Whiteheadian or Not?

Just to capture a couple of new “process view” resources for me.

Naomi de Ruiter in the first and Dan Nicholson in the second:

The Dissenter Podcast on Spotify

And Brain Inspired on YouTube

Hat tip to Kevin Mitchell’s timeline for both.

Obviously Whitehead is an inspiration, an important reference used, but Dan claims not to be “a Whiteheadian”. Whitehead made his own “neologistic” word choices for process aspects he wanted to pin-down as “entities” in his metaphysics, but clearly these don’t exhaust all possibilities and still drive “exegesis” in interpreting details of what he actually intended – philosophy was ever thus. There’s an ethical choice in pinning named things into an ontology – Yay! And anyway, the real value is in the abstraction.

Yay again!
The Devil’s in the details, but 
The Angels are in the abstraction.


Dan Nicholson’s “Everything Flows” added to my book list.


Philip Ball – Life & Minds

Two of Philip Ball’s books are on my wish list, but I’m unlikely to obtain and have time to read either for a while – “The Book of Minds” and “How Life Works” – in that counter-intuitive order apparently.

I’ve mostly picked-up on his reviews and articles for magazines and journals previously, never actually read any of his books, but he has been prolific alongside his previous editorial day-job. I like the way he thinks.

Hat tip to Yogi Jaeger on Mastodon, for sharing this excellent interview with him about his life and work. Completely different career path from me, but amazingly similar trajectory in joining-up topics and thoughts from schooldays. [Worth some review in its own right … full transcript there too.]

Fascinating that it is a Templeton resource again. As I often say, despite being atheist / non-theist, I get more sense out of the average theologian than the average scientist these days.


Pranay Sanklecha – New Philosophy Contact

The thing I find most immediately fascinating about Pranay Sanklecha is the title of his 2013 PhD Thesis at the University of Graz, Austria:

“Climate Change,
Theories of Justice, and
The Ethics of Ontology”

“The Ethics of Ontology” sounds a good fit with my “Epistemological Ontology” – there is no absolute ontology independent of what it’s used for, the original meaning and purpose in whoever created it. That’s a matter of ethics, not physical science. Need to find a copy of that thesis. He also has his own The New Philosophy blog project.

Meantime, he published an excellent magazine article in December 2023 – a top-ten philosophers / books for people who don’t know why we need philosophy in our times. Times which look like a collection of enormous existential crises with which we – humanity – seem to be failing to get a grip. Exactly the motive in my own Systems Thinking research proposal, where my title includes systems thinking and cognitive science, but the focus is unashamedly metaphysical, the basis of our knowledge-and-decision-making ecosystem.

And, he leads his philosophy top-ten with Robert Pirsig and his “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (ZMM 1974).

The wisdom of a true philosopher.

“Robert Pirsig was a true philosopher. His book [ZMM] is a serious, sustained and passionate “inquiry into values”. With burning intensity, with transparent sincerity, he asks: what is really valuable? What truly matters? […] essential reading for anyone searching for wisdom in [these times].”

My other interest here is, as you probably already know, in the Robert Pirsig Association (RPA) and our current focus on #ZMM50th – the 50th Anniversary of the original publication of ZMM in April 1974. The prompt for his Dec 2023 article above is that 50th anniversary, this year. That quote above is as good as any testimonial the RPA has.

Small interconnected world.


[Post Note: Additionally fascinating, his academic CV and my own research proposal, neither actually mention Pirsig. Yet.]


William Godwin

William Godwin has never previously figured in any of the posts or pages of Psybertron, despite often appearing in conversations arising from the same subjects. (Not to be confused with Mike Godwin of Godwin’s Lawmentioned here several times before. Don’t mention the war, Pike!)

So this is just a placeholder for William Godwin (1756 – 1836).

I have his political treatise, in that unread library:-

Enquiry Concerning Political Justice:
And Its Influence On Morals And Happiness.

William Godwin (1793)

Obviously right in the middle of that same period – where so many were excited by the political possibilities of the French revolution, including the Germans / Prussians in Jena and thereabouts, before reality dawned just in time to be documented and able to survive obliteration by Napoleon.

