an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

the second law of thermodynamics – some preliminary thoughts

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the essential battle – to be more effectively productive than consumptive

Early on in his book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker makes much of the second law of thermodynamics, aka the law of entropy, as something way more than an ordinary law of physics, citing others who’ve claimed the same thing, including Arthur Eddington, C P Snow and Peter Atkins. Soaring rhetoric about pinnacles and ‘without which nought’ tend to be employed, tempting dilettantes come moi to wonder, if it’s so effing over-arching why is it only the second law?

So the first law of T is about conservation of energy, the third is about the impossibility of dropping to absolute zero. Maybe it’s just prosaically about chronology?

Maybe. The first law, first made specific by Rudolf Clausius in 1850 but much refined since, essentially states that in a closed system the internal energy is equal to the amount of heat applied minus the work done on the system’s external environment. Basically, you can’t get more out of the system than you put into it. The second law also involves many contributors, including Sadi Carnot in 1824, and Clausius again in 1850. Pinker attributes its largely up-to-date statistical iteration to the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, whose work on the law dates to the 1860s and 70s. The third law, which also employs the concept of entropy, wasn’t formulated until the early twentieth century, firstly by the chemist Walter Nernst. So maybe it’s a chronological thing, but it certainly seems uncertain.

Anyway, the mystery attached to its title is just the start for the second law. It’s been formulated in multiple ways by scientists and popularisers. It’s mystical, hard-nosed, ineluctable, basic, obvious, magnificent and, according to Eddington, supreme. Entropy can be applied usefully to everything, from the universe to a cup of coffee and its consumer. The first point to always keep in mind – and for me that’s not easy – is that, left to itself, any system, such as those just mentioned, drifts inexorably from low to high entropy. To put it more succinctly, beds don’t make themselves. This obvious point may seem depressing, and often is, but it opens up the intriguing possibility that, if not left to itself, a bed can be made in many mysterious and inspiring ways. Energy into the system, systematically directed, creates art and science, life and intelligence, natural and synthetic. Natural selection from random variation, as we have so intelligently discovered, provides just such a system, through solar energy complexly distributed.

Of course, before we get too excited, there are problems. Although solar energy is the ultimate ‘without which nought’ of our systematic existence, or at least the emergence of it, we human energumens tamper with and lay waste to a great deal of other complex systems, including what we so euphemistically term ‘livestock’, in order to order ourselves in increasingly ordered, soi-disant civilised ways. From farming to fracking, from radioactive atolls to space debris, we leave many a wreck behind, and it’s still and may always be an open question whether we end up drowning in our own crap, species-wise. Animals are born exploiters, as Pinker writes, and maybe we should celebrate the fact that we’re better at it than other animals. Certainly we need to acknowledge it, with due deference and responsibility, while trying to temper the reckless excitement with which we often set out to do things – though they may be our best moments.

The point is that the principal human battle, the main game, is the battle against the inexorability of entropy, and that is why globalism, for as long as this globe alone is our home,  and humanism, as long as we see, as Darwin so clearly did, that our existence is due to, and dependent on, the evolutionary bush of living organisms on this planet, must be our highest priorities. William Faulkner famously expressed an expectation that humanity would prevail, but there’s nothing inevitable about it, and far from it, given the energy that needs to be constantly supplied to keep the consequences of the second law at bay. Perhaps the analogy of bacteria in a petri dish is just a little oversimplified – for a start, the nutrients in our particular petri dish have increased rather than diminished, thanks largely to human ingenuity. As a result, though the human population has increased seven-fold over the past 200 years, our per capita caloric intake has also increased. But of course there’s no guarantee that this will continue – and far from it.

One of the problems is being too smart for our own good, always arguably. In the early fifties, the Pacific, and Micronesia’s Marshall Islands in particular, was the scene of unprecedented damage and contamination as the USA tried to improve and perfect its new thermonuclear weaponry there. Not much concern was shown, of course, for the locals, not to mention the undersea life, at a time when the spectacular effects of the atom bombs on Japan had created both a global panic and a thrill about super-weaponry. The nuclear fusion weapons tested in that period dwarfed the Hiroshima bomb by many factors in terms of power and radioactive effects, and there was much misinformation even among experts about the extent of those effects. We were playing not just with fire, but with the most powerful and transformational energies in the universe, within a scant few decades of having discovered them. And today the USA, due to various accidents of history, has a nuclear arsenal of unfathomable destructive power, and a political system sorely in need of overhaul. With galloping developments in advanced AI, UAV technology and cyber hacking, it would be ridiculous to project complacent human triumphalism even a decade into the future, never mind into the era of terraforming other worlds.

Einstein famously said, at the dawn of the nuclear era, ‘everything has changed except our way of thinking’. Of course, ways of thinking are the most difficult things to change, and yet we have managed it to some extent. Even in the sixties, hawks in the US and other administration were talking up nuclear strikes, but apart from the buffoonish Trump and his counterpart Kim of North Korea – people we’re sadly obliged to take seriously – such talk is now largely redundant. After the horrors of two global conflicts, and through the growing realisation of our own destructive power, we’ve forced ourselves to think more globally and co-operatively. There’s actually no serious alternative. Having already radically altered the eco-system that has defied entropy for a blink of astronomical time, we’ll need all our co-operative energy to maintain the miracle that we’ve so recently learned so much about.

 

Written by stewart henderson

June 10, 2018 at 11:33 am

zero sum game nationalism, Chinese style

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Jacinta: So we’ve been hearing about Russia’s, or Putin’s, obsession with wrecking democratic processes in the USA, Europe and elsewhere – not to mention in Russia itself – but what about Russia’s much more economically smart neighbour, China? We know it’s bent on interference, but for what reason, and to what degree?

Canto: Well this conversation’s based on something we heard this morning, about China having interfered, or tried to, in the last few federal elections, and the consequent problem of foreign donations and investments, and ‘pay for play’ generally.

