Kevin Mitchell and his colleagues at Trinity Dublin recently created and ran an introduction to systems course for their students in multiple disciplines. Last week Kevin posted a comprehensive blog reflecting on the whole process and outcomes.

Reflections on Systems – the Science of Everything
Kevin Mitchell 

Did you ever get the feeling, when you’re working on some problem (scientific or otherwise), that there are some basic principles at play that elude you, but that must have been worked out already by somebody? That’s certainly been my experience in my career in biology, whether it was in developmental biology, human genetics, neuroscience or other areas. I’ve felt the joy of discovering new components of systems and working out some interactions and pathways, but also a nagging feeling that I was not seeing the whole picture – that I was elucidating details of what was happening, but not grasping what the system was doing. I often felt like I lacked the principled framework to even approach that question. This was not because such frameworks don’t exist but because I had never learned about them – systems principles had simply not been part of my education.

It really is very good. Whilst it’s clear that practitioners in any discipline obviously need to learn, experience and understand details of their own area of expertise, there are more abstract systems principles and concepts that are isomorphic about any system and how they work at any scale. Indeed, the “science of everything”. Or as I often say:

The devil may be in the details,
but the angels are in the abstractions.

Also reported are some issues with using specific software tools in the educational exercise. Reminded me of earlier attempts to give all students a basic grounding in computing – which invariably get focussed on learning the technicalities of a particular technology, currently in fashion and therefore useful in the fast evolving world of consumer and business applications. Training people for “jobs” as opposed to educating them. The real value and proper focus of education needs to be in the transferrable abstractions, independent of the implementation technology.

(Previous example:
Computation 101 – Registry Programming Exercise.
Technology requirement – a handful of beans

Kevin’s “Science of Everything” exercise is a “Systems – 101”. Recommended.


Quality in Mastery – Draft

Had tip to David Matos over at ZMMQuality on Facebook, for spotting this review by Steven Mintz on Adam Gopnik’s “The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery”

The reviewer spots the great parallel with Pirsig’s “Quality” work, which is not actually mentioned by Gopnik. Mintz also spots the parallel with Richard Sennett’s “The Craftsman” – and again Sennett doesn’t reference Pirsig either, despite  large sections on “Quality”.

No-one mentions Matt Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soul Craft” either. Crawford does at least reference and quote Pirsig a couple of times, though doesn’t given him any overall credit for the thrust of his work.

[To be elaborated and links added.]

Gender Wars 2023

I’ve been following and writing about the “TERF War” (transgender debate / gender wars) for about 8 years now, since 2015 when I read Alice Dreger’s “Galileo’s Middle Finger“, her book about her expert practitioner – and very personal – involvement in The Controversy Surrounding The Man Who Would Be Queen: A Case History of the Politics of Science, Identity, and Sex in the Internet Age.” (Pub Med 2008).

That title, pretty much sums up the reason for my original and ongoing interest – the corruption of 21st C science, and human rationality more generally, infected by identity politics and the memetic stranglehold of bad ideas too easily spread by both naive innocents and activists with agendas armed with real-time electronic media. That’s my whole agenda here on Psybertron quite independent of the Transgender, Intersex and Dysphoria subject matter. Amidst all the other woke / anti-woke, identity (and other) polarising politics of the past decade (#Brexit / #Trump / #ClimateCrisis anyone), not to mention any number of actual scientific controversies, #TERFWar was my exemplary cause-celebre. Just an example, but a very important one – a case history to use Alice’s words. So I was pretty vocal in what I wrote and communicated for several years.

I stopped about a year ago, after seeing Kathleen Stock talking sense at what turned out to be a very uncontroversial session at HTLGI2022 and after Alison Bailey winning her employment tribunal. Sense was apparently prevailing, and there were plenty of brave, articulate and well-informed women, gays, lesbians and yes, actual trans, taking the political battle forward in the face of the deranged, cultish TRA ideologues. No-one needs a straight beardy white guy mansplaining – whilst I nevertheless continue to support by sharing and promoting those voices. I could list them all, maybe I should, but you know who you are.

