Shedding the Shackles of Determinism

This is a science-journalism article in Quanta Magazine by Philip Ball that covers many of the people and thoughts I’ve been pursuing here in recent years.

A New Idea for How to Assemble Life

As soon as I saw the title, I asked myself is “assemble” being used here in the same way as “construct” in constructor theory (Deutsch & Marletto). At that point I used a retweet to file it away for later, but was prompted to read it today thanks to an excellent post from A J Owens over at Staggering Implications blog.

Although I’ve been a little sceptical – probably misunderstanding – of Lee Cronin’s “Chemputation” work, I see instantly he and Sara Walker are the focus of the piece and that Sara is the link here to Chiara Marletto and David Deutsch. In fact as well as these names we have several references to Arizona State and Santa Fe. Paul Davies as PhD Supervisor to Jessica Flack. It’s all connected, but how much does it mean?

(Strangely, having asked AJ the check question that the piece linked Assembly and Constructor theories? – I notice I had already noted the explicit connection back here, though I hadn’t spotted the Walker connection when I asked.)

The “driving” (or guiding) forces in nature, patterns built into layers of complexity, and ergodicity, the history of paths through combinatorial “phase” space, spell the end of (reductive) determinism.

“Information is in the path,
not (just) in the initial conditions”
Sara Walker.

Loving the 4 layers of actuality:

    • Assembly Universe (all unconstrained combinatorial possibilities)
    • Assembly Possible (possibilities constrained by physical laws)
    • Assembly Contingent (additionally constrained by viable pathways)
    • Assembly Observed (as actually observed/observable)

Also loving the fact that “AI” as an acronym is being spread at just the same time AI as “ChatGPT” style “Artificial (Stupidity) Intelligence” is exploding into public consciousness. Now as well as “Active Inference”, we have “Assembly Index”.

Shall have to take a closer look at AJ’s more critical review. Exciting stuff either way.

James R Simms – A Measure of Knowledge

It’s a book I borrowed from Dennis Finlayson, so I scanned the summary pages before returning:

James R Simms “A Measure of Knowledge- Ch8 Epilogue”

I’d not heard of Simms or his work before (Copyright 1968) but it contains lots of the stuff I’ve been using these last 20 years. The references include Bohr, Ashby, Shannon, Minsky and Schrödinger, which themselves include the Boltzmann and Gibbs references.

Entropy (and Negentropy) are naturally fundamental to the story – Boltzmann, Shannon and Schrödinger in the Foundational Concepts chapter – though I can’t for the life of me find any mention in that summary. He recasts the whole story in terms of “knowledge” and “energy that may usefully be directed” – total energy minus entropy, presumably, the energetic complement of entropy, negentropy – basically suggesting that Boltzmann’s thermodynamics will be too alien to biologists.

As well as quantifying such knowledge (per Joule) he provides bases of classification – a method of classifying all substances – amounts of knowledge and type, organisational, exchange and environmental.

He’s using “systems” language, and the organisation of available energy, internally and externally (environmentally). So far so good.

This is he:

This is also his

In 1978, when the book Living Systems was published, it contained the prediction that the sciences that were concerned with the biological and social sciences would, in the future, be stated as rigorously as the “hard sciences” that study such non-living phenomena as temperature, distance, and the interaction of chemical elements. Principles of Quantitative Living Systems Science, the first of a planned series of three books, begins an attempt to fulfil that prediction.

The view that living things are similar to other parts of the physical world, differing only in their complexity, was explicitly stated in the early years of the twentieth century by the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy. His ideas could not be published until the end of the war in Europe in the 1940s. Von Bertalanffy was strongly opposed to vitalism, the theory current among biologists at the time that life could only be explained by recourse to a “vital principle” or God. He considered living things to be a part of the natural order, “systems” like atoms and molecules and planetary systems. Systems were described as being made up of a number of interrelated and interdependent parts, but because of the interrelations, the total system became more than the sum of those parts. These ideas led to the development of systems movements, in both Europe and the United States, that included not only biologists but scientists in other fields as well. Systems societies were formed on both continents.

Although I didn’t know him, he was well known to Dennis and other members of the ISSS (and wider) Systems Community.

Anyway, continuing the Measure of Knowledge, he makes only the one mistake – or leaves one gap – that I can see. In that epilogue, he summarises what he calls “The Semantic Problem”. Strangely, he doesn’t use the word “meaning” at all, but makes his distinction between “directing” and “willing”. Noting that not just most actions caused in the natural world, but even many human actions, are caused (directed) without being willed. Willed or otherwise he does point out the massive scale of knowledge and direction open to humans, beyond any other natural or living thing, and yet he doesn’t attempt to elaborate the “willed” element. The idea of purposeful intent arising from our conscious will. He concludes:

I feel that the greatest potential for [my “measure of knowledge” theory] lies in the field of behavioural and social sciences.