Jacinta: Yes there’s been a top secret report into foreign interference generally, which is unfortunately ‘classified’, but some of it’s being leaked apparently, and there’s an article about it here. The report names China as the most concerning nation.

Canto: Quelle surprise. And it gets murky fairly quickly, with former NSW Premier and federal Foreign Minister Bob Carr, clearly a Chinese government apologist, trying to undermine John Garnaut, the principal author of the secret report. He recently described Garnaut as one of ”the leaders of the recent anti-China panic in the Australian media”.

Jacinta: Right – why should we panic about the most populous and economically dynamic nation on the planet, a massive human rights abusing dictatorship, interfering with all of our election processes down to the council level, with increasing frequency and sophistication? Surely they’re just doing it for our benefit?

Canto: Garnaut’s ASIO enquiry examined China’s infiltration of Australian political parties, media and academia, and it probed the activities of Huang Xiangmo, a billionaire Chinese businessman who created a ‘think tank’ (always a term to raise the skeptical antennae) called the Australian China Relations Institute (ACRI), headed by Carr. Huang also runs a lobbying organisation for the Chinese Communist Party. Garnaut provided testimony to the US Congress a couple of months ago about China’s considerable activities in interfering with Australian elections. Meanwhile Carr is talking up how friendly to us the Chinese dictatorship is, and questioning Garnaut’s right to advise the government on these matters. He doesn’t seem to have much interest in the facts about interference – which admittedly, we’re all in the dark about, in terms of details. Anyway, ACRI appears to be little more than a lobbying group.

Jacinta: I worry about academic interference, as I work in a field that’s become ever more dependent on full-fee Chinese students. What’s most clear about Chinese students – pace those from Hong Kong – is their general ignorance of and indifference to a political system that allows them no voice and provides them with minimal and distorted info. So I try to open their minds a little, but I get nervous – I’ve heard of spies in the ranks, reporting back to the Beijing bully-boys. And fear of ‘insulting’ the dictatorship, biting the hand that feeds us, will surely be hampering university administrators as well. The worry is that the universities profiting from all this Chinese money will become advocates of a softly softly approach and turning a blind eye to political influence.

Canto: But so far we haven’t addressed the question of what China hopes to gain through interference. Clive Hamilton – no doubt one of Carr’s ‘panic merchants’ –  had much trouble publishing his book Silent Invasion, simply for fear of a Beijing backlash. Two major publishers backed out – were they leaned on? The book raises questions about Carr and Andrew Robb and their dealings with billionaire businessmen..

Jacinta: But look, I do wonder about Silent Invasion‘s subtitle, ‘how China is turning Australia into a puppet state’. Doesn’t that sound a teensy bit panicky?

Canto: Granted, but there are disturbing things happening on Australian soil – which we shouldn’t panic about, but we should act upon. And we should be aware that China is not our friend, as is generally the case with small countries when big countries come sniffing around them. Look at the Philippines way back in the day, when they got some US assistance in their fight for independence from Spain. Once the natives had gained their independence the poor buggers then had to fight off the US, which was only interested in gaining control. Rule of thumb for small countries – don’t trust the overtures of the friendly giants in your neighbourhood, because for the time being, until we grow out of this infantile stage of humanity, nationalism is largely a zero sum game.

Jacinta: There was a small demonstration by a group of Tibetans in Canberra some years ago, at the time of the Beijing Olympics torch relay. They were set upon by Chinese thugs, apparently in what appears to have been an organised attack. Wonder what organisation was behind it. On that occasion, thousands of Chinese students were apparently bussed into Canberra, to celebrate their Chinese-ness. Rumour has it that they were bribed with job offers in China. That probably happens in China itself – fealty to the dictatorship is doubtless a pre-requisite for getting on in business there.

Canto: And the Chinese government recently issued a warning to students due to attacks on them by Australians, though it looks to have been an over-reaction, and probably politically motivated.

Jacinta: I’m sure there have been such racist attacks, we’re just as racist as other countries of course, but the Chinese government would love to have something to criticise us for. Our government’s announcement of tougher espionage laws was met by the usual claims from China of bias and a cold war mentality.

Canto: Those laws were announced precisely as a result of evidence of Chinese interference, and the reasons for the interference are the usual nationalistic ones – to get Australia to allow more Chinese investment, to have a more sympathetic attitude to China’s expansionism in the region, to support China’s domestic assimilation policies and the like. So there are the usual self-interested big nation issues, but there’s also the drive to get Australia, and other nations, to wholly accept its oligarchic and dictatorial closed society with its associated human rights abuses as legitimate, or at least of no concern to other nations.

Jacinta: The Sydney Morning Herald has a maddeningly undated 3-part online article, ‘China’s Operation Australia’, written by a team of top journalists, which highlights ASIO’s concerns about influence peddling and the monitoring of Chinese dissidents inside Australia. Chinese media have been particularly targeted, with some once-independent Chinese news outlets succumbing to the pressure of the Chinese oligarchy. ASIO believes it to be the largest foreign interference campaign ever carried out in Australia.

Canto: Yes and two of the biggest operatives in this campaign are the aforementioned Huang Xiangmo, and Chau Chak Wing. They’re both billionaires, and Chau is an Australian citizen, so changes to the law about political donations from foreigners wouldn’t affect him, though he appears to be in cahoots with the oligarchy. However it appears to be Huang who’s most suspect, though it’s not entirely clear why. He’s a dynamic business type from humble origins who appears to be genuinely philanthropic as well being a hustler for influence. His keenness to become an Australian citizen suggests he’s not entirely wedded to the Chinese political system, while other activities suggest otherwise. And here’s where I start to question, or put into perspective, the ASIO concern. If there’s influence peddling here, it’s not like the rabid Russian, Putin-directed attempts to subvert democracy in the USA and Europe. It’s definitely an attempt to influence policy toward China, and we need to be aware of that. Rules against foreign donations will help, monitoring is always required, and illegal activities should be exposed, but we need to be realistic about the zero sum game that every nation, including Australia, plays, while trying to whittle away at that ultimately self-defeating game in the name of global concerns, including human rights, which are, and always should be, a global issue.

