Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Intuition pumpsWell, I made it to the end.  Did I make any sense of it?  I guess, some of the time at least.  Impossible to resist qualifying my response with one of philosopher of science Daniel C. Dennett‘s own rather splendid explanatory concepts: sorta.  Close enough for rock and roll.

Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking (Allen Lane, 2013) is not dealing in trivialities; it’s not a guitar he’s tuning.  Intuition pumps can be: “prosthetic imagination extenders and focus holders“; “carefully designed persuasion tools and thought experiments“; ” abstract cognitive tool[s].”  So the sorta operator is actually “the key to breaking the back of the mind-bogglingly complex question of how a mind could ever be composed of material mechanisms,” for humanist Dennett is no dualist – for him “mind” and “brain” cannot be separated in any meaningful way, but – rest assured – determinism is not his bag either:

People really care about whether they have free will or not, about how their minds can reside in their bodies, and about how – and even whether – there can be meaning in a world composed of nothing but atoms and molecules, photons and Higgs bosons. People should care. … What in the world are we, and what should we do about it? So watch your step. There is treacherous footing ahead, and the maps are unreliable.

Heavy intellectual yomping, then, and he’s trying to help.  I could go into some detail (and probably get it wrong) but it’s too darned hot.  Let’s be honest, the book is hard work – it has to be when you think about it – but it’s entertainingly leavened with anecdotage, imaginative examples (philosophers’ zombies, anyone?) and some righteous academic feuding.

Dennett starts by giving us A dozen general thinking tools, taking in Occam’s razor (and its corollary – beware Occam’s broom),  Theodore Sturgeon’s law (extrapolating from his famous defence of the science fiction genre: “90% of everything is crud“), the “Surely” operator (ding!: the more it’s used the dodgier an argument is likely to be) and 8 other useful tools.  So far so good.  Then we’re off trying to see what it means when we talk of “meaning” (he calls those “scary quotes“) and then there’s an interlude about computers to further clarify what we mean by that.  (I’ll willingly admit I struggled with what philosophers mean by “intentionaliy”, which has little to do with intentions, rather “aboutness.”)  Then we move on to evolution; he demolishes the ‘intelligent design’ hypothesis; he demonstrates how a string of mechanical competences can lead to comprehension and the development of consciousness, and then considers the notion of free will (do we/don’t we have it?).  All delivered in logical steps which I’m sure will make much more sense if I ever find the time to read it again; (it’s tempting).  And finishing with a general chat from Uncle Dan about philosophy as a career.  His conclusion, and it’s been quite a ride, is:

We haven’t yet succeeded in fully conceiving how meaning could exist in the material world, or how life arose and evolved, or how consciousness works, or whether free will can be one of our endowments, but we’ve made progress: the questions we’re posing now are better than the questions of yesteryear. We’re hot on the trail of the answers.

Daniel Dennett is an unrepentent materialist but he is also – he hastens to add, in opposition to what he calls “bonkers” notions of free will – a compatabilist, maintaining that free will and determinism are not incompatible:

In our eagerness to make “free” choices, uncaused – we like to think – by “external forces”, we tend to forget that we shouldn’t want to be cut off from all such forces; free will does not abhor our embedding in a rich causal context; it actually requires it.

As opposed to the idea that we are robotic artefacts (“to confront the question of why it seems that each of us has some such mind thingy, or better“) he posits The self as the center of narrative gravity (it’s a chapter head) and a neat metaphor:

The idea that there is, in addition, a special indissoluble nugget of you […] the same kind of thing as a center of gravity [… ] a mathematical point, not an atom or molecule […] an abstraction […] tightly coupled to the physical world.

And what happens when the centre of gravity of an object shifts too far?

Just a couple of asides that I relished, the sorts of things that lift Intuition pumps out of potential ultra-dryness.  Dennett spends some time in Borges’s The library of Babel detailing the virtual infinity of all possible books as an illustration of how most genetic mutations can happen and fail (Spakesheare writing Spamlet) but delights in how Peter De Vries opened his novel of 1953,  The vale of laughter – by adding a comma – with the line, “Call me, Ishmael.”  And there’s a picture – it’s blogged about and reproduced here – of a termite ‘castle’ printed to great effect next to Antoni Gaudi’s extraordinary La Segrada Famiglia in Barcelona; there’s ‘design’ and design.

