Meaningless Broad Definitions

I had this list in a recent post, reacting to Steven Pinker’s definition of rationality being so broad it was indistinguishable from any number of “good things”

He says:
“Rationality is using knowledge to attain [human] goals.”

I said:
Using knowledge to attain (human) goals is Rationality?
Using knowledge to attain (human) goals is Politics
Using knowledge to attain (human) goals is Cybernetics
Using knowledge to attain (human) goals is Game Theory
Etc, etc.

And now I add from this morning’s Reith Lecture by Stuart Russell on AI

Using information to attain goals is Artificial Intelligence?
Using information to attain (human) goals is Intelligence

One land-grab after another. Unashamed political interest.
Definitions so broad they are meaningless and useless.

Neurath and Bohr

I have Otto Neurath as the larger-than-life overly positive member of the logically positivist Vienna Circle – a great communicator on its behalf but probably unaware of its limitations. Someone who didn’t understood Wittgenstein’s objections.

The “International Encyclopedia of Unified Science”
(here Vol 1 Part 1 Entries 1 to 5 of the unfinished project) came to my notice when @iramey posted the inside cover to Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. That indicated that Kuhn’s work was part of that project where Neurath was editor in chief along with an impressive board of editors and advisors.

The first entry in the encyclopaedia itself is Neurath’s introduction:

A project to document the “unity of the empiricalization and logicalization synthesis” that has happened- a continuation of the logical positivist “Vienna Circle” project to make all of philosophy “scientific” aka logical empiricism or empirical rationalism.

Although he acknowledges not only that “other thinkers may call it rationalistic fantasy” but also that even those that consider themselves part of the unification project might find a very small overlap of agreement in what that actually means.

The second contribution, by Nils Bohr, is one page in its entirety:

“[We are reminded of] not only the unity of all sciences aiming at a description of the external world but, above all, of the inseperability of epistemological and psychological analysis … It is to be hoped that the forthcoming Encyclopedia will have a deep influence on the whole attitude of our generation which, in spite of the increasing specialization in science and technology, has the growing feeling of the mutual dependency of all human activities”

Not sure Bohr’s hopes aligned with Neurath’s expectations?

Aside –  very strong “Chicago Uni” emphasis too, which might also explain the Pirsig connection. Fascinating.

And, aside – this must have been happening in parallel with the much more enlightened “Macy” initiatives which are behind Psybertron’s “cybernetics” angle.

And, another aside – Comment from Mark reminds me I never read Kuhn first hand. Kuhn, Kondratiev and Schumpeter were key sources for Freeman and Perez “Techno-Economic Paradigms” – one of my Masters sources way back. Kept up with Carlota Perez and Kontratiev cycles generally in cultural (ie “memetic”) evolution ever since, where paradigm is analogous to species. (PS for consistency, I’m continuing to spell “Kondratiev” even though the world, including Paul (Bognadov) Mason, seems to have switched to Kondratieff.)

Is McGilchrist Getting Ahead of Himself?

I’ve now read the whole of Part 1 of “The Matter With Things”, including but not just the summaries. As advertised it is a thorough collection and organisation of scientific and empirical evidence and argument for left and right hemisphere dysfunctions and their interconnections, genetic and physical, indicating their quite distinct “normal” roles, hemispherically deficient in “atypical” psychological and behavioural outcomes in individuals.

In the last Chapter 9 of Part 1 he focusses in particular on autism and schizophrenia (and associated neuroses and psychoses) following the same hemispheric patterns of physiology and psychology. A lot of this is not new even if the thorough marshalling of all the resources is, and this seems almost entirely non-contentious. The evidence is there.

Essentially his “Hemispheric Hypothesis” – that deficient right-hemisphere and exaggerated left-hemisphere participation in human life is a problem, and that there is a lot more of this imbalance evident in the modern world.

In terms of his arguments, he may be getting ahead of himself – making his own statements and quoting those of others – of the opinion that this mass of individual evidence is behind “the plight of modern humanity” more generally. Now I’m firmly of the same opinion, just not sure that this step in the argument has really been made yet.