Jacinta: All the same we need to hold our nerve against big bullying countries, and call them out on the international stage if need be.

Written by stewart henderson

June 3, 2018 at 1:13 pm

John Locke, the glorious revolution and the emergence of modern democracy

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Canto: So I’ve heard from various American pundits, who are concerned about the current move toward despotism over there, that their constitution and their war of independence were all for the purpose of breaking away from such despotism, namely the British monarchy. ‘So how in tarnation can this be hapnen in our country’, they mutter half-tearfully. So please explain.

Jacinta: Well, we can explore rather than explain. I’m no expert on the American constitution, but my general feeling without looking at it in detail would be that it was magnificently revolutionary and forward-thinking for its time, but that time was over 200 years ago. Every structure needs to be renovated now and then.

Canto: Also, though of course I accept that their fight for independence was a just one, their description of the British monarchy as a tyranny was a little over-simplified. It doesn’t take into account the fact that, in the century and a half before American independence, the Brits beheaded one king and chased another out of the country and didn’t accept his successors, William and Mary, until they agreed to conditions restricting their power, including a clear separation of powers. And these restrictive conditions have tightened over the years.

Jacinta: Yes but powerful states, such as the Britain of those days, tend to be more despotic over distant territories than over their home territory, where uprisings are more directly threatening.

Canto: Good point. But what’s interesting, when you look at history, is how much the more spectacular movements towards democracy in the late 18th  century, that’s to say the American independence war and its new state, and the revolution in France, owed to the outcome of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ that ousted James II, and to the philosopher of the new approach to governance, John Locke.

Jacinta: And yet the USA today is suffering under the burden of a potential if not actual despot, and they appear uncertain how to deal with him. It just seems unthinkable that such a character would ever achieve this position under the Westminster system, or in any western European polity.

Canto: Yeah, so wha’s hapnen?

Jacinta: Well, when I listen to the pundits on CNN and MSNBC, and on some of Sam Harris’s podcasts, they tend to talk of an increasingly polarised nation, echo-chambers of ideology enabled by social media sites, lack of civil discourse and the like. That’s to say, issues of today, usually with a tone of ‘it’s not like it used to be’. I suspect that this is a little exaggerated, and that a change of system might be in order.

Canto: So what can the Americans learn from the Westminster system, and from Locke?

Jacinta: Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government was published in 1689, significantly just after the ousting of James II, the installing of a constitutional monarchy, and the establishment of the English Bill of Rights – which, admittedly, was more about parliamentary than individual rights. It’s worth noting that absolute monarchy was then at its height in France under Louis XIV, who naturally felt it incumbent on him to support his ‘divine right’ colleague’s bid to regain the throne. In those days political philosophers were rather thin on the ground, and they liked to compare life under some kind of organised state with life in ‘the state of nature’, which was rather a playground for their imaginations. Locke’s predecessor, a generation or two earlier, Thomas Hobbes, described his ‘natural state’ as a war of all against all, which was nasty, brutish but at least mercifully short. People apparently decided one day to substitute this free-for-all for a scenario in which they’d bestow power on some entity, a Leviathan, in return for safety and protection. In giving up their freedom to this absolute authority they would preserve their lives from the depredations of the other, and what they gained would be better than what they lost. This was, of course, an argument for absolute monarchy just at the time it was being directly challenged. Locke’s perspective was very different, having come out of the experience of civil war between the forces pro and con Charles I, and then later James II – a rabid and very unpopular Catholic.

Canto: Yes, this makes me think of the accidents of history. Had James II been more like his older brother – that is, religiously liberal (or indifferent), more wary of the French, and more ‘indulgent’ with parliament, constitutional monarchy would have been delayed for who knows how long.

Jacinta: Yes, and Locke may not have written the political philosophy that later inspired, or partially inspired, the American and French democratic movements.

Canto: Or partially democratic movements.

Jacinta: Yes, democracy has always been partial, it seems to me. Certainly the constitutional monarchy agreed to by William and Mary in 1688 was far from democratic, but interestingly the upheavals of the period, and the more immediate dissemination of information in the form of political pamphlets – a product of the civil war in the 1640s – led to the emergence of radical democratic groups such as the Levellers, who wanted complete adult suffrage and annual parliaments, and also the Diggers, who demanded communal ownership of land so that no-one might starve. Starvation, by the way, was actually happening due to the harsh enclosure system that protected the landed aristocracy from the canaille. 

Canto: Anyway, I’ve never been sure about how much democracy is enough. Recent history suggests that directly electing a single leader, by national popular vote, can be an unmitigated disaster.

Jacinta: Yes, because it seems that, no matter how hard we try, we can’t get a general populace to make an informed decision. Education has always been touted as the answer, but it can’t be imposed on people, and it’s extraordinary how intractable so many people are to the charms of learning… Anyway, returning to Locke and the late seventeenth century, it’s fascinating to read some of the documents being written at this time, envisaging, in what seems to us today to be thoroughly moderate and reasoned language, changes to the political system that would take another two centuries or more to enact.

Canto: Because ruling powers or classes are, as a whole, extremely reluctant to give the slightest ground, and always think that the position of power granted to them is for the best or ‘natural’. So change generally needs to be incremental, or less, so as not to scare the aristocratic horses.

Jacinta: Anyway, Locke was no radical, and his Second Treatise was designed to justify what had already taken place in the Glorious Revolution. He begins, like Hobbes, with a state-of-nature ‘theory’, in which everyone has equal status and ‘rights’, especially the right to self-preservation, but nobody has the means to enforce those rights. Also, attached to those rights is the obligation to respect and protect the rights of others, which of course speaks to the means in some sense.

