Friday, December 08, 2017

Beware: Anti-Science Mind at Work

Don't bother to argue with this guy: He's not likely to understand and will just 
repeat the same old faux pas.

In a blog post about fossil bones dated 7th December fundamentalist salesman and theme park manager Ken Ham repeats to himself the same old "You weren't there!"canard encapsulating the essence of his anti-science delusions; although it is probably a fair conclusion that he succeeds in suckering his customer base.

In his post, as is the wont of anti-science fundamentalism, Ham focuses on the epistemic problems which science inevitably faces but which, as we know all too well, warms the heart of fundamentalists. They are as a class well and truly alienated from the academic establishment and any discomfiture of academia goes down well with them. The particular scientific epistemic difficulty that is the subject of Ham's post is the interpretation of scratch marks found on some fossil bones.  Here's Ham's key passage: 

Therein lies the problem with historical science — we weren’t there! Historical science isn’t directly testable, observable, or repeatable because it deals with the past (history) and we weren’t there to observe what happened. But there was someone who was there, our Creator God, and in his Word, he revealed to us what happened in the past. We can use the history in God’s Word—in particular a 6,000-year-old universe, a global Flood, and the events at the Tower of Babel—as a framework for understanding the world around us. 

To a mind like Ham's "being there" solves all the epistemic problems! But he fails to see that we are dealing with a continuum rather than a fundamental distinction of type and he cannot see that there is an underlying commonality which means that all science is at once both observational and yet historical. It's a matter of degree: All information about the world, whether via the Bible, documents, telescopes, microscopes and what have you arrives at our door via signals, signals that need interpreting; it's just that some objects are closer to us and provide more prolific and reliable signals than other objects separated from us by a greater distance in space and time*. There is also a more abstract "distance" set up by the logical complexity of the object being studied; the more complex a phenomenon the greater the difficulty in drawing conclusions.

Ham cannot see that there is one category here rather than two ("Two" as per his "Historical science vs observational science" dualism). Of course I can't expect someone like Ham to take this on board even if he was willing. For example, to his mind "technology" is all about the here and now - that is about "observational science" rather than "historical science". But of course to trouble shoot complex technologies (e.g. aircraft) and to get them to work requires the input from a history of tests and historical accounts. The complexity here entails that logical distance that I have already spoken of. And if he thinks that complex technology provides readily repeatable conditions then it is clear that he really knows little about the subject. Technology doesn't come more repeatable, deterministic and "here & now" than software and yet we have no general way of proving a program's correctness! Testing complex software depends very much on keeping an eye on its history.

In one sense we are never there! We might be closer or we might be further away from some object under investigation, but we are never absolutely there! We see the whole world through an interface of duly arrived signals of which we are invariably obliged to make assumptions about their rational integrity. This rational integrity is always vulnerable to the pathological logic of wackaloons. Ham's motive for attempting to draw a bogus distinction between science that is somehow based on direct observation and science that comes out of interpretation is an attempt to give outright justification for his attack on the sciences of natural history, archaeology and geology and thereby offer credence to the notion that he isn't a complete anti-science Luddite.

I've posted on this subject many times before: See here for example. 

Ham isn't the brightest bulb in the box; but that is both the cause of his failing and of is success: It is a failing because he'll never make it as clever science buff able to speak to the academic community on their own level; the best he can do is spiritually intimidate and dominate a few tame scholars. But it is also his success because he speaks the language needed to pass on his delusions to a technically challenged customer base and present fundamentalist "science" in terms they understand and will readily purchase.

* There is an intriguing self referencing phenomenon here. When Isaac Newton investigated the propagation of light he was of course using the signals delivered by light to his eye in order to study light. That is, light signals are needed to investigate light signals.  In order to carry out a successful and meaningful investigation of light certain initial assumptions have to be made about the nature of light. These initial assumptions are needed to bootstrap a successful investigation which further refines our concept of light. We have to assume that our world is rational enough to point us in the right direction in the first place; that is, it has a "self reinforcing" rather than contradictory form of self reference.  Similar considerations of self reference were mentioned in this post. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Fascist Fantasy Land; Why Conspiracy Theorism Doesn't Work

I first saw the above elaborate schemata on PZ Myers' blog -  see here. According to Myers it's the world view of a website called MAGAPILL. But given that we are dealing with the internet here, one must approach this bizarre material bearing in mind Poe's law. In what follows, however, I am proceeding under the assumption that we here a genuinely held world view.....

The diagram above merges many observable aspects of our social world into one grand slam conspiracy theory. This comprehensive theory interprets ostensible features of Western society as the superficial and misleading manifestation of an underlying matrix like reality; in fact "The Matrix" (as in sci-fi film) is exactly what they liken it to. The creators of the schemata probably see themselves as the heroes of the story, heroes who have discovered the "matrix" and have broken the code of its sham facade. It's no surprise that we are dealing with Trump supporters here. Trump is a man with a tenuous connection with reality but who explains away any consequent intellectual dissonance using his talent for apportioning blame and his belief to be a victim of an institutionalized facade of disinformation and "fake news"; this is prototypical conspiracy theory. Trump, apparently, was pleased that MAGAPILL praised him for his accomplishments.

If you look at the above picture you can read about false flag terrorism, earthquake machines, classification of patents threatening the industrial status quo, displacement of helpful natural compounds with harmful controlling synthetics, weakening the nutritional value of crops with GM, weaponizing vaccinations and viruses, and a whole lot more. All in all it's very Alex Jones-esque!. However, I haven't found any mention of flat earthism, contrails, and the moon landing hoax! But they could be in there somewhere! Also, I can't see anything like David Ike's lizard conspiracy. That may be because mainstream conspiracy theorists don't believe David Ike to be a random crackpot but instead a false flag conspiracy theorist working for the Illuminati and out to discredit conspiracy theorism! For the hardened conspiracy theorist big events which turn on random causes or the work of a lone crackpot don't figure strongly in their world view. For the addicted conspiracy theorist big events are not meaningless but must fit into a comprehensive and covert background of malign grand purposes.

The above picture portrays a world which is in the controlling hands of criminal secret societies, some of whom have an official front. Life, they tell us, isn't what it seems: Rather it's a much more exciting affair of heroes against cloak and dagger Machiavellians. These clever and brave heroes have unraveled the secret code of reality and blown away its covers. Like Neo in The Matrix and Donald Trump they are in a battle of good vs. (hidden) evil.  On the other hand is it as PZ Myers says "a warped and dangerously demented perception of reality"? I know what I think! A mixture of suspicion, self aggrandizement and a sense of having solved a riddle thus giving meaning to life are at the heart of the motivations for conspiracy theorism. 


One way to discredit a movement is to draw parallels with the fascists and Nazis and that is exactly what I'm going to do here.  In fact it's not a stretch of the imagination to find commonality between the people who fall for grand conspiracy theorism and the Nazis of prewar Germany; after all, the Nazis bought into paranoid fantasies which they believed to be the underlying social reality; namely, that rich Jewish financiers were pulling the strings of Western societies, causing poverty and wars. More generally the Jews were likened to an infestation of over breeding rats. The Nazis also promoted historical fantasies regarding the superior origins of the Aryan race and some, such as Himmler, mixed these ideas with fanciful occult mysticism*.  The emotional need which help maintain these fictions was found in racial pride and social paranoia. So, the parallel I'm drawing here between Nazi philosophy and modern grand conspiracy theorism is that they both see the world through a delusional filter egged on by a combination of ego, narcissism, fear and insecurity. The Nazis also provide a lesson in what a real controlled society actually looks like; it looks nothing like the covertly controlled society of the conspiracy fantasists whose theories are dependent on the postulation of secret and unseen societies of Illuminati pulling the strings behind the scenes: For unlike these secret societies of grand conspiracy theorism the fascists were hardly a secret - far from it; their existence and the overtly brutal means by which they controlled  society were all too evident!