Given that he is so obviously right, it’s sad that he doesn’t get beyond the basic “resource economy” of human life – Malthus plus mathematically processable, quantifiable, objective knowledge – cybernetics as a set of algorithmic objectives. He omits – effectively denies – the conscious will of subjective human intent individual and / or collective. Intended meaning.

Like all orthodox scientists, he fails to cross Solms’ subjectivity Rubicon. Not surprising since his primary goal was to make human affairs scientific – “rigorous hard science” in his own words. It was Mike Jackson I last noted expressing this scepticism, that social sciences and human behaviour, within our cultural as well as natural environment, could be reduced to the mechanistic causal models of orthodox science?

Dipping into and out of Parmenides

I need to stop reading, and one of the open books on the nightstand is Richard Geldard’s translation and commentary on “Parmenides and the Way of Truth“.

I have quite a few notes on the Pythagorean influenced mysticism of unity in the one, and the Eleatic geography – pre-Socratic Greece in Veila, SW Italy – that seems to run through it, but I don’t really have the bandwidth to do it justice, so I’m quitting while I’m ahead. I see Geldard’s subject is Dramatic Literature and Classics and he’s an (Ralph Waldo) Emerson scholar. I loved the weary resignation in his intro, his colours are nailed to the same mast as mine:

“[Our purpose] is to learn from centuries of dead ends and blunted attempts just how and why the philosophic enterprise has argued itself into paralysis and gnostic dissatisfaction. It is as if today (2007) philosophy sits quietly in a wheelchair in a nursing home run by science, looking out at the scudding clouds, with its memories of great achievements. Meanwhile, out on the lawn and in basement laboratories, the physicists and biologists appear in ruddy health, enjoying the dance of particles and the advances in technology. For the moment, at any rate, they are firmly in charge.”

Quitting to make space for a little Kant. Just taken possession (in Kindle form) the three Critiques – Pure Reason, Practical Reason and Judgement.

The Eyes in Kant’s Head

Hat tip to Anita Leirfall – who, we discovered quite randomly, lived just a few doors away from where Sylvia and I lived in Oslo – quite randomly posting a link to a 2021 edition of BBC Radio 4 “In Our Time” on Kant.

Where I couldn’t help but see myself in Mark’s words:

“crippled by academic over-systematisation
and a deadeningly leaden style”

Because of his “notoriously difficult” reputation, I’ve been avoiding Kant for over two decades, despite many intriguing second-hand readings dating as far back as my initial dalliances with Pirsigian philosophers. And since for the past couple of years I’ve been transitioning to the “stop reading and just write something” mode, I’d resigned myself to never having to tackle him, even though I’ve had the sneaking suspicion his ideas probably tally pretty well with mine own. Possibly arrogantly believing I had already made the necessary “Copernican Turn” in my own thinking.

It’s actually an IOT edition I’ve heard before – I listen to practically all of them the day they’re broadcast – but clearly I wasn’t paying attention first time around. See resignation and arrogance 😉

Well, well.

I’ve still not read Kant, but I have properly listened to that podcast.

Right from the off, the simple, clear introduction by John Callanan, I’m hooked. Bang goes another month’s writing whilst I catch-up.

Suffice to say for now, following directly on from my previous “Ways of Knowing” post (which Eddo’s not responded to yet) we get an enormous irony. An irony I realise I probably already had a subconscious impression of, as a fortunately well-travelled person myself, which contributed to my continued ignorance of him. That is: how can a person without experience – never being curious about gaining empirical evidence of the world beyond his home town, for his entire life – critique “pure reason” – to distinguish those parts of knowledge reasonably reasoned (in the mind) and their integration with those necessarily experienced (by participation in the world).

Well some things can be reasoned a priori. Understanding how to integrate these with those that can’t is indeed the trick. Obviously, I’m even more convinced I will find his ideas supporting mine.

And talking of that previous dialogue with Eddo, I discover

“(The fool on the hill) sees the sun going down,
And the eyes in his head see the world spinning round”

Comes straight from Kant.

I may be some time!


(Only a single passing reference to Kant in McGilchrist?)

(James’ “blooming, buzzing confusion” – too much empirical data.
A much used quote around these parts.
Devil in the details, angels in the abstractions.
Less is more.

(All his language familiar through second-hand readings.
Analytic / Synthetic, “Ding an sich” and so on

(The non-empirically-grounded weirdness of causation.)

