Long Friston Interview

This Karl Friston interview is long and wandering (almost 4 hours!) and a bit distorted by the somewhat affected (?) naïve “Theory of Everything” – everything including the kitchen sink – agenda of interviewer Curt Jaimungal, but anyway … some very rough mental notes:

Deflationary view – hooray. The very point. Using / understanding general intent of simplifying view (of FEP-based systems view) and not having to worry about complexity in possible detail. (See overfitting and internal<>external independence – later.)

Mathematics and computation origins – and philosophy – Andy Clark, Richard Feynman, Kolmogorov, Helmholtz, Gibbs free-energies.

Chaos and meta-stable attractors.

Levels of Sentience – good.
Sensing external world, holding a “representation” of the external world, having self-awareness of the self and the model held of the world and self, etc. (Sentience does NOT mean feeling pleasure and pain.)

Thing – recognising one generally, starting from thing <> no-thing / not-thing – Markov chains / boundaries / blankets. Circular causality implied by that dynamic definition of a thing – maintaining its steady state.

Statistical “surprisal” theory, Bayesian probability densities. Minimising free-energy or prediction error.

Influence as causation?
Sean Carroll says causation is illusion – yawn.
(This whole thesis is about explaining causation – only kind presumed is elementary in simple control-theoretic sense – in the if-this-then-than logic of the maths …) Is the axis always time? (Yawn again – time & causation fundamentally pretty weird ab-initio – so only dependencies here are to intuitive sense other than independent variable in the maths, again. Underlying Langevin equation of state flows > Path Integrals, many “equivalent” representations. (Sabine also used the “confusion” over causation to diss alternative descriptions of “free” conscious will. Fact is no-one has “definitive” model of causation beyond the maths – no scientist, no politician.)

Flows up or down / parallel to probability / concentration gradients and flows across / along iso-probability contours. Many special cases of the general. Human scale is intermediate between hot / random-fluctuation / quantum scale and cold / cosmic / stable scale.

Schrödinger ? Yes.

Warnings about Free-Energy theories – Emperor’s clothes / impenetrable difficulty – oh yes. Hidden simplicity, lost at typical human levels – quite funny.

Back to ToE question? … interesting that Friston does address the question … but falls back to basic Markov blanket point in statistical mechanics, thingness, partitioning “things”. Deflationary again. His “Deflationary Theory of Everythingness” – very good!

Algorithmic complexity. Jamesian / Bayesian belief structures. Prediction errors / Surprise minimisation / Uncertainty resolution.

Existential “goodness” – processing new information thermodynamically efficiently. Yay! Battery powered miniaturisation – versus super-computed complexity. Quite analogous to Occam. Avoiding “overfitting” data, locally, today. (This right scale – complexity / simplicity / frequency / time-base – very much John Doyle?) (There’s no prediction in Roulette – dummy! – other behaviours / incentives too.) But yes – leaving latitude in play. Game theory involves multiple “test” moves as well as optimisation moves – eg if there really is some skewed chance in the casino’s wheel.)

Newcombs paradox. Yawn again! Question is always about genuine “population” stats or a single psychological choice. See games again.

Zipping … is a good analogy.

AGI (re-)generative models currently “a long way from these principles”.

Jordan Peterson !?!?! The “Tao” between order and chaos – again the right middle scale is the point. Sure. Self-organised criticality … Stuart Kauffman … towards the “edge of chaos”. Repertoire of dynamics needed to give you that “latitude”.

Architectural decisions in model structure, which must itself “learn” – structural learning. (Where I started mid-80’s)

McGilchrist question.  (Ross-Ashby reference in his answer.) Iso-morphism between the world and our internal model (Bernado Kastrup too – hmmm) “sufficient” iso-morphism. (No acknowledgement of McG in the answer / discussion?) Architectural iso-morphism – the gist – Yay! (It’s Solms that takes Friston into actual brain / mind processes.) And nothing about hemispheric hypothesis. Curt asks a long question about L-R asymmetries … Friston doesn’t really have a view on McGilchrist – architectural connectivity not physical geometry / shape. (Need Solms here. But McGilchrist doesn’t have a view on Friston-Solms yet either.)

Topology of flat sensors vs long-thin processors (Axons). Computation architectures. Yay! Split of whatness / thingness and whereness / relational-properties. Good point.