The human mind is an highly imaginative cognitive machine; it has to be to "read between the lines" of direct experience and interpolate meanings in order to build up a picture of the complex reality behind the ostensible. It does this by joining the observable data dots into theoretical narratives. But the epistemic challenge is that it is not always possible, especially when it comes to social reality, to formally and rigorously construct one's theories in a systematic scientific way. When it comes to social reality the human work-a-day epistemic is necessarily a very seat-of-the-pants affair. There is little choice for it to be otherwise because an uncontrolled stream of social data flies by daily at a rate of knots, quickly becoming history and leaving nothing but conclusions drawn on the hoof, largely unconsciously. But where the real problem lies is less in a necessarily flaky epistemic but in the unconsciousness of the precarious foundation on which this creative process rests. This is especially so when allied to a human need to act with conviction; in fact sometimes with utter confidence and decisiveness on its otherwise flaky world view. The heuristic behind this behavior may be that bad conclusions are more profitable than no conclusions at all. Perhaps it's a bit like playing a lottery: If you put an investment into a long shot there is a chance you will get some big wins; but then who can calculate the bottom line which is the balance of costs and benefits?

The grand conspiracy world view envisages a society which behind the scenes is highly organised and centrally controlled (albeit in a very malign and manipulative way) thus effectively positing a potentially knowable social world. For the grand conspiracy theorist very little of importance happens in society which is haphazard, random or a product of internal chaos. The grand conspiracy theorist believes that grandiose and purposely contrived Machiavellian themes run throughout society and these themes largely explain its ostensible features.  Little or no cognizance is taken of the chaotic wild card effects of human nature with its curious blend of compassion, creativity and the conflicts between ego and superego;. that is, between the demands of the self and the need to be a good citizen. The idea that the myriad decisions made by a myriad human beings with no one group in full control is not an idea conspiracy theorists feel secure with. These theorists don't like wild cards. (See the Kennedy assassination)

When self trumps citizenship the old fashioned word for it is "sin", the word with the "I" in the middle. "Sin", by definition, limits horizons to self and the consequent decentralizing effect of sin tends to break down and disorganize. The Biblical vision of human society's enemy emerging from the seething chaos of the deep as a serpent taps into to the archetype of the chaos monster; an apt metaphor for the effects of human and satanic sin and the resultant Chaoskampf. In contrast the conspiracy theorist's secret societies have to be highly moral between members of their class and epistemically unified in order to follow the unity of purpose required if their class is to stay secret and stay in power. I don't believe human beings are either moral enough nor epistemically empowered enough to maintain full and amicable agreement. Social life is simply far too sinful and chaotic for that. Highly organised pan-global secret conspiracies would entail the use of many cooperating operatives. This is an entirely unrealistic expectation, an  expectation the conspiracy theorist is unwilling to give up because their world view personalizes the struggle against social corruption, providing an identifiable enemy against which the theorist can fight, thus gaining the glory and self respect of being a heroic protagonists in an important struggle. In comparison the Chaoskampf resulting of the natural state of human affairs, namely the bulk effects of ignorance, stupidity, pride, sleaze, and corruption is far too impersonal, mundane and prosaic for conspiracy theorists;  Chaoskampf is the struggle against drowning in a sea of meaninglessness, an apparently much less heroic struggle. The struggle against shady well organised characters in government is a far more romantic an idea than the Chaoskampf resulting of the disorganizing effects of our own nature. Heroes need to fight against super-villians, not common-or-garden sleaze and corruption!

The response would probably be: 
"You're pay-rolled by the Illuminati". 
In my time I have come across several people with some kind of paranoid personality disorder and have become familiar with their fertile imaginations which populate the world with conniving demons as they stand, unimpeachable heroes, against the baroque plots against them. I see something  similar among the conspiracy theorists. I must also mention the christian fundamentalists who are fertile ground for the prototypical conspiracy theorism such as we see in Donald Trump. Their state of mind allows them to readily accuse detractors of being engaged in heinous sins and machinations against them and God.

Finally a confession. I have laid it on thick against the conspiracy theorist's world view. And yet I find myself in some ways having to engage in a similar epistemic activity -  namely, that of trying to make sense of the world of experience by building some kind of coherent narrative which fits it all together into a single package. The only alternative to the hubris of this rather ambitious project is to either go down the route of scientific minimalism - that is, to confine one's attention to the relatively uniform and less erratic objects like springs and precipitates, objects amenable to formal and systematic methods -  or to throw one's hands up and become a postmodern nihilist. But if one wants to have a chance of progressing further than the relatively simple non-erratic objects of institutional science  one is left with little choice but to fly in the face of epistemic difficulties and go for it; you never know, there might be big winnings. I'm attempting to synthesize a comprehensive world view based on Christian fundamentals, but without falling into the errors of either positing a highly ordered covert malign political organisation or giving any credence to the prejudices and epistemic arrogance of Christian fundamentalism, a fundamentalism which thinks that scripture short cuts epistemic difficulties. These pitfalls are prevented if one is aware of the human precariousness of one's scriptural interpretations. God or no God we work out our salvation with fear trembling as we rely on the informalities of anecdotal history and personal testimony in place of formal and systematic testing.

* The mystical world of Heinrich Himmler
Mystical symbolism and a mysterious ritual space at Himmler's Wewelsburg castle

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Adam’s Navel and the “Appearance of Age”

Answers in Genesis' David Menton writes: "It’s no wonder that for centuries artists have been at a loss to portray just what the first couple’s abdominal region looked like—did they or did they not have a belly button? You will note that artists generally avoided the whole issue by conveniently covering their midsections with nearby foliage". And as the picture above shows the tradition continues at AiG!

Recently an article appeared on the Christian fundamentalist web site Answers in Genesis entitled Creation and the Appearance of Age by David Menton. According to an editor’s note this article was first published in the St. Louis MetroVoice 5, no. 8 in August 1995. The article is therefore 22 years old and evidence that the same tropes go round and round in fundamentalist circles without needing a great deal of modification. The reason why the same well worn arguments and articles are sufficient for a fundamentalist ministry is because they are not trying to convince the academic elite – which they’ve written off as a satanically inspired  conspiracy – but rather they are selling their ideas to an uncritical technically challenged audience who can’t, won’t or don’t have time to think things through for themselves. As long as this audience can see some semblance of plausibility, technicality and academic authority in the articles coming out of a fundamentalist ministry those articles have done their job and sold themselves.

I’ve seen it many times: The paranoid assumption of hard-line fundamentalism is that Christians are in an unrelentingly evil, totally depraved world where every activity that doesn’t fall within the scope of some favoured fundamentalist faction is suspect and cannot be trusted –  even other Christians who are outside that faction; in fact especially other Christians outside that faction. A fine example of this institutionalized paranoia is AiG’s boss Ken Ham: Christian opponents of Ham’s word are condemned by him as heretics following man’s word rather than God’s word (because effectively Ham equates his word with God’s Word). In this context of irrational suspicion it is no surprise that  fundamentalism is fertile ground for conspiracy theorism and some fundamentalists are actually  moving into flat earth theory with its need to adopt a very strong form of conspiracy theorism to make such a theory work – this is an extremum outcome of the social paranoia that drives fundamentalism. In flat earth fundamentalism we have a subculture who are rejecting some very basic established science, science worked out at least 2500 years ago. As far as I can tell this is actually part of a social malaise which extends beyond Christian fundamentalists to New Agers. I fear for civilisation. But I digress.

I’ve looked at the question of  fundamentalism's “appearance of age” before. See these posts:

I’ve also done a series on a related question; namely, the bogus dichotomy mindlessly and endlessly repeated by Ken Ham that observational science is fundamentally distinct from historical science. In support he often quotes technology as an application of “observational science”. He clearly has never had to do any substantial trouble shooting of problems of complex technological artifacts where the observable records and traces left by the fleeting passage of an artifact through history are important in the diagnosis of those problems. A similar point applies to medical science as it attempts to diagnose organic pathology. For my series on this false dichotomy, which is a core doctrine of Ken Ham's anti-science stance, see here:

The 22 year old AiG article I’m looking at can be found here:

Below I interleave quotes from Menton's article with my own comments. We read the following at the start of Menton’s article:

Why, I wonder, would God spend an entire six days doing a miracle that would require of Him literally no time at all? Think about it: How much time does a miracle take? How much time, for example, did Jesus take for His first miracle when He changed water into the finest quality wine (as judged by a professional steward) for the wedding at Cana? The answer, of course, is no time at all—He told the servants to fill the pots with water and serve it! Still, the Bible clearly reveals God took six whole days to initially create everything to perfection; so, we must either take God at His Word, or presume to stand in judgment of all Scripture.