Sense has continued to prevail, though many more brave women have faced the physical and very personal threats of the ideologues. I’m prompted to write some actual content today, by the fact that yesterday Kathleen Stock succeeded in speaking eloquently in Oxford, and by the screening yesterday of Channel 4’s “Gender Wars” (which includes Stock speaking previously in Cambridge) after a year in which we have seen the Tavistock, Mermaids, Stonewall, and the rest getting their come-uppances. Onward and upward.

For me it’s time to ensure the right subtleties get into the dialogues. Despite appearances and the wishes of ideologues, this was never a simple binary battle to be won or lost. Several distinct points I wish to make about how much of the dialogue is cast as a debate about rights.

Firstly, the inane “Trans Rights are Human Rights” mantra. Obviously being humans Trans have the same rights as any other human. But human rights are not unconditional for any of us. All rights come with responsibilities and a duty of care to fellow humans, many of whom have protected characteristics, some of whom are minors. It’s by concensus and convention protected in law that conflicts between different humans and rights are settled.

Secondly, one specific rights example I have found very disappointing.

Freedom of (thought and) expression is very high in the hierarchy of UN protected rights and this has been central to much of the recent conflict. Parties that provide platforms have their own rights about who they invite and who they don’t, but no individuals or groups with counter opinions has the right to cancel or prevent the free-speech rights of others. Other than expressed opinions that stand as “hate speech”, or hateful intimidations in behaviour (or para-military concealed-identities), the one free-speech right that was highlighted here (by Cambridge Union, not Stock herself) was “the right to offend“. An important right sure enough, but very much about the process during dialogue rather than the substantive content. The right to offend is not the same as it being right to cause offence. Dialogue must always aim to defuse offence, and remains incomplete until it does, on both sides of any disagreement. Truth and reconciliation.

Thirdly, the right to exist? Another aspect of the ideology is the idea of “no LGB without the TQI+”. Anyone suggesting that that’s misguided is hyperbolically accused of “genocide” in somehow failing to support the existence of Trans, actively promoting their non-existence. Laughable, but sad, mad and dangerous. It is of course central to the whole dialogue that sex, gender and sexuality (and maturity) are recognised as having distinct biological and sociological reasons to exist. They all exist, but their reasons are different. Lumping them into one alphabet-soup acronym conflates these important differences. #GoodFences.

Fourthly, finally and most importantly imho, another sense of right – the more right-wing end of the political spectrum? We could debate whether left<>right was as useful as liberal<> authoritarian as a political compass these days, but there is a growing left<>right problem in both media and politics that is much greater that this Trans controversy. It’s killing so much democratic politics. Largely because the whole controversy is cast as a polarised rights debate and rights being cast by the woke as response to perceived oppression and injustice, it is inevitable that the more left/liberal parties and media side with the rights at the expense of the many more subtle responsibilities. The whole nazi / bigot accusations arise because the sane and the evil appear to be on the same side against the insane. But they’re against the irrationality for quite different reasons and motives. It is indeed sad that it is the right leaning media and politicians are the only ones that can publicly support the rationally and humanly right side of the subject whilst the left are captured. (See immediate examples below). The solution here is that politics and media must be allowed to address the subtle complexity of the issues in the dialogue, and not reduced to siding in a simplistic, non-existent debate. If for Labour politicians, this is not a big topic playing on the doorsteps, that’s because the topic has been so reduced.

As ever this is a plea for subtle, caring dialogue to displace binary, ideological debate.


Post Notes:

And as we go into Pride Month 2023 and the whole LGBTQI+ version of the Pride flag is shared everywhere, two examples:

The left media captured? I give you the Grauniad:

(See many more examples in the comment thread below that tweet.)

And The British Library trotting out the “assorted hermaphrodite fish” trope in support of “(Human) Pride”. Utterly bonkers and much shared by TRA’s in support of their inhumanity to (human) women and minors over the years.

