18 October 2016

Cybernetics Seminar

I went to a seminar at the uni today on cybernetics. Most of the participants seem to be speaking different versions of English - a kind of self-defeating vocabulary in which none of the questions seem to make sense to the invited guest (and didn't make sense to me). I wasn't very impressed. Smart people often seem to make things more difficult than they need to because otherwise they get bored.

The invited guest kept talking about an "ontology of unknowability" and unfortunately I didn't get the chance to point out that this was an oxymoron - knowability is the domain of epistemology. Ontologies tell us nothing about whether or not something is knowable. Which is why question about the knowledge of non-existent things causes such confusion - the ontological status of a phenomenon tells us nothing about it's knowability.

He also kept insisting that science was an ontology in which everything was knowable. But this hasn't been true since the 1920s when the quantum mechanics established problems like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The quantum universe clearly exists (ontology) but it is almost completely unknowable (epistemology). What we do know has radically changed human culture since it made electronics possible.

The take away was a pragmatic question which was opposed to the usual philosophical question. In ontology we ask what the world is like, but in pragmatics we might ask, "What does the world do?" I think this is an interesting question. One that takes us out of a purely cognitive approach to understanding the world and moves us into an experiential approach.

It's like we focus on what impact the world has on us, which leads to the question of how we respond to that impact, rather than worrying what to think about things.

The other take away is the cybernetics seems to be closely allied to behaviourism and game theory in it's distrust of minds and people. The aim seems to be to remove people from decision making processes and replace them with automatons that specifically do not employ knowledge based or cognitive approaches to problem solving. The human analogue is the physical reflex in which a pain stimulus in the limbs travels to the spinal chord where a response is initiated without involving the brain. And people do not seemed suited to this role.

I'm reminded also of that important component of NeoLiberalism, i.e. free-market economics, where the "market" is a blackbox that magically produces the optimum price for commodities (even though economists have known since the mid-1970s that the mathematics of supply and demand theory don't work - with more than one product or consumer the demand curve can be *any* shape and slope. There is no linear relationship between demand and price in any real world case.

Cybernetics and Society

I'm going to a seminar later today on cybernetics. The idea has a certain appeal because of the obvious way that feedback operates in organisms and ecosystems. However, in reading for the seminar I'm also learning why the field is not more mainstream.

The readings focus on Stafford Beer. A management consultant and self-confessed Marxist. Beer was fascinated by how cybernetic systems could replace human beings as decision makers. Just as a reflex is faster and more responsive to a simple stimulus such as pain than a cognitive response is, Beer thought he could make cybernetic feedback systems respond faster than traditional computers. This is back in the mid 20th Century when computers first began to escape from academia and the military. To be fair using computers to do things in exactly the same way as humans had done them might have been short sighted. But it never seems to have occurred to Beer that replacing human beings with machines was a monstrous goal completely out of kilter with the thought of Marx as I understand it. Beer seems to have considered all kinds of organic substitutes for human beings as well - at one point trying to map factor inputs and outputs onto a pond.

The readings are problematic in other ways. For example the author continually refers to what he calls an ontology of unknowability. I may not know much about philosophy, but I do know that what is knowable or not is the domain of epistemology. Ontological views, even Realism, tell us nothing about what may be known or what must remain unknown. They tell us about what can be inferred to exist. So an ontology of unknowability is an oxymoron. I plan to ask about this.

The author of the two papers, who will also lead the seminar, seems to see machines that use feedback in an animistic way. He focusses on the homoeostat, a kind of current regulator that can hold an output steady under different input currents, but in a quite inefficient way by changing the internal resistance of the machine randomly to 1 of 24 values in response to rising input currents. As the current rises it forces the machine to adopt first one then then another value. With four linked together, the output of one linked to the input of another, one can create a feedback system which stabilises the output current.

The author wants us to see this as agent-like behaviour. It isn't. He says that such devices "explored the unknown". They didn't. That they "reacted constructively". They didn't. And there are better ways to make current regulators using transistors!

