Treading Water

Strange times – partly Covid-measures-related – but between professional engagements and buried in domestic projects for a few weeks, I have dozens of bookmarked pieces for thinking and writing. Many dozens.

Just very briefly caught-up on two – The CSI Effect” from Dave Trott and Corpus Callosum Disrupted in Autism” from Jessica Wright. The latter prompted by a link to a talk by Mark Solms, pointing out that consciousness – the self-other-awareness kind – arises much lower down the brain structure – much further back in evolutionary time – than the high-functioning human hemispheres which contribute most mass to the encephalization view of human advancement.

All related of course. The CSI effect is a kind of social autism – a group behaviour (jury) dependence on objective (forensic-scientific) evidence whilst failing to recognise the value of available (and relevant) subjective testimony. (Whilst ignoring the fact that the forensic evidence presented will be full of value judgements and opinion anyway, albeit expert.)

Related because the lower integrating components of the brain being more important than either cortex is clear in both consciousness itself and in balanced decision-making. McGilchrist points to permissive control in the corpus callosum mediating the extremes of left-over-right dominant decision-making behaviours. Solms shows that consciousness springs – stems 😉 – from even lower down in the brain stem itself. New to me was that explicit autism-spectrum link with Corpus Callosum behaviour, and several other papers on that also linked from the Wright article.

Understanding consciousness in all its glory – from basic self-other awareness to the products of wilful human creativity- demands a systems-thinking approach to relating brain functions (neuroscience) with human behaviour (psychology). Taking a simplistic view of objective determinism is seriously degenerate to our human enterprise. Memetic habits – learned from media inputs – render our juries autistic.

The technical term autism needs reclaiming from individual human well-being on the spectrum. The concept of normality also need rehabilitating – so much high-quality knowledge comes from studying “abnormal” brains. (More on this PC minefield in notes below.)

(And even the gaming effects in play in the CSI effect. It’s all there.)


Caveat Lector:
Some post notes on the autism / political correctness issues.

Autism (or autism spectrum disorder) is a feature seen these days as non-neurotypical or neuro-atypical. Typical is used here to avoid the normative & pejorative connotations of normal / abnormal, order / disorder. Even the word disorder is actually absent from most search returns on autism spectrum disorder. Spectrum is used to signify that the feature involves a range of properties, values and qualities, but there is no escaping that the distribution on that range is non-uniform. That “typical” does have some significance that atypical departs from a “normally expected” case.

A bit like any social spectra there need be no dogma asserting or demanding whole population conformance to normal cases, even (especially) where human rights for the atypical cases may deserve some special consideration or therapy to optimise their individual participation and contribution within wider human society. I say social / society, but like all such cases the psychological / behavioural patterns and spectra have some basis in the biological / physical layer, without necessarily being determined. There are learning and developmental dimensions as well as biological evolution. It’s complicated, and artificial simplicity distorts the true picture.

All individuals have the same human rights, but the value in atypical cases is in their departure from the typical, a typical that must exist in the population numbers. To use evolutionary language there can be no sustainable species if more than a few depart / mutate from the genetic norm to which most adhere most closely in most significant aspects. Exceptions being valued doesn’t mean more exceptions are necessarily more valuable. Archetypes are needed.

(Also related to binary classifications / good fences argument. Incredibly difficult to articulate sensitively – hence PC-ness. And hopefully obvious I could have written the whole of that around the sex & gender debate as much as the autism spectrum. Rules require exceptions, but not so many that there are effectively no rules.)

Try this: The population benefits from most members being closer to its norms. The population supports that individuals are free to depart from these (in physical & biological development or by psychological choice of will) in any number of dimensions. The population all benefits from those that depart from the norms – it’s where our evolutionary progress comes from. However the amount of population departure from norms in any given time period still requires that the mass of the population to remain close to these norms over multiple reproductive life-cycles. Too much mutation too fast is degenerate for the population.

Corollary, it’s why increasing speed of communication – memetic or genetic – is a problem for humanity.

Corollary, progress (without multi-generational population hindsight) is a value judgement. Individuals with power can make bad (eugenic / fascist) choices for the whole population unless value norms are conserved over multiple generations.

Science as the Pursuit of Knowledge

Part of my agenda is that “orthodox” science is constraining humanity’s understanding of the real world, particularly at two “boundaries”: its metaphysical foundation and its interface with subjective consciousness.

There is a need to clarify that “orthodox”. Any system – like science itself – will want to define itself as broadly as possible by including as many nuanced aspects within what it means to be scientific. But this is really an “identity” issue for science. (See embedded post note.)


And, being self-correcting by design … scientific arrogance / scientism

Logical Positivists – making philosophy scientific

Objective, empirical, physicalist … Objectively repeatable independent of subject, etc. Popperian falsification.

