an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Posts Tagged ‘progress

reading matters 2

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The beginning of infinity by David Deutsch (quantum physicist and philosopher, as nerdy as he looks)

Content hints

  • science as explanations with most reach, conjecture as origin of knowledge, fallibilism, the solubility of problems, the open-endedness of explanation, inspiration is human but perspiration can be automated, all explanations give birth to new problems, emergent phenomena provide clues about other emergent phenomena, the jump to universality as systems converge and cross-fertilise, AI and the essential problem of creativity, don’t be afraid of infinity and the unlimited growth of knowledge, optimism is the needful option, better Athens than Sparta any day, there is a multiverse, the Copenhagen interpretation and positivism as bad philosophy, political institutions need to create new options, maybe beauty really is objective, static societies use anti-rational memes (e.g gods) while dynamic societies develop richer, critically valuable ones, creativity has enabled us to transcend biological evolution and to attain new estates of knowledge, Jacob Bronowski The Ascent of Man and Karl Popper as inspirations, the beginning….

Written by stewart henderson

June 18, 2020 at 11:46 pm

progressivism: the no-alternative philosophy

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Canto: So here’s the thing – I’ve occasionally been asked about my politics and I’ve been a little discomfited about having to describe them in a few words, and I’ve even wondered if I could describe them effectively to myself.

Jacinta: Yes I find it easier to be sure of what I’m opposed to, such as bullies or authoritarians, which to me are much the same thing. So that means authoritarian governments, controlling governments and so forth. But I also learned early on that the world was unfair, that some kids were richer than others, smarter than others, better-looking than others, through no fault or effort of their own. I was even able to think through this enough to realise that even the kind kids and the nasty ones, the bullies and the scaredy-cats, didn’t have too much choice in the matter. So I often wondered about a government role in making things a bit fairer for those who lost out in exactly where, or into whose hands, they were thrown into the world.

Canto: Well you could say there’s a natural diversity in all those things, intelligence, appearance, wealth, capability and so forth… I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. I remember once answering that question, about my politics, by describing myself as a pluralist, and then later being disappointed at my self-description. Of course, I wouldn’t want to favour the opposite – what’s that, singularism? But clearly not all differences are beneficial – extreme poverty for example, or its opposite…

Jacinta: You wouldn’t want to be extremely wealthy?

Canto; Well okay I’ve sometimes fantasised, but mainly in terms of then having more power to make changes in the world. But I’m thinking of the differences that disadvantage us as a group, as a political entity. And here’s one thing I do know about politics. We can’t live without it. We owe our success as a species, for what it’s worth, to our socio-political organisation, something many libertarians seem to be in denial about.

Jacinta: Yes, humans are political animals, if I may improve upon Aristotle. But differences that disadvantage us. Remember eugenics? Perhaps in some ways it’s still with us. Prospective parents might be able to abort their child if they can find out early on that it’s – defective in some way.

Canto: Oh dear, that’s a real can of worms, but those weren’t the kind of differences I was thinking about. Since you raise the subject though, I would say this is a matter of individual choice, but that, overall, ridding the world of those kinds of differences – intellectual disability, dwarfism, intersex, blindness, deafness and so on – wouldn’t be a good thing. But of course that would require a sociopolitical world that would agree with me on that and be supportive of those differences.

Jacinta: So you’re talking about political differences. Or maybe cultural differences?

Canto: Yes but that’s another can of worms. It’s true that multiculturalism can expand our thinking in many ways, but you must admit that there are some heavy cultures, that have attitudes about the ‘place of women’ for example, or about necessary belief in their god…

Jacinta: Or that taurans make better lovers than geminis haha.

Canto: Haha, maybe. Some false beliefs have more serious consequences than others. So multiculturalism has its positives and negatives, but you want the dominant culture, or the mix of cultures that ultimately forms a new kind of ‘creole’ overarching culture, to be positive and open. To be progressive. That’s the key word. There’s no valid alternative to a progressive culture. It’s what has gotten us where we are, and that’s not such a bad place, though it’s far from perfect, and always will be.

Jacinta: So progressiveness good, conservativism bad? Is that it?