Sadly beer ended up becoming a "tantric yogi" and this opens the door to all kinds of nonsense. It links all this to "spirituality", that empty modern word for values we can no longer articulate, but which has something to do with what we feel when we walk into a grand church or a forest, or when we shut ourselves of from ordinary sensory perceptions as in meditation. The ontology of unknowability is also a neo-Taoist ontology. And as this point I begin to doubt I will get anything at all from the seminar. However I have watched a long interview with the author on YouTube and in person he is quite a bit less flaky than he appears to be in the seminar readings.

So my expectations for the seminar are pretty low to say the least. However, this is the first in a series with a lot of guest speakers and I hope to attend them all to see if there is any value to be had in talking about cybernetics. Going by what I've read so far I'm unlikely to adopt the language of cybernetics even though the ideas are clearly related to things I've been writing about. Indeed it seems to me that the more urgent need is for Amistics, the study of the impact of technology on humanity and the world.

Since R. D. Laing is praised in one of the articles, I revisited part of Adam Curtis's documentary The Trap which describes the baleful influence of Game Theory on Laing (and on society in general). Game Theory was the invention not of a beautiful mind, but of a mind warped by paranoid schizophrenia. The influence of Game Theory on Laing seems not the be widely recognised.

Ironically, Laing who had so viciously chided the medical profession for medicating their patients, was an inveterate user of drugs and alcohol, who became an alcoholic. On the plus side, though it was far from being a cure for psychosis, Laing's practice of actually talking to the insane as human beings did relieve their suffering. Game Theory led him to see the family as the cause of insanity. His view of the family was bleak and paranoid in the way that John Nash's view of humanity as expressed in Game Theory was. Curtis suggests that Laing was sublimating his feelings about the Cold War and projecting them onto the families he studied, seeing them purely in terms of tacit and deceptive struggles for control. This is a view of humanity lacking in reciprocity and empathy - i.e. lacking the basis for morality that is found in all primates.

17 October 2016


Common Sense: If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck.

Common Skeptic: If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is probably a duck.

Science (General): If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck,
then proceed to test the null hypothesis that it is not a non-duck.

Science (Physics): If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then the detector needs recalibrating.

Science (Biology): If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it compare its DNA to other waterfowl in the family Anatidae to determine the degree of genetic relatedness.

Philosophy: If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, proceed to question the existence of the universe and/or consciousness.

Buddhism: If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is not a duck, but not a non-duck, nor is it both nor neither. Forget about the duck(!) and just watch your mind ducking.

After 50 years, it turns out that I'm a fan of common sense.

14 October 2016

Blackhole Bounce

I just heard Carlo Rovelli explain a scenario for blackholes, let's see if I can reproduce it.

Take a supermassive star. As it reaches the point where it has fused together the last fusionable elements, it begins to cool. Since the heat generated by nuclear fusion has been the only thing preventing gravity from collapsing all the matter into the centre, it begins to collapse. Matter from the star rushes towards the centre very fast, causing an implosion. This throws most of the matter back out into space, but at the very core matter becomes super-compressed. All the protons and electrons are converted into neutrons and these are squeezed into very dense neutronium that takes up very little space.

Relativity says that above a certain mass the neutron core of the star continues to be compressed by gravity and that there is no limit to this compression. If there is enough matter to start with, the neutronium becomes so dense that nothing can reach escape velocity and it becomes a blackhole. Compression continues forever making the star effectively infinitely small with infinite density.

However, regions of infinite density are ruled out by quantum mechanics. Even a blackhole must have a finite density - the smallest possible scale is the Planck length of 10-33m, and the smallest possible volume is a Planck cubed. Rovelli suggests that a blackhole collapses down to a minimum, but finite, volume and then explodes outwards again. And this process takes about 1 millisecond.

What? If we go back to Relativity it says that the closer we are to a large mass, the slower time will go for us compared to a distance observer. This is because of the fixed speed of light. Near a large mass, space is tightly curved and distances between points are compressed, but light goes the same speed (300,000 ms-1), so in order for the speed (ms-1) to remain the same, time must slow down. If a blackhole caused infinite density, then time would have to cease. But since matter it cannot be infinitely dense, due to the limit on how small a volume of space is, time must continue to pass, however slowly. But since the time dilation occurs to everything at once, subjectively time would probably continue to pass at the same rate near the mass. It is only a distant observer who would see things slowing down.