Often referred to as the first “anarchist” (in contrast to monarchist) he was more what we would think of as liberal / libertarian or “minarchist” –  Government regulation only where necessary, otherwise individual freedom and equality prevail. Aren’t we all?

His name tends to be forgotten because his wife, their daughter and their ongoing entourage became so much more famous. Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and the rest including the connections between the English and German Romantics via Coleridge, Goethe and the post-Kantian philosophers and eventually the Bloomsbury set.

As I say, for now, just a placeholder.



Bradley’s Appearance & Reality

I came to F.H.Bradley through Bertrand Russell’s metaphysical ruminations only 5 or 6 years ago (hat-tip Stephen Mumford). It was a conscious effort, because I’d pretty much given-up on Russell after the debacle of Principia Mathematica, from which co-author Whitehead seemed to have learned, but from which Russell appeared never to have recovered (nor from Wittgenstein) and instead morphed into a public political intellectual superstar on pretty flimsy foundations of understanding the world. I noted lots of parallels – in Mumford’s analysis of Russell’s analysis of Bradley – between Bradley’s (idealism) metaphysics and my own thinking these past two decades – very much reinforcing my “nothing new under the sun” agenda at the time (aka Footnotes to Plato, after Whitehead).

I did however buy a hard-back copy of:

Appearance and Reality
– A Metaphysical Essay
F.H.Bradley, 1893, 2nd Ed 1897,
Seventeenth (!) impression 1978.

on the strength of that read, reinforced by several others in the topical “new idealism / new-panpsychism” fashion. It’s been in my library of barely read books ever since.

Earlier this week John Carl, formerly an active participant in the Robert Pirsig-based “MoQ-Discuss” forum, asked me to dig out a copy of the so-called “Copleston Annotations”

The Copleston Annotations

This text is correspondence between
Robert Pirsig and Anthony McWatt
including Pirsig’s annotation of:

Frederick Copleston’s
“History of Philosophy – Volume 8 19th Century Idealism

Simply checking I had the whole file I skimmed the start and end, and found this couple of sentences amongst Pirsig’s concluding paragraphs:

So It has really been a shock to see how close Bradley is to the MOQ.

So no surprise to me to find Bradley close to my own thinking, since I’ve often said Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ) framework remains influential and easy to populate with everything I’ve synthesised since from a thousand other sources to this day.

Both he and the MOQ are expressing what Aldous Huxley called “The Perennial Philosophy,” which is perennial, I believe, because it happens to be true.

Huxley’s perennial philosophy too, oft quoted here.
And he goes on:

Bradley has given an excellent description of what the MOQ calls Dynamic Quality and an excellent rational justification for its intellectual acceptance. It and the MOQ can be spliced together with no difficulty into a broader explanation of the same thing.

Shocked by this, because as he had noted upfront:

… I’ve said before, philosophology isn’t my field …

Pirsig never really attempted philosophical discourse with the philosophy of others – philosophology is to philosophy, as art-criticism is to art – it all came from the Greeks and from eastern or aboriginal thinking anyway. Having extracted his MoQ description, and written his two novels, he chose to emphasize the mindful / attentive / Zen aspect of living philosophy and leave the intellectual description at that. His widow Wendy chose the same emphasis in the posthumous selection “On Quality” too.

Anyway, finding myself with a quiet hour away from any correspondence – in a hospital waiting room whilst my elderly mother underwent a routine procedure – I started to read / re-read Bradley. I am that man again.

One aspect of my “nothing new under the sun” adage, is that I’m not really claiming any originality in the content of my own work. My creativity is in synthesising, integrating, re-organising the language used to suit different questions arising from different people in different everyday contexts. But it really has all been said before. It’s 100% plagiarism, it always has been and there’s a practical limit to how many references you can acknowledge in any one sentence – even in non-intrusive end notes. Who cares? If it’s perennial, it’s probably right. That is surely more interesting?