Canto: Nothing is ever so simple, but you’re on the right track. Progress is a movement forward. Sometimes it’s a little zigzaggy, sometimes two forward one back. I’m taking my cue from David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, which is crystallising much I’ve thought about politics and culture over the years, and of the role and meaning of science, which as you know has long preoccupied me. Anyway, the opposite of progress is essentially stasis – no change at all. Our former conservative Prime Minister John Howard was fond of sagely saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, as a way of avoiding the prospect of change. But it isn’t just about fixing, it’s rather more about improving, or transcending. Landline phones didn’t need fixing, they were a functional, functioning technology. But a new technology came along that improved upon it, and kept improving and added internet technology to its portability. We took a step back in our progress many decades ago, methinks, when we abandoned the promise of electrified modes of travel for the infernal combustion engine, and it’s taking us too long to get back on track, but I’m confident we’ll get there eventually. ..

Jacinta: I get you. Stasis is this safe option, but in fact it doesn’t lead anywhere. We’d be sticking with the ‘old’ way of doing things, which takes us back much further than just the days of landlines, but before any recognisable technology at all. Before using woven cloth, before even using animal skins and fire to improve our chances of survival.

Canto: So it’s not even a safe option. It’s not a viable option at all. You know how there was a drastic drop in the numbers of Homo sapiens some 70,000 years ago – we’ll probably never know how close we came to extinction. I’d bet my life it was some innovation that only our species could have thought of that enabled us to come out of it alive and breeding.

Jacinta: And some of our ancestors would’ve been dragged kicking and screaming towards accepting that innovation. I used to spend time on a forum of topical essays where the comments were dominated by an ‘anti-Enlightenment’ crowd, characters who thought the Enlightenment – presumably the eighteenth century European one (but probably also the British seventeenth century one, the Scottish one, and maybe even the Renaissance to boot) – was the greatest disaster ever suffered by humanity. Needless to say, I soon lost interest. But that’s an extreme example (I think they were religious nutters).

Canto: Deutsch, in a central chapter of The beginning of infinity, compares ancient Athens and Sparta, even employing a Socratic dialogue for local colour. The contrast isn’t just between Athens’ embracing of progress and Sparta’s determination to maintain stasis, but between openness and its opposite. Athens, at its all-too-brief flowering, encouraged philosophical debate and reasoning, rule-breaking artistry, experimentation and general questioning, in the process producing famous dialogues, plays and extraordinary monuments such as the Parthenon. Sparta on the other hand left no legacy to build on or rediscover, and all that we know of its politico-social system comes from non-Spartans, so that if it has been misrepresented it only has itself to blame!

Jacinta: Yet it didn’t last.

Canto: Many instances of that sort of thing. In the case of Athens, its disastrous Syracusan adventure, its ravagement by the plague, or a plague, or a series of plagues, and the Peloponnesian war, all combined to permanently arrest its development. Contingent events. Think too of the Islamic Golden Age, a long period of innovation in mathematics, physics, astronomy, medicine, architecture and much else, brought to an end largely by the Mongol invasions, and the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate but also by a political backlash towards stasis, anti-intellectualism and religiosity, most often associated with the 12th century theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali.

Jacinta: Very tragic for our modern world. So how do we guard against the apostles of stasis? By the interminable application of reason? By somehow keeping them off the reins of power, since those apostles will always be with us?

Canto: Not by coercion, no. It has to be a battle of ideas, or maybe I shouldn’t use that sort of male lingo. A demonstration of ideas, in the open market. A demonstration of their effectiveness for improving our world, which means comprehending that world at an ever-deeper, more comprehensive level.

Jacinta: Comprehensively comprehending, that seems commendably comprehensible. But will this improve the world for us all – lift all boats, as Sam Harris likes to say?

Canto: Well, since you mention Harris, I totally agree with him that reason, and science which is so clearly founded on reason, is just as applicable to the moral world, to pointing the way to and developing the best and richest life we all can live, as it is to technology and our deepest understanding of the universe, the multiverse or whatever our fundamental reality happens to be. So we need to keep on developing and building on that science, and communicating it and applying it to the human world and all that it depends upon and influences.


