Rebalancing the Future

Richard Emerson invited me onto his podcast earlier in the week.

We’ve met Richard here before on Psybertron, his personal “Renaissance” book and his “Ancient Worlds” project discovering – rediscovering – the value in ancient wisdom, with Dante’s “cosmology” being the poster boy.

Apart from having a shortlist of topics before we started – and my specialist subject heading of “Cybernetics” – we didn’t have much agenda or preparation other than Richard’s working title for his current podcast series: “Great Conversations about Balance and Rebirth

Whether it’s a great conversation, you can judge, but Richard holds the thread together as I trample over our starting topics: Robert Pirsig’s “On Quality” published this week; and Iain McGilchrist’s “The Matter with Things” from late last year, in my rush to future synthesis.

Hopefully you’ll find it interesting, I certainly found it a useful exercise having to think on my feet and obviously now have half-a-dozen things to write-up based on things I now know I missed in the conversation. How many times for example, did Richard use the word unify, and I failed to make the direct connection between McGilchrist’s hemispherical dualism and Pirsig’s quality monism now reflected in the computational monism of Friston / Solms / Doyle et al under the Active Inference umbrella. You can probably tell, I’m quite excited about these latest practical scientific developments, in the talk as well as the pages of this blog. Onward and upward.

No more spoilers, have a listen. Thanks for the opportunity Richard.


25 thoughts on “Rebalancing the Future”

  1. Thanks so much for the inspiring conversation, Ian. It was very productive for outlining overall themes and aspirations for the new podcast as well. Would love to follow up on these topics in future conversations!

  2. Ha, so many dots to join-up there … a riff:

    (1) Future Conversations. “Dialogue” is pretty central to my information-based model – multi-way information exchange IS metaphysics. I make quite a thing about “dialogue” (which is creative and integrating) in contrast to “debate” (which is divisive and destructive). And see my “Rules of Engagement”. I am all for more dialogue– anytime 🙂

    (2) Follow that link to Active Inference in the post above. Note the guy has “Rebirth” in the title of his talk, and look at the 4 bullets I summarised under the talk.

    Convergence on the future …

  3. Couldn’t agree more! A good conversation can be a creative and fun teamwork where one discovers and build things one couldn’t do or reach by oneself. At its best it exemplifies the unifying idea and how the whole can be several times bigger than the sum of the parts. It was an Instutition in itself for the Greeks – the churning and discerning of the Logos, in unison!

    Reading up on the Active Inference guy, this struck me as immediately interesting – “The essence of systems thinking is knowing what details to ignore.” This applies to human thinking too. Understanding the nature of a “bigger picture”, and how what’s important at different levels, will differ. Which is somewhat of an “art” sometimes – needing experience, knowledge and even something like intuition!

  4. Ha. Interesting you latch onto that quote about “systems thinking” and follow it with “human thinking” … we are that system, it’s how we think. ie it isn’t about the thinking OF some computer system artefact – it’s a systemic WAY of thinking about thinking, our thinking, all thinking – full stop.

    And yes, as soon as you say “bigger picture” – you are implying a complex system of systems of which the current sub-system (me and you chatting now, say) is just a part. A supersystem where we need to understand its “architecture” how different layers and aspects relate in various dimensions and meta-dimensions, but of which we DON’T NEED TO KNOW the details, just our expectations at our (sub-system) boundary – the information we exchange.

    (And absolutely, “the logos” is no coincidence here.)

    You should maybe read my previous post – which is what I posted immediately AFTER our conversation.

  5. Yep, that might have been a revealing reflex on my part, that I’m not quite sure if human thinking can be modeled as a “system” directly, at least not with the systems as we conceive them today. Much of the left brain might be straight forward, but with the right brain.. I’m still not sure. The experience of thought activity in the right brain doesn’t resemble a logical structure in that sense, often.