[Aside, Bradley’s “model” is indeed very close to Pirsig’s MoQ and to my “triple” – for another day, another piece of writing – but the meta-stuff about his own thinking is fascinating.]

Bradley’s preamble in the prefaces (1st and 2nd Ed) and the early / introductory chapters cover much the same self-effacing ground. Firstly his sub-title, which he goes on to explain first in the original preface.

“A Metaphysical Essay” – An Essay? This is a 500 page book.

Neither in form nor extent does
it carry out the idea of a system.
[W]hat I have done is incomplete.
[A] more or less desultory handling of perhaps
the chief questions in metaphysics.

This volume is meant to be
a critical discussion of first principles.
To originality in any other sense
it makes no claim.

I have written for English readers,
and it would not help them much to learn my
relation to German writers.
Besides, to tell the truth,
I do not know precisely that relation myself.

And, though I have a high opinion of
the metaphysical powers of the English mind,
I have not seen any serious attempt
in English to deal systematically with first principles.

We owe [improved understanding] mostly to men
of a time shortly before my own,
and who insisted well … on the great claims
of Kant and Hegel.

From the 2nd Ed Preface:

It is a pleasure to me to find
that a new edition of this book is wanted.
I am encouraged to hope that with all its defects
it has helped to stimulate thought on first principles.

And from the Introduction:

[T]he preconceptions adverse to metaphysics in general.
[T]o understand by metaphysics an attempt to know
reality as against mere appearance,
or the study of first principles or ultimate truths,
or again the effort to comprehend the universe,
not simply piecemeal or by fragments,
but somehow as a whole.

[We’re all metaphysicians, even if in ignorance.]
To say the reality is such that our
knowledge cannot reach it,
is a claim to know reality;
to urge that our knowledge is of a kind
which must fail to transcend appearance,
itself implies that transcendence.
For, if we had no idea of a beyond,
we should assuredly not know how
to talk about failure or success.

I am so bold as to believe that we have
a knowledge of the Absolute, certain and real,
though I am sure that
our comprehension is miserably incomplete.
But I dissent emphatically from the conclusion that,
because imperfect, it is worthless.
And I must suggest to the objector that
he should open his eyes and
should consider human nature.

And I may have given the impression
that I take the metaphysician to be initiated
into something far higher
than what the common herd possesses.
[T]he superstition that the mere intellect
is the highest side of our nature,
and the false idea that in the intellectual
world work done on higher subjects
is for that reason higher work.

Wow! In reverse order:

Yes, we need to use intellect to unravel our understanding of the world, but that doesn’t mean intellect is our most important view of reality.

Strong views lightly held. We absolutely must have a view of how we believe the world really is – ontological commitment – even whilst that view is evolving contingently on new knowledge.

We’re all in this game, there is no opt out, other than ignorance.

It’s about comprehensive (first) principles, abstractions, not about the sum of pieces of knowledge.

We’re indebted to 18th and 19th C Germans.

(As Gödel will show in the future), comprehensive consistency comes at the price of completeness.

And – the whole is about systems
and knowledge of the whole is systematic.

This isn’t new, it’s all been said before.


Pre-Registration of Research

It’s a while since I did any actual “research” in the scientific sense, essentially all my work is with people and their outputs, written or otherwise, and at more abstract levels of principles involved in their observable actions. Last time I actually collected data and analysed it using objective and statistical scientific methods was probably my Master’s project and dissertation, and a few routine organisation / business / market research surveys since.

I’ve been following a movement that says proper scientific research should always be publicly & auditably pre-registered before actually being done, as a guard against researchers only publishing research that meet or directly, impinge upon their prior stated aims. (Example here from Dorothy Bishop @DeeVeeBee) Properly pre-registered, we get to see inconclusive and negative results – or absence of published results – that may often be more valuable to wider humanity than the original directed aims of the funded research. Not just negative findings notice, but even absent or inconclusive ones too – may tell us as much about the flawed philosophy implicit in the research question or the way the research was planned, as much as the explicit “content” of the research.

I just noticed it’s a practice I regularly follow here in my “pre-reviews”.