Canto: Suggesting some sort of social contract?

Jacinta: Yes, if you like, or the basis of a civil society, a ‘common-weal’ or commonwealth. Here’s a quote from the Second Treatise:

Having in the state of nature no arbitrary power over the life, liberty or possession of another, but only so much as the law of nature gave him for the preservation of himself, and the rest of mankind; this is all he doth, or can give up to the common-wealth, and by it to the legislative power, so that the legislative can have no more than this. Their power in the utmost bounds of it, is limited to the publick good of the society.

What Locke is pointing to here, notably in that last sentence, is that a government’s legitimacy is tied to the public good, and that an illegitimate government, one that doesn’t contribute to the public good, has lost its right to govern and should be dispensed with, one way or another.

Canto: Basically, this argument would’ve been used as a justification for the overthrow of James II, and as a means of limiting the power of his successor.

Jacinta: Government by the consent of the people, through the parliament (which was then hardly representative of the people, but a little more representative than a single absolute monarch), an idea which, with variations, inspired many figures of the 18th century ‘enlightenment’. The words and ideas of Locke were much employed during the 18th century uprisings against the French ancien regime and the British tyranny in America. But in Britain, they were used to justify the people’s fight against Charles I and later James II, in the 17th century. Of course the democratic process progressed by small steps from there, and it’s still progressing, but the work of Locke certainly helped it along. So I’ll end with some more words from the Second Treatise, on people power:

Who shall be the judge whether the Prince or the Legislative act contrary to their trust?…. The people shall be judge, for who shall be judge whether his trustee or deputy acts well, and according to the trust reposed in him, but he who deputes him, and must, by having deputed him have still a power to discard him, when he fails in his trust?

References

The age of genius: the seventeenth century and the birth of the modern mind, by A C Grayling

The second treatise of civil government, by John Locke

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2018 at 1:22 am

the short life and strange brains of the octopus, and other thoughts

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a meeting of minds?

Canto: So we’ve been reading about the strange world of the octopus, and her fellow cephalopods, the squid and the cuttlefish, and what they might tell us about other intelligent forms of life. So what might they?

Jacinta: This is quite a new field of investigation, but certainly an exciting one. The octopus appears to be the most intelligent invertebrate on earth, though we still have lots to learn about it, and we know even less about its cephalopod cousins.

Canto: And we need to be careful about the ‘it’ word, as there are at least 300 species of the beasties, which vary considerably in size, habitat and even quite possibly in life-span.

Jacinta: Yes, some octopuses appear to have very short life-spans, a mere two years, but so little is known about so many of the deeper water species out there…

Canto: They’re predators, of course, feeding mainly on crabs, but some of the shallow-water species are known to scavenge off human activities, stealing bait and the like. They have incredibly flexible, almost amorphous bodies that aren’t co-ordinated simply by a central brain. In fact their nervous systems are still very much a source of mystery.

Jacinta: Like our own. Well, okay we know a helluva lot more about ours. Some other facts: they have three hearts, their eight arms or tentacles are made up of four pairs, they’re all more or less venomous, they’re famously able to match their colour to their surroundings pretty well instantly, they can unscrew the lids of jars to get at the contents, some species collect shells to use as constructions around their homes, they have very high brain-to-body mass ratios, and they appear to be very quick to learn new stuff.

Canto: Apparently tentacles are out, they’re called arms. Tentacles are another thing. A cuttlefish has two tentacles and eight arms. Snails have tentacles. As to the brain and nervous systems of octopuses, here’s what we know. Two thirds of its neurons are to be found in its arms, and they can allow the arms to act independently to some extent. Interestingly, although octopuses have complex motor systems, they don’t have an internalised map of the body as vertebrates apparently do. It’s called a somatotopic map, and it’s found in humans in the primary somatosensory cortex, at the top of the brain. Octopuses’ brains/nervous systems are organised quite differently, and that’s the point – their relationship to us on the evolutionary bush is very distant indeed.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s exactly what makes them fascinating – they’ve evolved a complex nervous system on a completely different plan, like aliens.

Canto: Not quite – they still have neurons after all, and DNA. But the link between humans and octopuses probably goes back at least 500 million years, to some of the earliest complex life forms.

Jacinta: Not so complex by modern standards…

Canto: Indeed, something like a sea worm or sea sponge. Anyway, although they appear to have highly developed intelligence, their learning capacity is really hard to ascertain. They’re not highly social animals like many primates and cetaceans are, and they certainly don’t learn from their parents, since both parents ‘fall apart’ and die shortly after breeding.

Jacinta: They’re quite inventive, even playful, they’ve been observed pushing objects into circular currents and catching them. They also board fishing boats in search of food and find ways of getting out of lab aquariums. Their ability to flatten and elongate or bunch up when required makes them very slippery little suckers, you always have to keep an eye on them.

Canto: Well no doubt researchers will be keen to learn more about their neurology, but this relatively new understanding of their smarts raises questions about their treatment by researchers – not to mention eating them en masse. 

Jacinta: Well just sticking with lab treatment, I remember reading in The Lab Rat Chronicles how the rather complacently cruel treatment of lab rats, and all experimental animals, is being questioned more and more, leading to the use of less invasive neurological and other operational approaches..

Canto: Which would in any case be a good thing – the more we can learn without destroying the living thing we’re seeking to learn about, the better, for obvious reasons.

Jacinta: Rats are really smart animals – and just about the most successful animals on the planet – and they certainly feel pain and become depressed, and it’s clear that octopuses do too. In fact some countries have rules against surgical procedures without anaesthetic for octopuses, presumably based on a growing body of knowledge about them.

Canto: They often lose an arm to predators – which by the way they’re able to regrow – and have been observed to favour and tend to damaged or lost arms and other parts, which is a clear sign of ‘feeling’ the damage. But really, the idea that animals don’t feel pain  – any animal – has surely had its day.