(More subtle “detached” ideas on “objectivity” in science, and “political” pressures. Essentially pragmatic.)

(Post Note: I’ve not been ignorant of Kant, just not previously felt the urge to read his Magnum Opus. Here a previous encounter – “Kantian Enlightenment”. And following the comment thread below – I’ve made a passing reference to my continuing with Kant in the closing para of this recent Parmenides post.)


Ways of Knowing Madness

This is an enabling post, to continue a fascinating dialogue with Eddo, more about which later. But like so many dialogues there is an element of “rehearsal” of what it is we think we already know – and have shared understanding of – before getting to “the point”. As usual I’m just breaking our stream of consciousness down into some clearer parts, so that critical dialogue can build from there.

It’s here in four parts:

    • Part 1 – Background / Preamble
    • Part 2 – Known Issues & Pitfalls
    • Part 3 – The Dialogue So Far
    • Part 4 – What Next?


Part 1 – Background / Preamble

A long standing theme here has been “ways of knowing”, in particular the distinction between:

Savoir / Wissen – being indirectly acquainted with something by way of information about the thing via it’s naming or identity handle. This is using an intellectual model of the thing, whether in mind or recorded / documented externally.
Knowing about something. Indirectly, Conceptually, Intellectually.

Connaitre / Kennen – being directly acquainted with something by way of the participatory experience of interaction / involvement / immersion with or in it. (And I discover from Eddo in Dutch “Varen” – akin to Fahren – as in travelling with, sailing through, immersion in, the thing. Which also alludes to “better to travel than to arrive”? – experience the whole extended “travail” involved with getting to experience the thing, not just a snapshot or selfie at the end. And Ervaring meaning “experience”.)
Knowing the thing. Directly, Extensively, Participatory.

And the reason to emphasise this distinction is that we don’t have two distinct words in English or American, just different usages, metaphors and euphemisms about “knowing”. One euphemism, when the “thing” is another person is to know them physically, intimately as in “to know them biblically” – to have carnal knowledge. (And I’m sure the classics scholars will also point to the evolution of many other distinctions pre-Socratic as well as Platonic-Socratic and Homeric.) The ambiguities in English are not an entirely bad thing, just a fact, but there are upsides in the adjectival and adverbial uses of “knowing / knowingly” 😉

Anyway, this “Triad” of the thing and the two forms of knowledge (two ways of knowing the thing) and their inter-relationships is something I’ve documented previously.

Some original discussion of it here (in a Pirsigian context, with help from francophone Foucault).

My best developed version of the triad itself here.

Now, since I already mentioned the Pirsig context, it’s quite easy to map the direct experiential knowing as the Dynamic Quality (DQ) and our “model” – our intellectual conception – of reality as the different levels of patterns of value in static quality (sq). But there are some pitfalls – below.

And, given the Pirsig context, this thinking can also be traced quite easily through William James (pre-conceptual, radical-empiricism), A.N.Whitehead (process metaphysics, nexus and event) and Owen Barfield (saving appearances) – as Matt Segall points out this (direct) percept <> concept (intellectual) distinction runs right through so many philosophical misunderstandings in epistemology and mind/consciousness.

(Hopefully an aside in this particular dialogue, but McGilchrist’s work on the Left and Right and Left-Right-Integrated world-views of our brain/minds also maps pretty well to the percept<>concept divide. If this becomes the topic we can elaborate that mapping too?)


Part 2 – Known Issues & Pitfalls

There are some pitfalls to be aware of in this (indirect) intellectual “concept” <> (direct) participatory “percept” distinction.

Firstly – The simplest issue is that as soon as we “talk” about this topic, even using carefully agreed language – even using definitive logical formality (which I don’t recommend)  – that very fact of linguistic / symbolic communication means we are using our intellectual model of BOTH the conceptual elements AND the participatory elements. This is inescapable. This is as old as finger and moon, map and territory, use and mention, model and thing-modelled. It fills whole libraries.

And it’s worse than that in real world dialogue, because all sorts of different language is mixed-up in the process. The actual symbolic linguistic logical and/or prosaic content, the rhetorical and/or poetic elements of choosing what to say where and when and why and how, not to mention the embodied “body-language” elements. Whether we’re text-messaging / emailing, voice and/or video calling, face-to-face meeting, even mano-a-mano mud-wrestling – unless the subject is the other person – this is all “symbolic” of the thing at issue, not actually that thing.

“Care” is the only advice here. Attention to which aspect is in play at any given time.