MY COMMENT: No! We cannot conclude that miracles take no time at all: It may seem from a human perspective that a miracle is absolutely instantaneous but we really don’t know just how divisible time is; who knows how many events are spread out over a period too small to register on human time scales during, say, a water-into-wine miracle? If we could zoom in on the time coordinate and see how God sees it, a second could be an aeon in terms of the number events it contains as water converts to wine.

But even if the miracle took no time at all there still remains the question of divine time as measured in terms of the complexity involved in the assembling of the event in God’s mind. My guess is, however, that fundamentalists tend to subliminally view God as a super magician who need only say “abracadabra” and stuff jumps into sight thus consuming neither divine time nor divine thought. As one evangelical song has it“[God] Spoke the stars into existence”.  The belief in a deity who just has to speak high-level commands that don’t break down into a myriad lower level activities is a fundamentalist trope. This is magic. That Menton probably has this magical paradigm in mind, at least subliminally, is evident when he writes:

Think of any one thing that our omnipotent God might instantly create out of nothing by the power of His Word.

That is, sheer word power rather than thinking power creates things. This is magic. Perhaps the theological lesson of Genesis' mythological six-day creation is that it tells us that God is not a lazy pagan magician who can just sit back and speak stuff into existence but a workman who assembles his creations.

Notice also the fundamentalist inquisitional tactic in the last sentence of the quoted paragraph. Here Menton stuffs a straw-man confession into the mouths of those who wouldn’t agree with him; namely, if you don’t agree with Menton about those six literal days then you are presuming to stand in judgement on the Almighty Himself. Fundamentalist paranoia means that they are unwilling to accept that those who disagree with them do so with a clear conscience and don't see themselves as contradicting the Almighty.  (This inquisitional tactic of using straw-man confessions has also been used by fundamentalist Jason Lisle)

The appearance of age in the things that God created is a much-debated issue in contemporary Christian scientific circles. Can God—or more accurately—would God create something that at the very moment of its creation has the appearance of age? The short answer to this question may be: How else? How, indeed, could God create anything that did not appear to us to be aged (like a fine wine) at the moment of its creation.

MY COMMENT: Written in 1994 this article is showing its age, or should I say “maturity”? I think the AiG editorial staff who decided to publish this article will find that there are young earthists nowadays who don’t like the phrase “an appearance of age” and prefer the vaguer “mature creation” as it has less connotation of God building in misleading signs about age into His creation (But see fundamentalist John Byl below).

Menton is wrong: It is possible to conceive objects which have no "appearance of age" and/or are a-historical. Take for example a parameter P which measures some aspect of an object where:

P = A T -1

…and where A is a constant and T measures time. Obviously, here P is the reciprocal of time. If we use this equation then measuring P will immediately give us calculable age. Of course using Menton’s philosophy this age could be misleading because God could have created the object of this equation with a particular value of P, just as he could, according to some fundamentalists, have created star-light-in-transit. Thus the value of T calculated using the above equation is then only an “apparent age” according to Menton.  However, assuming that the values of T are not just apparent, then we find that the object at T=0, on the basis of the above equation, returns an infinity. That is, the object at T=0 is beyond human understanding and humanly speaking to assign an “apparent age” beyond the statement T=0 is meaningless in this context. Ergo, Menton is wrong about not being able to create an object without the “appearance of age”. Presumably God can create such an object.

Another case in point is a Newtonian gravitational system of perfect billiard ball spheres orbiting one another. This system returns no age at all; it could have been there forever or it could have been created out of nothing by God, yesterday; the object is timeless and it betrays no clues as to its history – it is a-historical, it is ageless.

So in summary we find that some objects show signs of having a history and some are a-historical. And of course it is likely that some objects are ambiguous and difficult to fit in either category.

Think of any one thing that our omnipotent God might instantly create out of nothing by the power of His Word.
……Maybe you thought of a visible star—depending on its distance from the earth, its light might appear to have been traveling for over a billion years to reach your eyes. All of these things would have the appearance of age and an ongoing process at the very moment of their creation.

MY COMMENT: This example betrays the dilemma that fundamentalists are in: Do they go the whole hog with “mature creation” and postulate that star light was created in-transit? Or do they get out their pencils and paper and work out theories consistent with a 6000 year time scale and yet which give a history to the star light without having to posit a dubious in-transit creation?

 As we have seen in posts on this blog AiG fundamentalists have recently had a tendency to do their best to drop in-transit star light creation and give starlight a genuine history of propagation of one kind or another. However, these efforts have had limited success (See here, here and here). A similar situation exists in regard to continental drift; a fanatical mature creationist might claim that God created what geologists see as evidences of a history of drift (such as sea floor magnetic patterns) “as we see them, just like that!”. But recently there has been a theory submitted by a young earthist of “runaway” continental drift which attempts to fit all the necessary intervening drifting events into a suitably short time scale. In order to preserve the rational integrity of God’s creation some young earthists are at least trying to do some science rather than short cut science with “mature creation”.

So why do we have these strenuous efforts by fundamentalists who ignore Menton's assertion about the inevitability of the "appearance of age" and attempt to provide histories for objects that are clearly not a-historical? I think it's because they can sense the violation of rational integrity that bland acceptance of an "appearance of age" is liable to lead to. 

The Genesis fundamentalist thus faces a difficult question: Which observed evidences require an historical theory in order to maintain the rational integrity of God’s work and which can be written off as simply “mature creation”? Adam’s navel is a case in point. Of this matter Menton comments:

Also let’s not forget the critically important placenta—its development in the womb necessarily precedes that of the baby so that it can serve the function of a temporary lung, kidney, liver, gut, and endocrine system until the baby develops its own. It’s no wonder that for centuries artists have been at a loss to portray just what the first couple’s abdominal region looked like—did they or did they not have a belly button? (You will note that artists generally avoided the whole issue by conveniently covering their midsections with nearby foliage.)

MY COMMENT: Ken Ham who, as I noted in my Beyond Our Ken series, confidently claims that Adam had no navel and yet accepts that the trees of Eden would have been created with a bogus history of yearly growth rings. Menton, however, being a less bullish authority than Ham, like the artists he speaks of, doesn’t know where to go on the navel question!  (See also the picture at the head of this post which has been taken from one of Ken Ham's children's books)

This whole line of thinking gets us into what is called a “first cause” problem. We live in a “cause and effect” world, where every action causes a reaction and is itself the result of a previous action. Everything appears to be an ongoing process for which we are incapable of really grasping a beginning. This is all popularly expressed in the age-old question: “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” If we say the chicken, we will be asked from whence the chicken came; yet if we say the egg, we will be asked from whence the egg—and so round and round we go. Somewhere, there had to be a beginning to this cyclical process we call the chicken and the egg

MY COMMENT: “First causism” has some issues which are really off-topic in this context so I won’t talk about them here. (But see here). Menton tells us: Everything appears to be an ongoing process for which we are incapable of really grasping a beginning. But as my toy town models show there can exist systems/objects for which an antecedent history is meaningless or is a-historical.

However, in the case of the chickens and egg, as in the question of Adam’s navel, we find a set of observations where to deny a history violates the creation’s rational integrity; to postulate a chicken or an egg first is the biological equivalent of postulating in-transit start-light creation.

Menton concludes with:

We may conclude that the Lord is captive to neither time nor process.

But God is captive to the Truth and Integrity. Therefore He creates a world with rational integrity, not a world of belly buttons without placenta or tree rings without a history of growth or star light without a history of travel. A truthful God makes a creation of intellectual integrity. But if you are prepared to pass up this integrity anything goes. For example, Whitcombe and Morris in The Genesis Flood were quite happy with in-transit photon creation.