If we were able to travel down into the heart of a blackhole as it collapsed and bounced back, it would seem to take about 1 ms to us. Subjectively, inside the blackhole time would continue pass at normal speed. But if we are looking at a blackhole collapsing from several light years away, the process would appear to take billions of years. And this is why we don't see blackholes exploding.

If blackholes do explode then we ought to be able to see it, and this is something that astronomers can look for. Perhaps such explosions would be visible to the LIGO gravity wave detector or some future detector which is more sensitive?

At the moment this is just hand-wavy stuff. Something other than a singularity must exist in a blackhole, because of quantum mechanics, but we're not sure what it is yet. This is quite a cool scenario though.

13 October 2016


Extract from The Atheist and the Bonobo, by Frans de Waal.
"People simply believe because they want to. This applies to all religions. Faith is driven by attraction to certain persons, stories, rituals, and values. It fulfils emotional needs, such as the need for security and authority and the desire to belong. Theology is secondary and evidence tertiary. I agree that what the faithful are asked to believe can be rather preposterous, but atheists surely won't succeed in talking people out of their faith by mocking the veracity of their holy books or by comparing their God with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The specific contents of belief are hardly at issue if the overarching goal is a sense of social and moral communion.  To borrow from a title by the novelist Amy Tan, to criticize faith is like trying to save a fish from drowning. There's no point in catching believers out of the lake to tell them what is best for them while putting them out on the bank, where they flop around until they expire. They were in the lake for a reason." (p.96)

12 October 2016

UK Government Mental Health Policy

My comment on the story in The ConversationMany wealthy countries face a mental health crisis – here’s what governments can do. 4 August 2016.

Your policy approach is entirely focussed on after the horse has bolted. Palliative approaches are always more expensive in the long run than preventative approaches. It is better vaccinate against the disease than to wait for the epidemic and treat everyone in hospital. This is axiomatic in health care, and yet one that is almost never applied to mental health.

You say the most worrying trend is the rise of mental ill-health is in young people. But you want to wait until they are unemployed to help them. You miss the most obvious government intervention which is to introduce resilience training to schools to help young people stay mentally healthy and not succumb to mental illness. A variety of approaches are available, though most of them threaten to undermine the education system churning out obedient workers and insatiable consumers. Which may be why think-tanks and governments are unconsciously reluctant to consider them.

Secondly we need to look at underlying causes for mental illness. The most serious problem we have is social dislocation and alienation. Not only is this implicated in problems like depression, but it is also the main underlying cause of addiction problems also.

Free market capitalism is predicated on ignoring human needs in favour of profit (this was what Marc and Engels complained about 150 years ago and is just as true under the modern version). Families and communities are torn apart because investment does not go where the workers are, but workers are forced to go where the investment is. With no extended family and no community, workers are reliant on nuclear families and these cannot sustain the load - they are increasingly breaking down. Capitalism as we currently practice it is driving the atomisation of society. And the atomisation of society is driving the rise in mental health and addiction problems. At which point a welfare safety-net becomes stretched to breaking point. And at this point we watch in horror as the government begin to dismantle the safety-net, making it considerably less safe, and to demonise and punish people who use it, with the negative emphasis most on those who need the safety-net the most.

So government policy needs to invest in and strengthen local communities. And lately it has massively cut local government spending. Two 30% cuts in funding since 2010 in my county. Though in out county we are fortunate to have high employment we also have a very acute housing shortage, with attendant high housing costs and high homelessness. Local communities need to be able to provide work, housing, and social services. At present many cannot.

More and more people are struggling to afford shelter and food. The government pays out nearly £20 billion a year in subsidising rents through Housing Benefit. Meanwhile there is a chronic lack of housing, and an acute shortage of affordable housing. If basic needs are not met comfortably, then people are stressed. If they are stressed and there is no community support, then they may become mentally ill. This is not rocket science. The government needs to build 250,000 mainly lost-cost houses. But it knows that if it does this the housing bubble will collapse, the middle classes will be left with negative equity, and they will be voted out next election. So they promise to build 25,000 houses at some point in the future, at a cost of £1 billion, and proclaim themselves the party of the workers. The irony is so acute that one would impale a rhino on it.