Kinda like Goff’s Galileo’s error – excluding the subjective, inner view.
As I say here – orthodox physical science para.

No says Ed Gibney


The Naturalistic Fallacy

I have been known to invoke “The Naturalistic Fallacy” – in fact did so most recently in my immediately previous post – but I need to clarify how I’m using it.

I’ve been following Ed Gibney for a while, and am discovering that important aspects of his evolutionary philosophy, and many of the sources he cites positively, coincide with many aspects of my own. Dennett, Pirsig, Dostoevsky to name but three. Also, intriguingly like myself (and Pirsig), his preferred aim is literary fiction that delivers philosophical knowledge, though so far in my case that remains a mere aspiration.

In that vein Gibney has an important 2015 piece published in AESBL Journal [a bit of a mouthful … the Journal of the Association for the Study of
(Ethical Behavior) & (Evolutionary Biology) in Literature] entitled “Bridging the Is-Ought Divide: Life is. Life ought to act to remain so.”

He spends significant part of that paper debunking the naturalistic fallacy and indeed opens with this quote from Oliver Curry:

“The naturalistic fallacy…seems to have become something of a superstition. It is dimly understood and widely feared, and its ritual incantation is an obligatory part of the apprenticeship of moral philosophers and biologists alike.”

Mea culpa.

My own evolutionary metaphysics, and the epistemological ontology built on that, is entirely naturalistic with zero supernatural content, so clearly all the ethical / ought aspects of our evolved and evolving reality are part of that. No fallacy there, certainly not the kind that excludes the good / ought from the natural / is. (Gibney’s definition of life involving the “ought” to persist itself is a good one, and a regular topic here in recent years, but I digress.)

The reason the naturalistic fallacy nevertheless remains a useful concept is because a large element of “natural” worldviews held by humanist / sceptic / green / woke / “follow-the-science” types involves a much narrower “scientistic” view of natural science. One which practically excludes subjective human will, leaving the caricature that natural equals good, where human intent equals bad if not merely illusory and misguided.

The everyday sense that natural is necessarily good is the modern equivalent of the naturalistic fallacy, even though that’s not the sense in which Hume originally coined it. Good and bad are both naturally evolved elements of reality to be understood as such.

[Anyway there’s a lot more in that paper worth reflecting on, and another interesting dialogue with Massimo Pigliucci arising from his “Plants Don’t Think” post to come back to. I’ve had this problem with Massimo before.]


[Post Note: This piece from Dan Ariely et al in Behavioral Scientist bemoans this same modern “Appeal to Nature Fallacy.]

Humanist Religion?

Christianity has a strong humanist core in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Much the same is true of Judaism and Islam and their prophets. And much of the specifics of that core are unoriginal / inherited / shared around many other social and religious traditions – love for fellow man, the golden rule n’all that. Origin stories and creation myths too.

In order to emphasise our natural atheistic distinction versus supernatural theistic nature of (most of) these religions, most of us humanists reject any suggestions of being a religion. God forbid. It establishes clear water between organised humanism and organised religions where the latter depend on rules associated with teachings of their prophets posthumously recorded in their great books. Rules which their organised churches may enforce as dogma, even if great debates and schisms continue on interpretations, and many adherents may accommodate with the pragmatics of everyday living.

Humanism however has some key worldview aspects – values – we share as humanists, whether signed-up as bona-fide members of any formal humanist organisation – such as Humanists UK in my case – or not. In my book, those views which bind us in that shared identity do make us a religion by definition – religiare – that which binds us. And some of those values are pretty axiomatic if not dogmatic.

One of those is the natural view – the rejection of any supernatural deity – philosophy as natural science and the ecology of humanity within that. A lot more is said about that in this Psybertron project.

The other is the human aspect itself. Essentially since 1948 stemming from the Universal UN Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent freedoms of thought and expression and shared responsibilities for the global ecosystem. With acknowledgements due, of course, to all the precursor thinkers and campaigners that led to these being adopted. Axioms which are not beyond being legally enforced, by socio-economic political pressures and by force of physical intervention. Axioms many of which are also enshrined and protected in national legal systems. Axiomatic by means of constitutional and revisable democratic arrangements, but not so democratic we wouldn’t all be outraged if a populist movement ignored or overturned them?

It is only ignorance of the naturalistic fallacy that prevents most humanists accepting that these humanist axioms are not themselves natural, and depend on being maintained by collective human will. Humanism is the most widespread religion in all but accepted identity.

Schlick and the Vienna Circle

As promised when I finished Misak’s wonderful biography of Frank Ramsey, I’m now reading David Edmonds “The Murder of Professor Schlick – The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle“.

Most interesting chapter so far concerns the different factions of Jews and anti-semites in Vienna as we approach the 1930’s – and the consequences for the academic lives of the circle and their associates. Sobering.

