A Mouthful of Unsalted Soup

Psybertron blog action has retreated to book / thesis drafting behind the scenes, as most of my life is taken over by planning for two summer events – the International Society for Systems Sciences (ISS) and the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC) conferences in Washington DC in early June, and the Robert Pirsig 50th anniversary of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (#ZMM50th) events culminating in July with retracing the original 1968 motorcycle road-trip (#ZMM50thRide).

That said, I’m using available down time to read one book from my never ending reading list. “Leonard and Hungry Paul” by Rónán Hession (Mumblin’ Deaf Ro on X/Twitter), via small independent publisher Bluemoose Books. Been following them and a few other independents for a while, for obvious reasons, but remembered I really did need to buy and read one of their books. Support is more than “Retweeting”.

As usual, I’m feeling the need to capture some thoughts, only ~20% through, a kinda pre-review as I call them. It’s very good, and surprisingly relevant to my own agenda:

“the art of expression had not kept pace with technological developments”.

“the world was a complicated place, with people themselves being both the primary cause and chief victims of the complexity. He saw society as a sort of chemistry set, full of potentially explosive ingredients which, if handled correctly could be fascinating and educational, but which was best kept out of reach of those who did not know what they were doing.”

“He operated [the ‘Za’ rule in scrabble] with iron inflexibility, even though he himself was its most frequent victim”

Despite the fact the author is almost 20 years my junior, there’s a strong sense of northern spouse, parental, familial, sibling life, learning rules of the game of real life through cuts and scrapes in the schoolyard and board games in the home. Cultural references to Inspector Morse and Judy Sill as well as bookshops, and hard-backs as “special presents”. I can see why it resonates with me.

The language is beautiful, beautifully observed too:

“on the threshold between reflection and sleep, an idea came to him from the special place that ideas come from”

“[looking at] the first piece of asparagus loaded onto her fork [he spoke] through a mouthful of unsalted soup”

Excellent stuff. Guessing we will eventually find out why Paul is “Hungry” more than just that Grace is a slow eater 🙂 ? Reading on, with a reason to do so.


Seth is OK

Anil Seth’s Faraday Lecture has generated a fair bit of chat. I was initially a bit too unimpressed, not enough originality – probably turned off previously by his use of “hallucination”. In fact he is synthesising many of the same sources I am. Nothing new under the sun again.


Mystery – zzz.

Lost under anaesthesia (main aspect anyway, self-aware aspect – the bits keeping us alive are still there – as as he concludes later – it has much more to do with life than intelligence).

We know it better than anything – a la Descartes

Nagel’s – like to be

Mystery – Chalmers – Hard Problem – zzz

The “real” problem – many different aspects – check

So-called hard problem will “dissolve” – check

Level (how) / Content (of what) / Self (sense of)

Content example “colour” – Visible EM Spectrum

Pink (Lilac chaser) dot illusion.

Prediction machine – check (+ Plato’s Cave)

More expectation / illusions

Bayesian predictions / expectations – check

von Helmholtz process / result (not explicit calculation, certainly not bottom-up from sum of all inputs – nope – high level prediction compared with any available inputs at any level. The game is minimising the unexpected. “Predictive Processing” – generative

Wm James on the case

Pareidolia – hallucinations – hmmmm.
Hallucination as uncontrolled perception
Perception as controlled hallucination.
Kinda – check (OK see intro)

Perceptual echo-chambers (That dress)
The Perception Census

Self <> World

Self is our perception of “us perceiving”
Bodily, Perspectival, Volitional, Narrative and Social – Self

Bodily ( more Sacks / Damasio stuff) – the “Rubber Hand”

Emotion (after James again)

Control (Cybernetics)
ROSS ASHBY – system regulation
FRISTON FREE ENERGY of living systems
Interoceptive Predictions
Good or Bad affective experience

Descartes Error!
Part of Nature not Apart from Nature

AI & Consciousness zzzz
More smart (intellectually) is not more consciousness.
Anthropocentrism / Anthropomorphism.

Did it again!

What a mind is, is not separate from what it does
Less clear line between hardware and software – all wetware
Info independent of embodiment.
Another reason to be wary of computing machine language.