In order to formulate effective policies any government needs to clarify whose needs they prioritise. Clearly there are many constituents, many communities, many powerful lobby groups, divided loyalties with political parties, and pressures from international trading partners. All we can hope is that the cost of mental illness becomes unsustainable and forces the government to formulate effective policies. As it is the crisis has not yet peaked and government are still betting on pandering to powerful business lobbies and the 1%. I predict it will have to get a lot worse before government take any action in the right direction, and we may continue to see effective cuts to mental health funding as in recent years.


Note. George Monbiot has written on the same subject: Neoliberalism is creating loneliness. That’s what’s wrenching society apart. The Guardian. 12 Oct 2016.

11 October 2016

Women in Capitalism in the 19th Century

"Our bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal [as 'mere instruments of production'], not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other's wives." 
"Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with, is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an open legalized community of women. For the rest, it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from the system, i.e. of prostitution both public and private" - The Communist Manifesto, 1848. 

Apparently the Communists were already controversial in 1848 when the manifesto was written and one of the protests was that they would destroy the structure of society. Indeed where Communism was imposed on societies, they often did this on purpose. Marx and Engels seem to have seen it as a natural consequence of changing the system of production however. 

We have to remember that pre-industrial revolution women worked mainly in and around the household - not as "housewives", but as members of a team that produced enough food for the family to live on. Men spent time away from the household in order to bring in what the women could not grow or collect. Common lands made it possible to survive lean times. On industrialisation women and children began to be employed in factories on much smaller wages than men. This is one of the changes that the Communists were reacting to. Also, as now, people had to move to where the factories were built and this fragmented traditional communities. The enclosure of common land meant that women and often children had to seek industrial work to survive. The Bourgeoisie happily put the children of the proletarians to work, while pampering their own children. In a sense they still do this, though it is far more subtle. 

Prostitution was certainly not new to this time, but a growing number of women were unable to rely on community support or to support themselves if they became detached from a man. Meanwhile the bourgeoisie were newly rich and indolent. They increasingly felt that the rules of propriety did not apply to them - the English Romantic poets epitomise this attitude. They were a bunch of toffs with no need to work, too much money, and free access to drugs. 

The Communists saw the irony in a bed-hopping high society, who viewed women as property, units of production, or sexual objects, complaining that abolition of private (i.e. bourgeois) property would result in the abolition of the ownership of women and allow women to (re)emerge as a power in society in their own right. The bourgeoisie were afraid of losing property, power, and control. They still are. 

Since 1848 the power of the bourgeoisie has been consolidated and internalised. State education is aimed at creating obedient workers and greedy consumers. Mass-media has replaced religion as the opium of the masses and has the advantage of not making any claims on the morality of the viewer. So-called democracy has been set up so that the bourgeoisie always win - they even won the global financial crisis that destroyed the homes, savings, and jobs of many workers. 

Unfortunately the solutions to the problems identified by the Communists are not obviously workable. Communism as enacted by various regimes (usually in the form of Stalinism or Maoism) have been brutal and disastrous. As my landlady recently quipped, the communists under-estimated the aspiration of the middle-classes. 

So what works? The places with the best overall living standards and happiness are the smaller socialist democracies, even after a few decades of the Neoliberal wrecking ball: New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands. Britain has a variable record, but has done best when it was more obviously socialist - public health, education, broadcasting, etc. A well regulated and supervised capitalist economy, and a government with the well-being of the people as it's main goal seems to be the least worst option in the present. The capture of democracy by business interests is an ongoing disaster. 

08 October 2016

Greed and Folly

Everyone loves the Taj Mahal, right? The romantic story of one man's undying love for this wife, blah blah. Take a step back and look at Shah Jahan. He led an incredibly opulent and extravagant life which required him to appropriate something like 40% of the GDP of his kingdom to pay for it (this is an estimate). This is not just 40% of workers incomes, but 40% of profits from business as well.