In the late 20th C and now in the 21st many have expressed the same views. I’ve myself been using the short-hand that rationality in all socio-political domains has become “autistic” since I started this project. That we murder to dissect is as old as the romantic poets, captured then as careful with that (analytic) knife, Aristotle. Analysis paralysis has been common management parlance. Philosopher of science Nick Maxwell has used the idea that science as curated by our universities and academic institutions is “neurotic” and failing to address the big issues facing humanity. Economists have even coined the idea of “autistic economics“. I don’t believe there is much doubt as to the diagnosis.

The question is whether the mass of evidence and argument presented around the behaviour of individuals has been shown to causally translate to wider social activities, collective decision-making and governance of these. I’m trying to imagine what an evidence gathering exercise would look like at a collective social level. The perennial Catch-22 in this space is having to make arguments about the inadequacies of current rationality in the way we participate in the world to an audience whose measure of arguments is the received wisdom of current rationality.

[Plenty of Whitehead, Bergson, James and Wittgenstein at the philosophical level. And very much written as McGilchrist speaks, with “and here’s the thing”, “you would think” and “it makes you wonder” links between some of the highly technical content and language. Very readable.]


[Post note: Just noticed this engagement with McGilchrist back at HTLGI in 2014 – last para before post-notes – is also explicit about the autistic characterisation.]

[Lots of good linguistic stuff. Problems of “Know” in English vs Savoir/Connaitre and Kennen/Wissen in French and German. Also I/thou and I/it 1st & 2nd vs 1st & 3rd persons – personal vs impersonal interactions. Like Dunbar-number about size of communities below / above 150-ish affecting patterns of communication and organisation.]

Sleeping With Yourself

A saying used by Alice Dreger is that:

“At the end of the day,
the only person you have to sleep with
is yourself.”

When asked where that came from, she replied:

A day or two ago someone posted this too:


I felt seen too. I’m over-committed on too many fronts, only one of which is a day-job. I used to quip that the main source of stress was the guilt that whichever task I was doing, there were a dozen I wasn’t – with importance and urgency tangled-up in interdependencies. Sleepless nights were always associated with an imminent deadline. Invariably self-inflicted.

I remember in the days touring the conferences this became a common practice of completing (ie actually doing) preparation of presentations in the small hours of the morning before. The adrenaline seemed to help. In these cases there is an obvious marketing or ego element, individually or collectively on behalf of an organisation or team.

Even without this ego element, the good advice from Alice concerning the integrity of a good day’s work can be complex without clear distinctions between different tasks. Still good advice to aim for.

Peterson in Cambridge

Jordan Peterson has been in the UK since early / mid last week, visiting Cambridge and, over the weekend, London, with assorted media engagements along the way.

Pretty sure it’s not his first visit to Cambridge, one of his earlier “controversial” talks was there as I recall. Anyway, this time he’s been taking advantage of playing tourist with his life-partner and being hosted inside St John’s, Christ’s, Kings and Trinity historical collections, and the general history-laden built-environment of Cambridge itself. Like a child in a sweetie shop he’s been moved by the abundance of books, artefacts and locations imbued by association with the greats, Darwin, Newton, etc. I know the feeling having spent 4 years working in Cambridge – just before smart-phones and social-media. It was instrumental in this blog becoming the project that is Psybertron.

He’s posted eight or ten pics or selfies alongside various significant places and objects. At Trinity he visited the Wren Library, which included some of the books and notebooks he snapped, but erroneously posted a shot of Trinity Chapel with a Wren Library caption. His denigrators latched onto that with a sad meanness – memeing his error with a thread of assorted piss-takes. You really think the man cannot tell a library from a chapel, and didn’t just have many dozens of snaps on his phone?

Here an example piss-take from a bear with very little brain? Three days late to the party by a public intellectual who should know better, yet illustrates how low intellectual discourse has sunk. (A screenshot ‘cos he’s someone who blocked me some years ago when I once pointed out to him the irony in his reaction to having the piss taken out of himself, turning his own joke back on him. Ho Hum.)

Anyway in London over the weekend he got his revenge when he posted a selfie in The National Gallery alongside Willem Kalf’s classic still-life with a large red lobster (and drinking horn, in the title). Like the Quakers, turning a jibe into a trademark.

Rock on Lobster Peterson 🙂


[Ha. And this week (25th/26th Nov) he’s in Oxford, the Union, Oriel college etc. Perhaps over-sharing the people and places. Definitely the kid in the candy store.]