Jacinta: So what about eating them? I gather that in some parts, eating them live is a thing.

Canto: Well I’ve always been of two minds about this, about eating other animals. And Peter Wohlleben argues for the smartness and the communal life of trees and plants, so that doesn’t leave us with anything to eat at all, if we’re being truly sensitive to others. But there’s no doubt we’re eating too much, we’re destroying the habitats of huge number of species, on land and sea, to feed our growing and increasingly voracious human population. Nobody knows how that’s going to end, though some are hoping, as ever, for technological fixes – artificial meat, ways of creating bumper harvests using less and less land and so forth.

Jacinta: Another whole realm of discussion, but getting back to octopuses, can they tell us anything about consciousness, given their vastly different origin, compared to us?

Canto: Well I don’t want to get into consciousness now – that’s such a massive subject – but they can tell us a lot about a different neurological system, obviously. The fact is, though, that we observe whales, crows, elephants, octopuses, rats and other creatures that are vastly different from each other behaving in ways we, in our indulgent and sometimes condescending manner, consider intelligent, but we know barely anything about, to paraphrase a philosopher, what it’s like to be any of those creatures. Do they have thoughts like us? Or do they have thoughts, but nothing like our own? Which of course raises the question, what exactly is a thought? Can it be reduced to brain processes or do we lose too much in the reduction? Will our endless and increasing probing of human and other brains definitively answer this question?

Jacinta: I think we’ll have to wait till after we die to find out…

 

References

Other minds: the octopus and the evolution of intelligent life, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octopus

https://onekindplanet.org/animal/octopus/

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 21, 2018 at 10:17 am

Is free will a thing? Apparently not.

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Science appears to be cutting the gordian knot of philosophical isms

Canto: The subject of free will often comes up, and I’ve recently read Sam Harris’ booklet on it, so I want to state right now my view that if we do have free will, it’s a far more circumscribed thing than many prefer to believe, and I’m open to the view that it doesn’t exist at all.

Jacinta: Yes I’ve read a fair bit on the subject over the years, including Dennett’s Elbow Room in the eighties, and a collection of essays edited by Bernard Berofsky, dating back to the sixties, but like everyone I’ve forgotten almost all of any book I’ve read within weeks of having read it, so it’ll be good to get back to the subject enfin. 

Canto: But have you been exercised by the actual subject, intellectually speaking?

Jacinta: Very much so. Let’s return to our old friend the Dunedin longitudinal study, which indicates that the various personality types – roughly characterised as well-adjusted, confident, reserved, under-controlled and inhibited – are established very early on and rarely change outside of neurological damage. These constrain free will, as does your broad environment, for example whether you’re a scion of the British aristocracy or the offspring of Mongolian goat-herders. You’re not free to choose these things or your genetic inheritance or, presumably, your neuronal wiring, at least not as a youngster.

Canto: I think the free will people would concede all that, but their best argument would be that in spite of all the determining factors that make you who you are, your moment-to-moment decisions – whether to get out of bed or sleep in for a while, whether to break your diet or stick to it, whether to watch a TV program or go to the pub, whether to study physics or psychology at uni (assuming you’re qualified to do either), and so on – these decisions are made of your own volition, so you are responsible for them and nobody else. If there’s no free will, there’s no responsibility, therefore nothing or nobody to praise or blame. And then where would we be with our ethics?

Jacinta: That’s interesting because we often get confused about that, or some people do. I would say most people believe we have free will, so we’re happy to punish people for criminal acts. They chose to commit them after all. But take those serial paedophiles that the tabloid press like to call ‘monsters’. They describe them as incorrigible – that’s to say, uncorrectable. So they should never be released again into the public, once they’ve been proven to commit some heinous paedophile act. What’s being claimed here is that the paedophile can’t help but commit these acts again and again – he has no choice, and presumably had no choice to begin with. But prison is a terrible punishment for someone who has no choice but to be what he is. They’re denying that he has free will, but punishing him for acts that should only be punished if they’re undertaken freely. You can’t have it both ways.

Canto: Well put, and my own tendency towards what used to be called hard determinism comes from reading the writings of ‘compatibilists’ or ‘reconciliationists’ who wanted, I thought, to give themselves as much credit for their success as they possibly could, seeing that they were successful academic philosophers earning, I assumed, the kind of salaries I could only dream of. On the other hand, as a hard determinist, I naturally wanted to blame everyone else, my parents, my working class environment, my lack of wealthy and educated connections, for my abject failures in life.

Jacinta: You jest a little, but I know you’re being essentially serious, in that the Gina Rineharts of the world, inheritors of millions, are the biggest spruikers of the notion that everyone is free to be as rich as everyone else but most people are just too slack, or, for reasons unfathomable to her, aren’t sufficiently interested in material self-enrichment, so they get precisely what they deserve.

Canto: Or what they’re destined to get. Just reading through some of that old philosophical material though, I find myself reliving my impatience with the academicism of philosophy. For example, the endless analysis of ‘able to’, as in ‘she’s able to play the piano’ but she can’t because she hasn’t got one right now. So she has the skill but not, right now, the equipment. Perhaps because she’s fallen on hard times and has had to sell it. Which leads to having ‘potential ability’. She might have been one of the world’s greatest soccer players, having the requisite skill, speed, drive, etc, but she was never introduced to the game or was discouraged from playing it.

Jacinta: She was told to study piano instead. Or more importantly, potential scientific geniuses who just didn’t get the opportunity due to a host of external circumstances, to attain that potential. They say geniuses are made not born, but they require external material to make themselves into geniuses, if that’s what they do. The point is that you can get caught up with words like ‘able to’ or ‘could have done otherwise’, which you can then interpret in varieties of ways, and it becomes almost a philosophy of language thing. But the main point is that although it seems obvious that you can choose between having a piece of cake before bedtime or not, these aren’t the most important choices..