NOTHING so far on the advertised “What Is Life, Consciousness, the meta-Hard Problem”? (Sound getting out of sync with video)

Speed and granularity (and density / sparseness of connectivity) of processing on multiple levels. 90% of our sensorium generated by ourselves and fellow humans – so that model clearly very important to our world view. Shared narratives, language, etc but also at many levels.

Hierarchies? Yes – layers of granularity.

[Pause at 2h13m] [Continuing ...]

Shared narrative to get along? Religion?

Shared narrative to be able to communicate (but again, see games) No strong view on the religion question, beyond societal norms on beliefs implied by the shared narratives – simpler is easier to share of course (memetics – Yay!)

Deity as the simulator???

Does he believe in free-will? Yes – autonomous dynamics is emergent. (Better developed by Solms.) And Yes, our own “sensorium” – awareness of our experience. My perceptions, my predictions, my needs, my surprises.

Self-fulfilling prophecies? Sure the world we perceive is filled-in (partially constructed) my our predictions. Fulfil and realise. But false inferences and delusions too. Schizophrenia and Autism?

We’re getting well into things Friston wouldn’t claim current expertise, but being asked “what he believes” (although he has psychiatric experience).

Interviewer’s experience of a panic attack? Schizophrenia? Hearing a voice and worrying about it. Even talked to his doctor about it! – where is this going for this interview – afraid of his own mind? Sleeping drugs? Huh? Now giving psychiatric advice! Does have colleagues that have had deep psychotic “episodes”. Group talking therapies. Discord group suggested by interviewer.

[Two interviews stitched together at 2:45]

Our own existence? Actually similar to the (circular) self-fulfilling prophecy.

At last the question about “generative” model. Model whose consequences are observable by the model.

Donald Hoffman on consciousness? (Gerry Edelman previous colleague) No opinion.

Penrose-Hameroff (Orch-OR)? Entertaining, like other QM theories of consciousness – but sceptical of explanatory value. AND REMINDER Friston himself is not proposing any theory of consciousness. (Solms is.)

Sentience – sentient behaviour – is found at our intermediate scales – important. Life as self organisation to some non-equilibrium states – at neither quantum nor cosmic scales.

Templeton challenge of FEP vs IIT as far as theories of consciousness.
(I don’t see them as conflicting. Addressing different aspects.)
Starting with what it means to be alive? Moving in a way that is in the service of sampling evidence, information and resources for its own existence. Sentience and consciousness? – Reflexive vs reflective-planned responses. I / me involved in the generative model. etc Agent that plans and selects its attention. Self-awareness at higher level, etc (Elaborating the levels of sentience from earlier.) Ad infinitum – in a meta sense.

The Meta-Hard Problem? After Andy Clark. Why does the hard problem matter, why is it a puzzle that interests us? Our model must include counterfactuals – must include philosophy and metaphysics. (Chiara Marletto) The existence of the philosophical zombie as a meme, says a lot about the kind of generative we must have. The fact we can have this thought experiment suggests we cannot be zombies.

Idealist or Physicalist? Bat for either side.  (Same model as mine – what we can know is always between reality and us – my triad. There are unavoidable implicit assumptions somewhere in our metaphysics. EXCELLENT!.)
Epistemic ontology – Yay!

Unlimited Scaling of Holons / Partons? Mathematically no constraint. Practical changes in speeds/frequencies/time-constants and predictability of processes at larger and smaller scales. Markov blanket states – internal / external independencies. Proof by induction.

The Meaning of Life? Deflationary – the meaning is in the existence – the existential imperative. Know thyself? (Aspiration, motivation, “attractive states” – Maslow?) Optimism bias in selecting our attention depending on agency is real. Interviewer Curt expressing interest in these levels of motivation – we really must rehabilitate Maslow. Beyond Self-actualisation to serving the gods, etc … Achieving congruence in the stack, acting to minimise cognitive dissonance.

Embodied Cognition? The “matter” of our actions in the world – yes a symmetry between internal and external – almost interchangeable, arbitrary which is which. Desire paths – the external world responds to / learns from its inhabitants. (My favourite is the course of a river constrained by the river bank that it is itself creating.) A “dance” – game theory again. Circular causality.

Overall impressionoverfitting was the one “new” idea I picked-up in this context. Interesting to hear so much elaboration and reinforcement through questions from another agenda, but the core is already there. Curt was clearly strongly affected by it – interesting in itself.