As I have said some objects are a-historical (such as two perfect spheres in Newtonian orbits) and some have clear histories like star light, sedimentary rocks, tree rings and Adam’s navel. Some objects are in between and have an ambiguous history, such as an alcohol molecule which can be constructed in the lab or by fermenting grapes. As we saw in my “Beyond Our Ken” series fundamentalists are having problems drawing the line. Some fundamentalists like John Byl will claim that it is perfectly legitimate for God to create objects with an appearance of having a bogus history and in any case Byl suggests that God may do just that to deceive those evil scientists! But as a concession to rational integrity fundamentalist Jason Lisle will claim that star light has traveled the whole distance from its source along the radials leading to Earth, although Lisle has to concede that in-transit photon and graviton creation is needed across non-radial paths. Ken Ham thinks that Adam had no navel but believes the trees in the Garden of Eden were created with rings thus having built into them a bogus history of growth and Sun spot minima.

We get poor quality articles from Ken Ham’s organisation such as we see from David Menton and Danny Faulkner and yet if one doesn't accept their dubious logic Ken Ham will spiritually abuse detractors and spit hell and hamnation in order to spiritually pressure acquiescence. This is the epistemic arrogance of a brutal primitive spiritual logic that at one time sent people to the stake.

ZakDTV tells us about the lunatic fringe. I fear for civilisation!

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Ontological Reductionism vs Mathematical Reductionism

On 23rd October I published a blog post with the above title. This post was an analysis of a draft paper co-authored by Jonathan Kopel promoting the concept of "Relational Ontology" and contrasted it over and against "Reductionism". Since then the paper has been updated and has a different author list. It now awaits publication. Jonathan asked if I could remove my original post as it pertained to the now defunct draft paper. This I have done. However, as my original post contained content which can stand without the paper, then in this current post I reproduce this content. Moreover, when Jonathan's paper is eventually published I will review it once again and I am likely to make reference to the material that follows.


Firstly, then, what is reductionism?  When used in the context of the physical sciences “reductionism” is usually understood to be the contention that somehow every aspect of reality "reduces to" or is fully "explained" by the motions, properties and interactions of fundamental particles. This “reductionist” paradigm might also be characterized as “mechanistic” in as much as its only recognized qualities are defined by a purely geometrical dynamic. Reductionism in its strongest and most emphatic manifestations regards all other qualities as illusory.  Notice however that here a) the concept of “explanation” is not defined and b) this sketch of reductionism actually conflates two forms of reductionism. Viz:

A1: Ontological reductionism. This is the assumption that particulate physics constitutes some kind of ultimate reality to which all else “reduces”, whatever that means. In comparison with this particulate world the world we actually perceive is thought of as all but illusory. This strong view  of reductionism may also be characterized as “elemental materialism”.
A2: Mathematical reductionism. This is more a dream than an assumption: It is hoped there is a final succinct (mathematical) theory out there waiting for us which is general enough to fully describe the ontology assumed in A1. It is then hoped that in combination with A1 the final theory, as its name suggests, will explain everything. The increasing generality of our current theoretical narratives is usually taken as lending support for this hope and, moreover, may be offered as a reason to believe in A1.

Now, as a physicist I’m quite a fan of A2 (but not a dogmatic fan). Although we can’t be sure about A2, it is, nevertheless, at least an intelligible proposition. In contrast I regard A1 as either an incoherent philosophical bias, often adhered to without self-awareness, or a pictorial myth on which we can hang our thoughts and give some recognisable human visualisation to our mathematical formalisms (I find nothing wrong with the latter). But it is far from clear just what it means to assert that reality somehow “reduces” to elementary particulate components. Hence, although I can tentatively accept the mathematical reductionism of A2 I do not accept the elemental ontological reductionism of A1, an idea I find unintelligible.

Reductionism is not the only term whose meaning is unclear in this context: After all, what does it mean to "explain something"?  But unlike "ontological reductionism" the concept of "explanation"  can, I believe, be given a clearer meaning. If we take it that “explaining” is essentially a mathematical activity which simply provides some kind of successful mathematical description of the patterns displayed by the physical world then this concept of explanation stands a chance of being defined with some precision - See footnote *1. But a successful mathematical description in and of itself doesn’t entail the need to imbue that mathematics with fundamental ontological significance, a significance against which all other perceptions and conceptions are thought to be “illusory”. Imputing some kind of elemental fundamental ontology to our formal mathematical terms amounts to an interpretation of the meaning of those terms. Such would classify as a  world view synthesis, a world view which amounts to a metaphysical belief as to the actual essence and true meaning of the world. Such a belief, which is essentially the content of A1, is highly contentious of course. The upshot, however, is that when A1 and A2 are conflated the theoretical narratives of physics become inseparably bound up with the contentious elemental reductionism of A1.

Scientific narratives emerge out of the interplay between experience and the trial theoretical constructions we tender in order to make sense of experience. It is a kind dot joining game where the “dots” are our experiences and the structures joining them are our theoretical conceptions. The scientific narrative is written in the language of the third person. But this language hides the truism that all science traces back to the experiences and theoretical constructions of a first person somewhere; the “dots” belong to a first person experience and the theoretical constructions which attempt to unify our patterns of experience are reified in a first person cognition. The third person account is framed, though, as to give the impression that it refers to some reality beyond cognition. This projected "reality" is Kant’s “thing-in-itself”, an object which is really only mediated through our cognition and therefore in an absolute sense inaccessible. I wouldn’t want to go as far as positing a kind of “cognitive positivism” by asserting that human cognition is the ultimate reality or somehow primary rather than secondary; that would be as bold a conceit as A1. However, it seems that ostensibly we have a tenuous grasp on the exact nature of this “thing-in-itself-reality” and don’t really know what it means. In contrast, as Kant suggested, we do have inside knowledge of what it means to be a first person reality whose perspective on the world is mediated through experience and theory (and perhaps ultimately this understanding may throw light on the very essence of all reality). Our first person theoretical perspectives may or may not resemble some ontology beyond cognition; for particles, strings, waves, fields, spaces or whatever, may be just an expression of the way we are cognitively equipped to think about the thing-in-itself ontology. Although we have no absolute connection with the “elemental materialism” posited in A1, we nevertheless have a good registration between many of our theoretical constructs and the  “dots” of our experience; that is, experience and theory cohere and especially so when theory successfully predicts experience. Although this coherence is very suggestive of the existence of an ontology beyond our cognition, the registration between theory and experience doesn’t reveal the “thing-in-itself-ness” of that ontology.  


Because ontological and mathematical reductionism are easy to conflate we find that anti-reductionists may look unfavorably on idea of the potential completeness of mathematical physics and thus perceive their mission to be one of trying to throw doubt on the mathematical efficacy of physics.  What may give power to the elbow of those who are tempted by this road is that even if our theories are complete their mathematical intractability can scupper any idea that they give easy prognostications about the physical world. For example, even if we assume that our current quantum equations capture everything about fundamental particle interactions (which of course they may not) the mathematical consequences of even these equations, when applied to many particles, remain staggeringly complex and it is likely that multi-particle quantum mechanics is computationally irreducible; that is, only the system itself can simulate itself; there are no analytical mathematical short cuts beyond running the particle system in real time in order to exactly compute the outcome; the system must be its own computer.  In the light of this it is not particularly startling that so called chemical bonds come in many different types and that these types consist of classes with fuzzy blended boundaries. 

In any case science has so often depended on approximate, sometimes  almost “toy town” models, simply because reality is too complex to take into account every impinging factor. These "toy town" models may even be simplifications of our own enunciated equations simply because those equations may be too difficult to solve analytically. Moreover, given that “isolated systems” are more often than not idealizations, then it is no doubt one of those toy town models to approximate a chemical structure as a configuration of static elements. For example, I don't think anyone thinks those models of molecules showing well defined coloured polystyrene spheres connected by tooth picks (i.e. bonds) are very literal – one can think of them to be on a par with a child’s stick man representation of a human being!

