Science and the Man

Been checking my previous references to “Epstein” but none seem to be the “Jeffrey Epstein”. I checked because it’s quite clear that the (convicted and now dead) billionaire who liked to party and throw his money around to win friends and influence people is clearly “connected” with many science types through Harvard / MIT / Santa-Fe and the Edge publisher John Brockman.

The creepy Larry Krauss is one I’ve mentioned a few times before. I long since decided he was a charlatan science-wise, since it was always clear he’d prefer to ignore difficult questions that might undermine the main thesis of his current book and lecture tour sales. Now, in philosophy or science, getting books published and marketed to best-selling proportions is a tough -messy, commercial – business that goes well beyond their content. I’m not one of those who gets sniffy at academics needing to get commercial reward from book sales. Sexy sells, figuratively speaking at least. Krauss and Dawkins and Hawking are simply examples of where the successful marketing messages get hopelessly confused with good science, to the detriment of real science (and philosophy and public knowledge) as a whole. Most of it concerns the politics of getting their next project funded.

My own main agenda, really, is to counter this with concerns for the supposed self-correcting aspects of the methods of science. (They’re way out of kilter with the speed of modern communication channels systematically non-robust, beyond-fragile, technically non-anti-fragile.)

Frankly I have no idea what Epstein’s real interests (or credentials) ever were in science, but it’s clear he’s funded a few scientists and their projects along the way. The billionaire gets the power buzz, the participants get the attention buzz. A proven recipe. Unless Epstein had some almighty “sting” project in mind I can’t imagine what other motives there could beyond the power-play dependency with the added buzz of illicit sexual danger.

I’m no conspiracy theorist, and have no idea how many of the academic types were where on the knowing / reluctant / willing scale, how many actually participated in the available options or how many had their scientific agendas distorted by their motivations. 90% of science is crap, because 90% of everything is crap. Cock-up rules. If you’re Brockman, money, connections and publicity can only be good for marketing and sales.

The whole thing is very sad, not least for the underage victims criminally exploited. But defending the alleged actions – a la Krauss – is far worse, far beyond regret at errors of judgement.

I still find Brockman’s Edge a useful resource. (Most recently from 2017 unedited) (Many more going back to 2004) Even if only 10% of the objective content is any good, that’s valuable if you have hundreds of individual resources and you can smell the quality. In selecting nuggets from answers to the annual question (4 of the 14 in 2017 were women), I’ve remarked before that part of it is recognising the career politics of the contributors – is this a career-defining idea they need to sell, or are they comfortably into the tenure phase of their first careers or are they onto their second and third careers and can simply afford to be speculatively mischievous? The “business models” used in academia are clearly a root problem here.

Science and the man are inseparable.
A lot of it stinks.


Hat tip to Sophie Scott for sharing this tweet from Rebecca Watson, and to the whole thread of linked resources:


Dan Dennett has long been a hero of mine, the science-friendly philosopher who has synthesised both Darwin and Turing into his theories on the evolution of conscious will. Great 30 minute interview here with Jim AlKhalili on his “Life Scientific” on BBC Radio 4.

A potential new hero here in John C Doyle of Caltech, someone I’d not been conscious of until I saw him referenced by Michael Gazzaniga (the last few posts). Not managed to find any on-line (eg social-media) contact other than his Caltech email (so far no response) nor any writings other than his (supposedly out-of-date?) teaching materials, but he claims here to have many on-line videos. In this particular YouTube example from a 2018 conference, one of his first slides features both Darwin and Turing. So, another man after mine own.

An excellent presentation on Universal Architectures enabling evolving optimality of system functions and performance – from information thru biology to mountain-biking(!) And more: Integration of direct (visual) and indirect (propriocentric) network pathways – crucial architectural role in evolution of key operating systems despite multiplicity and flexibility in the range  hardware and software options – layered in many domains (hence universal). Human complexity out of many layered networked algorithmic simplicity with many orders different comms response speed in the different layers / channels. His “robust-yet-fragile” tag (a) suggests Taleb and (b) suggests a genuine homeostatic balance – a dynamic sweet-spot.

Viral fragility of the OS in such architectures. Bad Memes – OS Infections – are humanity’s biggest problem. Solution is moderation, slowing down the response times of the network layers / channels susceptible to such viral memes. (I could have written this stuff myself, in fact I have many times!) Even back in 2007 Doyle was warning the internet needed controlling – moderating as I’ve been calling it.

Everything except any questions of causation (supervenience and/or independence) between those layers. Intriguingly, determinism is one topic mentioned on several of his slides, often qualified “worst-case”, but not highlighted in anything he says. (All his published stuff looks like pure control system theory text-books – robust yet fragile.) Searching on.