Secondly, in our Pirsigian context it’s important to recognise that where we are using intellectual as distinct from perceptual above, the intellectual MAY map to Pirsig’s level of intellectual patterns, but the perceptual does NOT map to the social level necessarily. Obviously they’re related, but they’re not the same thing. They are not synonymous. (See the general dialogue pitfall above.) Even in social interactions, physical or symbolic we’re using representations of both kinds of knowledge – all mixed-up together. Again “proceed with care and attention” is the only advice.

This problem is as old as MoQ-Discuss and many dialogues foundering on the social<>intellectual distinction, and even multiple sub-theses on “Intellectual-as-Subject-Object-Metaphysics” or SOMism. (And when I say “foundering” I mean full blown ad-hominem flame-wars and cancel-culture-campaigns!!!)

I even have one of my own interpretations here.

But let’s not go there. We actually have a much more interesting dialogue in our hands – let’s just try to avoid invoking the “social” level as far as we can. Let’s try to stick to the intellectual<>perceptual “ways of knowing” that we’ve spent so much time rehearsing above?

Third and finally, for these predictable pitfalls, we have “common sense”.

Intellectual knowledge and understanding does get socialised through human interaction – verbal and physical, one-to-one and authority-to-audience. We will indeed end-up with more-or-less common-knowledge and more-or-less shared-understandings. Common sense can be short-hand for this kind of knowledge and these kinds of knowledge-interaction processes, but it is not synonymous with either intellectual or participatory nor intellectual or social. It contains all of these.

Let’s proceed with care and attention.
Let’s avoid the (Pirsigian) intellectual<>social distinction so far as we can.

Because we have a much more interesting topic in hand.


Part 3 – The Dialogue Itself

Eddo is giving a paper to the “Too Mad to be True II” conference in Ghent May 27/28. I’d helped by reviewing his paper in advance. Eddo has a very personal “first-person” perspective to share on the practice of psychiatry, and that is the specific theme of this second conference.

Then, I drew his attention to two earlier posts of mine, which he had been aware of before, but maybe he hadn’t digested until this latest exchange.

4 Suicides and 2 Murders


Louis Sass

Sailing close to madness (and worse, see above posts) has been a feature of philosophies of consciousness and of psychological theories in cognitive science, or even just epistemology and ontology of the known and knowable world, because they often take you close to the boundaries of the known and knowable – almost by definition. In fact there is a sense in which it is even necessary to get close enough to madness to understand what lies on that side, to have any credible knowledge of the “normal” mind. Many have studied second and third-party minds through their abnormalities – it’s called “the lesion literature”. First-hand, it’s a risky business. Pirsig himself is evidence of this too. There but for grace go we all, as I’ve opined frequently before.

Eddo responded:

“Brilliant writing about a topic close to my heart and experience. So are you now closer to the point of accepting that the fool or the madman is an expression of DQ on the intellectual level. … “

As well as this “madness” thread, we have a metaphorical / literal “Fool on the Hill” thread going in a Merseyside context, but what intrigued me here was his challenge. I don’t actually understand:

“[Madness] is an expression of
[Pirsigian] DQ on the  intellectual level”

But I would love to.


Part 4 – What Next

Our clarification dialogue was quite impassioned late last night and early this morning, but we bogged down in some of the pitfalls above, and took a break.

A – I could continue to hazard a guess at what Eddo meant?

B – Eddo could comment on what I’ve said so far?


Choose A or B but please read the whole first.

If you want to do your own brain-dump / stream-of-consciousness on the topic(s) first, that’s fine. Maybe crash your words into any simple text editor over as long as it takes, then copy and paste into a single comment?

Either way let’s not confuse brain-dump with dialogue 🙂


[Post Note: If we do want to take it into a McGilchrist context, a fascinating discussion on “The End of the World as we Know it”. Using many of the same thoughts above on “Ways of Knowing”. It’s our current “Way of Knowing” that will end, not the world itself.]

Ed Frenkel – Maths and Reality

Watching a (very) long video interview of Ed Frenkel (author of Love and Math). Hat tip to @katoi for the recommendation.

It’s 3 and 3/4 hours long and I’m barely 1/3 through, and it’s unlikely I’ll get to relisten or even complete it, but it is very good from Frenkel.

Without taking detailed notes, there are already many things worthy of note. (Primarily famed as a pure mathematician, but with a prior focus on physics as explained with maths.)

The idea of the divine (despite its baggage). The ideas of subjectivity and participation vs objective reality “whatever that means”. The distinctions between left and right brain views. The basic question of what we mean by reality anyway when asking questions about how much maths and physics may or may not represent reality. Apollonian vs Dionysian perspectives after Nietzsche. The proximity of madness. Reality predicted in art and fiction. The evolution in his own thinking over time, involved a flip from the explicit to the intuitive, but choosing one side is always limiting. Gödel – the formally explicit has limitations.