I Identify as Humanist

[The following paraphrases “My Worldview” page.]

I identify as Humanist
(But then so do many people of faith who also value humanity.)

Does that make me an Atheist?
(Well kinda, maybe, but that’s jumping the gun on a metaphysical question, below.)

As a Humanist, I’m also a Free-Thinker.
(Part of what used to be called the Free-Thought movement.)
By freedom of thought and expression we humans are able to understand the world and our place in it – our freedoms and responsibilities- by means of Reasoning unencumbered by dogmas, religious or otherwise.

So I’m also a Secularist.
How we humans govern our affairs collectively, not just our individual reasoning in the world, should also be free from any established body of teachings, however benign.

Does that make me a Rationalist?
Not in the narrow sense that all our Reasoning be based on logical relationships – “ratios” – between objectively quantifiable values. I sometimes claim New Rationalist as a label for a more broadly defined reasoning that includes much wider palette of human values, but Humanism is itself a good label for that too.

So what about the Metaphysics?
I’m a Naturalist so I am essentially Non-Theist.  That is, all of that free-thinking reasoning about the world, and the place of humanity within it, is itself part of the natural world without appeal to any supernatural forces or agents beyond it. My world-view has no need of a supernatural, omniscient, omnipotent agent or being to explain it. I’m pretty certain about that – subject to as much free-thought reasoning as we can bring to it – but that doesn’t mean my world-view proves the non-existence of any god. So I’m not literally Atheist. Neither am I Anti-Theist, since Theists are human too. I prefer to define myself in terms of what I’m for, not what I’m against, and there’s a lot to be gained from dialogue with those who think different. It also means I’m neither Agnostic nor Gnostic. I cannot be neutral about the metaphysics of such a naturalist world-view – Sacred Naturalism – even if for most practical purposes it can be ignored.

So what about Science?
If we ignore the Metaphysics, for practical purposes, that Free-Thought reasoning looks a lot like Science. As a body of knowledge about the natural world, that established by Science is hard to beat, but as we get closer to the limits of what the methods of science can know, we cannot ignore our Metaphysics which cannot itself be science. In Sacred Naturalism, where reasoning about the Natural world involves human values beyond the narrowly Rational, there are aspects of nature that lie beyond objective scientific orthodoxy. These subjective, qualitative values and direct experiences, may be thought of as spiritual, sacred, even divine, but still entirely natural even if beyond orthodox science.


Post Note: And the reason for the fresh statement:

Post Note: Interesting follow-up post “Is God Sacred?” from AJ over at his “Staggering Implications” on the word we choose for “the sacred”. Noting that the common theme is developing into a movement. (See our exchange in the comments below.)

Very Little New?

I’m like a cracked record with “Nothing New Under the Sun”.

I was just using the wayback machine / web-archive to find a copy of Doug Hofstadter’s contribution to the 2006 Tucson Science of Consciousness event:

“Strange Loops,
Downward Causation, and
Distributed Consciousness”
(Mentioned here in 2006.)

His “I am a Strange Loop” was published the following year 2007, so maybe there are no published copies of a paper with that full title?

ANYWAY – imagine my surprise – skimming the programme page, I find Giulio Tononi and his Integrated Information Theory was already on that programme in 2006!

And a few lines further down – Mark Solms was part of the event too! Co-host of a whole morning plenary on “Dreams” – which is of course where he started.

Everything that needs saying has already been said by someone somewhere.

(Wish I’d made more effort to attend Tucson when I had the chances – was actually living in the US South at the time 2005/6/7/8 – that early 2006 post above, I mention moving to our new address!)

General Systems Theory(ies)?

[Draft Holding Post – links being added.]

Cybernetics, like anything else, evolves, so I’m never talking about specific systems theory(ies). I’ve described my own journey every which way through systems engineering to systems thinking under the cybernetic umbrella. I have a nothing new under the sun attitude to any topic, whereby changing language may change the focus on details, but for the main part it’s really expressing a different view of the same underlying conception.

Because I settled on Cybernetics as my key word pretty early on in my Psybertron researches, and because Systems Engineering was merely my day job, I’ve tended to place Norbert Wiener at the centre of my systems constellation. He authored the book with that title as well as being one of the founders of the Macy conferences. Despite my “first cybernetics” focus from the outset on systems of human organisation and decision-making, I’ve also had a strong information and processes (ie computation) focus, so the likes of Shannon, Turing and von-Neumann feature prominently too, the latter also being part of the original Macy conferences. As well as the US axis, the British Ashby, Beer and Pask contribution has been acknowledged, though someone suggested I didn’t give enough credit to Bateson. He too was part of that founding Macy group.