Even on the basis of quantum mechanics as it currently stands it is clear that our simplifying models are highly caricatured representations of the consequences of this mechanics. When using such “caricatures” to describe molecular dynamics it is probably prudent to use several completing metaphorical models which only when taken together maximise the sense making power of what is in fact a very human narrative. But really all this is very much business as usual as far as science is concerned, a business where our computational idealizations and compromises should not be taken too literally. As I’ve already said even our current equations, when used to treat multi-particle scenarios, are likely to be computationally irreducible. This means that only models employing simplifying approximations are going to be analytically tractable to limited human computational resources. Our cartoonish depictions of molecular dynamics are just the way science has always worked and will continue to work. Given what are clearly human limitations (which is the natural state of human affairs) there is no reason to throw up our hands and declare that somehow all this portends a broken scientific paradigm which needs to be discarded in favour of a new paradigm. For example, I would suggest that so-called Relational Ontology is not going to bring a fundamental revolution in science, but only an enhanced philosophical appreciation that the objects science deals with are necessarily relational in nature. A similar "radical" paradigm which is unlikely to usher in anything more than an enhanced philosophical understanding is that of "contextual emergence" an idea which Robert C. Bishop describes as follows: 

Contextual emergence is the circumstance where domain A provides necessary conditions for the description or existence of elements of domain B, but lacks sufficient conditions for the description or existence of elements of domain B. This is to say that the sufficient conditions necessary to complete a set of jointly necessary and sufficient conditions for the description or existence of elements of domain B cannot be obtained from domain A alone. Information from domain B—a new context—is crucially needed 

As far as I'm concerned this is old news. For if I understand this passage correctly then “contextual emergence" even becomes apparent in something as elementary as a binary sequence. We readily talk about a “binary bit”, but in isolation the binary bit is in fact an incoherent object: A binary bit is only a binary bit by virtue of it being within a sequential context – that is, its reality is necessarily mediated via its relation to other binary bits. But the sequence itself is a meaningless concept if regarded in isolation to the bits it contains; take away the bits and you’ve got no sequence. We have here a kind of circular mutual dependence: A bit doesn’t have a reality apart from its sequential context and the sequence doesn’t have a reality apart from its component bits. The concept of a sequence provides the necessary conditions for defining the existence of a bit, but not sufficient conditions for the description of a bit because the bit has its own degree of freedom of 1 or 0. Conversely, the sequence is not an entity independent of the bits because the state of each bit is a necessary condition for a description of the sequence. I say, again what’s new here?

Taking this further with an object a little more sophisticated than a binary sequence here’s what I wrote as an end note in my annotation of Jonathan''s draft paper:

Relational ontology (RO) acknowledges that things have both intrinsic and extrinsic properties. Take for example a cat: We could isolate it in weightless low cryogenic vacuum for a short while in order to study its intrinsic particle configuration, but that would only yield half the story. The concept of a cat only makes complete sense in relation to its environment and how it uses that environment (e.g. territory defence, nocturnal hunting of prey, reacting to human owners etc). Thus being a “cat” entails a huge burden of extrinsic properties (or relations) without which “being a cat” is rather meaningless. This sort of reasoning applies to most objects we can think of.

I also touch on this matter in my essay “The Great Plan”.

RO might encourage an enhanced philosophical understanding on the relational aspects of descriptive science but it doesn’t advance the scientific understanding of chemistry; only more finely honed theoretical models will do that.


As I have already said we need to appreciate the different possible meanings of the term “explanation” with its sensitivity to one’s world view, particularly if ontological reductionism  and mathematical reductionism have been conflated. This appreciation will prevent putting ourselves on a collision course with the day by day business of the physical sciences. This day-to-day business inevitably employs simplified models, a mix of metaphors, idealisations and isolation approximations. Moreover, it is conceivable (although by no means certain) that one day the theoretical scientific account, in a purely formal mathematical sense, will be complete in terms of its descriptive power. But if that juncture should ever be arrived at it still wouldn’t follow that ontological reductionism is the logical conclusion. Ontological reductionism is just another comparative guess and/or belief as to the true nature of the ultimate thing-in-itself. In the meantime whether we understand Relational Ontology or not, the same issues revolving round questions of interactive isolation and computational irreducibility will remain very much the stuff of routine science and will continue to be respectively addressed using iterative methods*2 and a cluster of metaphorical simplifications/approximations. 

The mathematical objects of science are philosophically meaningless and unintelligible without positing the cognating first person who is both an experiencer and theoretical narrative constructor. In the introduction of my book Gravity and Quantum Non-Linearity I note this fact especially alongside the advances of neural science which is developing a third person account of human beings in terms of neurons, electric fields, chemistry, molecules and what-have-you. Hence, we have here the first person constructing a third person theoretical narrative which is then used to explain the first person perspective. This is in fact a self-referencing loop; theories conceived and tested by a first person are then used to explain the first person perspective. I liken this self-reference to the practice in computer software where C++ programs can be compiled using a compiler written in C++. That is C++ is defined in terms of C++.  Likewise, human beings have constructed theoretical concepts which can be used to give account of the human theory constructor. Thus, to attempt to do away with either the theoretical objects of science or the first person perspective is to do a violence to the other: Without the first person perspective of conscious cognition the so-called “atoms and the void” posited and understood by the first person is an unintelligible concept. But when we look closely at conscious cognition from a third person perspective all we find is “atoms and the void”. But only the first person knows just what inner conscious qualities are entailed by the apparently colourless third person world of the "atoms and the void". So, it is only when the two perspectives of the first and third persons are taken together that things start to make sense.


*1 On Mathematical Description
In my book Disorder and Randomness I look into the limits of theoretical narratives and their ability to “explain” in the descriptive sense of the word. For the purposes of the book I define “explanation” as the ability of small space short time algorithms to generate patterns of observations, patterns which we assume can be represented by binary sequences as per a digital computer simulation. Absolute randomness is then defined as those sequences which are unreachable using small space short time algorithms. The point to be made from this is that “explanation” in this sense is clearly a very human perspective; that is, it depends on the meaning of what we consider to be small and short; or in a single word, 'succinct'. The meaning of small and short is relative to our humanity; if we allow an indefinite extension to small and short then the sky is the limit in terms of explanation; complex and/or long running algorithms can conceivably explain (i.e. describe) any possible sequence and the concept of what is truly random then goes out of the window with it: either that or the concept of “explanation” becomes a trivialism. If one can store enough information or allow an algorithm to run for long enough it is very likely that anything could be “explained” and this renders rather redundant the meaning of "explanation" in the descriptive human sense.

*2 On Iterative Methods
Now, it’s a well-known cliché that in the final analysis everything is connected with everything else; complete and ideal isolation of any cosmic sub-system from everything else is just not absolutely possible. So, how then can we get an analytical scientific handle on the universe when strictly we should take into account the whole cosmic caboodle in our investigations of a subsystem? After all, in an absolute sense any subsystem we probe may be affected in complex and unknown ways by its environment, thus rendering any claim to having discovered a law which applies to the subsystem potentially invalid. The answer to this conundrum is experimental iteration.

To implement experimental iteration we start by making a crude judgement on what we think is needed to approximately isolate a system and then go about studying its patterns of behaviour. We thus can derive at least approximate analytical laws governing the universe. From there we can then use our first pass theories to get a better understanding of how to isolate subsystems. We can now start over again the process of subsystem experimentation and thus refine our theory, which in turn assists in the creation of better isolated subsystems thus further helping to hone our theories. The hope is, and it is only a hope, that some kind of convergence takes place toward better theoretical narratives.

This iterative process has some resemblance to Newton’s method of finding solutions to equation and like Newton’s method it has to start out by assuming that the epistemic chances are stacked in our favour; namely, that we have initial hunches and heuristics which will ultimately lead us in the right direction. This is not such a problem for theists who see epistemic providence at work in science. But it is not a game faithless nihilists will feel secure with! Ironically neither will Christian fundamentalists naturally take to this process because they are forever trying to throw doubt on the assumptions of rationality which are inevitably needed to make science work in the first place. For example, fundamentalists Jason Lisle and John Byle are cases in point. 

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

More Substandard Analysis from "Answers in Genesis"

Comets have always been a bit of a mystery. 

Danny Faulkner, a tame scholar who works for fundamentalist theme park boss Ken Ham, has written another article on comets, a phenomenon which he appears to think supports his boss's notion of a young cosmos (i.e.~ 6000 years).  I'm not at all impressed with Danny Faulkner's performance at AiG and I have written blog posts on his work before. See here:

The current article by Faulkner can be found here:

This is Faulkner's first paragraph in that article:

When I was growing up, the definition of science was simple: “the study of the natural world using the five senses.” This definition placed some limits upon science. For instance, science was restricted to the study of the natural world, so anything supernatural was out of bounds to science. Supernatural things include miracles, angels, souls, and God. Even if something is part of the natural world, it wasn’t considered scientific unless we could detect it with our five senses.