The modern day Royal family of the UK is paid a 15% cut of the rents from the Crown Estate (144,000 hectares of rural land, plus the whole seabed, and many commercial properties including all of Regent St in London), or about £43 million which is about 0.003% of GDP (note they are not paid out of taxes!). The government pockets £255 million. So the Royals actually make us money. 40% of UK GDP would be £600 billion. The Prince of Wales has a private income of £20 million from 53,628 hectares of land that go with the title.

Jahan's son was concerned about the impact of these taxes, but also concerned to get his own slice of the action, so he overthrew his father. But the damage had been done and the Mughal Empire was in terminal decline. This created a power vacuum, into which stepped the British. At which point vast amounts of wealth where transferred from India to England - which is partly why today India is a poor country and UK is rich.

Another example is Ankor Wat in what is now Cambodia. King Suryavarman II bankrupted his kingdom building this elaborate temple complex and when he died the kingdom erupted into bloody civil war. The temple was complete disaster, though it is now appropriated as a symbol of piety and holiness.

Capitalism involves a part of society appropriating the wealth created by the labour of others. This is justified on the basis of the risk of losing capital is the business fails. But when the balance of the economy shifts from production to appropriation and gambling (as it is now) then inequality starts to build up. Empires tend to fall when this happens.

Note also that the high tax rates routinely levied in Scandinavia are not detrimental to society because the taxes are spent on the people, rather than on monuments. In fact the socialist countries are widely regarded as the best places to live on many measures including standards of living and health care. People in socialist democracies are more prosperous and happy compared to people who live in free market democracies. Singapore is often cited as an example of a successful free market economy, but this comes at a severe cost to civil liberties and other freedoms.

The Taj Mahal and Ankor Wat are both symbols of greed and folly. We shouldn't romanticise them. Both caused a great deal of suffering.

Based on an article in the Financial Times 2012. Direct links hit the paywall. Search "The monumental folly of rent-seeking" you can get to it that way. 

07 October 2016

Divisive Politics and Politicians

On hearing that Diane Abbott is the new Shadow Home Secretary opinions the Twitterati are sharply divided (funny that).

On one hand she's a black woman, so all the people wanting to promote equality for minorities are thrilled. Though breaking through these barriers is subject to moral license - having one assuages any guilt the hegemony may feel at not having any. It's like the token woman on Mock the Week. Not that Corbyn is guilty of tokenism, I'm sure he admires Abbot, after all they had sex many years ago.

But on the other check out this a lovely English backhander from Owen Jones, the youthful leftie commentator:
"There's plenty of useless, bungling and/or mediocre white male politicians who don't get the bile Diane Abbott does. Why is this exactly?"
Some agree in part, saying she wouldn't get so much criticism if she were a man. But this is countered by pointing to the coverage of Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, and Jeremy Corbyn on the left, Nick Clegg in the middle, and Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage on the right.

This does not show that Britain is not biased against prominent black people or women, but it does show that rich white men are also targets.

The poor black woman argument is also countered by people who point out that her children go to a private school. So actually she's an old-style social elitist, which plays badly with the left and the right (too posh/too common).

One serving Labour MP tweeted:
"I only know one white male who's as consistently mean-spirited to fellow Labour people as Diane, and I respond same to him."
A number of other Twits said much the same. She is apparently quite rude to fellow lefties.

Several people commented that they thought she had made a number of racist comments against white people. But then some people still feel bad about slavery and colonialism and are willing to cut her some slack on this. I think being black is still very difficult here.

The divisions in the political left seem to be festering. I can't think of a single Labour politician who does not divide opinion. And Lord help us, Tony Bliar is musing about getting back into politics. Meanwhile the Tories are making a decent show of unity, despite the changes the new PM is making, and understand that if they just settle down and keep possession, they will continue to score.

And those of us who think socialism is a good thing continue to wait for the messiah who can unite the warring tribes and bring peace and prosperity.

06 October 2016


Another stray paragraph that I'm rescuing from the cutting floor and a follow-up.