Canto: And maybe even these choices aren’t as freely made as we might think, according to research Sam Harris cites in his essay. It seems science is catching up with what I knew all along. Not only do we have no control whatever over our genetic inheritance, but the way those genes are expressed, based largely on environmental factors, which lead to our brains being wired up in particular ways to release particular levels of hormones and neurotransmitters in patterned ways, leading to those character types identified in the Dunedin study, all of this is way beyond our conscious control. In fact it’s fair to say that the gradual retreat of the notion of free will is largely the result of the assault on the primacy of consciousness. Far more of what we do is less conscious than we think.

Jacinta: Yes the neurophysiological research around everyday ‘decisions’ is compelling, and disturbing to many. It suggests that our feeling of having freely decided on something is a delusion, though perhaps an evolutionarily useful one. Believing in free will usually entails belief in personal moral responsibility, and thus supports punishment for damaging acts and reward for heroic or beneficial ones. And  some research has actually shown that people primed to disbelieve in free will are more prepared to cheat and pilfer than those who aren’t.

Canto: So if this continues, this spread of disbelief or skepticism about free will, it may lead to a spike in criminal activity, large and small?

Jacinta: Well I don’t know if there’s been a rise in crime, but there has certainly been a rise in ‘my brain made me do it’ defenses. The effect of all this might be a ‘go with the flow’ attitude to pursue self-interest because your brain’s wiring supposedly impels you to.

Canto: So, that’s interesting, maybe a solution to this is more knowledge. The understanding that we’re the most social mammals on the planet, and that what we do, such as cheating and pilfering, adversely affects others, which will ultimately rebound on us. Even our brain’s own wiring has been caused by environmental factors, primary among those being human factors. So emphasising that our ‘self’ is more of a social self than our privileged access might lead us to believe will encourage us to consider what we owe to the wider society that helped shape us.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s a good point. And I think, as Harris and others point out, jettisoning the free will notion should help us reduce our tendency to blame and hate. I struggle myself with this – I ‘hate’ Trump, but I quickly realise he’s always been like this, and I can’t even blame his parents, who are what they are, etc. So I turn, as I think I should, to a US political system that enables such a person to reach the position he’s reached. In focusing on this system I can heap blame upon blame to my heart’s content, which I always love to do, without getting personal, which may have rebounding consequences for me. It’s a great solution.

Canto: Anyway, I think we’ve just scratched the surface with this one. Don’t we sometimes appear to agonise over decisions? People make lists of pros and cons about whether to spend x money or whether to travel to y, or whether or not to break up with z. How does this sort with a lack of free will? There must be a lot more to say.

Jacinta: It’s determined by our brain’s wiring that we agonise over some of our decisions and not over others. And how often do we make those lists you speak of, often prompted by others, and then just go with our original intuition?

Canto: Hmmm, I still think this is all worth further consideration…

Jacinta: I don’t think there’s any way you can seriously argue for free will. The argument is essentially about the consequences.

References

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/theres-no-such-thing-as-free-will/480750/

Sam Harris, Free will

https://theforeveryears.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/dunedin-study-findings-the-importance-of-identifying-personality-types-at-a-young-age-by-kirsteen-mclay-knopp/

Bernard Berofsky, ed, Free will and determinism

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 15, 2018 at 10:16 am

Limi girl: part 5

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Canto: From the hospital we switch back to the village. Heigo’s mother comes home to find her brother-in-law waiting for her. He has brought gifts from Shifang, in Sichuan, but the woman rejects them angrily. The brother-in-law tries to placate her, he wants to see Gaidi…

Jacinta: This is an expository scene. the mother says ‘you’ve been fixing shoes here for over 10 years, you married Gaidi’s mother, you gave us nothing, you went back to Sichuan, you want to have a son, I don’t blame you, but you left Gaidi here 6 years ago without a word or a care’. Wow, big news – and now we know why the other kids teased Gaidi.

Canto: And the brother-in-law is now sheepish, the recent earthquake has changed him, he’s reassessed his values he says. He’s referring to the massive Sichuan earthquake of 2008, which killed over 80,000 and left millions homeless. And while he speaks, Gaidi and Heigo have come up behind him. On realising who the man is, she rushes past them and locks herself in the house. Heigo, her cousin, begs her to open the door, and she complies. Clearly though, neither Gaidi nor Heigo are happy with this brother-in-law/father and his gifts.

Jacinta: The father enters the house and sits beside Gaidi. She is holding the postcard of Shifang that was seen near the beginning of the film. This is another tear-jerking scene, and I don’t mean that as a cliché. Tears drop on the postcard and we’re not sure whose tears they are. And next we see Gaidi, out of her traditional dress, with her father, going to meet ‘sister’ Xiumei, who’s out at work with her donkey. She has come to say goodbye, she’s going back to Sichuan with her father. It’s a bitter-sweet parting, but Xiumei is smiling. ‘Don’t forget, Wumulong will always be your home’, she says. I think it’s the first time this village is mentioned. ‘Yes, I will always be a Limi girl’, Gaidi responds. The father seems a little unsettled at this. So there’s a general parting, Heigo takes Gaidi and her dad away in his ‘car’, leaving Xiumei and Heigo’s mother alone, and then Heigo’s mother, who has brought Gaidi up for the last six years, is left, bereft and unrewarded it seems, to gaze after the suddenly departed girl.