That said, almost everything reinforces my prejudiced position concerning the circle themselves. Idiots to a man. Neurath being the archetype and Schlick the facilitator. Despite their modernist free-thinking aspirations, a totalitarian attitude to denigrating anything remotely fuzzy and replacing it with the presumed certainty of logic. And an explicitly left-wing utopian political agenda to the core. What were they thinking?

Left or right, this stuff stinks. Pretty much my 21st C agenda. Political correctness, driven by orthodox scientism, is destroying sane – humane – public discourse and everything else with it. Sadly now, the whole process is turbocharged by wall-to-wall electronic media. The rise of the right being simply a reaction to the insanity of the left. A pox on both their houses.

[Brexit, Trump, anti-Covid, Q-Anon, LGBTI+ Gender Wars, you name it.]

Can’t help thinking what might have been, had they noticed Gödel at their 7th October 1930 conference in Königsberg, and had Wittgenstein attended and met him, or had Ramsey lived to participate, or … ? Mach would have been turning in his grave – The Vienna Circle being the informal name of what had actually been the Ernst Mach Society.

[Also noticeable that Edmonds makes no qualification for Gödel’s thesis being limited to number theory only, quite explicitly the logic of mathematics generally.]

Reproduction Can Lead to Lower Complexity?

HTLGI (How The Light Gets In) had a remote event – their “Winter Revel” – this past weekend, similar format to their twice-yearly Hay-on-Wye and London events, but hosted remotely on-line (*). I’m a big supporter of IAI/HTLGI, attending events over several years and reporting many excellent sessions and experiences here, as well as many earlier individual IAI events in my time living in London.

Main focus for me was a session with Dan Dennett (legend – oft referenced here), Sara Walker (ASU & SFI) and Nick Lane (UCL) with the rather crass title “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?” Fortunately all three disposed of that in their opening sentences and ensured the actual topic was life and its origins, a topic which invariably includes intelligent life and consciousness.

(Had joined an earlier lounge discussion session with Philip Goff and Bernardo Kastrup on their panpsychism / idealism agendas. After the above session also joined the ongoing lounge discussion with Dan, Sara & Nick. Then listened to Sara give her own talk and joined the excellent lounge discussion following that – the main reason for this post. Dropped in on a couple of Lee Smolin presentations and discussion sessions – disappointing style. Listened to a large part of the “Anti-Matter” session with Sabine Hossenfelder, Lee Smolin, Tara Shears and HTLGI host Hillary Lawson – also sadly disappointing. Had intended to listen also to Nick Lane’s talk and lounge-discussion, but somehow missed it – will have to await HTLGI uploading the recording.)

Sara Walker’s excellent talk and post-talk lounge discussion covered a few of my own questions, this one was particularly interesting to me.

Life as Reproduction: If we take “reproduction of reproducible individuals” to be the primary / fundamental definition of life, and all the other optional properties (eating, excreting, evading / resisting destructive danger etc) as means to that end, Sara’s suggestion is that this can lead to lower complexity – fewer functional options for surviving to reproduce. (An RNA explanation?) Agreeing that reproduction is about copying substrate-independent information patterns. More intelligent, more functional organisms – more complexity – surely evolves more opportunities for reproductive survival? (Obviously more risk & responsibility downsides come with the longer-term possibilities.) Not actually convinced by the reducing complexity argument – I still see an efficient drive to entropy (higher local order maximises overall 2nd law entropy) – so may need to see this explanation / evidence?

Aside – Sara referred to (Lee Cronin) Assembly Theory several times and confirmed it is related to (David Deutsch & Chiara Marletto) Constructor Theory – more questions on this too? (Seems Sara and Chiara have crossed paths several times.)

Aside – Also Sara’s tie-up with Santa-Fe Institute on complexity and entropy –  another interesting thread. (Jessica Flack at SFI  an important source for me on fundamental computation. And of course SFI <> Stuart Kauffman, see next aside.)

Aside – As well as the information <> entropic arguments for evolution of the possible in design space, Dan, Nick & Sara all acknowledged the energy arguments for actually histories. Led to some interesting points on teleology (inevitability in my terms) and ergodicity (relative importance of physical states <> paths through design space). Lots of discussion of the timescales for the physical and pre-biotic chemical lifecycles. (Also notice that Sara mentioned Stuart Kauffman a couple of times as a reference – my main source of non-ergodic phenomena. And only just twigged – the same Stuart Kauffman as Reinventing the Sacred – oh my, what a convergent world.)

Aside – didn’t Sara also say her supervisor had been Paul Davies, also associated with ASU and SFI of course.

Aside – Also “met” Tim Bollands (Natural Philosopher / Universal Life-ist) eye-to-eye for the first time, in a couple of the above sessions. (He and I share an original home town as well a an interest in the origins of intelligent life & consciousness.)