MY COMMENT: I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that Faulkner hasn't advanced much beyond his childhood understandings of scientific epistemology.

Firstly, science is not just about our five senses based experiences; it's also very much about how we interpret our experiences by joining the "dots" of the "data protocols" with theoretical narratives; it is those "data protocols" which are based on our experiences, experiences largely (but not exclusively) collected from the "five senses"  (Like, for example, our observations on the type and frequency of comets) We then go on to interpret the deeper meaning of these experiences by embedding them in theoretical structures. Of course, this activity of interpretation is carried out with varying degrees of rationality, rigor, testability, tentativeness and uncertainty and is best advanced with a measure of epistemic humility (an attitude which fundamentalists would do well to emulate rather than identifying their opinions with the very Words of God - an attitude they need to adopt when also reading the Bible)

Secondly, the so-called "supernatural" isn't barred from scientific investigation in as much as the allegedly aberrational nature of paranormal phenomena nevertheless leaves erratic and intermittent data protocols which can be investigated in the spirit of science. e.g. Someone makes claim to a miraculous healing from cancer; this claim can be investigated both through observations of historical accounts and from observations on the cancer sufferer. Of course, the erratic nature of the miraculous (a nature which it has by way of definition) means that such cases are difficult to confirm either way and conclusions drawn are a sensitive function of one's world view synthesis.

Thirdly, a note on the word "detect", a word which Faulkner uses: "Detection" is a theory laden concept. When some people find a large footprint in the woods or see a film of a shambling figure in a shaggy coat they will claim that it's a "Big Foot" detection event. When some people observe the accounts from witnesses about the sudden healing of a cancer sufferer they might regard it as a "supernatural" detection event. For the Christian, Christ is the express image of the Supernatural God, but much of the Christian understanding of Christ comes through historical accounts which of course are observed via the senses thus facilitating cognitive engagement. The fact is, even the so-called "supernatural" can be at least investigated using data delivered by the "five senses" and whether this data is regarded as a "detection" event is a function of the theories and world view one holds. This is, in fact, also true of more prosaic detection events: When we observe fossils in the rocks we effectively "detect" the presence of certain kinds animals in the distant past. In this case the so-called detection event, however, will involve a certain amount of theoretical anatomical reconstruction in our imaginations.

Because Faulkner appears to retain a simplistic "five senses" view of scientific epistemology and fails to appreciate the complex interplay between theory and observation/experience his understanding of epistemology is weak. Take these sentences for example:

Can we see this Oort comet cloud? Hardly. Remember that comet nuclei are very small.

Since there is no detectable evidence for the Oort cloud’s existence, it fails to qualify as a scientific idea by the older definition of science [i.e. Faulkner's "five senses" understanding of science]

MY COMMENT: Faulkner's "five senses" epistemology potentially could lead us down the anti-theoretical road of "If you can't see it, feel it, touch it etc, then there is no evidence for it". Wrong; we can't see, touch or feel atoms and fundamental particles; all the evidence for them is indirect and interpreted, based as it is on theoretical conceptions, even the evidence provided by electron microscopes and cloud chambers. But, of course, there is so much indirect evidence for elementary particles that we are left with little logical maneuvering room to allow us to propose alternative theories (Of course, the Oort cloud doesn't have anywhere near as much evidence in its favour.)

Given Faulkner's "five senses" epistemology it is very likely he  has swallowed the line taken by his boss Ken Ham, a man who thinks there is a fundamental difference between observational and historical science and that somehow historical science isn't observational: (See here)

But let's recall that Faulkner's article is really targeted towards selling AiG products to AiG's fundamentalist readers who will hear what they want to hear from Faulkner; namely, someone who talks with the same faux categories used by his boss and head salesman, Ken Ham. As we will see below Faulkner also has a distorted straw-man view of the actual status of the Oort cloud among scientists, a straw-man he no doubt succeeds in conveying to his target audience. This inquisitional approach of stuffing straw-man "confessions" into the mouths of outsiders whether they be Christians or non-Christians is encouraged by the fundamentalist minds of people like Ken Ham and Jason Lisle.

Given this sketch of Faulkner's confused understanding of scientific epistemology I'm now in a positon to comment on the following:

Why do so many scientists treat the Oort cloud as fact?

Since there is no detectable evidence for the Oort cloud’s existence, it fails to qualify as a scientific idea by the older definition of science.

Something (the Oort cloud) which we have no evidence for—except the imagination of evolutionary scientists who are desperate to defend their unfounded beliefs—is treated as fact because it’s “natural.”

MY COMMENT: As I keep saying evidence is never direct; it always has to be interpreted. In this sense there is "detectable" evidence for the Oort cloud in as much as the continued appearance of comets is interpreted as an observational support for the concept. However, these observations are currently not enough to raise the Oort cloud proposal above hypothesis level. Certainly, Faulkner is wrong in suggesting there is a wide spread scientific conspiracy to foist this hypothetical object upon the scientific community as a "fact".  Let's look at the Wiki entry on the Oort cloud (My emphases):

The Oort cloud (named after the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort), sometimes called the Öpik–Oort cloud, is a theoretical cloud of predominantly icy planetesimals believed to surround the Sun to as far as somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 AU (0.8 and 3.2 ly)

Astronomers conjecture that the matter composing the Oort cloud formed closer to the Sun and was scattered far into space by the gravitational effects of the giant planets early in the Solar System's evolution. Although no confirmed direct observations of the Oort cloud have been made, it may be the source of all long-period and Halley-type comets entering the inner Solar System, and many of the centaurs and Jupiter-family comets as well.

The Oort cloud is thought to occupy a vast space from somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 AU (0.03 and 0.08 ly) to as far as 50,000 AU (0.79 ly)[3] from the Sun. Some estimates place the outer edge at between 100,000 and 200,000 AU (1.58 and 3.16 ly). The region can be subdivided into a spherical outer Oort cloud of 20,000–50,000 AU (0.32–0.79 ly), and a torus-shaped inner Oort cloud of 2,000–20,000 AU (0.0–0.3 ly). The outer cloud is only weakly bound to the Sun and supplies the long-period (and possibly Halley-type) comets to inside the orbit of Neptune. The inner Oort cloud is also known as the Hills cloud, named after Jack G. Hills, who proposed its existence in 1981. Models predict that the inner cloud should have tens or hundreds of times as many cometary nuclei as the outer halo; it is seen as a possible source of new comets to resupply the tenuous outer cloud as the latter's numbers are gradually depleted. The Hills cloud explains the continued existence of the Oort cloud after billions of years.

Unlike Faulkner's distorted straw-man depiction we note here the very tentative and scientific tone of this article: There is no dogmatic assertion as to the existence of the Oort cloud: It is regarded as a theoretical and conjectural construction which provides a possible account for the continued existence of commentary ephemera. Notice the language used by the Wiki article: "Theoretical cloud", "Astronomer's conjecture...." "possible source of new comets", "may be", "proposed its existence".  Notice also that Oort cloud models are used to make predictions which wait for the all important observational testing; if such is possible in this case. But of course these scientific nuances are lost on Faulkner and the audience he is selling to. Instead he points to a piece of conjectured science, in this case the Oort cloud, and attempts to convey the idea that scientists are trying to pass it off as "fact".  But if the Wiki article is anything to go by then contrary to Faulkner's bland and simplistic assertion, the Oort Cloud proposal is typical of the scientific epistemic process. Faulkner appears not to understand this process. 

It is often remarked that anti-science evangelicals and fundamentalists spend most of their time in the negative pursuit of ferreting out the weak points of established science without proposing any positive ideas of their own. This is true and it is also true of Faulkner's article. The nearest Faulkner comes to proposing an alternative to the Oort cloud is this cryptic statement:

If the solar system were only a few hundred million years old (that’s nowhere near the supposed age of the universe), no more comets would remain.

