TERF Wars Revisited

I’ve reduced my engagement with Gender Critical / Radical Feminist & LGBT activists several times in several stages, each time as common sense appeared to be gradually breaking out. But no:

Last night Alice Dreger – a hero of mine on the right side of this for a long time – posted an emphatic tweet that provoked much angry response. The polarisation between sex is / is-not “binary” and sex is / is-not a “spectrum” and “dictionary definitions” of sexual dimorphism. This is what Alice actually posted:

Obviously in non-specific response to much traffic on the topic, and exactly what progress she was hoping to make I can’t guess, but the frustration is obvious. As is the care for the “people” in those groups. Most of the anger is the mistaken assumption that she’s prejudicially “othering” those groups. The insistence on simplification – denial of subtleties – is her actual target.

The real problem is that however binary plus exceptions sex itself is, the word gender has been erased as too problematic, so the word sex has simply inherited all the problems of expression and interpretation. However clear scientific definitions might me, and they are, the problems of caring vs othering are not entirely scientific. As ever this is just a topical example of the much deeper problem I call #GoodFences – between narrow use of class definitions and broader conceptions of individual participation in reality.

Classic example on the scientific side is this one from Dr Emma Hilton

It’s a very good thread, except for some non-scientific subtleties in assigning good and bad faith to expressed positions. Possibly a bit circular to have the word gonochoristic within the definition, and not sure why “not including” reproductive anatomy. But very useful summary of the scientific aspects.

As ever, I need to complete the #GoodFences thesis. Ho hum. I fear taboo words like intersectionality, lived-experience and critical-theory will be unavoidable 🙂

Smart SpaceTime – Mark Burgess

I’ve had Mark Burgess “Smart SpaceTime” for a year or more, but was prompted to pick it up and read just last week when I noticed a long Twitter thread by Mark:

Mark was a theoretical physicist:
– who migrated to computer systems and became interested in the metaphysical (presumed axiomatic) fundaments of physical reality.

I’m a mechanical engineer:
– who migrated to computer systems and became interested in the metaphysical (presumed axiomatic) fundaments of physical reality.

Like so many before us – Eddington for example – we can’t escape the feeling that the physical is at least as mysterious, if not more so, than the mental.

The book is clearly chock full of stuff I found interesting, but in order to “critically review” it I need to understand Mark’s objective. Plenty of stuff I could say “that’s not how I see it” but a great deal more where I could agree “yes, that reinforces how I already see things”. A lot of common experiences in there. Whether differences of detail presentation and expression matter, depends on both our objectives.

In a sentence:- I already happen to think – a network representation of information persisted and processed at “agent” locations – with arbitrary internal complexity and external simplicity of “promissory +/-” communication relations with adjacent agents – at all sampling rates and scales of aggregation & abstraction, from individual sub-atomic “bits” to intelligent conscious individuals – is my preferred view of physical reality. Our everyday views of space & time, motion & causation simply being emergent from this underlying “metaphysics”.

Mark describes all of these things in great detail with examples from his experience in both physics and computing, but doesn’t seem to make the ontological commitment? He is holding-up analogues between these spheres: a many-layered and distributed (cloud) network model vs a Cartesian / Euclidian space-time grid model and suggesting each throws light on understanding the other.

“The purpose of this book [is] to better understand some wide-ranging concepts that involve space and time.”

Can’t argue with that. And he succeeds. Like him, I hope more orthodox physical scientists are curious to learn beyond the received wisdom of our space-time world.

For my own purposes,  there doesn’t seem to be any stronger thesis? As ever I have a great deal of annotation and highlighted examples, but which of these I should try to document and share … depends.

Inconstancy (aka Hypocrisy)

Finn Karsten posted in Channel McGilchrist highlighting a post he’s written. (It’s their first and only blog post – I don’t know any more about the author – search reveals it’s quite a common name.)

Who Are We : Inconstancy

Woke or anti-Woke – as I always say – “a pox on both their houses“. They’re two extremist sides of the same coin – a naive wokeness to what appears “right” or “wrong”. From whichever side you approach cancel culture it’s not right.

Whichever fundamental philosophical question we start from we get to “And what is good, Phaedrus?” Virtue(s) of the person and/or the methods of discourse in which we engage. Sceptical critical thinking is one tool, but as I’ve said many times, I prefer (all forms of) dialogue get a look in. I’ve written a lot about rules of engagement, but finding the positive intent in the other is the first priority.