The British Library tweet, got thoroughly “ratioed” about 4:1 with 550 responses not liking it before they switched off replies. And since deleted, so dead link in the Tweet above.  Duncan Henry kept screen shots, including an investigation of the capture of the institution by the identity politics of the gender wars.

Fortunately actual Trans people have a sense of humour in the face of the insanity:

And my Point 4 – about the left/liberal<>right/authoritarian problem – this piece from Matthew Parris in The Times is drawing predictable flak from the lefties, but is precisely the warning we need to heed. The war feeds the right, whichever “side” of the story you think you’re on because choosing sides denies the important responsibility for the subtleties. (Zizek been warning us about this for decades.)

Parris’ version of my “war” point – is spot on – intellectually, Left (Zizek) and right (Parris) agree on this:

“Only obsessive minorities on opposing fringes benefit from a confected combat in which most of us are on the same side.”

And there’s more:

Kenan Malik had a piece in the Guardian which drew quite a few responses. He suggested free-expression included the right of protestors to physically deny or cancel the free-speech of others, and that those of others suggesting otherwise were denying the free-speech of those protestors. Meta, meta, meta. Malik is a subtle commentator, much cited here previously but without the hate / incitement / intimidation angle he’s wrong here. It’s a tough call, but the individual, simplistic, binary, “easy” solution is the wrong one.

To be fair Alice does agree that most of Malik’s take is subtle and valid – no surprise there – but he’s wrong on this one point if that’s what he intended? I’d agree. But his main thrust is correct as ever “If you defend free speech, you must defend it all and not silence those you disagree with.” Cuts both ways. Sure enough Kenan was making the distinction between permitting any disagreeable expression with those using cancelling / silencing / intimidating behaviour and hate-speech acts:

Yet again, the subtleties are what matter, these are not simple binary arguments. I repeat the plea “for subtle, caring dialogue to displace binary, ideological debate“.

June 7 – and sure enough, Doc Stock to the rescue, with a response to the Matthew Parris piece, stating the opposite to what I appeared to be agreeing with “No, gender wars are NOT a gift to the right.”

She’s right of course it’s not actually a gift, but the warning is still an important point, precisely because it is this kind of contribution does address the proper nuances. It’s a gift to the mainstream press and party-political voices, who cast the sides as extremes, enemies in a “war” and side along natural partisan lines, even though a sizeable population do indeed care and understand more clearly and are neither extremes. It’s an empirical fact that left media and politicians are hamstrung – labour MP Jess Phillips, (not to mention Starmer) is my exemplar in avoiding siding with GC arguments, even moderate, sane GC positions.

Conversely the “alliance” between right-wing media outlets and the gender-critical camp are there for all to see. The warning is real and needs addressing.

And this is the same point from a cynical US perspective:

I could be one of those, but as one of the commenters points out that’s just Tucker’s Luck. The luck of the right-wing that the left-wing are not picking-up the sane, rational position. The gift to the right is not the gender-war per se, but that the left-wing do not have a grip on the rationality of it.


Quality on the Road Again

As well as his use of religious language throughout – bible, gospel, god(s) – we can forgive J R Patterson’s focus on long-distance motorcycling since, like Robert Pirsig, he too is a writer “with dirt under his fingernails”.


In his latest piece, “The Biker’s Bible” published in New Humanist, he compares notes of his own (2012) reading of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (ZMM, 1974) with fellow bikers and with another travelogue-genre writer Ted Simon (1979) “Jupiter’s Travels”. He also notes correctly that it’s a genre applied to situating gods in the world as old as Homer and Virgil.

He draws on widow Wendy Pirsig’s recent edited selection of Bob’s work “On Quality” which reset the focus of all Pirsig fans on quality itself:

“Quality then, is a kind of religion, though one preaching improvement for its own sake, rather than in the service of some deity … Much of its appeal lies in Pirsig’s prose …”

Well OK “kind of”.
I say “fans” because as Patterson says:

“Like most adherents, there was among them more enthusiasm (which means, as Pirsig points out, “filled with theos”, or God) for Pirsig than drive for understanding.”

The drive for actually understanding quality is of course hampered by it’s being ineffable, undefinable, an event rather than a thing. Something “you know when you see it”. Enthusiasm is much easier than understanding on the terms expected of “the church of reason”. Significant, maybe, that Patterson’s piece is published in New Humanist, the organ of The Rationalist Association of which (full disclosure) I have been a trustee and continue to be a member.

“The book, a bestseller, continues to be read by motorcyclists, philosophers and everyone in between …

We will not produce another writer like Robert Pirsig until we can differentiate quantity from Quality”

He’s right.



I’m in the process of housekeeping my Pirsig content. I must add him to my list of living thinkers, educators  and writers openly influenced by Pirsig.


The Humanity in Curation

 Dave Snowden of Cynefin posted a piece on “Curation”.

Machine learning (it isn’t artificial intelligence) curates based on its training data sets and they in turn come from the dominant ideology of the time unless careful work is put into their construction.

Note “careful” work. That doesn’t mean detailed, precise, comprehensive, thorough – it means with the human value / virtue of care. Curation isn’t about storing or preserving content for future access, it’s about careful management of transactions that create and use it.

So, we need to be careful not to leave humanity out of the loop in our efficiency drive for “automation”. Mistaking artificial stupidity for any kind of intelligence is humanity’s biggest so-called-AI risk.

Me, Psybertron and Pirsig

I maintain the “Psybertron Pirsig Page” (PPPage) as an online static (occasionally updated) resource simply to provide fixed public links and updates to other resources related to the life and work of Robert Pirsig including his two books ZMM (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – An Inquiry into Values) and Lila (Lila – An Inquiry into Morals).

[The best dynamic (social-media) page to keep in touch with all things Pirsig-related (people, places and artefacts, beyond the books and philosophy) is ZMM-Quality on Facebook. I interviewed the people who run that site – Henry Gurr and David Matos – here.]

Although my PPPage includes a “More” section on my own content related to his work, it only ever concerned my contributions to that public resource, and was originally never intended to be about me and my work. Almost invariably however, contacts via the PPPage ask about how and where Pirsig’s work fits within my own? The answer is of course scattered throughout my work in the blog.

This new page summarises what Pirsig means to
me (Ian Glendinning) and my work (Psybertron)


[It’s part of some wider housekeeping I’m doing to my Pirsig-related content. Watch these spaces.]



Vervaeke and Henriques

Picking up from the previous post, where I’d picked-up an apparent mapping between Pirsig and a model combining Vervaeke and Henriques, I’ve been looking at some specific recommended sources – what is it they specifically bring to the party?

Vervaeke I know in so far as he has a whole Patreon-sponsored YouTube series called “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis” – A Psychology and Cognitive Science Professor, Integrating Science and Spirituality to Solve the #MeaningCrisis. (I’ve not watched all of it.) His title is a good characterisation of the “thing” we all seem to be struggling with in the 21st C, our loss of “Wisdom” – and I’ve seen him in dialogue with others – eg McGilchrist and Peterson. What’s not to like?

I have a long-standing thread I refer to as #NothingNewUnderTheSun – essentially it’s impossible to read and give credit to every source. Let’s face it, our topic here is life, the universe and everything – all the libraries in all the world – and anyway almost all of us acknowledge “ancient” sources that pre-date “modern” intellectual history. Ways of knowing that seem to have been left behind in the victory which orthodox science has scored over all walks of modern life. So when I get a new source recommended, I’m not so interested in whether they’re good or right – they probably are given the authority of those I take recommendations from – but what is their thesis specifically?

When asked for that kernel @Kubbaj recommended this little summary put together by Kaleb Peters – a mash-up edited from several other Vervaeke talks:

“Lost Ways of Knowing”

[Ironic given my recent “Ways of Knowing” post – which also majored on Pirsig relationships?]

He seems to have a thing about 4’s – the 4-P’s of types of Knowledge (Participatory, Perspectival, Procedural, Propositional) and the 4E’s of Cog Sci (Embodied, Embedded, Enactive, Extended). Clearly one of his reasons for the 4P’s is his focus on types of memory storage of knowledge, not just the act of knowing – Types of Knowledge, not just Ways of Knowing.

Anyway with my usual binary #GoodFences view, I see:

A clear distinction between the obvious “Propositional” (conceptual) knowledge – the recordable WHAT of belief and knowledge – and the other forms. Things that can be represented symbolically and evaluated on a truth axis as opposed to knowledge that doesn’t necessarily fit that model and is therefore easily forgotten in our analyses.

A clear distinction between “Participatory” (perceptual) knowledge and the other forms. His elaboration, into “affordances” etc, is because he’s modelling not just the act of participation, but the architecture of the different types of “memory” needed to hold them as knowledge thereafter, not just in intellectualised symbolic propositional forms. (Affordances after Gibson, and in my case, Dennett.)

The two extremes are indeed binary, but there is a spectrum, an architecture of different representations. I’d still group Propositional and Procedural as symbolic representations, even if procedural benefits from graphical and video formats beyond textual language. Ditto I’d group Participatory and Perspectival, the former being the event the latter the remembered situation.

What is interesting is, as a result of his affordances model, he also elaborates a model of types of things knowable in the world beyond the knower. None other than Physical, Biological, Cultural – (where in Pirsig terms the latter is bifurcated into individual-intellectual and collective-social). Which brings us to what does Henriques bring to the table with his “Tree of Knowledge” system: (system, notice)

Also shared by @Kubbaj

Where we see instantly that Henriques brings in the individual Minds (actually Brains) into the M-B-L-C stack. Like Pirsig, it’s the history of the cosmic evolution of stuff in the world. I think this “system” over-reaches in simplistic ways “a unifying solution to the problem of psychology” (?) but it has some good elements. Skinner’s “behavioural investment” sounds good for the individual brain/mind “governing” the individual animal – like Solms (?) systems and cybernetics, and Freud’s “justification hypothesis” (collective decision-making as I’ve referred to it) for the socio-cultural level – governance (cybernetics) at the group government level – where scientific knowledge is that which achieves cultural concensus. (That said – a very strong “science” focus running through the whole here?) McGilchrist and Solms both have a strong thread that Freud was close, but no cigar, to solving this already.

Good stuff, even on a brief investigation, even if there’s lots of overlap that can be usefully consolidated / integrated.

[Post Note: suggestion from Karen Wong – this piece of longer dialogue with Jordan Peterson as an intro to John Vervaeke @ 1h51m. Certainly it makes the focus on the first P – the participation – and the “affordances” take on the fit between the world and the participant – immediate and in (non-intellectual / sub-conscious / “muscle”) memory. Spinozan “conatus” too, previously here. Making room for distinctions – many binary #GoodFences. Jordan’s Christian religious angle recurring in interruptions.]

Mapping Vervaeke to Pirsig in Active Inference?

A post from @Kubbaj on The Active Inference Discord Server described as “a combo of Vervaeke, Henriques and Friston”

In that “C-B-L-M” axis I couldn’t fail to see a version of Pirsig’s levels of static patterns (of value or quality) – not to mention the participatory / perceptual starting point “into” the system at its “MB” Boundary.

(C-B-L-M mapping to Pirsigian Physical-Biological-Social-Intellectual – where the latter two are maybe better expressed as “individual-mental” and “socio-cultural” IMHO – orthogonal to the “physio-biological”?)

As the first AII response indicated, there’s a wealth of detail to be elaborated behind the many arrows and relationships in that diagram. But, for me the interest is pretty clear:

    • Friston – (via Solms, Fields and Levenchuk) is my original route into this Active Inference space.
    • Henriques – I’m not sure I’m even aware of?
    • Vervaeke – is someone I keep getting pointers to, but have so far failed to pick-up what it is he’s adding to the story?

However, recent discussion in “this little corner” of the web with Sevilla King and Karen Wong keep suggesting I need to understand the Vervaeke – Pirsig relevance.

[Holding post for that research 🙂 ]

[Post Note: Thanks to @Kubbaj on the AII Discord again – I did some immediate follow-up in the next post.]

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