[Clearly he is “very famous” in control theory – eg for his 1978(!) paper demonstrating arbitrary fragility (lack-of-robustness) in control systems with uncertain time-delays in certain measurement and response loops > leading to Robust Control Theory.]

Who’s In Charge?

Rounding up my reading of Michael Gazzaniga, his 2015 “Tales From Both Sides of the Brain – A Life In Neuroscience.” in particular, though having completed and enjoyed it I went back to his “Who’s In Charge” for a second go. Previously, newest first:

Who’s In Charge (WIC) first: I went back to after initial doubts because Tales From Both Sides turned-out pretty good. I see now it is the transcripts of his 2009 Gifford Lectures, so tailored to a particular kind of message for a particular audience. His sub-title is “Free Will and the Science of the Brain” and he gives a good overview and summary of the known science and positions, but ultimately is non-committal on what he really believes. The chapter “Abandoning the Concept of Free Will” is disappointing because I’m pretty sure he hasn’t abandoned it, he’s just providing the orthodox science story on why scientific determinism says “it can’t be real” despite our (his and my) strong sense of responsibility for actions in ourselves and others.

It’s much clearer in TFBS, the later book which, despite being essentially an autobiography, is much more bullish on what he really believes about the science – putting his money where his mouth is.

[What follows is more notes than a review
– it sparked off so many linked avenues

Free will is real all right, we just need to upgrade our take on what causation means to the deterministic science of reality. As I’ve said before “Super-Determinism Sucks”. At the beginning and end of the offending chapter he makes a reference to John Doyle and his hardware<>software systems approach, but doesn’t elaborate nearly as much as he does in the later book.

Doyle is (I think) new to me, but he clearly holds pretty much the same many-layered complex adaptive system view as I do on why real conscious agency evolves in the higher layers. The evolutionary view is crucial to both the brain and mind stories, hence Dennett, hence EES.

TFBS emphasises that the core debate in brain-mind science is about supervenience vs supersession between layers. WIC doesn’t even mention them. Talking simply in terms of physical and mental as two layers as opposed to the real multiplicity I call onion-skins, Gazzaniga quotes Donald Davidson:

“Supervenience might be taken to mean that there cannot be two events alike in all physical respects but differing in some mental respects, or, that an object cannot alter in some mental respects without altering in some physical respects.”

Quoting Sperry, Gazzaniga’s one-time boss, he refers to lower layers being outclassed or superseded by higher layers:

“where level-n floats freer than level-n-1″

Although as he puts it:

“unrepentant reductionists see a sleight of hand here.”

Super-determinism sucks, as I say.

Although I’ve given up in recent years being overly precious about the definitions of supervenience and supercession, the important question is whether an evolved state in a lower layer uniquely determines the evolved state in a higher layer or whether state and causal relations between states in the higher layer can be in any way independent or free of a given state in a lower layer. If the latter, clearly interesting questions of identifying “cause” arise in the higher layers. As I say precise definitions here, still boil down to what we mean by cause, and this is very much Doyle’s point.

As he goes on to say, Sperry is talking about causation being something more than neuronal firing. As Gazzaniga has already elaborated at this point, there is something like downward causation, although he rejects calling it that and, wrongly in my view, brings in a sort of quantum complementarity and uncertainty for some kind of indirect causation (See footnote).

Long story short, there is some kind of causation in higher layers that is independent of lower layers. It’s about evolutionary and current time-scales – learning and action are circularly related. Also as Gazzaniga shows there are many cueing relations beyond communication by neuronal firing that contribute to cognitive and motor processes – somatic and propriocentric. Decision-making loops pass through many of these layers and many are gamed between anticipatory and subconscious guesses and both subconscious and conscious reactions to new information (hence why Libet is wrong, he agrees).

After all this, in WIC, Gazzaniga still makes the illusory free-will claim that it’s just what our “interpreter” left-right brain integration wants us to think. (For me this suffers the infinite regressive humunculus problem, that for the interpreter to “claim” it needs will to cause. Again as I’ve said before this regression is not infinite, it resolves into layers. I think I may have to read the original Doyle?)

Towards the end of the final “Layers and Dynamics, Seeking New Perspectives” chapter of TFBS he gets very close to saying that the evolutionary engineering take on layers of causation in a complex adaptive system that provides the agency in the mental layers. Layers note, not layer.

The left-right cortex, corpus-callosum and sub-cortical distinctions – which fill the majority of the content of TFBS – clearly support the permissive supervisory control aspect of a many-layered complex adaptive system. Even if the willful control is itself a complex problem of guessing and gaming, feed-forward and feed-back, there is no mystery – for me. No quantum weirdness necessary.

Very interestingly Gazzaniga, just before winding down from his story so far at this point makes reference to “very recent work” by Giulio Tononi. He also makes positive references about work at Santa Fe. I’m already there with Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) and Integrated Information Theory (IIT). Doubly interesting, I picked-up Tononi from Chalmers who I think was largely responsible for so much of the hard-problem, subjective-agency and supervenience doubts. Wonder if he’s progressed too?)