    Also, the old ideas about the supersystems vs. subsystems would often be that we get closer to something like values, virtues and moral structures as that which guides all the lower systems as we “ascend”. And that the forces/agents like Love and of Knowledge are the deeper “sources” of the systems. Just trying to connect systems design upwards to hebrew spirituality and the “top-down” biggest picture we can conceive of. And moral structure (The Law/Torah) as the deepest system/structure of ontology and being.

    But how to design virtues in a system.. maybe self-learning through consequence after billions of iterations? Or is it deeper?

  6. Ha again.

    This is the point you really are missing about “Systems Thinking”.
    Did you look at the next post I linked (in the previous comment) the “Three Essays” – “you should maybe read” ?

    The middle one – “Algorithms for Humans”
    I’m deadly serious. Left AND right brain … the logical / objective “MODEL” as well as the affective / subjective “TRUE” values view – in fact the latter is the primary source of actual consciousness. (Iain McG was so so close, but not quite the cigar. Mark Solms just took the additional step with the science – I’ve been at this point for 7 or 8 years.)

    Just read that one middle para in that post, literally as I wrote it … without your preconceptions of “systems” … then let’s have a conversation?

  7. Yep, I read it (and again now), but I need to see the full argument.. Where’s the best introduction by Solms? I’m open to any sort of modeling, just curious as the question of how the “brain works” seems tied up with “why do we think, perceive and behave the way we do” – which instantly could link all the way up to the highest metaphysics and theology. Just in terms of where one starts modeling the human mind. There are so many layers and frames outside of the individual that shapes us.

  8. Ha, no. There’s no argument at all, just very basic assertion(s).

    I JUST want you to understand and believe I mean what that para says.
    You couldn’t possibly agree with the actual assertion(s).
    Wow, really? Tell me more? is my best hope.
    Or better still, a steelman – “you appear to be saying that … (in your own words)”

    The full argument is several books worth of reasoning – we can come to that once we’ve passed go 😉

    [And btw – “so many layers and frames (systems of systems) outside the individual (subsystem)” etc = identical = “Systems Thinking”.]

  9. Yes I’m at the stage of “great, tell me more!” – but I need to see an example of this type of modeling to form an impression of it.

    This part of the paragraph makes me interested: “there is a perfectly credible story that the softer side of the human condition is explainable by categorical / qualitative “algorithms” in a living, biological “soft machine”.” – but what sort of algorithms is it? or is it a conceptual argument at this stage?

    I’m also curious as to how the mystery/hard problem of consciuosness is accounted for, if necessary. It might not be. But I’m curious.

  10. Right, well that would be the essay implied by that para 🙂
    Might still be nice to hear what you think I said – would make it clearer what the essay needs to clarify.

    What kind? “categorical / qualitative algorithms” ones that “process” the right-brained value / quality / valent / salient / affect / sense of the world as directly subjectively experienced … The hard problem is very much “solved” by it – simply dissolved, since our consciousness simply IS the subjective / affective impression of that experience.

    G’nite for now. Still suffering from this damn cold – gotta get to sleep 🙂

  11. Richard mentioned virtues and morals as supersystems guiding lower systems, and then asked: “But how to design virtues in a system.. maybe self-learning through consequence after billions of iterations? Or is it deeper?”

    My reaction is that the virtues/morals are not the higher systems, but are actually the deepest/lowest sources of all. In Pirsig’s second book, he convincingly demonstrates that what he calls Dynamic Quality is the source of every pattern we observe or participate in. We learn enough from reading Lila to know that virtue comes from the bottom, not the top. Unfortunately, Pirsig does leave Dynamic Quality’s ultimate nature as a mystery, which might make it tough to “design virtues in a system.”

