Cosmic Continuity

One of the threads from the “Bang Goes The Big Bang” and “Out of Darkness” talks, both featuring Laura Mersini-Houghton, is that whatever is wrong with big bang theories, they really seem to describe a succession of universes in time. There are no singularities in the space-time of our universe. Most of the “succession” ideas come from needing to account for boundary conditions or effects that must have pre-existed what we think of as the universe before “our” universe, whilst accounting for mass-energy anomalies in observed consequences of the (obviously flawed) big bang models.

Well, what if that continuity were even more continuous – there wasn’t really any need for big bang inflation. That’s exactly what is predicted by Rick Ryals and Cormac O’Raifeartaigh revisiting Einstein’s work. If Einstein knew what we knew now, he’d have stuck to his guns and we’d have a very different standard model of the universe.

Sparrow Numbers

Baffled by this. Same issue on two counts.

(1) That the common House / Tree Sparrow is logged as the most commonly seen UK garden bird.

(2) The Dunnock (aka Hedge Sparrow) doesn’t even make the top 10.

Are people just reporting “sparrow-like” birds and are the RSPB not differentiating what is reported. Dunnock and House Sparrow are not just different species they’re quite different types of bird. In my experience of several gardens in different locations, Dunnocks are much more common these days than Sparrows.

[Also incidentally – no Coal Tit ? At least as common as the Blue and Great Tits surely? And Goldfinch increasingly common yes, but no Greenfinch?]

Sokal vs Maxwell

This evening Nick Maxwell presented “How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World” launching his latest book of the same name. Alan Sokal and and Philip Ball provided responses.

Some 50/55 in the theatre as the UCL Grand Challenge on Human Wellbeing is introduced.

Nick describing his main theme that science has enabled the technologies that have contributed, even created, many of the global problems we face, but blaming science is the wrong response. Obviously science and technology are to be credited with immense positive progress. The problem is a damagingly irrational conception of “enquiry” that dissociates the pursuit of knowledge from how we apply technologies to achieving what is of value in the world.

The idea that Human Well-being is seen as a grand challenge by an academic institution like UCL is an indication that some part of the necessary revolution is already under way. But the rationality of Wisdom Enquiry is not yet recognised as part of this. The problem is that Knowledge Enquiry excludes value-based aspects of problem definition and problem solving – objectivisation and even hyper-specialisation often, without any interaction with the values and aims of the bigger picture. And that’s true even though the concern with the bigger picture may be exercising the minds of the same participants in their wider social world, evenings and weekends.

If you’ve read Nick’s earlier works, the continuing arguments are well recognised and rehearsed. (From Knowledge to Wisdom and Is Science Neurotic for example.) His 7-level model of Aim-Oriented Empiricism / Rationality. In fact as Nick concludes, it’s the same message he’s been pushing for over 40 years.

Feeding AOR into “Social Life” –  the task is social methodology or social philosophy, not social science. Methodology notice, philosophy of action, about doing not theorising

Dr Philip Ball responds, mainly to the book itself. Science is much less methodical that it appears, than it might formally admit (Maxwell’s scientific neurosis?). Trend to have to define and justify (funding) aims in terms of economic benefit. (But must aims be economic – bean-countable?) Dr Ball sees the solutions as essentially economic, even if they may require alternate market models and incentives. The recently recurring reminder that Adam Smith was a moral philosopher before and above his position as an economist. (Very Benthamite – reducing all issues to cost-benefit, even justifying art projects on relevance and benefit.) Democracy is not a necessary part of scientific progress. Agree focus must shift from knowing, but to doing.

Alan Sokal responding;  Science does make metaphysical assumptions, even though it would deny it. Scientists take weekends off, but we all know when non-unified scientific hypotheses are crazy. Nick’s work on the hierarchical AOE/R are important contributions to the philosophy of science, but the lack of “Wisdom Inquiry” in academic institutions is not really the fundamental problem preventing progress, rather than say economic incentives. Nick’s wisdom inquiry claims are probably more targeted at the social sciences than the natural sciences. (Quite the opposite in fact.)