The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2012

Written by stewart henderson

May 3, 2020 at 4:36 pm

random thoughts on progress and culture

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random pic of one of the Andaman Islands, I think


I seem to have a mind geared toward progress. I look forward (as I’m just beginning to feel my age) towards electric vehicles increasing market share in the ‘backward’ land of Oz. I look forward to governments here throwing their weight behind renewables without the usual reservations. I look forward to the James Webb telescope finally being launched, learning more about exoplanets, and of course genomics, epigenetics, neurophysiology, human origins, and much more. I look forward to the collapse of the Kim monarchy in North Korea, the demise of the current batch of macho political thugs worldwide, and the continuing rise to power of women in politics, business, science and technology. I’ve read Pinker’s two big books on the virtues of progress and enlightenment, I’m reading David Deutsch’s book on the beginning of an infinity of knowledge and discovery and technological improvement, and I’m wishing I could live at least another hundred years to watch the two-steps-forward-one step-back dance into the future. 

And yet. 

I generally describe myself as a humanist, and I’m drawn to those expressing suspicion and a degree of disdain toward nationalism – but, why is that? Am I free to have those feelings, which have been more or less with me since childhood, or have they been imposed on me by experiences I didn’t choose to have? After all, I’m human but I’m thoroughly localised in time and space. I’m a product, of a particular culture, often described as the dominant culture, white (though my skin is light brown and variable as I tan easily), Anglo-Saxon (though being born in the north-east of Scotland I may have Pictish and/or Scandinavian forebears, and frankly I’m not interested in tracing my ancestry) and protestant (though I’m not religious in any sense). Clearly, if I was born in the same place but several hundred years earlier, I wouldn’t be banging on about progress. I wouldn’t have ended up in Australia and I would likely never have travelled more than a few miles from the town of Dundee, where I was born. Whatever occupation I had wouldn’t have differed greatly from that of my father or my son, if I had one. 

So much for time. Think of place. Had I been born in Australia a few hundred years ago, I would’ve been what Europeans call an Aborigine or an indigenous Australian – but I should get with the program, they’re called first nations people now, presumably because we now know that we’re all actually indigenous to the African continent. In any case, my world would’ve been unimaginably different. Or I might’ve been born to first nation parents, but in the fifties (that’s to say, on my actual birth date), in which case I would’ve experienced a mixture of Aboriginal and Western/European/White Australian culture. Again, an experience nigh impossible for me to imagine. How, in that case, would I think of nationalism, as someone linked to a ‘nation’ with an ancient, resilient culture, or complex of different cultures, but surrounded by an innovative, progressive, dominant culture that I would never quite belong to. Would I want to belong to it? Who can say – I’m mixing generalisations with particular experiences here, and it’s not making sense.   

So it’s perhaps better, or certainly easier, to take the self out of the picture and think of cultures in the way we think of species and sub-species. Some species have found a niche, in the depths of the oceans, say, which has allowed them to survive and even thrive in a basic sort of way for eons, pretty well unchanged. Others, like rats and pigeons, have adapted to a variety of conditions, allowing them to spread across the globe, in tandem with ever-urbanising homo sapiens. Do we value all these species equally? Do we value all human cultures equally? We’re generally encouraged to think positively about biodiversity and cultural diversity. Yet we know that by far the majority of species mothered by this planet are now extinct. Many cultures, too, have been obliterated, by war, climate change, absorption into more dominant cultures and so forth. Which brings me back to progress. There seems to be a tension between the drive to preserve and the drive to transcend. There appears to be room for both drives much of the time, but what if they clash?

I recently had cause to learn a little more about the Andaman Islanders, who have a distinct and clearly self-sustaining culture developed over millenia. They don’t want to be disturbed and they’ve largely been granted that wish. After all, our progressive culture has no great need of their small scraps of land and what, from our perspective, are their meagre resources. However, imagine that something was discovered, via the latest in sophisticated computer technology, not too far beneath the soil of those islands – some mineral with extraordinary properties, valuable beyond measure to the dominant society’s continued technological advancement, but the extraction of which would massively disrupt the everyday life and compromise the spiritual beliefs of the islanders?