MY COMMENT:  What's Faulkner trying to tell us here that we don't know already? We would only have a problem with the persistence of comet visitations if we knew for a fact that the supply of comets was, from the outset, very limited. But we simply don't know the origins of comets: That's why the Oort cloud only has tentative theoretical purchase. But neither does Faulkner know. And yet from the above statement he appears to be claiming he does know!  For it almost looks as though he may be trying to pass off the theory that God made such a limited supply of comets that even if the Solar System was just a few millions of years old this God ordained supply would be used up. But where can we observe in the Bible claims that God created a supply of comets which might be exhausted inside a few million years? The fact is we don't possess all the facts; we don't know how many comets are out there, or how many were there from the beginning, or even if they are being generated in someway; and this includes Faulkner himself. So in short Faulkner has no basis for hinting that the supply of comets should be used up in a few million years; he's just plucked this out of his authoritarian fundamentalist imagination.

There is little to be gained in writing any more about this incompetent article other than to point to my blog post where I give further comments on Faulkner's views on comets  See here:

Ham has turned Faulkner into a woolly minded scientific dunce and that is how Ham dearly wants all Christians to be. And if Christians don't accept the divine authority of Ham's opinions he is apt to spiritually abuse them.

Available from all AiG gift shops.

Relevant links: On epistemology:

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Trapped Comments Released from Moderation

Blogspot hasn't been emailing me about pending Quantum Non-Linearity comments that are automatically put into the moderation. Labouring under the wrong assumption that blogspot would email me about these I haven't been looking at the moderation queue. Consequence: Comments added months ago haven't been seen by me or responded to. But I've now responded to the comments in the following posts::

Nuclear Enabled Cranks: Comment by dimwoo

Dualism,Theology and Cognition   Comment by Jonathan Kopel

Monday, September 25, 2017

A Free Marketeer, but with a 'but'.....

Yes, free market economics is a feedback system! If there's a non-linear 
coupling here then we have all the potential for chaos!

I've been talking to James Knight on his Facebook discussion group about economics. He has, in the past, called himself a "libertarian" and he writes for the Adam Smith institute. Nowadays, however, "libertarian" just isn't a good label - it is term which has become blighted by association with the anti-establishment right-wing market protectionists and hyper-patriots in the US. In this context "libertarian" is a term giving pretext and plausible cover to a movement that in the final analysis, I submit, would ultimately prove to be anti-free market; after all, the anti-establishment disaffection we find in the US is in part the outcome of global trade changes, changes which, ironically, are to be expected as the free market works out its global logic. The reaction of the hyper-patriots to this global situation is to feel the draw of a consolidated nationalism (sometimes bordering on fascism and race supremacy) and  this encourages trade protectionism. These hyper-patriots are also fertile ground for a paranoid conspiracy theorism which imagines established government to be the seat of manipulative Machiavellian players. Let us remember that Hitler himself was an excellent exploiter of inter-cultural distrust and fear and populated the dark crevices of government with demons from his imagination.

Extreme libertarianism is anarchistic in sentiment and this, ironically, echoes the Marxist concept of the government-less commune, an idealistic state of society thought to be achievable via the pro tempore arrangements of the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat.  But given the self-deceits of human nature I have little doubt that the uncompromising idealism of the extremes of left and right, extremes which seek to do away with established (democratic) government, hide an all too human logic which ultimately results in the setting up of dictatorships, dictatorships which are anything but free-market friendly: Economic-hands-off tends to go hand in glove with intellectual-hands-off. Dictatorships feel threatened by this because it entails the distributed ferment of ideas which necessarily drive markets. Dictators (who sometimes have mental health issues) have a tendency to view the society they seek to dominate as an extension of their personality. But free markets do not usually thrive under the idiosyncrasies of dictators.

Over ten years ago I did a series on this blog called Mathematical Politics. This series briefly considered the question of centralized control verses decentralized free market control. The series ran into ten posts: Viz:

After 10 parts I got bored with the subject, abandoned it and returned to the physical sciences which I much prefer. But my recent involvement with James' Facebook group has meant I've had to blow the dust off this series. The last part finished with this:

It is ironic that both laissez faire capitalists and Marxists have faith in the power of a kind of “emergence” to work its magic. Both believe that once certain antecedent conditions are realized we are then on the road to a quasi-social paradisr. For the laissez faire capitalist the essential precursor is a free economy. For the Marxist the overthrow of the owning classes is the required precursor that once achieved will allow all else to fall into place. There is a parallel here with the school of artificial intelligence which believes consciousness is just a matter of getting the formal structures of cognition right: Once you do this, it is claimed, regardless of the medium on which those formal structures are reified, conscious cognition will just “emerge”. Get the precursors right and the rest will just happen, and you needn’t even think about it; the thing you are looking for will just ‘emerge’.


In other words I was deeply suspicious of any "panacea" prescriptions from both the left and right. However, in spite of that I still thought of myself as basically a person who was enthusiastic about the free market, although with a 'but'. For example, I finished part 4 with this paragraph:

So, the argument goes, for the successful creation and distribution of wealth the centralised planning of a command economy is likely to be less efficient a decision making process than that afforded by the immense decisional power latent in populations of people who are competent in identifying and acting own their own needs and desires. In particular, technological innovation is very much bound up with the entrepreneurial spirit that amalgamates the skills of marketeers and innovators who spot profit opportunities that can be exploited by new technology. Hence, free market capitalism goes hand in hand with progress. Such activity seems well beyond the power of some unimaginative central planner. It has to be admitted that there is robustness in this argument; Centralised planners don’t have the motivation, the knowledge and the processing power of the immense distributed intelligence found in populations of freely choosing agents.

But there is always a but.....

Always acutely aware that one must never be dogmatic about one's views, views which are best submitted to one's doubts and criticism, I then went on to consider conditions where the free market philosophy might need a bit of qualification.

But with today's partisan politics, in part a reaction to the economic instabilities caused by market globalization, there has been an increasing trend for the debate to polarize between left and right. The upshot of this is that there is a tendency to put people in either one of two camps: "If you are not with us you are against us!".  Given this context I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when James focused on my 'buts' rather than identify me as a fellow free market proponent even after months of discussion. As I've already said my acceptance of the market system necessarily, repeat necessarily, comes with a fair measure self-criticism, qualifications and 'buts' (an essential part of my epistemic method as far as I'm concerned). I think James saw this self criticism as a failure of faith and a failure to "convert".  Here's a sample of the response he gave me: 

When we meet I'm going to try to see that you get to grips with how much you may be underestimating just how much trade has done for humanity, and by equal measure how much you may be underestimating the harm done to humanity by all the things I regularly criticise

Markets work for all the people that partake in them, because markets are cooperation through and through.

Where people suffer is when they have barriers to enjoying the market benefits - such as through state meddling, corruption, cronyism, war, etc.

I think you're still learning about the power of markets, Tim - you're still in the early days.

I know he's far from perfect, but I'd recommend reading Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist - it's a fabulous intro to the development of markets and all the ways in which they benefit humankind.

This conjures up the image of me still loitering in the foothills of economic enlightenment, failing to tread the straight and narrow road to riches and therefore in need of full conversion! My "conversion" to "libertarianism" will never happen of course, because that would be contrary to my epistemic sentiments. I do all I can to avoid partisan contentions so assimilating my intellect that they become part of my personality; that would be to succumb to a kind of intellectual hegemony and commit intellectual suicide. So, rather than allowing some intellectual position to assimilate me, I instead endeavor to assimilate itThis means that wherever possible I maintain a studied detachment towards a subject, thereby avoiding becoming an enslaved "fan" to anything less worthy than the very meaning of life. Therefore I could not argue for the free market as a polemicist as does James; that's where we differ I think. 

In thinking about James reference to still learning about the power of markets  and underestimating just how much trade has done for humanity we find a huge irony. Marx himself seemed to be fully aware of the power of the markets. In fact in my copy of the book "Marx on Economics" edited by Robert Freedman, Freedman quotes Marx as saying in 1848:

The bourgeoisie during its rule of scarce one hundred years has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than all of the proceding generations together. Subjection of nature's forces to man, machinery, applications of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground - what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?

And here we are today well over 150 years on with progress that makes even 1848 look like a primitive world! Freedman comments on Marx' statement as follows:

Written more than a century ago, this is certainly one of the most eloquent testimonials ever written to capitalist achievements. One looks in vain to modern communist theoreticians for similar generous recognition of capitalism's contemporary achievements. 