One of the defining political issues of our time is immigration. Primates tend to think of this as strangers coming to live amongst us. It's stressful and it takes time to accommodate and/or assimilate them. But they also invigorate our gene pool and bring new ideas, attitudes, and practices, and so there are benefits to immigration as well. In recent decades net immigration to the UK has been in the hundreds of thousands each year. In 2015, 300,000 migrants arrived. This is less than half a percent of the population, but it is also a large town. If you set up a new town of 300,000 people it would require considerable investment in infrastructure: roads, schools, shops, health care, governance, police and so on. And yet, government has been cutting funding to all these functions at the local level creating strain on resources.  Even the mainstream are now using the phrase "housing crisis". As social primates having and maintaining groups norms is one of our main survival strategies. If our communities are unstable, if our standard of living is in decline, then we are unlikely to welcome strangers coming to live with us because we're already anxious about our society.

But let's not pretend that the UK is not also a very wealthy country with relatively high wages and a high standard of living compared to many nearby countries, for example in Eastern Europe or North Africa. So of course enterprising people will want to come here to seek a better life. Chances are that if someone reaches escape velocity from their own country to wind up in ours, then they are enterprising or desperate (I find the practice of referring to refugees as "migrants" puzzling). People often say things to me about the national character of Aotearoans based on Kiwis they meet in London. But they never meet the people who are put off by the high cost of travel, daunted by the difficulties, or who just want to stay home. Of course the young folk they meet in London are a lively, outgoing, friendly bunch. But they would be, wouldn't they? I expect many of the people I grew up with never made it out of our small town, let alone all the way to Britain.

I write this as a sort of inadvertent migrant. I think Britain is undergoing a crisis of identity. Unlike many other nations, the national character here has few unifying characteristics and many divisive ones. The idea of Britain in the post-imperial era is up for grabs. Popularist politics mean that we'll get no help in this from our political leaders - their "vision" is simply to remain in power. Society is fragmented and possibly atomising. And it is into this lack of cohesion and clarity that outsiders are pouring, fuelling the uncertainty. The most obvious result has been the vote to leave the European Union, yet another cause of division.

04 October 2016

The Nature of Rules

I'm writing up this idea for a larger essay, but I'm so struck by it I wanted to try to encapsulate it on its own. Let's start with speech. When we speak we make a series of noises. Our vocal chords vibrate in a noisy way creating a sound rich in harmonics, and we shape our mouth as a resonant chamber to selectively amplifying some of those harmonics (vowels), while at the same time using our throat, mouth, and tongue in various ways to impede the air flow, creating articulation points (consonants). The minimal unit of spoken sound is a phoneme. We speak quite quickly, so in fact many of the phonemes blur into each other, and the sounds before and after a phoneme can affect how we perceive it.

A sentence of English comes out as a series of sounds. We don't always put spaces between words, so a sentence is a more or less continuous series of sounds. From which we parse out words. In English, word order and prepositions give us grammatical information so that we can tell how the speaker intends the words to relate to each other. So the speaker must not only make the right sounds, they must make them in the right order to get words right and to make the grammar apparent.

English is an umbrella term for a large number of regional variations on a language that results from the cultural collision of a group of closely related Germano-Scandinavian languages with a Romantic language (Norman French), beginning in the 11th Century in what is now England. It continues to develop, but took several centuries to reach it's modern form. Later, through trade, imperialism, and colonialism it became widely established around the world. It was always a language with many variants and dialects and continues to be so, even or perhaps especially, in England. For my purposes I'm going to look at the language at a level that largely obscures the variations. But those variations are real and important at other levels and I will refer to them at times.

English has considerable leeway in word order, but if we examine a large number of sentences, we can discover conventions which apply most of the time. Mostly English speakers use the order: subject, verb, object, but there is considerable variation. Consider: "Is it you?" (VSO); or "words fail me" (OVS). In Star Wars Yoda's English consistently breaks the rules, but is perfectly comprehensible as English.

Influenced by a cult of grammar spawned by the European obsession with Classical Greece, the Roman Empire, and the 18th Century discovery of Pāṇini's treatise on grammar, the Aṣṭādhyāyī, generations of scholars dissected the English language to discover patterns of use that we now think of as the "rules" of English grammar. And they attempted to standardise written English, though they seem to have done a very bad job of this.