Canto: Next scene, Xiumei is tending her father, now out of hospital. Some local young people arrive and invite her to ‘the Lover’s Valley’, and her dad urges her to go. It’s some sort of ritual, with black sheets flapping on makeshift lines and children running about. Heigo is there, and women in traditional dress, working hard. Red paper decorations, which symbolise something, are blown around in the wind. Heigo picks one up and examines it. Musicians play, and young men and women dance in ritual lines under decorated trees. It’s clearly a Limi thing, to do with dance and romance. Sometime they dance and sing in large circles. Xiumei takes part happily, but Heigo’s outside it all, watching morosely. Finally he grabs Xiumei and pulls her out of the dance. She’s not happy. ‘It’s our Limi Valentine’s Day,’ he says, and he must declare himself. She tells him clearly this cannot be. He wants to know if she is leaving. He wants to leave too, he says, but his heart is full of contradictions. He will leave if she does. She reminds him of Shuguo, who loves him. He wants to go out and work again, he’s drifting. If he must come back to marry…

Limi Valentine’s Day

Jacinta: It’s Xiumei he wants to marry of course. But she has made it clear to him. It’s an awkward scene for her, and she tries to be firm without cruelty. She returns heavily to the dance, Heigo walks, staggers, away. Next we see him burning bags of – what? – in a home-made fire. ‘I thought only I could help you, Xiumei,’ he says. But now, perhaps, he realises.. We see tangles of wicker in the fire. I don’t know what they signify.

Canto: And next we see Shuguo dressed in red, admiring herself in the mirror. Her mother scolds her, she should wear traditional black for her wedding, and not look too pretty. But Shuguo stands up for herself, her little battle against tradition.

Jacinta: We switch to a procession in the beautiful countryside, a wedding procession, with Heigo and Shuguo in the centre, in traditional outfits. Shuguo looks thrilled, Heigo looks like he’s walking to his execution. They arrive at the wedding-place amid singing and music. They begin kowtowing to the ancestors, but Heigo breaks away. He announces to the assembled: ‘Thank you for coming to the wedding, but today I must break my engagement.’ His shocked mother slaps him, then pleads with him before the distressed Shuguo, who, she says, has been brought to the brink.

Canto: But Heigo responds, ‘I don’t like Shuguo at all’, which is surely harsh, he has seemed to make her a symbol of all that he’s rebelling against. Still, he’s adamant, he’s rejecting this traditional village life. He departs, leaving Shuguo devastated. Then we see the paper symbol again, which a bit of research tells me means ‘double happiness’, or marriage.

Jacinta: Shuguo’s not just devastated, but disgraced before the whole village. What will become of her?

Canto: We’re approaching the end. Next comes a brief scene of Xiumei sitting on a rock in the fields, books open, studying. And then another woman, dragging her suitcase down a rubble path. At first I thought it was Xiumei, leaving the village, but it’s Shuguo. She arrives at a motorbike, driven by a cousin no doubt, and climbs aboard. Heigo watches from a hillside, impassive. She’s probably leaving for another village, out of the limelight.

Jacinta: Switch to an urban scene, a crowd of students are coming out of classes, descending a wide stairway in a stream of colour, a bright contrast to greys and blacks of the Limi villagers. One of the students is Xiumei, and Heigo is waiting for her. She is still quite traditionally dressed. He takes her for a ride on his motorbike, back into the countryside – perhaps it’s Spring break or something – and when he drops her off, presumably within walking distance of home, he gives this vital speech: ‘Xiumei, this is the last time I will see you off. I have already hurt Shugio. I can’t hurt you again. Go study and fulfil your dream. Don’t be a drifting labourer like us. There is no hurry to pay me back. When you earn a salary in the future you can repay both the principal and the interest.’

Canto: It’s another powerful scene, and Heigo drives off, leaving Xiumei speechless, perhaps overwhelmed. This ain’t gonna be a Hollywood ending, though much in us might yearn for it.

Jacinta: We next see Xiumei’s dad sadly selling her donkey. And then Xiumei, still dressed traditionally, runs for the postman, who caters to the edge of the village on a motorbike. She’s expecting good news. She receives a package and smiles on opening the letter. She runs home and tells her mother that she’s won entry into college. The earlier scene must’ve involved an entrance exam.

Canto: She asks after her father. He has gone to work with the other villagers to earn money for her tuition. He’s already saved 500 (RMB?), which her mother hands over. It must be some of the money from the donkey. Xiumei looks upset, It seems as if something’s wrong…

Jacinta: Xiumei rushes out to find her father. On her way she encounters a wedding procession – it’s Shuguo! And she’s not wearing traditional costume this time (she had succumbed last time to her mother’s wishes and was in traditional garb when Heigo walked out on her), and her groom is wearing a modern suit. So it has worked out for her after all. Xiumei continues on, hurrying up the mountain. Then we see two people on a bus, Heigo, and in front of him, Xiumei’s father. He’s holding a postcard pic of a young woman in dance pose, in a bright red dress. Is it Xiumei? Is it an image of what Xiumei might become?

Canto: And then we return to Xiumei, running, running, until she reaches a high clearing, from which she can see the road winding away from the village, with the bus, carrying Heigo and her father, and the other villagers, all working to help her with her college life. No pressure! And so ends the movie.

the Limi girl

 

point final

I’ve seen no other Chinese movie like this, indeed no other movie. It’s a film about difficult choices, desperate hopes, crushing disappointments, quiet suffering, and tough struggles. It’s also about self-sacrifice, persistence, stoicism, love. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen, and I don’t see too many these days. Examining it intensively like this has given me an insight into the film-maker’s craft that I’ve never experienced before, and such scrutiny doesn’t lessen the film’s impact, it strengthens it. I’m tempted to do what too many people do, to rubbish other films by contrast, but I’ll resist that. Suffice to say that this film is a tribute to a world too easily overlooked, and such worlds are everywhere and need to be acknowledged, respected and indeed cherished, for all their flaws and limitations in our eyes. The film, of course, is not a hymn of praise to the world depicted, but it does recognise its rough beauty and its successes in adversity. I will never forget it.

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 12, 2018 at 6:12 pm

what to do with a serious problem like Trump: part two

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So what damage is Trump doing to the US political system? He sets an example of deceit, disrespect, adversarialism and other negative qualities. He highlights these sorts of qualities as a route to worldly success. He undermines all the essential institutions of western democracy, especially an independent press and judiciary. His belligerence and lack of co-operation with judicial authorities may lead to further damage, including serious civil unrest, of a kind not seen in the USA for decades, or longer. We’ll see what happens.