So, do I read the even later Gazzaniga in his 2017 The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind or do I find some original Doyle? Has 2017 Gazzaniga progressed since 2015?


[Footnote : Note also, Damasio is part of Gazzaniga’s story and is part of this Dutch session on “feelings”. He makes a big thing of life as homeostasis – working to achieve active energy surplus to re-invest in flourishing, as opposed to some simple equilibrium or static balance to “stay alive” – which is death of life of course. He also makes a big deal of the layering conscious / subconsciousness, cortical / sub-cortical in the mechanisms of feelings arising and being felt consciously as a state, a “quality of life”. The first question after Damasio’s talk is Q – “is that energy of homeostasis the surplus needed to counter entropy?” A- “Yes.” Asked by Eddo Rats, a friend who shares the multi-layered complex-adaptive-systems evolved-engineering view – yet still holds the need for Penrose-Hammeroff quantum coherence to explain the “downward causation” of mental-agency. For me it’s much simpler and the “entropy” is the clue. Information – an entropy-complementarity – is more fundamental than both physical and mental – hence IIT and relational-information – a pre-conceptual quality – metaphysics. Eddo’s interest is more psychological and psychiatric than metaphysical, but for psybertron there is no difference.]

[Post Note: Researching John Doyle I find this Caltech page, but no general readership book publication, and no obviously directly relevant papers to which Gazzaniga might be referring. And, there are no specific bibliographic references in Gazzaniga?]

Mariana Mazzucato

Bought her latest book “The Value of Everything” on the strength of an excellent short-section of her talk here:

As I said at the time, I love the style as well as the content, with discursive parentheticals and “air-quotes”. A great communicator.

Picking this up before a final review of my foray into Michael Gazzaniga couldn’t help notice the syllabic similarity in their names. But more significantly, early on, we discover that one of her mentors was / is Carlotta Perez of Freeman & Perez fame during my MBA Economics days. A lot of influential women in this story. Economics needs women.

As you’d expect lots, early on, on the price / value confusion and the objective / subjective confusion in distinguishing the one over the other. Real issue is about economic models allowed to exploit the confusion to counter-productive (low value) ends, rather than definitive arguments. Too soon to say, but on the right track. Reading on.

Baloney Generator #2 – The Most Stunning Result.

I first mentioned “the baloney generator” back in May 2003 – actually in this hand-crafted-html (!) review of Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate in December 2002.

“The conscious mind — the self or soul — is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.”

The accusation being that the rational mind generates narratives – any old baloney – to explain incomplete or ambiguous states of knowledge, so that it can move on. It’s controlling the (explicit) news to get on with it’s own (implicit) agenda – like McGilchrist’s “Berlusconi” metaphor.

Of course the 2003 Chicago Uni link is long dead, and anyway from the references above it’s clear the concept was already well recognised by others even if it was new to me at that time. I also mentioned Pirsig’s Lila in the same Chicago context(!).

Now it’s not fashionable to refer to Pinker these days, he’s not stupid but he’s maybe not as smart as the scientific assuredness of his various claims might suggest. None of us is perfect, not even Taleb 😉

Anyway, not only had I forgotten Pinker as my source of baloney, I’d forgotten he had been a colleague of and had written the foreword to the Gazzaniga that I’m currently reading. I say that because I found myself scribbling “baloney generator” in the margin.

Describing one of many split-brain subject experimental procedures – behavioural responses to left-right, eye-brain-hand-arm stimuli and movements – he writes:

[Instead of asking] “WHAT did you see?” [A] “Nothing / no idea.”
[We asked the subject] “WHY did you do what you just did?”

In simply changing the question a virtual torrent of new information and insight flowed. Though the left hemisphere had no clue [it was disconnected from any signals] it would not be satisfied to state that it did not know [why]. It would guess, prevaricate, rationalize and look for cause and effect, but it would always come up with an answer that fit the circumstances.

In [Gazzaniga’s] opinion, it is the most stunning result from split-brain research.

When it comes to reasoning, thanks to the left-brain, the mind can be (is designed to be) a baloney generator.


[Post Note : and how could I forget, the reason I was prompted to post was because I was asked to name philosophical fiction other than Pirsig or Gaarder that I considered important. Anna Karenina was my surprise suggestion, but Crime & Punishment is more obvious. The relevance? Razumikin’s rant:

“Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over the other organisms. It’s by talking nonsense that one gets to the truth !

I talk nonsense, therefore I am human.”

It is talking baloney that makes us human, if there are any logical positivists listening?

“Talk nonsense to me by all means,
but do it with your own brain … “

It was even a Pirsig conversation that led me to that particular Dostoevsky!]