But the point of this “Inconstancy” post is obviously that even people with positive intent are imperfect, imperfect in our actual actions and discourse, even if perfect in virtuous intent. Karsten points out that we often hold-up hypocrisy – inconsistency in action and argument – as a cardinal sin. Of course as Brunsson pointed-out hypocrisy is essential, the ability to hold or change conflicting views across levels and contexts … is a virtue.

The sin is bad faith.

Reading Moritz Schlick

Rather glibly mentioned in my reading of Karl Sigmund the follow-up need to read more original Moritz Schlick – in the same vein as following-up Arthur Eddington originals – so I’ve been searching new and used book sources. Despite mentioning the importance of the translation – the Hofstadter introduction – silly me wasn’t ready to find so few English translations!

[Several English chapters in this example.]

Language really does represent the limits to knowledge. I could give original German and French a fair stab, but I’d need to plan for the time & effort. Proper scholarship is hard work.

I’ll need to create a little bibliography of what was published and what is available. Simply correlating different titles, collections & dates makes that tricky enough in itself.

Probably time to start taking library collections seriously. Now where did I put my British Library membership? Be a good test to search there.

Anything New Under the Sun?

What a difference two decades makes, or does it? I’ve been blogging over 20 years and rather than do a new year post on highlights from last year, I thought I’d look back over the decades.

Compare earliest posts in January 2002, 2012 and 2022.

Jan 2002reading Bart Kosko’s “Fuzzy Logic” (only my 25th post since starting in Sept 2001) – searching for alternatives to accepted rationality?

      • Why model something approximately rationally, I concluded,
        when it is precisely irrational or predictably chaotic?
      • Also points to “Systems Theory” paradigm from 1950’s / 1960’s
      • Already referring to Heylighen’s Principia Cybernetica.
      • Picked-up my first Wittgenstein reference just 3 days later! But hadn’t yet noticed the Pirsig ZMM relevance until the end of that month. (Significant because it was Pirsigian theologian Sam Norton later turned me onto Witt?)

Jan 2012 – Musing on computation – understanding the manipulation of information without programming skills.

Jan 2022 – Already following-up references beyond McGilchrist’s “The Matter With ThingsThe most important read of the decade.

Ananthropocentric Purposivism

Tim Mulgan’s view he calls “ananthropocentric purposivism” (AP).

AP is the view that, contra atheism, the universe has a purpose, but, contra benevolent theism (BT), that purpose is non-human-centred. Put simply, there is a cosmic purpose, but humans are irrelevant to that purpose.

Made me laugh. I have a holding post on the special position- not exceptionalism – of humanity in the cosmos not quite ready yet (*), but this bumps right up against it. That cosmic purpose is not irrelevant to humanity.

Sure, it need not have been humans, “we” weren’t pre-ordained or gifted the priviledge, but as the sole representative of higher intelligent life we know about, we are very much a part of it. Intelligent life locally maximises the 2nd law globally – at present we are it. Our special role – as that species – is a responsibility to know and understand this.

[And in my thinking
AP is An-thropic Perpective or Principle
as opposed to Anan- … more some other time.


[(*) I was intending to respond to this piece:

Though no idea what prompted it – other than some gender-war aspect? But also in the last month this piece by Julian Baggini was what motivated me. We wouldn’t be a species if we weren’t “somehow separate”!  It’s the somehow that matters. Jeez!]

Karl Sigmund and Demented Thinking

Mentioned Karl Sigmund’s “Exact Thinking in Demented Times” in the previous Reading List post. To be clear its sub-title is:

The Vienna Circle
and the Epic Quest for
the Foundations of Science

I’ve read 1/3 to 1/2 of it so far and it’s really very good. Interesting voice and turns of phrase, massively comprising quotes from the protagonists with invisible referencing to the text rather that in it. Works well. Obviously large parts of the story I already know, and for my own quest I’ve already formed strong views on the value of the many thinkers and thoughts involved. From the Hapsburg, Prussian, German, Austro-Hungarian thought from Mach and Boltzmann onwards in reaction to Kant and all those other continental foggie filosofers.