A rich seam provided by Sara Walker. One to watch.


[Here an earlier version of more or less the same talk by Sara, starts ~15min.]

[(*) Meta – “Winter Revel” a bit clunky moving between on-line sessions, a bit of disruptive gate-crashing between sessions, especially between the one-way presentation & panel talk sessions and the interactive lounge discussion sessions. Not clear how to get questions into the presentation & panel talk sessions when chat was not active? Also missed the fact that some popular interactive sessions involved booking and payment above the main registration ticket – missed a “sold-out” Dan & Nick session. But, like the physical events, impossible to see everything of interest. Worth it again, for the sessions I did see.]

[More wonderful stuff from SFI – Eric Smith on the inevitability of life. And a better, later version of the same content. Some great quotes to dig out (still to do), but there is a deep aspect of Eric’s that Sara pointed out – that life and living things are not the same. Eric is very much about life being ecological and living things are the things taking part in those eco processes, however much “the individual” is individually alive. Universal life Tim Bollands? Anyway noticed I already made this distinction earlier myself in a comment on one of my own posts a couple of years ago – where did I get that?]

[Paul Davies most controversially wrote his article on axiomatic science parallels with Christian theology – “Taking Science on Faith“. There is a fair amount of Templeton funding in this enlightened theology space. Interesting, because dogmatic scientism is my most fundamental underlying agenda – the reason for my interest in the boundaries between fundamental physics and metaphysics.]

Cosmic Clickbait

Just watched and listened to a whole 2 hours plus interview of Avi Loeb by Michael Schermer, about a book I’ve not read: “Extraterrestrial

As a dialogue it’s not good, particularly in the 20 to 40 minute period, where Loeb is frustrated at Schermer’s line and talks over his new questions. Sabine Hossenfelder drew it to Twitter’s attention. In fact the latter hour is much better dialogue – did you watch the whole Sabine?

I happen to agree with Loeb on the strength of this interview alone, that it does not require extraordinary evidence to demand (funding for) more evidence. Pure hi-res photographic observation, that would provide evidence for any number of phenomena and/or theories, by simply observing interstellar debris passing locally to our solar system.

The problem being discussed (by Schermer) is two-fold:

      • One – the Galilean psychological point that observation fits existing world-views in mind. Absolutely. In fact it is part of Loeb’s position that extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) is taboo – ridiculed – as a potential explanation. A prejudice of humans to fit patterns to incomplete evidence – human faces and bodies in fuzzy images, etc. A given by all parties here. Also – anthropic perspectives, another taboo – the Tim Minchin song / the Anthony Hopkins story – on statistical outcomes, survivor prejudice, etc. Schermer is too naïve in citing this stuff as if sophisticated intellects don’t already get this – quite insulting to Loeb (and me).
      • Two – the real problem – the memetics of popular science book and media publishing. The book has a click-bait subtitle suggesting “evidence for” the existence of ETI, and Schermer accuses Loeb of too strongly implying that in the book – cue the media frenzy for or against such possibilities driving book sales. Loeb backs off on this, naturally, sticking to his main claim. That observation is worth funding – especially simple discriminatory hi-res visual observation, built on zero doubtful theory. If we look, we will see what we find. That doesn’t require extraordinary evidence, even if drawing potential conclusions from the eventual imperfect evidence might. The claim is a demand for more evidence.

The real issue with the second bullet is the taboo created by the first bullet that degenerately skews the search for and the interest in new science.

And, lots more whataboutery from Schermer … about convergent evolution and long-run explanations of god-like intelligence and multiverses. Too smug and self-promoting for me. Exactly as with the anthropic / teleological inevitability / pan-psychist taboos. This is my main agenda – science leading itself (and the rest of the science-led world) astray by an orthodox scientism.

I’m with Loeb. I’d fund visual observation illuminated by our solar system on a par with whacky theoretical-based endeavours like dark matter and dark energy searches. The theory of visual observation is pretty sound, without extraordinary evidence. (And I would share Loeb’s impatience with Schermer’s attempt at misdirecting the interview agenda early on.)

Sounds like intelligent readers are on-side. Here is the review from The New Statesman:

“The book is not so much a claim for one object as an argument for a more open-minded approach to science – a combination of humility and wonder”

It’s almost as if Schermer is deliberately interpreting “interstellar visitor” to necessarily be, or be a product of, an extraterrestrial intelligent being. Whereas, Loeb’s point is wouldn’t it be cool if it was, and anyway it would be really easy to observe future “visitors”, so we should. Anyone open-minded would agree.

(Sounds like an interesting autobiographical memoir included in the book, Spinozan theology and more. Might be worth a read for meta-reasons.)


[Post Note: The object Oumuamua is the subject of the original extraterrestrial speculation.]

[And click-bait closer to home:

And from the generally considered slow-news channel Tortoise.]