I’ve also had a clear evolutionary thread – everything evolves, as I’ve already said – and in my case thanks to Dennett, like a thousand others I’ve bought the information and computation view to evolution beyond biological genetics – the bridge between the physical and the psychological. It was only through recent Friston-Solms work I really joined-up my cybernetic “systems thinking” with the thinking of evolution as universal computation – even though I’ve had an information / computation metaphysics since I started.

Levenchuk (Systems Thinking 2020)
Solms (Friston-FEP to Conscious Will 2021)

Bridging the physical (biological) with the psychological has been the primary philosophical consideration. The shortcomings of science when it comes to conscious will – I did mention Dennett. Solms and particularly McGilchrist have been very important recently in characterising what those shortcomings are and where their solutions lie.

The backdrop to all of this in the 21st C has been the God vs Science wars – faith vs rationality, whether we think of faith as blind or more broadly pragmatic, and rationality as based solely on relations between objective quantities or including more broadly qualitative and categorical reasoning? One consequence of this “war” has been a much wider polarisation whereby if you’re “anti-God” you are Science-led in everything – as if scientific rationality is the only yardstick of wider knowledge, and thus making it much harder to point out that it isn’t. The polarisation reinforced by the thin-end-of-a wedge response to any concession from the pro-science camp.

Funny thing is I have a part-read copy of von-Bertalanffy’s (1949) “Problems of Life” because it is ex-libris the Library of the Rationalist Press Association. It’s the (1952) version published by Watts and Co – founder of the Rationalist Press whose legacy is now managed by The Rationalist Association & New Humanist, of which I am an active member and until recently served on the Board of Trustees. Very much part of the “free-thought” movement, promotion of rational, natural and secular humanism countering the every-day effects of super-natural & dogmatic faith-based religions. I’ve already found the Sacred Naturalism middle-ground – the common ground between these seemingly incompatible spheres is actually enormous – but that’s a story for another day.

What I had failed to join-up was that, as well as being part of that secular free-thought movement, was von-Bertalanffy’s role in positing General Systems Theory. And what I only just then recalled is that von-Bertalanffy is a significant source reference in McGilchrist’s “The Matter With Things” – particularly for talk of systems as organismic rather than mechanistic machines. Those of us with a fundamental information bent do happily talk of algorithms and computing machines – but we really do mean the organismic “soft-machine” kind. This is exactly how Friston > Solms resolves organic, emergent subjectivity through Markov-Blankets and Active-Inference with causation of wholes more than determined by their parts. It’s another bridge I’m trying to build – when we talk of systems and information processing no-one needs to think of electro-mechanical computing machines – computers. (After all, for most of history, computers were humans.)

So, anyway, I’m reading von-Bertalanffy more closely again – lots of good stuff already. (He even mentions ergodicity, or does he?!) Standby.

Alexander Bogdanov’s Recovery?

I posted my interest in Bogdanov firstly arising out of Carlo Rovelli’s extended reference to him, and secondly arising from the conference in his name at the Hull Centre for Systems Studies (CSS) this time last year, and Paul Mason’s support of that.

My links got a bit confused as proceedings of that conference were uploaded and updated. Good news, the organiser Örsan Şenalp has made a consolidated post of those materials.

Towards a full recovery of his work and ideas.
(CSS Mini Symposium in 4 parts.)


The 2021 Mike Jackson Lecture by Carlo Rovelli
‘The Relational Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and Alexander Bogdanov’s Worldview’

Note Carlo Rovelli, Mike Jackson and Paul Mason are also involved in the symposium presentations and discussions. So, looks like we now have a definitive source for Bogdanov.

(Post Note – for ISSS interest
– several members present, Gary Smith and Michelle Friend?

And, oh my, look at the speakers at this
Information Universe Conference 2022
I just missed!
Carlo Rovelli, Erik Verlinde, Seth Lloyd, Stephen Wolfram.)

William James Sidis – again.

Sidis is a standard interest of Robert Pirsig fans, Pirsig makes significant reference to him, so he’s been mentioned here a couple of times.