As I say almost all my work is reviewing and creatively synthesising the work of others and a habit I developed early on was to state pretty explicitly what I thought of the work (and its relevance to mine) before I actually read / viewed / listened to it. Often listing my presumptions / pre-impressions based on prior publicity or on skimming blurbs, intros and end-materials first. Quite independently of specific reviews and analyses, I also often do “position statements” about what I believe up to this point on a given topic. That way people – including myself – can check my honesty when reading and reviews and conclusions I do ultimately draw.

Keep me honest.


Humanistic Cybernetics

Hold that thought.

I have held the view that Cybernetics (since 1946 Macy Conference) was always primarily about human systems involving the “Psyche” (hence my naming my efforts “Psybertron”) The fact that so much visible effort since then has focussed on automation and control of man made systems and “machines” – the easy bit – has completely skewed the wider conception – to the point of no return I fear – that anyone defending humanistic values in the 21st C would automatically (heh!) reject the language of Cybernetics (or Systems Thinking as I prefer it these days).

Someone (in the systems domain) suggested my view – and views of Wiener’s (1948) Cybernetics generally – were somehow contentious? Here I need refer only to his title.

or Control and Communication
in the Animal and the Machine”

Animal before Machine, and control IN not OF the animal (or machine). He’s clearly talking about self-organising, living (self-sustaining) systems where control and decision-making arise internally.

By the time he came to write a new preface 13 years after his original work it is clear that the new discipline of control theory OF mechanistic (albeit complex non-linear) systems had taken centre stage, although he nevertheless reminds us he still has biology, psychology and sociology in his scope.

The original work had arisen within the Harvard Medical School. Despite the shift of focus in the preface to the second edition, the additional chapters in that edition are explicitly about learning, self-reproduction, brains and self-organisation, in addition to the original explicit topic titles of the nervous system, gestalts, psychopathology, language and society.

There is absolutely no doubt this topic was created with the understanding and well-being of the human animal in mind.


More on Psybertron:
This post is effectively one of a connected set of 4.

1 More than (Orthodox) Science ?

2 Humanistic Cybernetics ?

3 Synergy or Emergence ?
– https://www.psybertron.org/archives/18311

4 What’s in a name (Psybernetics) ?
– https://www.psybertron.org/archives/18326

(All my posts are connected, obviously, but these 4 specifically form a linked thread. They reflect a real-life developing dialogue, but there is a logical dialectic in the argument, so in order, do not pass go, etc.)


Bronowski and Operations Research

Today is Jacob (Bruno) Bronowski’s (official *) birthday and Timothy Sandefur marked the day by sharing his daughter Lisa Jardine’s 2010 documentary “My Father, the Bomb and Me“. Lisa and Bruno are (were) both heroes to me and I’ve mentioned them many times here. Most relevant to that film documentary was Lisa’s Conway Memorial Lecture I blogged about back in 2014 (inc footnotes).

Watching the documentary again today I noticed something I’d not before.

My focus these days is the abstract version of Cybernetics I call Systems Thinking and one of the earlier incarnations was Operations Research. The last time I mentioned that was at this “Community Operations Research” event in memory of John Friend at Lincoln University. (And incidentally, the last time I mentioned Bruno was here at Hull University at last year’s annual Mike Jackson lecture. A number of personnel movements between these two institutions reflect changing fashions in Systems Sciences & Methods in the UK)

Anyway, I noticed that the statistical and Bayesian maths used by Bronowski, amongst others during wartime – to predict bombing damage and kill-rate effectiveness etc – were of course referred to in the documentary as the early days of Operations Research. Hull was his home institution at that time. Small world.


This year’s 2024 Annual Mike Jackson Lecture at Hull University “What Are Humans?” with Charles Foster, 19th March 2024, 6pm. Hat tip Ben Taylor.


(*) Official birthday because of the family history of escaping Nazi Europe from Poland via Germany, to start a new life in the UK meant they lost his actual birth-date and had to assign an effective new one – though Wikipedia doesn’t qualify the actual date. (h/t Tim Sandefur)