My take is this.

Alan Sokal is well known for his fighting on the side of strict rationality against social constructivism, and yes we can all shoot PoMo Social Constructivists like fish in a barrel. Nick Maxwell’s “Aim Oriented Empiricism” basis for wisdom is however at that interface of rational knowledge with the social.

Yes, the rationality of the processes of gaining and applying knowledge may be strictly objective, logical, scientific. But, the rationality of aims is more than that. It’s also about what we value and how we agree what we should value. That is philosophical, even subjective and clearly social. They’re “problematic” – the task as Nick says is social methodology or social philosophy, not social science – requiring more than rational knowledge to manage and solve. Wisdom.

So, does Alan Sokal believe there can be more to applied wisdom than strictly logical, objective, scientific rationality and knowledge? Apparently not.

Ultimately disappointing, the discussion drew out into very general criticisms of “too hard”, and wider questions of national, resource and conflict governance – the arithmetic of democracy not excluded (*1) – well beyond academe. In fact both respondents really failed to pick up on the social values aspect of Nick’s “Aim Orientation”, slipping too easily to see aims as quantifiable economic goals (*2).



(*1) Sure, the one man one vote emancipation, epitomises the importance of the value of any human, but we’re talking here about methodology and doing, We can’t all take equal roles in every action, let alone deciding every action by popular poll.

(*2) Sure, technology is universally recognised as the main driver of global economic activity, and science as the main enabler of technology (Kondratiev, Schumpeter, Kuhn, you name them). But as well as enabling, what we do needs enacting, requiring populations of people with hearts and minds, hopes and fears, that ultimately determine what is achieved; Hiroshima or Hinkley.

Outsourcing Judgement to Calculation @tiffanyjenkins

Tiff Jenkins in The Scotsman today, writing on the problem of the “Quantified Self” movement. Short, sweet and to the point, so no excuse not to read. A reflection of the danger of applying new app / tech possibilities to exaggerate the slippery slope of giving privilege to those aspects of life that can be objectively quantified.

In summary – outsourcing (value) judgement to (quantifiable) calculation – doesn’t make judgement any easier, rather it bypasses, disconnects judgement from real empirical experience – making it easier to shirk the personal responsibility for applying judgement. What we should really be doing is making it easier for humans to connect to reality and take responsibility for it. Log personal “data”, sure, but treat it as audit / reality check for that human, not as an independent app, or a competitively shared “game”. Judgement is not a popular-voting – bean-counting – democracy.

Guidance of the wise, enslavement of the foolish comes to mind, again.

[Reminds me of the two cases noted earlier, of the UK MP and US Representative, counting the tweets in their inbox before voting on house motions. And – listening to BBC R4 Today interviews by Sarah Montague at the Tory conference – as old as the 20th century (and probably more) – the “cost of living” being objectified – something we can reduce to an index, as one interviewee warns – it’s not some free floating “object”. What matters can’t be measured, etc. Turning “objectives” into “measures” destroys their value …. and a thousand more.]

[Post Note : Another response here.]

A Post of Posts

The need to blog is fairly intense at the moment, not just many interesting things happening in the world to comment on, and significant things happening in my world to write upon, but also multiple communication initiatives that look like opportunities to turn talk into attention and opportunities into progressive action:

I am a fully-fledged grown-up adult,
I’m trying to make a dent, I’m trying to get a result
I’m holed up in a Hollywood hotel suite,
with tequila to drink and avocado to eat.
[Loudon Wainwright III]

My Left Knee – the story of my knee replacement surgery. [Truly inspiring life experience – to me anyway – in which I have been fortunate to come into contact with many wonderful individuals making the NHS work – and it ain’t over yet. In draft based on text notes and name-checks.]