Tales from Both Sides

Mentioned last month I was planning to read some Michael Gazzaniga, but struggling to decide where to start. Rather than his latest, I obtained second-hand two earlier works:

2015 – “Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience”

2011 – “Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain”

I actually started the latter first, imagining the “who” was which side of the brain (a la Iain McGilchrist) but it fact its more generally about the I of me and my free-will. I didn’t immediately get the feeling he had much new to say from the philosophical side on the mind-brain problem, so I put it down and picked-up the other. (Though I did get the impression he sees free-will as real and is at least a compatibilist when it comes to scientific determinism.)

I’m well into Tales from Both Sides, practically half-way and it is an excellent read, so much so that, whatever, I will return to his earlier work on free-will.

As expected, as an autobiography, Tales is very good on the politics of science as well as the particular content of split-brain and  naturally asymmetric brain defects and lesions.

The latter is well documented as supporting the one-brain / two-minds short-hand, and the relationship between these, elaborated on most recently by McGilchrist.

Also especially interesting is the “cueing” – how not only the one-half of the brain passes cues to the other-half, but how subtle somatic and propriocentric movements, feelings and senses contribute to that cueing. Without saying so in so many words, so far, there is also the strong sense of “gaming” going on as different physical parts contribute to the integrated mind as parts of mind work out their response strategies to imperfect inputs. With the perspective of hindsight – like all good science – none of this looks in the least surprising – already common sense. But of course the book is about the journey building on earlier misconceptions about the linearity of mechanisms. (Getting the feeling cueing may be a major part of the second half of the book.)

Damasio is an erstwhile collaborator that gets mentioned – and he was my main previous source of the somatic & propriocentric content. Dennett too is mentioned as a long-standing friend from earlier encounters. Again, questions of where each cross-reference the other become interesting. Sperry is mentioned by everyone of course, and took the credit for the Nobel prize from his team, including Gazzaniga. As I say, the politics is as interesting as the content when it comes to science.

Reading on.

Human Brain Project Dies

I’ve been sceptical since I first heard of the project, indeed considered it laughable that anyone would seriously set out to build or replicate a human brain on any human timescale. Of course ten years on the project has failed.

And that’s not because I don’t believe the brain is a computer. It is.

It’s just a very specially evolved one. Indeed all evolution from physics to sentient and intelligent life is computation. And whilst the machine metaphor is grossly misleading in terms of what a computer – a Turing machine – can be, it is nevertheless digital, fundamentally operating on information bit by bit.

But it does so in many layers upon layers that have evolved over multi-generational evolutionary timescales. Life needs to evolve before sentience, before self-awareness, before higher intelligence.

Like all the big sexy (expensive) projects that need support for public funding – particle colliders anyone? – they’re 99% politics and memetics, 1% credible science. Criminal.

Simplistic, easy to believe, but basically crap.

Inside Out Appearances?

Although Lee Smolin (realism) and Bernardo Kastrup (idealism) have quite different views of the cosmos, so much so that I’m pretty sure they’d reject each other outright, they share a common view of the problem they’re solving.

I’ve been struck by several parallels in the last couple of years, but was particularly impressed with Amanda Gefter’s summary of Smolin in the tag line of her review in Quanta Magazine.

How to Understand the Universe
When You’re Stuck Inside of It

How do you understand an object
with no exterior?

Imagine it built bit-by-bit
from relationships between events?

That’s very much my summary of Smolin too.

Both talk about the reality of everything being an inside view. There is no view from outside the mind of a knower or from outside the known universe. The internal-reality <> outward-appearances dilemma must always be resolved from the inside. The inside is the whole of reality.

For Smolin, the “atoms” are events and everything else evolves from these relationships and patterns of relationships. The event points are themselves defined by the extended “view” of the relationship network from “here” – the points have no intrinsic properties, dimensions or composition. Time and causation are precedence dependency relationships. Laws are meta-patterns of relationship patterns, the physical and psychical are simply more evolved patterns. Smolin is a realist in the sense that this is what’s real. Physical properties and laws are something evolved. The distinction between physical and psychical stuff he “tiptoes around” for now, he’s concerned with the more fundamentally real.

Kastrup calls these views or identifiable, bounded, networked collections (graphs), “alters” and calls all such patterns “mind” (implicitly knowing) rather than simply information (knowable). His conclusion is panpsychism (or idealism he would say). For me his choice of “mind” is wordplay to emphasise the non-physical, to not give the physical any privilege. He calls realism “baloney”but when he does so, he’s referring to a physical realism.

The physical and the psychical are both real, but neither are fundamental. The resolution is that all beable and knowable are the same fundamental stuff – information, atomically bit by bit. The conceivable and the possible are the same (Deutsch & Marletto).

It can’t be long before this is accepted science and metaphysics? It all seems so blindingly obvious – and very old.