There We Have It

Mentioned earlier collecting previous links in preparation for receiving Iain McGilchrist’s latest, well here it is:

Iain McGilchrist
The Matter With Things –
Our Brains, Our Delusions
and the Unmaking of the World

        • Volume I – The Ways to Truth
          • Introduction
          • Part 1 – Chapters 1 to 9 plus Coda
            The Hemispheres and the Means of Truth
          • Part 2 – Chapters 10 to 19 plus Coda
            The Hemispheres and the Paths to Truth
          • Appendices (1 -3)  to Vol I
        • Volume II – What Then is True?
          • Part 3 – Chapters 20 to 28 plus Coda
            The Unforeseen Nature of Reality
          • Epilogue
          • Appendices (4 – 8) to Vol II
          • Bibliography
          • Index of Topics
          • Index of Names

Beautifully produced by Perspectiva, see publisher and editor Jonathan Rowson’s introduction in the post linked above.

References in marginal side-panels of every page and, as with the previous Master and Emissary, almost a 1/3 of the 1577 pages taken up with end materials – reference bibliography, index and appendices.

As well as all the blurbs and commentary / interviews already circulating, simply:

“One of the most important books ever published.”

I couldn’t help but notice the parallel in the form of the title with physicist Lee Smolin:

      • The Trouble with Physics.
      • The Matter with Things.

Like the thorough referencing, McGilchrist’s scientific, practicing and academic credentials are very important to this project, since the level of positive commendation, the book clubs and retreats studying his work and the association with other alt-academics could easily create the impression of an alt-lifestyle cult (in much the same way Jordan Peterson’s following might appear to some). The content is of course very much alt-received-wisdom so it demands very careful consideration. Part of that alternative wisdom is in the integration of orthodox objective & positivist science with the sense of the sacred, even divine – soul food as well as brain food “beyond prevailing epistemic capacities and spiritual sensibilities”.

As well as the immense collection of references a long list of individual acknowledgements, not just in the core neuroscience and psychotherapy technical areas, but all over the map from: Lee Smolin, within the fundamental physics camp, noted after I’d made the parallel above; Rupert Read, green activist and Wittgensteinian philosopher; Philip Pullman, humanist and fantasy fiction writer; and Nick Spencer, senior fellow at Theos, the Christian think tank, to name a few.

“A [remarkable work] written with
the soul and subtlety of a poet,
the precision of a philosopher, and
the no-nonsense grounding of a true scientist”
– Read suggests.

I may be some time.


The introduction alone is 47 pages with 99(!) references of its own. McGilchrist’s Hemispheric Hypothesis (and more) introduced and – as in his previous Master and Emissary – contrasted with earlier pop-psychology misconceptions. (I’ll hold off any spoilers until later reviews.)

I’m nearing the end of Volume I Part 1. The 9 chapters and 270-odd pages that form the technical means at McGilchrist’s disposal. The neuroscience and psychotherapy sources and resources. Full of those famous published names like Hughlings-Jackson, Sacks, Damasio, Ramchandran, Sperry, Gazzaniga, Bolte-Taylor, Kahneman and Tversky as well as the mass of lesser-sung heroes of primary and secondary research and practice. An important solid foundation that is tough going if it’s not the kind of technical subject matter you’ve read before. As advertised, the chapter summaries will prove useful. The anatomical plates from p430 onwards are invaluable too. The human condition exposed in neuro-atypical conditions from split brains and traumas to epilepsy, schizophrenia and autism – mercifully without a single mention of the over-used Phineas Gage in almost 1600 pages.

I noted earlier the beautiful presentation and resolved when I started to read once right through without taking notes or – god forbid – physical annotation on the publisher’s work of art. Well, I can report that lasted as far as Chapter 7. That’s a particularly interesting section on “Cognitive Intelligence” and measures of general intelligence “g” – like IQ-Testing – and especially what misleading features and comparisons such tests might really expose. I’d like to think Nassim Nicholas-Taleb would approve of the treatment (*). No surprise to find the Hemispheric Hypothesis conclusion that a general decline in general intelligence is closely associated with devaluation of the right-brain.

Reading on.


(*) Ha. Didn’t know it at this time, but Taleb privides one of the positive blurbs on the Channel McGilchrist page about the book.