There are two tendencies in the study of grammar. One tendency is to think that if one can discover rules then they ought to be followed, we call this the prescriptivist tendency. Unfortunately for English speakers, the cult of grammar did not just discover rules, they also invented arbitrary rules, like not splitting infinitives or leaving prepositions dangling. In spoken English, people split infinitives all the time. There is no natural rule against doing so, i.e. no rule that emerges from how people speak English. Even so the prescriptivist tendency insists that such rules must be followed, and proponents produce turgid and unnatural sounding speech as a result.

By contrast, descriptivist tendency acknowledges that there are conventions about how to speak English, but concedes that the variations are valid forms of English and that the leeway allows English speakers to make novel constructions if they wish. Yoda's English is still English. Descriptivists see their role as grammarians as describing how people use language, rather than being judges of good and bad English by some arbitrary standard. And they tend to reject the underlying power structures in such standards, which are often related to class and privilege.

So there are rules that govern spoken English and most of the time when we speak we follow these rules. But its apparent that we can break the rules and still be understood to be speaking English. It's also apparent that almost no one (except obnoxious pedants) is consciously parsing their sentences and making conscious decisions about vocabulary or word order; when we speak we may obey rules, but we are not using rules to construct speech. Indeed a good deal of humour arises from breaking the rules of speech in subtle ways - puns, substitutions, and other plays on words. Similarly in poetry rhyme and rhythm may override syntax and grammar.

How does this work? Are we unconsciously following the rules and then sometimes breaking them? Probably not. Instead what happens is that as we grow up we learn first vocabulary and then syntax and grammar. It's like any skill. As we learn a sport, or to drive a car, or to do handwriting, we start off consciously applying rules. At first we are slow and clumsy. But gradually we develop competencies that mean the rules fade into the background and we become fluent. John Searle describes this as developing dispositions to behaviour that is consistent with the rules, but which does not itself follow the rules either consciously or unconsciously.

This makes good sense to me. Following rules is too slow, even if the rule following is happening unconsciously. Parsing a sentence in Sanskrit can take me a long time because I have never developed the fluency that comes with leaving the rules behind and internalising the script, morphology, syntax and grammar of the language. I can understand written Sanskrit with some effort, but not speak the language. Just as I can do other skills that I am competent at or have mastered. When associated physical skills, such as playing the guitar, we call this muscle memory - my hands just know where to go to play certain chords or patterns; some songs remain accessible to my hands even when I struggle to consciously recall how they are played.

This result is not good for the people who think of the brain as a computer. Computers can only follow rules. When they get powerful enough they can give rule following a certain grace, but they are not doing what we are doing. They do not, and at present cannot, develop a disposition to behaviour that is consistent with the rules. Computers are bound by rules in ways that human beings are not. We can deliberately cheat, for example. Or we can try to distract our opponent. Or we can appreciate that our opponent has made a particularly good or bad move. People say that the computer can "play" chess, but all it does is calculate chess moves very fast. The verb play does not apply here. The computer does not even move its own pieces. Arguably powerful neural networks that are tuned to do one activity, like calculate chess moves, might be approaching this capacity to develop rule following dispositions. However, to date no computer has needed to be programmed with correct use of the word j'adoube - which a player says when they idly touch a piece they do not intend to move.

Consider a sportsman playing a the highest level in a team sport. There are a number of rules which govern the conduct of the players and the progress of the game at any given moment. The players have usually played the game from an early age. They know very well what the rules are. If they were simply following the rules there would be no need for an umpire or referee. Of course players may deliberately break the rules because it is to their advantage if they do not get caught. If they are caught they are penalised, so there maybe an element of calculation in this. In many sports the best players have a disposition to exploit greys areas (in soccer at the point of tackling; in rugby the off-side rules; the charging rules in basketball; and so on). But the majority of the penalties are not given for deliberate fouls, but for mistakes.

We make mistakes because we are not following rules, instead relying on our behaviour to be rule consistent while pursuing the goal of the activity without any direct reference to the relevant rules. The same happens with speech. Slips of the tongue may go unnoticed, be hilarious, or confusing. It also happens when we visit a foreign country and find the rules for social intercourse are different from what we grew up with.