    As I mentioned in another comment, I actually don’t think that ultimate source of virtue is mysterious at all. In an energy gradient, a small fraction of matter naturally enters into a pattern of sustaining stored energy and delaying its dissipation. Such perseverance in being represents virtue for the very lowest subsystems. As supersystems evolve and emerge above those, perseverance in being remains the overall goal, but now for a system of growing specialization and complexity. The human mind operates in service to such goals, both for individuals and for higher and more complex groupings. I think the human mind knows enough to recognize spirituality in those highest pursuits. I think the way to design virtue into a system would be to have it measure its own success with the same kind of spirituality.

  12. Hi Tim, Richard, I’m going to shift this content to a new post – essentially “drafting” the essay implied by “Algorithms for Humans” in the “Three Essays” post.

    “Virtues and Morals” are evolved multi-layered systems based on the “affective” right-brain qualities in exactly the same way as science is the multi-layered systems of the “objective” left-brained model.

    At the root of the whole (the metaphysical monism) I’m happy with Pirsig’s quality as a name for it. In most of the models out there (inc Solms and my own) it’s called “information” – that pure essence of experience – the existence of significance in a relation.

    I agree, absolutely none of this need be mysterious, EXCEPT to an orthodox “science” that rejects the affective / subjective aspect of that pure experience.

    More later. Thanks folks.
    What I would really like is more comments of the kind “what you appear to be saying is” …. 🙂 (Steelmen).
    I’m interested in clarity long before any “agreement” – that (Richard) will take 80-100 years 🙂


    [PS In general nothing is “designed” … still some struggling with “systems thinking” here. Any collection of stuff interacting with other stuff is treated as a “system” – like everything else, they evolve amidst other systems. (Higher level systems created by sentient intelligence, obviously include what we would call “design” – the laws of a nation, the features of an app, the size of the windows in your house. but everything from two quarks interacting, or an electron interacting with a proton to the creation of the Sagrada Familia is “a system”.]

  13. Richard, some issues:
    “Great, tell me more.”?
    “Great” – doesn’t convey any sense of what you understood from the 3 sentences I already wrote. (ie no point me writing any more.)

    In fact everything you have written tells me I can’t write anything about “systems” yet.
    I’ve given many examples in these two posts and threads.
    Any “stuff” interacting with other “stuff” (“stuff” = anything of any conceivable kind).
    Say – two points separated (statically or dynamically) on any axes you could conceive of.
    Say – a pair of quarks
    Say – a string.
    Say – an electron-proton pair
    (Say – any electromechanical / computing system. Boring example.)
    (Say – “the system” of implicit rule “imposed on us by “those other people” we don’t like. Boring example.)
    Say – a neuron with two ends
    Say – a hemisphere and the corpus callosum.
    Say – me and you in this comment thread.
    Say – Logical Positivism
    Say – Russia and Ukraine.
    Say – any related things you like / any collection of relations / related things
    ANY STUFF RELATED TO OTHER STUFF IN ANY ARRANGEMENT – from the very simplest to the most inconceivably complex and complicated.
    (All the examples above are pairs, but any arrangements of two or more …)

    Systems Thinking – says these are all systems that can be treated in terms of other systems they interact with AND within.
    Let’s not pass go 🙂

    When I say “system” I mean anything (that could conceivably be) thought of this way.

  14. Ian, [Thanks Richard – inserting my responses in yours – IG]
    good morning – taking this first: “Might still be nice to hear what you think I said – would make it clearer what the essay needs to clarify.”

    First claim:
    “Those with a human (humanist / humanities / dare-I-say spiritual) cultural perspective will react negatively to machine (algorithmic / electro-mechanical computer) models of “how real human (hard/intellectual & soft/emotional) intelligence works”.”

    Mostly agreed. Not all, but “most of those with a human-cultural perspective”.
    [IG – You both understand and agree that- “most would react negatively”? My purpose (challenge) is therefore to positively address a wide audience with this negative perspective. (The most / some was implied – the audience that needs the explanation – no absolute statements of “all” here.)]

    I think this is close to a statistical proven fact.
    [IG – Not sure why “statistically proven” – but you would agree there is plenty of evidence and experience supporting the assertion?]