“I loved The Master and his Emissary: this is even deeper.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Deutsch over Rovelli and Carroll

Recent reads of Carlo Rovelli and Sean Carroll have been ultimately disappointing, but don’t get me wrong …

Helgoland (2021) – by Carlo Rovelli

and, The Big Picture (2015) – by Sean Carroll

… are both informed & informative, deep & wide, well-written reads. I got a lot out of both. Creative new restatements as well as entirely new leads from my perspective. Greatly recommended.

Disappointments are – that despite apparent openness to philosophical & metaphysical thinking, between ways of talking & ontological reality, of causation & emergence, weak & strong, with information<>entropy & dynamic-process driven perspectives of life, consciousness & everything – an ideological certainty that “Core Theory” (Standard model plus general-relativistic gravity) remains the final word in physics and yet that physicalism will suffice to represent all of reality.

Not so much a god of the gaps as the physics of of the gaps. Science is only human, and physics is only a word. Mulling over these thoughts led me back to my readings of David Deutsch.

I’d be as happy as anyone extending the word physics as the foundation for a naturalist scientific explanation of the whole of reality, but not with the condition that there can be no (so far mysterious) defect requiring any Core Theory update. Physicists and physicalists can’t have it both ways. Can they?

Ways of talking and emergence are fine, but with only weak emergence as merely useful ways of talking, this leaves even seeming fundamentals as time and causation as merely anthropic perspectives. Surely some aspect of the quality of our explanations has to lead us to the ontological commitment that what we are describing is what we believe reality to be, even if that description remains best (ie contingent) human endeavours. Not even Core Theory can be exempt from such contingency?

Surely, …

Core Theory (now)
= Standard Model
+ General Relativistic Gravity

… must evolve to become:

Core Theory (future)
= Core Theory (now)
+ (something like) “Emergent Causality Theory”

Last time I did a riff on this was back here in May 2018. (I do have a more formal metaphysical thesis too, but this is not the place.)

Fundamentally, What Do I Know?

Reminded me that one thing Carroll does get right is the idea that emergent “levels” in reality are in some sense like phase-changes. The aspect I could not reconcile with Carroll after much positive talk about “ways of talking” and the possibilities of “strong-emergence” – where this phase-shift metaphor comes in handy, is that ultimately – the last 10 or so chapters – his language switches to just or merely “ways of talking” implying only “weak-emergence”. Even if phase-change is being used metaphorically, we must be using it to refer to some aspect of reality. Some ontological commitment, please.

“Physics becomes the epistemological question
of what can we know about the world.”
(Me, in the above.)

“fundamental physics remains incomplete until hypothetical rubber hits the road of reality.”
(Rebecca Goldstein on “ontological commitment”)

It’s the difference between accepting that there can be many valid “ways of talking” when describing the world from our anthropic perspectives (clearly true) and having a particular way of talking that describes the world according to our chosen Core Theory of Everything (clearly necessary for that ontological completeness).

Metaphysics<>Physics Caricature

Very difficult to have conversations at the limits of fundamental physics.

Physicists are obviously very attached to which parts of fundamental physics – and deep understanding thereof – are considered “fixed” in their firmament. And that’s true even if they appear open-minded on philosophical discussions. It’s impossible for all of us to have the same depth of understanding – or even the same kind of understanding – of all the sub-topics as conversations dot all over this map – of life, the universe and everything – for me that’s a given, the reason for the dialogue.

All too often however, you get to the “turtles all the way down” lower limit to whatever we choose to name “physics” and when you are prepared to admit you’re really talking metaphysics – and more to the point being comfortable doing it. However, when the caricature becomes

Physics= real, whereas
Metaphysics = anything goes, flights of fancy, etc.

The dialogue has ended, at least temporarily.

In metaphysics, and at the lower reaches of the physics that interface with it, the idea that objective, empirical falsifiability is the sole test of an idea is an obvious flaw. It’s about what indirect predictions, including empirically falsifiable ones higher-up in the observable stack, can create the best, most consistent stack with the least reasons to doubt, the best reasons to take as true. The best chances of fixing existing problems, the least chances of introducing new ones. I mentioned this in the previous post – Whitehead and Wittgenstein at the very least. Even within the canon of accepted physical science, there are many methods and processes for assessing truth and validity other than direct falsification: Bayes, Occam, etc.

Choosing a single test is fine as a boundary condition – a working definition – for any given discourse, but is ideology if it is seen to set a fundamental limit on what things exist in reality.


(A branched thread …)