Ian MacDonald - The people's musicThe people’s music

Right at the start of Intuition pumps, Daniel C. Dennett sets the scene by saying:

… this is a book celebrating the power of non-mathematical tools, informal tools, the tools of prose and poetry, if you like, a power that scientists often underestimate.

He’s using a pretty broad inclusive definition of poetry here (though he does address awe, wonder and spirituality in other books without resorting to reductionist dismissal).  Purely coincidentally I’ve also been re-acquainting myself with Ian MacDonald‘s brilliant collection of popular music commentary, The people’s music (Pimlico, 2003).  My local humanist group was having a discussion on the subject of ‘happiness’ and I was going to speak against it – as a right to be expected of life, as a valid goal in itself; moments of happiness, that sometimes can just happen, are what I cherish.  There was something in IMac’s long and masterful piece on Nick Drake that I falsely remembered as a defense of miserabilism I thought might be useful to that end.  Beyond the Buddhist notion of “Happiness is just an illusion” (name that song!*) it wasn’t, but what a joy it was to be in the company of both men, despite the reminder of their untimely early deaths.  And Nick’s physically cool music is ever a refreshing breeze in this abominable heat-wave we labour under in the UK at the moment.

The people’s music is as good as it gets.  Ian MacDonald got the ’60s in the UK down in print – here and in his introduction to Revolution in the head, his Beatles book that is unlikely to be bettered – like no other writer.  There are three long essays in The people’s music, and 26 wide-ranging shorter pieces and reviews.  Of the long pieces, the Dylan essay, written on the occasion his 60th birthday, is insightful; his notion, that Bob Dylan’s whole career has been a brilliant piece of Performance Art he himself quickly dismisses, but its validity lingers.  The title essay is a potted history of popular music and its audience’s relationship with the music industry in the twentieth century.  I’ll use the masterful word again.  It’s some sort of a blessing that his suicide in the year this book was published saved him from having to witness the full gaudy horror of the success of Simon Cowell and pals’ reality television ‘music’ shows; he probably saw it coming.  The third long piece is Exiled from heaven: the unheard message of Nick Drake, and it is a stunner.

Nick Drake died in 1974, nearly 40 years ago, yet his music is timeless, out of time.  IMac’s analysis of his music tells you why.  He invokes William Blake and buddhism, innocence, karma and return, compassion, contemplative solitude, ‘magic’, being “here now.”  Thematically the seasons, rain, trees and the river are symbols running through his brief three albums’ worth of songs.

Drake’s message is an uncommon one  – not because it is wilfully obscure, but because it emanates  from a place our society is fast forgetting: the seer domain of poetic apprehension of reality.  The realm of ‘magic’. […] This sort of magic is spiritual and timeless – the opposite of the busy, materialistic world of ‘the river’ […] In his songs, we find in action the Romantic ideal that beauty can elevate consciousness.

Aye, there’s the rub, because MacDonald has to add, “Of course, the followers of Richard Dawkins and company” (of which Daniel Dennett is, naturally, a fully paid-up member) “will find only delusion in Drake’s work – yet materialism is bound to reject any claim that the world of the spirit is real.”  This is unfair, for here we are back with “meaning” and its construction; it may not be physically real … but.  I’m not so sure they do dismiss as mere delusion what MacDonald describes as Drake’s “sense of the holy in nature”, nor would they deny the practical value of such an orientation.  I can happily live with both; I can be excited reading Dennett and turn the stereo on and transcend the heat as Nick Drake’s music flows over and through me.  Dennett quotes from Lee Siegel’s book Nets of magic.  It doesn’t exactly square the circle, but I’ll end with it for the hell of it:

“I’m writing a book on magic,” I explain, and I’m asked, “Real magic?”  By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers.  “No,” I answer: “Conjuring tricks, not real magic.”  Real magic, in other words, refers to magic that is not real, while magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.

* “Happiness is just an illusion” is a line from Jimmy Ruffin’s What becomes of the broken hearted.  Tamla Motown magic from 1966.


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Aint it just like the confusion to reign when you’re looking to get a Dylan quote in train?  “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez*” …  “Aint it just like the night to play tricks** …?”  Just as well I checked, I suppose – unlike G.K.Chesterton publishing a book on William Blake getting all his quotes from memory, and getting some of them wrong –  but (wotthehell archy***) we’ll let it lie.  [Citations at the end of this post].