So that is the problem of Trump, as all reasonable people see it. Having said that, I have some optimistic and some pessimistic comments to add.

I should start with the pessimistic stuff, so that I can end on a positive note.

Trump is the proverbial bull in a china shop. What do we do when we find a bull in a china shop, blundering about, smashing up everything, just being a bull? We take steps to get him out of there, pronto. And being enlightened souls, we don’t want to punish him for being what he can’t help being. A tranquilising dart might be the best answer, though this may make him thrash about all the more, at least for a time. We try to protect the shop as best we can, knowing that some damage will be inevitable.

However, Trump is a bull with friends and enablers, some of whom see him as a mighty stallion trampling over the spoils of the undeserving, while others see him as, for various reasons, a most useful bull. Still others see him as pure entertainment. They’re prepared to fight to prevent this bull from being removed from this china shop…

That’s roughly the present situation. As I’ve stated before, Trump is no Nixon, he won’t go quietly. He would rather barricade himself in the White House than resign. He would argue that a sitting President can’t be charged, he would refuse to co-operate with impeachment proceedings, and this would create a situation far worse than a constitutional crisis.

That’s the problem, the pessimistic stuff, and frankly I’ve no idea how this will be resolved. The worst case scenario is serious civil strife, of a kind not seen on American soil since the civil war, and Trump being Trump, I honestly can’t see a best case scenario that doesn’t involve violence of some kind, hopefully only to Trump himself, so as to prise him out of office. Given that scenario, tranquilising mightn’t be such a bad idea.

With that out of the way, let’s turn to the optimistic stuff, the silver lining, the lessons learned. Clearly, post-Trump, the American political system needs some restructuring, just as a town might do after being severely damaged by an unanticipated storm, one that could always strike again.

Trump has revealed serious failings in political and judicial structures. In fact he’s been revealing them for decades, from what I’ve gathered, as he has emerged largely unscathed from a lifetime of extortion, standover tactics, unpaid debts and dishonest deals and enterprises. He has surrounded himself with similarly shady characters; fixers, mobsters, goons and corruption merchants of all stripes. His success mirrors the failures of law and order in ways that I’m not equipped to deconstruct, but it’s surely true that these are failures.

Trump’s list of dodgy deals and litigations should have excluded him from candidature for high office, but there seems to be very little vetting for the position of President, something which seems to be a matter of pride in some circles. You don’t want just anyone to become your head of state, and democracy, to give away a nasty but surely open secret, doesn’t guarantee the best leadership. That is why the separation of powers is so important.

So these are two areas that need some work, post-Trump; tighter rules and vetting for Presidential and other political candidature, and a tightening and bolstering of the separation of powers. I would also like to see white-collar crime pursued far more vigorously, but again I’m not equipped to go into detail on this. Another area of concern in the light of Trump’s assaults is the media and its protection. It would be hard to quantify the damage Trump has done in this area with his ‘fake news’ meme. Lying is, of course, not a crime, or we would all be criminals, but the massively irresponsible behaviour of a head of state who lies about virtually everything, and who regularly denigrates and abuses those who speak obvious truths to power – a major media role – shouldn’t go unpunished. The media should be given greater legal means to fight back against this denigration. Getting more into the detail – producing tax returns should be absolutely mandatory for all political candidates, with no exceptions and strictly enforced, and the ’emoluments clause’ in the constitution, an out-dated piece of verbiage describing gifts from members of the nobility, should be upgraded and strengthened to prohibit those in high office to profit directly from their position.

On the separation of powers, so regularly attacked by Trump out of wilful, self-serving interest: many are unaware that this separation serves the important purpose of limiting democracy. Limiting demagoguery in this case. Among the checks and balances which seek to defuse the danger of a directly elected President, beholden to no party or principle, are an independent judiciary, an independent fourth estate, and a system of independent or bipartisan vetting of those nominated by the President for such Level One positions as Secretary of State. This separation of powers needs to be strictly adhered to and supported by law to the extent that regular attempts to undermine this separation, as is practiced by this President, should be seen as obstructing the rule of law and dealt with severely.

There need to be other checks and balances of course – checks on the media itself and on such organisations as the Department of Justice, which according to Alan Dershowitz and others beside the President, is pursuing Trump beyond the scope of its mandate. I’m not sufficiently au fait with these checks, which should of course include defamation laws to protect public personae, to make effective comment, but the scope of the Mueller enquiry is a matter of public record. There is no doubt that the Mueller enquiry has been given wide powers, but there is also no doubt that Russian interference in the 2016 election was considerable, and the indictments of many Russian citizens and entities as a result of the probe have supported this. There is also no doubt that Trump’s businesses in recent years have been linked to Russian oligarchs, as freely admitted by Donald Trump Jr, and that Trump has been extremely reluctant to make accusations against Russia and its dictator in light of clear evidence of interference which benefitted his Presidential bid. It’s highly likely that the probe has found clear evidence of conspiracy with a foreign power during the 2016 elections, to say nothing of obstruction of justice in the ousting of James Cohen and possibly also Andrew McCabe. The constant denigration of the Department of Justice and the FBI by the current President is of course unprecedented, and will require, I think, unprecedented responses in order to preserve and reinforce the separation of powers and to ensure that lawyers, judges and law enforcement officers can do their jobs without having to face the kind of treatment meted out to them by the likes of Trump and his enablers.

So, finally, no more from me about Trump, I hope. There are threats and opportunities here. The immediate threat to civil society comes from a bull who won’t go quietly, who will be supported by some powerful allies in defying authority, with possibly disastrous immediate consequences. The opportunity, as always with disasters of this sort, is to improve the political system to ensure that this is the first and last rogue President to disgrace the White House. Good luck with all that.

Written by stewart henderson

May 7, 2018 at 11:57 am