    [IG – you didn’t make any distinction between the hard/intellectual and soft/emotional. You also understand and agree that most would reject a mechanistic algorithmic model even for logical objective human knowledge. Good.]

    Second claim:
    “It’s a common sense of science over-reaching into the “human” culture war, the politics, as old as “The Third Culture”.”

    Yes, that’s how it would be seen by most humanists. That’s my impression as well.
    [IG – Good]

    Third claim:
    “Our mechanistic, imperfect, negative experience of algorithms so far (eg in social media, and marketing) and automatons (eg in robotics and thought experiments) can only reinforce this sense.”

    I think that’s also statistically a fact, that this is how most/close to all will see it. Which is also understandable I think.
    [IG – Good – though again, not sure why “statistical fact” – statistics are actually quite important to “Active Inference” (Bayesian probabilities, etc) so I may need to understand your attachment to statistics :-)]

    Fourth and last point:
    “However there is a perfectly credible story that the softer side of the human condition is explainable by categorical / qualitative “algorithms” in a living, biological “soft machine”.”

    This is where I’m left with the question – what is the story?
    [IG – here I reduced the statement to the “softer side” on the assumption that if the story is convincing for the softer side, it ought not to be any less convincing for the “harder” side.]

    So overall;
    My impression/gist of reading the paragraph/sketch is something like: “many people resist the idea of human algorithms, for understandable reasons. But the idea has a merit.”
    [IG – Yes. But more than “merit” 🙂 It would be completely mind-blowing if it “unifies” into a coherent whole all the issues we were already talking about?]

    And then I’m left wondering, “what is the merit”?
    [IG – And I need to find the language to help with that answer. And the first stumbling block is for me to use the word system without you presuming something other than I elaborated in my most recent comment. PROGRESS 🙂 ]

  15. Tim,

    fully agreed on the deepest/lowest rather than “highest” systems. I’m often finding it “both”, that the deeper and most basics element of thought, being, metaphysics, are also the overarching elements at the same time. Maybe this is why your use of “source”, as with the Greek arche/αρχή, is more better and more precise.

    And to bridge a little, Pirsig’s ideas of “Dynamic Quality is the source of every pattern we observe or participate in”, and “Dynamic Quality’s ultimate nature as a mystery” – this is close to 100% the same as old Hellenistic Theology from St. Gregory of Nyssa (who was a secular philosopher until the age of 40). Just labelling Dynamic Quality as “Divinity” instead.

    The language of virtue as “perserverence in being” is very interesting, I have to ponder this further. It partly ties into the ideas of morals/virtue as that which works in a positive/constructive manner in the longer time spans, both individually and in a culture. As a small example we can see this dynamic in f.ex. animal flocks as well.

    And I’d love to hear more about the idea of spirituality in a system measuring its own sucess.

  16. Ian,

    ““Virtues and Morals” are evolved multi-layered systems based on the “affective” right-brain qualities in exactly the same way as science is the multi-layered systems of the “objective” left-brained model.”

    This is excellent stuff. Maybe it’s also “apprehended through” as well as “based on” the right brain qualities. Just adding the dimention that both virtues, morals and science might be seen as existing independently of humans, and that our brains are shaped by them. Back to ontology being reflected into the “system design” of the brain.

    “PS In general nothing is “designed”” – I thought about my own use of the word “design” the other day. My intention is more “the process” as the designer, not by an active or conscious agent. Evolution as designing the nanomachines and digital DNA structure in cell biology etc.

  17. Ian, one more,

    thanks for the clarification of “Systems Thinking – says these are all systems that can be treated in terms of other systems they interact with AND within.”

    In that sense you might say that the “Divine Comedy” by Dante is a system, and in my view that is the system of all systems – the biggest frame there is/we can conceive of with our limited minds – expressed in words, poetry and metaphor (as well as embedding the cutting edge science and astronomy of his day).