Aint it just like the British weather to kick in when you don’t need it.  And I’m not talking about the Jubilee, or at least not yet.  Flaming June!  So, a week ago, sweltering in an unforgiving sun, Saturday, the kick off of Stony Live!, the annual week of live music  over and above the usual, and it’s a grey, cold, miserable morning for the Old Mother Redcaps women’s Manx morris and the Stony Steppers (Lancashire clog) to strut their stuff in the High Street.  They stuck to it and at least it didn’t rain.

That came on Sunday, for the Classic Car Show in the Market Square, which started in penetrating drizzle in the morning and then it really rained.  Still plenty of people in attendance but understandably, this year, fewer cars.  This is a photo of the car I learned to drive in (or at least the one my mother took me practising in).  Not the actual car, you understand, but the model – a Morris Minor – crucially with the side direction indicator wings (that thing in the middle) that flicked out.  There was a Hillman Imp there too, the first car I ever owned (with the same caveat as above) in far better condition after all these years, I’m sure, than mine ever was, let alone when I bought it (it broke down on its first 50 mile journey).

Briefly, the Queen’s diamond jubilee.  I had to feel some compassion for those involved in the Thames Flotilla when it really started pissing down, even if the BBC’s hopeless sycophancy was causing me distress.  In our street we have a summer street party every year on a July Saturday, but it got shifted to the jubilee weekend this year (to say it was hijacked by the monarchists would be putting it a bit strong).  It was so cold the personal dilemma as to whether I would actually bring myself to bare my ‘Citizen not subject‘ t-shirt never came up, but there it remained under shirt, jumper, and finally, fleece.  The whole thing was put into a new perspective for me when Andrea, handed me a banknote for the purchase and consumption of fine Cornish ale at the lunchtime Hole in the Head Gang gig (Good Ol’ Rocky Top bluegrass).  Examining said banknote and realising, for the first time for both of us, she said, “One of these days it’ll be a picture of Charles printed here.”  And for the ritual purchase of Stony Live! raffle tickets, again that thought, as if for the first time.  Of course.  And postage stamps.  And coins.  Real money?  And so the whole absurd joke – nay, the horror – of the situation suddenly becomes clear.

Clarity – of thought and simple execution – is one of the great qualities Darryl Cunningham brings to his Science tales scams: lies, hoaxes and scams (Myriad Editions, 2011), his collection of graphic novel-style essays on electro-convulsive therapy (an eye opener in that it does acknowledge there are benefits to be had), homeopathy, chiropractic and the MMR vaccine scandal (the scandal was of course the scaremongerering), and dismissals of the arguments of moon hoax believers, climate change deniers and anti-evolutionists, with a final round-up of the overall notion of Science denial.  The facts of each case are simply presented with strip cartoon narration, spare draughtsmanship, collage of borrowed and treated iconic photographs and illustrations, and diagrams.  There are a lot of ideas and facts covered here in a very short space of time, with series of images to linger over.  Simply presented yes, but never simplistic.  Beautifully done.

Finally, briefly, I’m well into Hilary Mantel‘s Bring up the bodies (Fourth Estate, 2012), her sequel to the awesome Wolf Hall.  Incredibly, this continuation of Thomas Cromwell’s life in the service of king, country and self at the court of Henry VIII is even better than Wolf Hall, but I’ll expand on that later, save to share the observation that when one of the specialist royalist historians was rabbiting on on the telly on Sunday afternoon about the importance of the almost sacred link between the monarchy and the Thames, citing the flotilla that marked ace philanderer Charles II’s return to England and his Restoration to the throne after the failure of the Republic in 1660  and went on to add to the list Henry VIII’s and Anne Boleyn’s wedding processional … and three years later – spoiler alert! – her journey back down the Thames to the Tower for trial and subsequent execution.  Bet that bit gets cut out of the edited highlights.

* Just like Tom thumb’s blues
** Visions of Johanna
***Don Marquis‘ exquisite Archy & Mehitabel poems (“expression is the need of my soul i was once a vers libre bard but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach it has given me a new outlook upon life“) – give yourself a treat

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