(William James Sidis (1898-1944) basically a child prodigy of high intelligence pushed by his parents – through Harvard aged 11 (!) – that the general public / media meme is that he collapsed through some kinda breakdown into a ignominious life of trivia. Significance for Pirsig is that he too was assessed by various intelligence tests and advanced in education over several years of his early life. He only discovered later that he had been part of a longer “longitudinal” educational development study.)

Sidis did publish some strange books under pen-names, but published one important book under his own name.

Fellow Pirsigian David Harding (@GoodMetaphysics) posted a new short video about Sidis:

I responded already, but just wanted to capture here:

I’d forgotten Sidis had published his “life as entropy reversal” idea back in 1920. And, I remember Mahoney as the man that “rediscovered” him in 1979, BUT hadn’t spotted the Bucky-Fuller connection – an old class mate(!) reviewing Sidis only publication. And Norbert Wiener of Cybernetics fame too. It was 1940 before Schrödinger did the same. Black holes too.

Here is that Buckminster-Fuller letter:

The Orthodoxy Softens on Determinism?

Good to see actual scientists being public about the limitations to reductionist determinism, and why emergent objects can and do have their own causality.

Noticed Philip Ball post a note to the effect that this really could be considered a given – “well established” and “not much left to debate” – now even though there were multiple explanatory theories as to why and how.

Today Kevin Mitchell posted the following as a Twitter Thread:

Re: reductionism

There is a big difference between saying that, for some system: “if we know what the little things do, we know what the big things do” (which is trivial) and claiming that the low-level forces between the smallest particles are the only things that do or can have any causal power in determining how a system evolves from moment to moment.

The latter is a metaphysical claim, not a scientific one. And it fails to answer the question of why the particles are organised the way they are which, in many cases (especially in living organisms) is because that organisation is functional at a macroscopic level and has been selected for.

Nothing about particle physics can account for, predict, or explain why living organisms are organised the way they are. Nor can the equations governing such particles predict how such systems will behave.

Especially because they only predict how particles themselves will behave in a statistical, probabilistic fashion, not deterministically. This leaves lots of room for higher-order, organisational causes to come into play, which they demonstrably do.

[PS: Kevin was moved to write this blog post as a result of these exchanges: Getting to the bottom of reductionism – is it all just physics in the end? – (Spoiler, no it isn’t.)]

The Tweet below had quite a few spin-off threads in response:

Of course the book in question is Sabine Hossenfelder’s “Existential Physics– which I’m resisting buying to read. This thread is one good response (and the Philip Ball tweet above is in fact another):

And for “small world” completeness this Philip Ball piece is an interview with Michael Levin (see other recent “systems thinking” posts). And it’s Templeton.

Funny, I’d previously had Philip down as one of the defenders of “the orthodoxy” (mechanistic, reductive, objective materialism) but clearly no longer the case. Sabine on the other hand I was encouraged that she was taking philosophical questions about the limitations to orthodox science seriously, but I fear she is still behind the curve philosophically.

Pity that Sabine is dismissive of objections to her words on the grounds that “we can’t even agree what causation is”. I’ll say. It’s where I started two decades ago.

And, more systems thinking connections – Sara Amari and Jessica Flack are amongst the addressees in the original Tweet above. Both using systems thinking, and Jessica in particular as a means of identifying appropriate granularity. Here another recent Philip Ball tweet:

It’s all connected 🙂


Post note, since we were talking about Philip Ball:

And his own commentary on that award:

Karl Friston and Good Fences

I’ve previously only mentioned Friston as the source of Friston’s Free Energy Principle as the backdrop to Mark Solms proper bio-psychological account of consciousness.

I listened to this discussion – hap tip to the Active Inference folks – and already made a few footnotes to the two previous posts.

It’s the first time I’ve listened to him directly. We’re on the same page in so much more. As a biologist / scientist, he’s actually into the politics – identity politics – of this, in exactly the way I am. In fact his whole piece in the last 5 or 10 minutes about globalisation destroying useful boundaries (Markov blankets) is EXACTLY my unwritten “Good Fences” thesis. Exactly!

There is a tendency of inclusion / fairness reasons to blur boundaries and minimise differences – but every boundary ignored is a thing lost.

(Need to pull together all the dispersed notes into something coherent here. I simply cannot write fast enough.)

%d bloggers like this: