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.

[This year 2024 Mike Jackson lecture
also attended by Dave Snowden]


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 – creativity from constraint, freedom runs on rails – was another part of my line of commentary on his lecture in my earlier post.)

The Meat

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. [Post Note – and Dave also commenting on this LinkedIn post about a 1991 Harvard Business Review article reminding us about the value of tacit knowledge, and how it’s been destroyed by “codification” ever since.]

Turns out we’re both at this year’s Annual Mike Jackson Lecture on 19th March at Hull University. My write-up on the 2024 lecture here.


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:


Evolutionary Psychology – Again?

Evolutionary psychology just is what happens to us.

“Evolutionary Psychology” as a self-identified political “ought” interpretation of evolutionary reality and the political reaction to brand it pejoratively as “EvoPsych” are just that – identitarian political movements, not to be confused with reality. I said as much just in the title of the first long piece I ever wrote in this space in 2005.

“It (Really) IS Evolutionary Psychology, Stupid”

As Kevin Mitchell has already explained in the previous 5 minutes (below), there is no way to address complex self-adaptive systems like humanity from anything other than an evolutionary perspective. Dan Dennett and I would agree wholeheartedly. What matters is the quality of explanations, not the fact that they are evolutionary and psychological, scientific or philosophical. Do not pass go.

Quite a tough interview to listen to thanks to the skeptical prejudices of Matt Brown and particularly Chris Kavanagh and the extra 5 minutes of inane chatter before they get going on the 10 minute longer audio version. As ever I admire Kevin’s patience and clarity.

Listen to Kevin Mitchell if you can.


Post Notes – rough notes from the 2 hours!

Appropriate – ie “right” – levels of description / abstraction. (Exactly, Sean Carroll is wrong in suggesting these are convenient fictions – “Poetic Naturalism” – and that reality is just physics.)

The story, quite rightly, gets metaphysical. Much more than epiphenomenal too – really is two-way / multi-way causation.

Determinism is wrong full stop (even within physics, classical as well as quantum / relativistic).

It’s informational!!!! – Present states under-determine future states. Constraint is creative of future states. Meaning and purpose, even in “simple” living systems.

“If” we wind the clock back … Jeez … is ONLY a thought experiment …. not even a possibility unless you pre-presume determinism. Jeez.
Drives me “bananas” too Kevin. (Disagree – again – with Kevin’s interpretation of Dennett’s “incoherent” compatibilism in the Caruso dialogue, but no matter.) In the end it’s about quality of explanation – we agree again.

Like Sun Tzu’s art of war – we don’t need to know the locations of every atom in the universe – to fight the battle – not even ever piece of flora and fauna on the battlefield.

[More inane prejudice – against Jordan Peterson – oh how we laughed. Proper dynamic balance – integrated thinking – between the spiritualists (Peterson) and the illusionists (Harris), in terms of self and free-will.] Well done again Kevin. “Systems can be Selves” – pattern persistence through time.

Jeez – we have to debunk Libet misinterpretations again – we have many-layered adaptive / supervisory / permissory systems.  Readiness potentials / Free-wont, etc. How hard can it be? “Let’s put the subjectivity aside!” Ha! Readiness doesn’t equal commitment to act. It’s the patterns, not the low level details. Much more “holistic” – Yay! (It’s mostly sub-conscious, but it’s all the self. Some of the things we are “thinking” subconsciously make us aware as feelings before conscious thoughts) Determinism by definition rules itself out of conscious self. Shannon entropy. [Maps of Meaning – oh how we laughed, again.] Biology runs on meaning and sense-making. We’re only interested in differences, borders, gradients, edges – patterns / topology.

Neuronal interconnections are non-linear / non-binary, weighted, proportional in number and intensity. Cognition is what it’s doing, that’s what it is, not an epiphenomenon. Perception is active – monitoring, comparing, inferring.

Consciousness as feeling. Hofstadter as a strange loop, thinking about thoughts. Sufficient levels (requisite variety) …. confidence is a feeling, before or after we might model it as a calculation …

[Nothing new under the sun. This is all such well established and understood stuff already. See Mark Solms. Onwards and upwards.]


Avalanche Party at Toft House

An upcoming band at a new venue. I mentioned a couple of posts ago, my meditative release from worldly intellectual and practical concerns includes loud, intense, visceral musical experience. The moral imperative is to give it your full attention. Last night was my latest fix.

The band are Avalanche Party and the venue was Toft House in Middlesbrough. That venue is the “club house” of Middlesbrough’s “Little Theatre” and it’s many decades since I visited the latter. Avalanche Party I’ve actually seen 2 or 3 times, previously at multi-venue, multi-band, short-set “showcase” events, but I’ve never mentioned them in the blog. (I have noted on Facebook seeing great reviews from Austin TX “SXSW”, and noted that their latest recordings were done at Joshua Tree CA. Not bad for a lil’ old band from Texas Castleton & Marske, NY – North Yorkshire that is).

It’s their local connection that brought them to my attention, partners of band members and latterly band members themselves, experiencing local pub and brewery gigs. Beer and live music, what’s not to like? AP even make their own vinyl product, with A- and P-sides, locally at “Press On Vinyl”. Creative, authentic stuff.

Last night was the first time I saw them headline their own gig. A night of three stonking drummers.

Support #1 were “Strong Lion Boys” – that Sleaford Mods / Benefits genre of angry socialist politics shouted over heavy rhythmic and drone backing: “We Still Hate Thatcher” with added “Up the Boro”. Three of the AP lads joined-in on that drone backing, bass, guitar and sax. Stonking drummer.

Support #2 were “Juku” – great young female lead on bass working well with another stonking drummer – put me in mind of QOTSA (as with AP themselves) driving but with staccato pauses and breaks – and two “gentlemen of a certain age” on stereotypically loud but otherwise unremarkable guitar. Guessing it’s her songs, her band, both of few words, and very promising vocals that would probably benefit from a better mix.

Avalanche Party, my only complaint would be the over-bright & busy, distracting lighting programmed from the mixing desk. The performance itself excellent again, and already recognising their crowd-pleasing numbers from previous gigs as well as a couple of new ones. A 5 piece with keyboard and sax as well as guitar, bass and drums providing lots of variety in pace, rhythm and dynamics. Very little “lead” instrumentation, not even riffs, mostly atmospheric but heavy drone backing to clear audible vocals and a wide range of backing / harmony vocals. Did I mention, stonking drum and bass again.

Proper team-work. Hard to fault.


50 Years of Systems and Pirsig

Ostensibly I’m re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in order to review the 50th Anniversary edition, but as usual I’m finding more significant note-worthy connections with my ongoing systems thinking work than there are pages in the original.

The read – the story – is of course very familiar, I’m reading it for the 4th or 5th time though it’s probably a decade since I last did, and yet even focussing on the review and resisting the urge to make personal notes for the whole of part 1 (the first 7 of 32 chapters) I since lapsed into adding post-it markers, significant to my own work, to almost every page. As well as the re-reads I have of course also looked-up references in it many times in the 25 years since I first read it. Whilst the story is very familiar, what really hits you is recognising the thoughts & concepts, words & phrases, used half a century ago in today’s 21st C context, mine and humanity’s predicament in general.

Review-wise, it’s the same book it was in 1974, with the author’s introduction, afterword and reader’s guide, all added to the 25th anniversary edition, plus the new foreword to the 50th anniversary edition by Matt Crawford “Why Zen Still Resonates Today”. As Crawford notes and quotes, the story has no Hollywood ending effectively leaving the reader filled with thoughts and questions. Perhaps that’s why despite many references to such projects since, it has still never been made into a definitive film. But as the climactic father-son reconciliation scene shows, the thoughtful open-ended-ness is explicitly hopeful for the future:

[Son, Chris,] understands for the first time on this whole trip that he has found his long-lost father again. “The tension is gone. They have won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.”

That’s maybe why so many of us saw hope for the future in better, wider understanding of Pirsig’s messages. Over on the #ZMM50th pages of  the Robert Pirsig Association you will find more life-changing testimonials for our better futures. It would be easy to be frustrated and angry that the same things Pirsig was explaining to us in 1974 are the same things we still need to understand to make better decisions about our futures in 2024 – a time when so many issues facing humanity 50 years later appear both existential and urgent. Conversely as David Deutsch would say, the future is infinite and we’re only ever at the beginning of it. We humans have a great track record of solving problems, even ones we’ve created. Pirsig already explained why and how humans understanding and embodying systems, and not fearing the technology, are what will get us out of this mess, mental and physical, however long it takes.

Now, what about all those important notes and messages …


[Post Notes:

The connection between Pirsig and Cybernetics as human systems of governance, individual, organisation and/or social, goes back as far as 1995 and the fact that Principia Cybernetica curator Francis Heylighen invited Pirsig to deliver his “Subjects, Objects, Data and Values” paper to the “Einstein Meets Magritte” conference May 29 to June 3, 1995 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Free University of Brussels (VUB). Who says anniversary celebrations don’t matter? 🙂]

Do as I Say, Not as I Do?

There’s an assumed hypocrisy in saying one thing and doing another, but in reality, in complex situations, there is always some motivation. And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, after Brunsson, there are good reasons, hypocrisy is an essential life skill anyway.

The other way round, “Do as I do, not as I say” there’s an easy / in-built presumption that it’s harder for me to articulate what is needed in a way that will help you, than it is for you to follow my example. And there may be many reasons for that from my intellectual & communications inadequacy to some tactical constraint or inconvenience.

The way cited in my title, “Do as I say, not as I do” it’s harder to justify, but no less real and complex.

The example memeing around my head at the moment arose from my interview / dialogue with Sevilla King. As a supporter of Pirsig’s 4-layer evolutionary metaphysics, I’m also an advocate of the “Eastern” world-view that says direct participation in, paying (moral) attention to, the immediate world is the source of all Quality. There is also, in any event, a learning from mental health experience – frustrations with the limitations of “the church of reason” – at the root of Pirsig’s work. Many such advocates engage in mindful, meditative practices, even retreats away from everyday life distractions. I never have, but appreciate those that do and the mental health value they achieve.

At least I never have by that kind of “mindful” name. I might justify my passion with intellectual elaboration of “good metaphysics” for the urgent benefit of wider human decision-making, as an excuse that I’m “too busy” with that project. But in fact my meditative time-outs are direct engagements with the world at two or three levels.

Live music events are one; especially loud shared visceral experience with performers and audience, but also the poetic content.

Another is hiking; whether coast or high-ground. I can sit staring out and listening to the sound of the sea for ages in the former, or laying face-up to the sky listening to the skylarks and curlew in the latter, thinking about nothing but the experience. In fact the header image here is me sitting in exactly that mode on a bench amidst gently steaming Yellowstone geysers.

And, Cathedrals – or cathedral-like natural or man-made spaces; Ironically, given the Pirsigian allusion to the Church of Reason in sharing the Feininger image – “Church of the Minorites II”, cathedrals are a good context too. Whether religious, artistic or even say a utilitarian bridge – sitting and taking in the atmosphere of a cathedral-sized human construct can be just as engaging.

[See also “How the Light Gets In” re that Minorites image – and in many cathedral like spaces, like Sagrada Familia in real life – Leonard Cohen (poet / music) and the Institute of Art and Ideas festivals.]

[See also “Attention as a Moral Act” – Rowson, McGilchrist etc.]