Property of life.
AI will only become Real I when it has Real Life – check.
AI that seems to be consciousness may be a really bad thing for us.
Dennett quote – AI Tools not Colleagues.

Mystery that matters. (Good round-up)
OOOH Friston in the front row.
And Adam Rutherford – Genetic evolution not mentioned (a given, surely, yes says Seth.)

Maturana and Varela. More “systems thinking” autopoesis.


For me:

Frankly, it’s not a mystery, it’s clearly common knowledge.

Person who developed it most from Friston is Solms.


A Mouse is Edgier than a Musk Ox

I have so many notes, I’m not quite sure how much I’m going to write up Charles Foster ‘s Annual Mike Jackson lecture at Hull University on Tuesday 19th March “What is a Human?”. Suffice to say its scope was unsettlingly beyond expectations for our systems studies context. Excellent none-the-less. So I will, as usual, cherry-pick relationships to my own work and on-line dialogue following Dave Snowden’s delivery of last year’s lecture – linked most recently here in preparation for this year’s lecture.

[If you want a more generally summary of the event, beyond the ongoing dialogue here, try this excellent LinkedIn post from Andy Wilkins.]

Coincidence to be listening this morning to BBC Radio 4 “In Our Time” on “Julian the Apostate”. I didn’t get as much dialogue with Dave as I’d hoped on Tuesday, but muttering his disagreement from the back during the lecture and in brief exchanges afterwards, his criticism was that he was hearing another attempt to resurrect neo-Platonism. Very much like Julian the Apostate, adopting Plotinus take on Plato in valuing traditional myth or mystical theology distinct from requiring any theist religion.

Dave is technically right, not only in the sense that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato, but in that Foster’s thesis is indeed a plea to see humans in the cosmos in terms of traditional myth and mystical theology, the stories of who we are and how we came to be. Surprisingly, but quite explicitly and directly, answering his lecture’s title “What is a human?” with very little use of 20th/21st C “Systems Thinking” language. Indeed very explicitly calling it simply “Thinking”, is there any other authentic kind? And indeed plenty of references from the texts of the Abrahamic monotheisms, using the languages of god and the sacred, without invoking God as a supernatural causal agent. Not the usual business school, systems science and methodology fare. Quite literally, anthropology. (In my own words, back in 1991, our human self-organisation subject is “Anthropology by any other name”.)

But, criticising it pejoratively because it is neo-Platonic, is exactly the issue that short-lived Julian the Apostate himself suffered between his supporters and his enemies. A polarisation for or against “the very idea” without leaving space to address any subtlety and nuance in understanding the actual arguments. The latter requires “proper dialogue” beyond “critical thinking”. An epistemology beyond science.

A Mouse is Edgier than a Musk Ox” is a reference to Foster’s conception that smaller organisms are much more connected to their environment, much greater surface to volume ratio, much “edgier” – live life closer to their environmental edges (McGilchrist uses a small bird). Much closer to the one individual  within the unified cosmos. Here Foster’s argument comes at least partly from his own chosen experience of spending time living as a beast in direct contact with nature (most famously as a Badger in the woods.) More like the upper-Palaeolithic “hunter-gatherer” than our post-neolithic enlightened, objectified, “homo-economicus”. A world of relationships with and within the world rather than linguistic, symbolic models of the world.

Reference sources too many to mention, but Petrarch on Augustine. Jonathan Sacks story on Wittgenstein / Anscombe / Hart and the dangers of philosophy. Sam Harris and Steven Pinker critiqued in caricature for their naïve follow-the-science / show-me-the-numbers line.

Many references to Iain McGilchrist’s work, not just his hemispheric hypothesis, but the whole attention to the world and others as a moral act, and the priority of relations over relata (objects, the things related).

Foster only mentioned Rabbi Sacks the once (above) but his whole thrust reminded me of my only encounter with Sacks – that whatever processes, methods, models we end up using to capture, communicate, maintain and evolve human values, and the human culture that values them, it will be a religion by any other name, a completely natural one, without any supernatural god(s). Sacred Naturalism perhaps.

I think I get now why Dave Snowden sticks to his “Complexity Sciences” view rather that systems sciences or systems thinking. If everything is a system (which it is in systems thinking) then the word “system” is practically redundant. It’s just thinking as Foster suggested at the start. Hope of progressive dialogue with Dave Snowden, as per my previous post, is in his Anthro-Complexity prefix. The anthropological complexity of those human cultural values and behaviours are more than (orthodox) science. As Amanda Gregory – head of the Centre for Systems Studies – suggested in her introduction, the subject of those studies is ecosystems of thinking and understanding, not just “systems sciences”.

Neither S in CSS stands simply for science. As Mike Jackson reminded us in last year’s lecture, it’s more than that.


Post Notes:

Slightly baffled by a remark on the steps leaving the event, from someone who I know has seen my own research proposal, that surely all the left-right brain stuff was debunked last century? McGilchrist’s thinking is mentioned in that proposal – as well as in last year’s write-up and much dialogue since. Penny dropped? That the brain is deeply divided – by evolutionary design – is a fact to be understood, not an excuse for a polarising dichotomy, left vs right, science vs bullshit. #GoodFences 

And, just to capture a comment from Mark Hammonds the previous day, summarising “scientism” in one of our dialogues about how to explain that “something more than science” to typical scientific sceptic types. A dialogue prompted by a quote from Bronowski “Science is a very human form of knowledge” incidentally:

It is always a difficult position to get across, that is it simultaneously true that

1. Science is a human creation and an expression of human creativity.

2. It does increase our objective knowledge of the external world.

3. But it is bounded by those phenomena it includes and those it excludes.

4. The things it excludes are perfectly legitimate areas of enquiry, as philosophers are well aware. These include consciousness, ethics, logic and metaphysics.

‘Scientism’ is the ideology that 3 & 4 are false. Paul Feyerabend characterised this view as ‘Extra Scientiam nulla salus’, which is a pretty good line.

And interesting to see versions of the Latin in a play on the Christian religious doctrine, translating “scientiam” as the Church of Reason, exactly as Pirsig did. The relevance to this post? Incidentally and coincidentally, Bronowski taught at Hull, see last year’s review.)


A Badly Maintained Honda CB72/77

I mentioned in my first ever paper about my interest in Pirsig in 2005, that I owned the same Honda Superhawk model as Robert Pirsig did on his 1968 “Zen Ride” – mine was the CB72 his was the CB77, but they are mechanically identical in all respects other than the cylinder bore which made mine 247/250 cc and his 305 cc.

I had a schoolfriend who had a BSA Bantam, and I bought the Honda from his brother. I acquired it aged 17 in 1973, but only had it until I went off to university in London at the end of summer of ’74 – the same year ZMM was published. I hadn’t really thought the bike through. My friend had one so I fancied having one. We had a house with no driveway or garage, so I kept it at his place rather than leave it parked on the street. Suffice to say, I took it for one long trip from the NE of England to the Farnborough Airshow via London that summer, and the bike never made it home. I ended up leaving it – seized – near my friends brother’s place, coincidentally not far from Farnborough in Deepcut. The quote to fix it was more than a student’s annual budget. Although I became an aero-engineer in 1977, I never read about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance before 2002.

I clearly never read the care and service manual either.

Lots of good things happened on that trip, but the bike wasn’t one of them. I did however learn a valuable lesson in life, long before I discovered Zen and the Art.


Alan Watts

Just a holding post to which I will add a few links. We already know Alan Watts, a Brit, was part of the 1960’s boom in Eastern / Zen interest, Hinduism too, particularly in the US, but I’d never really considered his scholarly value in this space.

Having written “The Way of Zen” in 1957, this 50 minute interview in 1960, 8 years before ZMM was conceived, 6 more years before it was published in 1974, has so many touch points with the individual engagement with technology, mastering the tools of craft in the world. Zen as psychotherapy, Zen and the Arts … yes, even Archery. And a lot more summary of the Zen attitude to life, relating to the world and others, neither religion nor philosophy.

Khoo Hock Aun’s testimonial on the Robert Pirsig Association page is a good reminder that Zen is only one practice among many Eastern / Aboriginal worldviews that share fundamental differences with Western views, and it was that distinction which Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance properly addressed. ZMM was never a book on Zen, and “it should be in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhism” … nor motorcycles either.

(A 13 years later – his last – 1973 interview with the same interviewer.)

Pirsig’s agenda was different to Watts.


The Holistic Mob

Dave Snowden, of who I’m a big fan as you know, very kindly linked to a post of mine commenting on last year’s Annual Mike Jackson Lecture given by him at Hull University.

Turns out some of the things he included in last years talks were work-in-progress “open source development” extensions to his Cynefin “sensemaking” framework, and since then he’s been writing-up / consolidating them in a series of posts on his Cynefin blog. Some of the more recent ones here:

Differences that make a difference.
(Pretty much my metaphysical foundation.)

Narrative #1 Hiraeth, manure and spade work …
Narrative #2 Awkward, lumpy, rough or stilted …
Narrative #3 Obliquity & liminality in narrative …

“Cynefin / Sensemaking St David’s 2024” Series:

All his LinkedIn posts are here. You get a flavour of his tone from this (most recent post, as I type this):

“We need to be reconciled with each other and with the planet, and that comes from doing things collectively and at scale in social and environmental contexts, not attending workshops and seminars where we can be happy (and sometimes clappy) in the company of like-minded people.”

Love his use of “reconciled”, my regular mantra is “truth and reconciliation” – hear, hear! Doing things collectively – not just balance, but “active dynamic integration” as I would say. (And I would defend Mary Midgley too 🙂 and in fact have done as much previously against her more scientistic critics, but I digress.)

And in this one:

“Identifying energy gradients and understanding evolutionary patterns reveal that the path of least resistance often dictates outcomes, informing strategies for behaviour modification and #complexity management.

Incorporating scaffolding and constraint management within complex systems, informed by Constructor Theory and constraint mapping, offers a structured and disciplined strategy for executives to navigate uncertainty and drive innovation.”

I could have written that myself, hear, hear again! (“Counterfactual” Constructor Theory was another part of my line of commentary on his lecture in my earlier post.)

Anyway, the point that linked-us up in this recent series, was his comment in that 2/5 post above:

“A few side digs at the holistic brigade, including last year’s  Mike Jackson lecture, added to the spice.”

So as well as that “holistic brigade” and the “happy clappy” brigade above, he also regularly takes a swipe at “left-right brain” bullshit brigade or at use of “2nd/3rd order” or “meta” as failures to admit 1st order error. He’s right, there’s a lot of scope for bullshit to hide amongst such mobs, so my agenda is to find language to reconcile different views in the face of misunderstandings, where better understandings lie in more subtle & nuanced details. Details that are lost in the “othering” between mobs – the false dichotomies too easily drawn, rather than #GoodFences evolved.

The “Holistic Brigade” might more formally be systems thinkers who subscribe to a “Holon” view, but for me it’s a redundant idea. Systems views of complexity are about understanding “anything” in terms of active / functional relationships between internal parts & wholes and between wholes & environmental / external  “parts”. The idea that wholes have properties and behaviours that are “more than the sum (the computable result) of the parts” is the important element – that synergy or synergetic evolution – leads to emergence of properties and behaviours with their own causation, not caused by the parts. Reductive determinism is false (even in physics, long before we get to psycho-social-biology).

As for the “happy clappy” brigade, I know what he means, but in the search for a “humanistic cybernetics” (or Psybernetics as I’ve suggested, was always Wiener’s intention anyway) we have to find language that bridges felt intuition, the tacit, with the explicit. There’s “more than (orthodox) science” – my first observation on last year’s MJ Lecture(!). Dave himself has railed against “the tyranny of the explicit” (or “requisite ambiguity”) so I feel there’s hope of finding that language of reconciliation that doesn’t frighten the horses.

Turns out we’re both at this year’s Annual Mike Jackson Lecture on 19th March at Hull University. Watch this space?


Post Notes:

BTW, acknowledgement of Dave’s use of “Anthro-Complexity” as the name of one set of issues we’re dealing with. Similar to my use of “Psybernetics” for the other side of the coin, the set of “Humanistic Cybernetics” thinking we might use to deal with such issues. We must never forget all the interesting complex systems involve humans.