A sportsman making a heroic effort to kick a ball between two sticks, is completely focussed on that goal: they are not thinking about how to run, how to control the ball, how to kick, how to aim, how to avoid the opposing team. If all this was happening in real time, at a sprint down the field, under pressure from the other team, and if we were relying on rules, it would all come crashing down. And we do see this in amateur games. Where there is less skill and someone has to think about what they are doing, even unconsciously, they are less efficient, less effective.

We all know that the master of anything makes it look effortless. In a sense it is effortless. When Michael Jordon would sail into the air, float there for a second or two, and slam the ball down into the hoop, only to land gracefully on his feet, all seemingly in slow motion, it was astounding. He did it again and again. Think about everything he was coordinating in those moments: his whole body had to be coordinated in just the right way, he had to exquisitely accurately judge where everything was in space: himself, the hoop, the other players; and all at the top speed at which a very fit, 1.98 metre tall man could sprint.

Does anyone genuinely think that because they can discover patterns in what Michael Jordon was doing in this video, that this means he was following rules? Please.

So yes, there are rules; or at least rules can be discovered. And yes our behaviour is tuned to harmonise with those rules. But no, we do not consciously or unconsciously follow these rules. Instead after a period of learning the rules, we adapt our behavioural range to be more or less compliant with the rules, and to exploit grey areas to our advantage. Anti-social behaviour is another question all together that I'll have to deal with separately.

But here's the thing. This observation applies to all kinds of agents doing or causing all kinds of actions. The atoms does not think, "Oh I'm experiencing the curvature of space, now I have to lean to the left"! The atom has a disposition to follow the curvature of space. We can explain the behaviour, but not the disposition in this case. The universe is just like that. A eukaryote cell undergoing mitosis does not follow rules either - it has no mechanism for following rules. But the process does follow a pattern. Rules can be discovered in nature at all levels. Science is all about finding and describing these rules. Atoms must follow the rules that govern them. But as we go up the hierarchy of scale and complexity, flexibility emerges as a property. A cell also follows patterns, but it has vastly more degrees of freedom than an atom does. Its behaviour is more sophisticated given the circumstances. But also because it is interacting with other complex entities on its own level (i.e. other cells) the cell experiences a vastly greater diversity of circumstances than an atom does.

Patterns can be discovered in human behaviour at various levels. We might begin by learning rules, but we rapidly progress to developing dispositions to behave in ways that are rule-consistent without actually being rule-determined. This may be why certain behaviours developed early on and constantly reinforced might be hard to shift. It explains not only our incredible successes, but also our inexplicable failures. If we simply followed rules, we'd be computer-like in our accuracy. But we are not. We effortlessly produce rule-consistent behaviour, though our levels of consistency may vary.

03 October 2016

Reading vs Research

I wrote this on Facebook in 2012 and have edited it to suit my 2016 mood.

When I mention I'm studying something, people often start recommending books: "Oh you should read X, it's very good." They don't usually ask what I'm reading. They don't ask what I think about or write about, which is after all what get's me out of bed each day and stops me slashing my wrists.

It's as though people assume that "studying" means "reading about other people's ideas" rather than trying to form their own ideas directly from the evidence. Reading books can be stimulating, but they're like package holidays. Stimulating and safe at the same time. You have all the experiences promised in the guide book, but that's about it.

Most people seem to be Catholic in their approach: knowledge is best approached through an intermediary like a book, magazine or TV program. The saints who write good books are revered. I'm more Protestant. I like to have a personal relationship with knowledge, and strive for personal revelation. I value the things I learn for and by myself. A good book can be helpful, but the map is not the territory.

When it comes to knowledge I want to step of the path and wander through the jungle and discover a new species, at the risk of death. There's a difference between research and reading. Reading is about gaining existing knowledge. Research is about creating new knowledge.

I have created new knowledge. A tiny amount, of relatively trivial knowledge, but still. I've published a number of academic-reviewed articles in journals now and have made a number of discoveries that I have yet to publish. I'm not generally recognised as someone who does original research and creates new knowledge, but that is what I do. This is all that makes my life meaningful. So it's a lot more important to me than it is to anyone else.