Where Soul Meets Body – a stream of consciousness vignette within the above. [Based on the anaesthetic-and-morphine-fuelled immediate post-op euphoria, paying attention to the music collection on my Android phone whilst exercising my leg under the covers in fearful anticipation of the true pain level kicking-in. Rolling like thunder – that’s why they call it the blues – is not in that playlist, but much Roy Harper in there. Draft in chaotic notes.]

Leadership – an essay on what is really missing from society’s decision-making structures. [Prompted by a Facebook exchange with Martin. Near complete draft; a bit rambling and losing it’s way towards the end. Needs at least one good editorial session.]

Greatest [Currently Most Famous] Thinkers – revisiting the April 2013 Prospect Magazine poll on World Thinkers. I’ve expressed disappointment before, more than once, at the popular confusion between famous scientists and great thinkers, but thought it worth analysing the comment thread on the original article, in the light of the recent Comments in Crisis piece on the destruction of valuable debate. Also want to dig up that piece on how far most readers get beyond the headline – if at all – yet still immediately comment, share, like, link, embed, you name it. Meme’s in action. [Draft in mind only.]

The Cyprus Connection – transitioning from reading Sir Ronald Storrs’ Orientations – where he ended up as the first British governor of Cyprus, having been the first such governor of Jerusalem and Judea / Palestine post-Balfour pre-Herbert Samuel – into Mak Berwick’s Langkawi Lair, whose opening scenes witness an atrocity associated with the 70’s Makarios revolution in Cyprus. [Draft in mind only.]

‘Twas Ever Thus – the latest in a series of dozens, in which I often quote Horace explaining the impression, reported at least as long ago as 4000BCE, whereby ubiquitous and continuing aspects of human enterprise, are invariably dressed up as the latest problem “of our times”. Here goes ….

Prompted by reference to Terrence Rattigan’s falling out with John Gielgud – a topic on BBC R4 Today this morning – when “Johnny” elected to play the Dickensian anti-hero Sydney Carton, rather than appear in a production he’d already been working – fully cast and rehearsed – with “Terry”. An archetypically camp Cambridge gay set lovers’ tiff. Quite sweet to hear contemporary recordings of the luvvies actually, and I’m a fan of Rattigan, but the conversation brought up how significant Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was, still is, to our times (yet again).

Tale of Two Cities is apparently my mother’s favourite book, or was until she started reading the Russian classics more recently. And, it’s a book I know I should know. It’s been on my reading list for ever. I’ve owned a copy for years. It’s been on the bedside cabinet and the desk beside me where I work, dozens of times before. I’ve read the opening chapter, and got up that muddy south London hill in the horse-drawn coach more times times than I can count, made the Dover meeting and the channel crossing several times, I’ve even got to meeting the heroine’s father in the Paris garret a once or twice, but …. I’ve still not got through it. No idea why.

Anyway, It’s one of those books – like Anna Karenina, similarly I’ve never completed – with mythically famous opening lines. So famous Sylvia and I lay there trying to recall them as we listened to the radio. Nope? OK …

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,

And, in one long sentence, it goes on, ….

it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we are all going direct to Heaven,
we are all going direct the other way

in short, the period was so far like the present period,
that some of its noisiest authorities insisted
on its being received, for good or evil,
in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Sound familiar ? Plus ca change, ’twas ever thus.

Art for Art’s Sake ?

Not only is science a branch of economics, so now is art.

See: BBC Story and Guardian piece.

In fact if you think about the current scale of funding into fundamental physics, actually science is the branch of culture being funded for it’s own sake. Mad. The world turned upside down. (Follow @TiffanyJenkins)

Full transcript here.  Less bleak than the journalists’ selective headlines.

Terry Eagleton & Roger Scruton on “Culture” (Hat tip to David Morey on FB)

[Post Note : The price of everything and the value for nothing.
Deputy London major Munira Mirza, via @TiffanyJenkins]