Perhaps this is a far-fetched scenario – it’s highly unlikely that, with our multi-faceted ingenuity, we would need to rely on some particular item from a remote set of islands for our juggernaut progress. And yet – I’ve read, in Simon Winchester’s book Pacific – of the fate of the Marshall Islanders in the forties and fifties, as the USA chose to use their region as the site of scores of nuclear tests, causing widespread and more or less permanent radioactive contamination – the price of a particular kind of progress. As Wikipedia puts it:

The testing concluded in 1958. Over the years, just one of over 60 islands was cleaned by the US government, and the inhabitants are still waiting for the 2 billion dollars in compensation assessed by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal. Many of the islanders and their descendants still live in exile, as the islands remain contaminated with high levels of radiation

Mistakes were made…

The ‘new world’ (meaning new to Europeans) and its first nations cultures have paid a heavy price for largely European colonisation, domination and progress. My position, as a somewhat low-ranking beneficiary of the dominant culture, makes it hard to judge the costs and benefits of these developments. We will go forward, but we need to look back at what we’ve done, and to look around at what we’re doing now. Preservation and progress is an uneasy balancing act which we’ll probably never quite master, but we need to keep trying, for humanity’s sake.


S Winchester, Pacific: the ocean of the future, 2015

Written by stewart henderson

February 4, 2020 at 2:35 pm

why I’m not a conservative

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Probably better to read this highly recommended book than my article, but you’re welcome to do both

There are many ways of answering the above question. I might state the obvious – conservatives tend to be stodgy, boring, backward-facing selfish naysayers with a limited social conscience and little interest in, if not an outright fear of, scientific and technological development.  End of story.

But of course, that can’t be the whole story. We’re not as free to develop our own views as we think. I’m a product of a particular environment, a very working-class environment, though very bookish within the family. The recent Kavanaugh kerfuffle reminds me of my rough and ready high school days, though I was more often a victim than a perp. All through high school I was the smallest and probably lightest kid in my class, male or female, so I was the target of pranks, mostly ‘good-natured’. For example, on two occasions I was held out upside-down by the legs over the first-floor balustrade by my fun-loving schoolmates. Had they lost their collective grip, I suppose I would’ve dropped head-first to probable death. Yet, though I’m sure my heart-rate was well up at the time, I had a pretty strong faith in my friends – all boys of course – and their benign intentions. I never lost any sleep over it afterwards. 

I’m not suggesting this was working-class hijinx – think of Eton and Harrow ragging, etc – but there was more, including stuff I’m far from proud of, as I strove to fit in with the anti-intellectual and often nihilistically violent environment around me. The quality of teaching was pretty poor, our headmaster was an outright fascist, and I was happy to be a high school drop-out at fifteen. I got occasional assembly-line work, and my spare time was spent either failing to ingratiate myself with a gang of local vandals, or reading Jane Austen or encyclopaedia entries on Isaac Newton, etc. Not to mention wanking myself silly to fantasies of any local beauty I happened to clap my eyes on. Another great solace and opening to a wider world was the wordsmith musical artists of the early seventies I obsessed over, such as Dylan, Cohen and Bowie. 

So what has this to do with my politics? Well, the region of my childhood and youth was, and still is, one of the safest Labor electorates in the country (Labor, for international readers, is the party of the left here in Australia, as it is in Britain). I can’t imagine it ever going the way of the conservatives. In Australia, the urban/suburban working-class tend to vote left, while the rural working-class tend to vote right. It’s perhaps different from the USA where the working-class in general tend to vote right (though this seems to happen here in some parts, notably Queensland). This kind of pro-union us-and-them mentality, an atmosphere of both togetherness and despair, was what I breathed in as I wandered lonely as a cloud through the streets of my town. I engaged with others in petty theft and pointless vandalism, got caught and was placed on a bond, and felt self-servingly that the law was the principle weapon of the rich to beat down the poor.

In the early seventies a downturn in the economy hit our region particularly hard, and I felt it in the air of neglect and dilapidation, the family breakdowns, the beginnings of generational unemployment. I saw a neighbourhood of victims, unable to climb out of their situation, as if they’d been sold a pup and didn’t know quite who to blame. 

I didn’t hang around, I moved to a bigger smoke, and a more variegated, bohemian-student world. My problems of ‘fitting in’ didn’t exactly go away, but I was becoming more reconciled to my ‘loner’ identity. And of course I was educating myself more about politics, economics and history. But always I’ve been concerned about the most vulnerable, the least advantaged, those who ‘lucked out’ in our society. This goes with my views on free will, and on nationalism. We don’t get to choose our parentage, or the where and when of our birth. I politely decline to sing songs about how wonderful and unique ‘my’ country is, because I know that if I was born in another country on the other side of the world I’d be pressured to sing songs about its splendour and specialness. I feel lucky to be a citizen of two peaceful and developed countries, just as I feel lucky to have been born a human rather than a mosquito. I feel lucky to be alive when all this new knowledge is being uncovered, in astronomy, in neurology, in palaeontology and so much else, though I feel unlucky to have been born in 1956 rather than 1996, or even later.