His objection to “everything is computation” is the same argument as Gödel in his view. (Ah! Sure, but we have other kinds of computation and algorithms – information processing – that are not of that formally explicit, intellectually rigorous and objectively pre-defined kind. Fundamentally “affective”. Complex emerges from the simple.)

Almost disappointing that such an advanced and accomplished mathematician has the Euler Identity – [ Integral e ^i*pi = -1 ] – as his favourite or most beautiful mathematical equation. Don’t we all?

And – he has “the Bronowski moment” too. Humanity’s need for the rejection of certainty.

The Information Ontology Thesis

I drafted this Post almost exactly a year ago – and it drew over 30 useful comments from several of my regular correspondents.

Information Ontology of Mind and Body – Post

Since I was looking to firm-up the metaphysical foundation – the some-thing rather than no-thing question – that made the most economical presumption, I searched it out and noted I’d intended to turn it into a draft chapter, so I’ve reposted it as a Page which I can now edit at leisure. (I’ve not updated / incorporated comments or any new thoughts yet, but this interim post maintains the link, so I don’t lose the inputs.)

The Information Ontology Metaphysics – Page


Cybernetics #1, #2 & #3

This is just a recap on different “types” of Cybernetics, at a time when there is huge overlap with Systems Thinking, Complexity Sciences and Operations Research. As you may already know, I’m sceptical of definitions being definitive in general – natural language – discourse, beyond logical – formal symbolic – arguments. That matters because most human affairs are complex and their management or governance are the former not the latter.

I tend to use Systems Thinking as my catch-all term under which various more or less theoretical & practical, sciences & methodologies may or may not apply according to our context. Like “Cynefin” I tend to classify contexts as being predictable / ordered (simple and/or complicated) and unpredictable / unordered (complex and/or chaotic). Whatever we call it, Systems Thinking or Cybernetics is a response to understanding the nature and level of complexity we find in the real world and how we should act for the best.

The modernity of science was leading humanity in the 19thC to believe progress was a matter of understanding and applying more objective science to satisfy human needs in the world, with resistance coming only from the romantics. Dehumanising failures of scientific management and planning of organisations and economies not to mention the disasters of two world wars, nor science  itself running into the new physics in the early parts of the 20thC, stoked the tension between doing more modern science better and finding post-modern alternatives to scientific modernism. That “we must be able to do better” was the common driver of the post-WW1 Vienna Circle (Ernst Mach Society) and the post-WW2 /Auschwitz / Hiroshima 1946-53 Macy Conferences. Each sentence in this paragraph has entire libraries of analysis and deserves at least an essay-length paragraph in its own right. Suffice to say, the latter saw a community of thought coalesce around the ideas of complex systems which until then had been the domain of a few pioneering thinkers like Hutchins and Bogdanov (say). These resulted in seminal works by Wiener (Cybernetics) and Bertalanffy (General Systems Theory), with contributions by many others, Beer, Ross-Ashby, Bateson and more. (Not to mention many more since and even more pre-dating modern science.)

Right from the outset – the publication of “Cybernetics” in 1948 – there was a problem (at the Library of Congress) in classifying what Wiener had meant by his title & subject matter. They could see already that he – like the founding community – had put the intentional human animal before the mechanistic machine. Psychology first before mathematical computation, second?

Nevertheless it was 1962 before Maruyama had to coin the idea of First and Second Cybernetics, to point out that most of the early applications of Cybernetics had been of the second kind. Despite being out of order temporally, Maruyama was also able to point out a first and second order distinction. Almost all formally objective or electro-mechanically implemented cybernetics had been limited to mutually-causal “First Order” systems (and parts) where control involved feed-back to stable equilibria (homeostatic) with any set-points coming from independent external sources. “Second Order” systems include feed-forward elements away from set points (allostatic) and “Third-Order” includes the intentional agents or human observers as mutually-causal system elements in their own right, rather than objective parts.

As I say, I’m not hung up on formal definitions, but the (Dynamical) Systems Thinking agenda here on Psybertron is clearly “Cybernetics of the 3rd kind“.


[Post Note / Aside: Interesting to note Robert Maynard Hutchins in the pre-Macy Conferences pioneering timeline (according to Wikipedia anyway) – given Hutchins and Adler were Chicago University “Great Book Movement” influencers of McKeon – the Chairman of Humanities at the time Pirsig experienced Philosophy at Chicago. Doubly fascinating not just because of my own thought trajectory, but because many 21st C thinkers in this space were influenced by Pirsig, not least Dave Snowden, founder of Cynefin, above. A tangled web we weave?]

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