And in another post, Dave rails against abuse of the words “Ontology & Ontological” as mostly bullshit. Again I know what he means. I actually left a well-paid employment a few years back when our business “reference models” became ever more couched in the language of ontologies, but it mostly referred to strict first-order logical interpretation in the currently fashionable web-technologies. Tyranny of the explicit again. But it has just become an almost meaningless catch-all term for “model”. I still use it in the philosophical sense – which reminds us it’s our model of what we “deem” to exist, organised on principles of taxonomy (classification & specialisation) and mereology (wholes & parts), where to draw #GoodFences. But never forget that “deem”. All models are wrong, just that some are more useful approximations than others. Describing them as “ontological” doesn’t make them any better.

And the day before the 2024 MJ Lecture, MJ posted a blog piece – and DS responded – on the hazards of panpsychism alongside systems thinking. Something I’ve written about at length, and adopted a pan-proto-psychist take. Too easy to dismiss the “beyond orthodox science” stuff as “happy clappy” woo, and miss the important nuances. Was already tempted to respond to the MJ post, but will wait until after this year’s lecture.

Holism in 2005, in the first long piece I wrote – a paper for the Liverpool conference on Robert Pirsig – in the speculative final section, I mention wholes and holism several times, just before I first mention Dave Snowden’s Cynefin work. Fascinating. What goes around comes around.



Enough Material for a Much Better Essay / Paper / Book Chapter?

Some of my more important posts are effectively becoming chapters in my thesis / book(s) although they often have much repetitive context and pre-amble. And, over the years they have gathered post notes and links by accretion, so that they have become more aside than narrative or even pre-amble. It’s easy to envisage these been re-written more readably in the newer context.

I’m tagging these pieces #EMFAMBE

Santiago Boys / Stafford Beer / Cybersyn / Chile / Hayek / Socialism / Cybernetics 1,2,3 / Bogdanov / Snowden / Jackson / PoPoMo.

Psybernetics / Original Humanistic Cybernetics / Wiener / Synergy vs Emergence  / More Than Orthodox Science / Systems Umbrella. (Now a set of 5 posts).

Dave Snowden / Iain McGilchrist / Mark Solms / Brain Topology in real world management context(s). (Several other posts linked.)

Shared Cultural Values?

Just a quickie.

This is a quote from Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1977 Essay “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science”
(Offline PDF copy, original copyright acknowledged.)

“Consider what it is to share a culture. It is to share schemata which are at one and the same time constitutive of and normative for intelligible action by myself and are also means for my interpretations of the actions of others. My ability to understand what you are doing and my ability to act intelligibly (both to myself and to others) are one and the same ability. It is true that I cannot master these schemata without also acquiring the means to deceive, to make more or less elaborate jokes, to exercise irony and utilize ambiguity, but it is also, and even more importantly, true that my ability to conduct any successful transactions depends on my presenting myself to most people most of the time in unambiguous, unironical, undeceiving, intelligible ways.”

So much in this one paragraph.

“Most people most of the time” – Notice!

Several difficult discussions about the idea of any universal human rights at any level of abstraction, given humanity globally is “multi-cultural” between nations and is even so within any one nation with any significant history(*). And that agreeing mutually shared rights can’t fail to imply some shared values that are being maintained by such rights. Sure each “culture” has a different set of values and rights in specific details and their practical traditions, but if we are to have any progressive dialogue between cultures, there have to be some level of shared values across our “good fences”? The UN has such a universal declaration and sure there are imperfections and differences in interpretation between cultures which can always be revised by negotiation. But can there ever be meaningful progress without some level of agreement over some level of rights and values? Some normative schemata within and between cultures. Our interactions would be unintelligible and doomed to misunderstanding and failure without these, as MacIntyre says.

And, very much like my evolutionary view of progressive dialogue, we have to mostly behave according to such schemata, if only to learn how much of such schemata we do share, as well as make any intelligible progress. Freedom says such rules are there to be broken, playfully and creatively, but the fidelity and fecundity of evolution says we can’t all break the rules all of the time – that’s entertainment and/or chaos.

Prompted by conversation about Jonathan Rowson’s talk here.

Some issues, but lots of potential agreement with Jonathan’s position, about the meta-crisis around our existential poly-crises. A crisis of meaning, an epistemological crisis as MacIntyre put it in 1977.


Post Notes:

(*) That’s being multi-cultural notice, not a recommendation for multiculturalism. The latter is a different, artificial, unhealthy option. If you don’t know the difference (in the UK), consult the work of Kenan Malik.

And previously here on Psybertron: