obvious truth. Correlations between experience of things grouping together (platooning) in nature – two buses coming along at once – have evolutionary explanations. Yes even the behaviour of bus services evolve.

(Hat tip Gillian Mair @Ruglonian)