But the implications of this matter of luck seem to me enormous, and they’re essential to my political views. For example, they largely define my views on education, health, welfare, immigration and the justice system. To me, one of the major roles of a political state is to do its best to mitigate, for its members, the destructive effects of bad luck. 

Broadly speaking, the history of politics has ever been the battle between the left and the right – patricians v plebeians, socialists v libertarians, progressives v traditionalists, Labor v Conservative, Republicans v Democrats, with independents ranged across the political spectrum. Those who want to do more for their people v those who want to let people do for themselves, and various other polarities. Of course, not all these categories are the same on each side of the v sign, which raises all sorts of questions. Where does business and capitalism fit in? What about the environmental movement? What about globalism and its detractors? 

My views on many of these matters aren’t well-formulated – or I should say, in a more self-boosting way, they’re not hard and fast. However, the application of a basic rule of thumb – ‘try to reduce the effect of bad luck’, is, I think, a useful starting point. For example, a taxation system that tries to reduce disadvantage in terms of education and healthcare is important, but one that heavily reduces incentives for businesses and entrepreneurs may ultimately affect productivity and the wealth from which taxation can be drawn. At the same time it’s dangerous to fall for the line of the ‘haves’, that tax breaks for the ‘deserving rich’ will ultimately benefit all through greater employment and opportunity. The rich, I’ve noticed, like very much to keep it in the ‘family’ – gated communities being the most in-your-face symbol of the trickle-across effect. 

Governing isn’t easy, especially under the constant scrutiny of vested interests – and that means everyone. One of the major difficulties I’ve noticed is that some scrutineers, e.g. the Rupert Murdochs of this world – are vastly mote powerful than others, so money and influence are always at play – and those in most need are always those who have least influence. It’s easy to lose sight of that – though many conservatives aren’t worried about that, they often see their rich supporters as a natural elite, and the strengthening of that elite as their natural duty in government.

I know this is a bitsy sort of essay – I don’t have an ideology as such, but I do have some strong views, against ideology and for pragmatism, against adversarialism and for collaboration, against realpolitik and nationalism and for the more voiceless and lucked out members of our species – often the victims of realpolitik. I’m also for the progress of science and technology against the fearful or dismissive or wilfully ignorant naysayers. I know I’ve just contradicted myself, seemingly, in speaking for  collaboration and then couching issues in for/against terms, but of course you must have core beliefs to bring to a negotiation, which you can present for consideration while considering and questioning the views of the opposition, as they question yours. And those who aren’t prepared to listen – and I can name quite a few – shouldn’t be allowed at the table. 

I like the approach of Aristotle – first you work out your ethics (the particular or individual) then apply it to politics, the general. Of course, the first thing to note, as you try to work out what you should do, is that it must be in relation to others, the general. Without that ‘general’, which is life itself, not just humanity, as natural selection has taught us, we individuals wouldn’t be here. So the relationship between the individual and the general is necessarily dialectical, but it starts off with that personal question. And there is always that tension, for progressives – those who believe in pushing forward not yearning backward – between that forward movement and responsibility for the luckless strugglers, those so easily left behind. It makes for a very difficult task for those well-meaning politicians I admire. Scientific, technological and intellectual progress is happening at a more rapid clip than ever before, but it’s spreading the spectrum ever wider, not just between the haves and have nots, but between attitudes towards and against that progress, between adoring enthusiasm and hate-filled fear. 

So. I’m not a conservative. I want to embrace the future, to help make it happen. I want it to improve the lot of the majority, especially of those whose lot needs most improving, so that they can share in enthusiasm for the future. I want women to rule the majority of the world, because I believe this would improve humanity, and the world. I want to avoid warfare as much as humanly possible, because the costs are always borne by those who can least afford them. I want to challenge the power of self-serving elites, and to shake their complacency. I want people to think about and recognise the consequences of their actions – especially those with power over others. The future will happen, and we can choose to face forward, and put our hands to those shaky and complicated controls, or to look away and pretend it’s not happening. It’s not much of a choice really. 

Written by stewart henderson

September 23, 2018 at 2:25 pm