In many ways – unsurprisingly – it’s much more comprehensive than David Edmonds’ “Murder of Professor Schlick” but has lots of same Europe-in-crisis feel amidst the Viennese and Berliner, kafe-kultur and end-of-la-belle-epoch, crumbling-high-society atmosphere. (And Schlick’s wasn’t the only assassination!). It’s also organised in clear time order with individual headed sections on the back-stories and contemporary participation of the stellar list of names involved. Easy to navigate. A recommended reference work, even if I never complete and review the whole here.

Apart from, again, recognising the proper place of Mach and Boltzmann in our future scheme of things the main new aspect for me has become the need to read Schlick himself. He wasn’t just the manager of the Circle who misunderstood Wittgenstein – he had, and indeed published, a great deal of his own original thought of which I was unaware. In fact he appears, like Eddington in English, to be an important German interpreter of the 20thC upheaval in the foundations of physics. And again, the personal stories in that historical context always make for an engaging read, whatever the explicit subject matter. Hard to put down.

For now I’ll finish with a little of Doug Hofstadter’s preface, a hero of mine along with Dan Dennett. [And whilst we know from earlier that Hofstadter is a linguist and a translator, as well as a philosopher of knowledge, he is NOT actually the translator of this work. Interesting in itself.]

Demented thinking? I guess it’s all relative. Thinking of exact science as the basis of truth – and a basis for planned economic activity – clearly looks like an attractive quest when your world is collapsing under authoritarian propaganda and violence – in the 1920’s not our 2020’s remember.

[Previously: Karl Sigmund “Exact Thinking in Demented Times – which might look topical in our 2021/22 demented Trump / Brexit / Boris / Covid / Woke-Identity-Politics times, but is in fact a 2017 reference to the 1920’s/30’s Vienna Circle. A reference I picked-up from earlier David Edmonds and Cheryl Misak reads.]

But it is merely a lesser evil, a fools errand:

Hofstadter’s introduction scared me at first – very negative, even scornful – about those Germanic philosophers associated with, or who actually became, Nazis. Understandable prejudice.

“the Circle was a salient counterforce to those forces of evil, a noble dream”

And, in his own journey, he also rejected Wittgenstein as obscurant nonsense, “dropping him like a hot potato“. Especially relevant since a misunderstood Wittgenstein became the positive obsession of the Circle in its (main) second incarnation – not to mention the irony between the positions of mystical vs exact science involved in this story. You really couldn’t make it up.

But Hofstadter doesn’t let us down. The perils of pinning “lesser-evil” hopes on that misguided “noble dream”:

“I have come a long way since my teenage infatuation with the vision of mathematical logic as the crux of human thinking. […]

In [a] sense, my teenage addiction to the writings of the Vienna Circle members was not a bad thing at all for me – in fact it kick-started my fascination with the amazingly subtle nature of human thinking, which has lasted my entire life.

[The] Vienna Circle’s vision though idealistic was also quite naïve. The idea that pure logic is the core of human thought is certainly tempting, but it misses virtually all of the subtlety and depth of human thinking.

[The] Circle’s claim that the act of induction – moving from specific observations to broader generalisations – plays no role at all in science, is one of the silliest ideas I have ever heard. The way I see it, induction is the seeing of patterns, and science is the seeing of patterns par excellence. Science is nothing if not a grand inductive guessing game, where the guesses are [constantly tested by rigorous experiments.]

Science has everything to do with induction, and precious little to do with syllogistic reasoning or any other type of strict mathematical logic.”

As Hofstadter says, it’s essential we understand our intellectual heritage, but we mustn’t confuse the content with the lessons (that need to be) learned.

“Science has precious little to do
with any type of mathematical logic.”

Lovely book. Highly recommended.


[Popperians and logicians? Bring it on!]

Scientific Advice?

“Follow the science” has become one of the woke mantras I feel the need to rail against. Quite simply, unless you’re a scientist doing science, scientific advice is there to be taken into account, not followed.

It doesn’t help that we have a particularly crap crop of politicians in governance at the moment, but it is their job to make difficult complex ethical, pragmatic, here-and-now decisions with many different consequences over multiple timescales and levels of society.

This is not science.

The problem we need to fix is democratic governance – trust, integrity, resources, etc – not replace it with science which is at best 20:2o hindsight and at worst a mass of conflicting data of dubious relevance requiring informed interpretation.