    And if novels and stories are systems, you might call Greek Mythology human algorithms. But I’m not sure if we’re quite on the same page yet.. Let me know your thoughts.

  18. “Excellent stuff” – is good 🙂

    OK – I might baulk at “system design” of the brain and prefer “system architecture” – the parts and their arrangements in how they “communicate / interact” with each other. (But yes, design is going to prove a useful term too, but we need to get things like purpose and intent into their proper place in the dialogue if we are not to mislead each other. Intelligence itself.)

    So, ASSUMING, you are now OK with “Systems Thinking” even for soft physio-biological stuff like brains and ephemeral psychical stuff like minds – then I may be good to go.

  19. Richard,
    Yes Dante and his Divine Comedy are indeed more systems, systems that may themselves contain systems of cosmology and systems of retribution, systems of cantos 🙂
    Pirsig’s MoQ is another. Solms’ Markov-blankets are another. etc.

    If you’re comfortable with me using systems language even for these without in any way devaluing them – deliberately or accidentally – I am indeed good to go.

  20. Ian,
    I see the followup from the 9.17AM comment already, splendid.

    The use of “statistically proven” is just a way of saying “a big survey would show and conclude”. If you posed the first claim to 5,000 humanist scholars and students, my impression is that maybe… 85% would agree. Though that is a “hunch” drawn from my own real life experience (as well as my humanist side).

    And true, I was likely presuming that the word “system” would describe a connected set of logical propositions or precisely defined boxes and arrows. If it is “softer”/inexact relationally (f.ex. something “influences” something else) and extended to things that affect each other to some degree, or a body of knowledge etc., my perspective changes yes.

    But we’re getting close to the point/threshold where humanists might claim that what is being described is in the domain of and being articulated with the language, of the humanities.

  21. “human algorithms” is not something I’ve actually said (intentionally anyway).
    I said “Algorithms for Humans” as a heading.

    So “Greek Mythology” is a system (of thought and narrative) – what the systems thinking / active inference story is going to show is that “algorithms” in the most general sense of “processing information” are at work in how they evolved and live (and again information in its most generic sense from the “essence of good/bad/affective experience” onwards).

  22. Richard said:
    “And true, I was likely presuming that the word “system” would describe a connected set of logical propositions or precisely defined boxes and arrows. If it is “softer”/inexact relationally (f.ex. something “influences” something else) and extended to things that affect each other to some degree, or a body of knowledge etc., my perspective changes yes.”

    OK – we’re now getting to the the distinction between “the systems” and the means to “represent and communicate them” in a dialogue / discourse / book.

    As soon as we start to use a language (words, boxes and arrows, etc.) there is “some” necessary formality in the language. Agreed semantics for the purpose of the dialogue.

    That’s true whether I say “Paul fancies Mary” in a fuzzy human sense, or “My window sill is 3.65m above local ground level datum” in what looks like a well defined frame of reference. (Similarly your even vaguer statement “A influences B” in some yet to be defined / agreed / understood way conveys a bare minimum of “formal” semantics.)

    I can say any of those – equally precisely / vaguely / formally in words or in box / arrow symbology. (In fact networks of nodes and edges with properties is going to become our formality of choice.)

  23. Following up; this sounds good with clarifications of semantics. Both “systems”, and their representations.

    I guess in some cases “system” with this terminology could be close to the term “world” within the humanities or in literature.

    A sidepoint; the dimension of temporality of sentences adds freedom of representation vs. boxes and arrows. The inversion of the material universe into a spiritual realm, where the outer edges of the cosmos warps into the very emanating center of the spiritual – is likely impossible to represent as a 3D model. An animated movie, maybe. But with words, the warp happens in your mind, not in front of your eyes.

  24. (The last example is from Dante’s Paradiso as he moves beyond the Prime Mover, and into the Empyrean/The Divine Mind beyond time and space).

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