The power of the markets is old news and therefore not news. I certainly feel that I've long since moved on from this realisation. Like Marx you may understand the power of markets but that doesn't mean to say you don't have reservations and 'buts' about a market driven economy, as did Marx himself, of course.  But your particular 'but' may not be the same as someone else's 'but'. In fact it's all a bit like one's attitude to cars. Cars are a convenient, comfortable and fun way for getting from A to B....but....perhaps you are a new ager who detests promethium technology, especially cars and would prefer them all to be scrapped just as the extreme Marxists want to throw capitalism in the dustbin of history. Or perhaps you like cars but think you can improve their performance by tinkering around with their mechanics; trouble is, if you don't understand the mechanics you may well end up wrecking a cars performance envelope. Or perhaps you love the benefits of motorized travel but you drive around with reckless abandon and without consideration for other road users or the environment. 


The self-maintaining organised systems we are familiar with. e.g. biological organisms, societal systems and religious cults, are mixtures of both distributed information & control and centralized information & control (I&C for short). Distributed  I&C circuits* react to local conditions and control the local response whereas centralized I&C circuits react to global conditions and coordinate a global response. In the societal case good communications technology allows  humans to be not only fully conscious of the global picture but also capable of organizing centralized I&C systems that effect society globally. That's not to say governments (=centralised I&C) can't and do screw up the natural workings of the market, but the point is that centralised I&C is just as systemically deep seated to sophisticated human societies as is the distributed processing of the market system. In particular, the huge surpluses generated by sufficiently advanced market based economies create the pressing question of who is going to control that surplus and how it is going to be distributed. Given human nature it is no surprise to find that there is great potential for dissent at the way a free market system distributes wealth. In response to the potential for defection (see my prisoner's dilemma point below) the centralised I&C systems (i.e. governments) are set up to settle/enforce ownership rights and this can be done either democratically or autocratically. Hence, it is likely that modern commercial industrial societies will always be a mix of distributed and central information & control.

It is very ironic that today's libertarian warrior is paralleled in the modern eco-warrior; both tend to be anti-establishment, but the parallel doesn't end there. The eco-warrior will point to the all but incomprehensible complexity of the web of feedback circuits found in the eco-system and how vulnerable they are to human meddling, meddling which is likely to adversely effect their fragile equilibrium. (Some eco-warriors have raised this to the level of an all but sacred principle: Gaia.) The libertarian warrior will say something very similar about the "natural" market systems. "Don't try to influence that system because its beyond human understanding". Like the libertarian's vision of the ideal laissez faire market the eco-system has little or no centralised feed back systems engaged in global control (unless you believe in Gaia).  But today's  intellectually sophisticated and technologically advanced humanity has the power and intelligence to centrally effect if not control both market systems and eco-systems for good or bad. True, a little knowledge allied to a lot of power can be a very dangerous thing and it's no surprise that both libertarian and eco-warriors are nervous at the thought of centralised human meddling. It is ironic that the decentralised markets which are at the bottom of so much technological and intellectual development, not to mention the emergence of powerful plutocrats, has had the effect of enhancing the ability of humanity to indulge in centralized cybernetic control (= centralised I&C)


As an aside let me comment that I would not trust Matt Ridley's general ideas in this connection.  In trying to use evolution to argue for doing away with the central planning (i.e. centralised I&C) Ridley shows no awareness that for conventional evolution to work it must start out with a huge burden of pre-ordained information. i.e it is effectively guided i.e planned in advance from an information point if view (See here, here and here). Organised biological structures do not simply emerge from an abyssal deep of pure randomness. Take a look at this synopsis of Ridley's book, The Evolution of Everything,  which appears on his web site:

Human society evolves. Change in technology, language, mortality and society is incremental, inexorable, gradual and spontaneous. It follows a narrative, going from one stage to the next; it creeps rather than jumps; it has its own spontaneous momentum rather than being driven from outside; it has no goal or end in mind; and it largely happens by trial and error – a version of natural selection. Much of the human world is the result of human action, but not of human design; it emerges from the interactions of millions, not from the plans of a few.

Yes, it may be a version of "natural selection" but if so then that means, as with conventional evolution, the "central" information constraining the system is implicit in the dynamics of life. True we may not (yet) understand where the pre-ordained information which drives natural history comes from but its presence challenges Ridley's notions about spontaneity, godlessness goalessness and not being driven from outside. Ironically Ridley's reference to "trial and error" actually gives the game away; generating trials can be modeled as a meaningless imperative process, but what determines the difference between error and success?  The concept of "success" has to be "centralized" and enshrined somewhere. Therefore, I propose, reality is a mix of both the imperative and the declarative. 

But having said all that I have no idea exactly what mix of decentralized and centralised management is optimum for a commercial economy (I'll leave the details of that for James to sort out!). But it may well be there are no pat answers to this question and that we should recall the lessons of John Holland's thesis about complex adaptive systems: That is, when chaos rules there are no equations or catch-all principles allowing us to construct definitive mathematical models enabling us to make definitive predictions or decisions which can be made far in advance. Consequently, a complex adaptive system such as a biological organism or a society copes with and adapts to a continuous stream of novel circumstances using trial and error feedback (i.e. Information and control). In such circumstances it is not possible to justify, using any general theory, a preconceived position which adopts in advance a particular mix of laissez faire (i.e. distributed I&C) and central I&C. In the complex adaptive system scenario adaptive behavior must be adopted because we don't know and never will know if a blanket "hands-off-the-market" strategy is generally justified; we just don't have any definitive mathematics to prove it. All we can do is adapt as best we can to the latest feedback from the environment. So, although I like to think of myself as an enthusiast of free market capitalism and its ability to generate innovation and wealth, I would never want to raise that enthusiasm to the level of a principle as some libertarian warriors seem to have done. The bug-bear with having to deal with polarised partisan polemics is that even though one may support a similar position, a bit of self-criticism and qualification comes over as putting one in the devil's camp.

Further to my many 'buts' I published the following list of issues on James Knight's discussion Facebook page urging him to take cognizance of these questions. This list has the potential to grow in the number of entries and the details of each entry; in fact I've already expanded it a bit since its first publication.


ONE: Do markets contain non-linear feed back systems? If so then chaotic market instability is a likely outcome. This could have an adverse effects (e.g. boom and bust) on working class people whose interests, in the main, go no further than wanting to live a hassle free comfortable life.  Given the limited quantum of the human life span these people may not be greatly motivated by the latest market generated efficiencies, of which they may never see the long term benefits and which to them only feel like unpleasant economic instabilities. (cf the great estates vs the swing rioters). 

TWO:  I put it to James that it may well be that free markets have a tendency to distribute wealth according to a power law. He seems to have picked this one up. However, there remains the question of whether this is a fact rather than just a conjecture of mine.  If it is a fact then the mechanism needs elucidating.  The power law distribution question is very relevant to the next question....

THREE: Re. the last two points: Prisoners dilemma and defection theory in the face of wealth inequalities, instability, short human lives and plutocracy. Marxism as an example of defection I suggest. It is often plausibly argued by left wingers that (power law?) wealth inequalities in capitalism creates a rich, powerful and undemocratic class of plutocrats, thus demanding centralized government in order to provide (hopefully!) a democratic forum to counteract plutocracy. 

FOUR: Limited ability of the market to solve certain classes of computation, particularly long term issues which don’t provide the incentive of local "internal" “pain” or “pleasure” signals. (i.e. “Externalities” is the jargon here). In particular I'm thinking of the ecological effects of human industry and wealth. But also, more abstractedly, the optimum market/government mix cannot be selected by the market itself; social systems are not sold over the counter and therefore are not subject to market selection. 

FIVE: Re the previous point. What information processor processes information external to markets. How can this information be passed onto the consumer as incentives to guide buying?

SIX: Market dynamics can be (crudely) understood and even (crudely) simulated (unlike politics). These understandings are, naturally enough, very tempting to  market interventionists, especially in the face of power law inequalities and the thrashings of chaotic instability. i.e. Markets prompt a concomitant centralised political response and therefore markets and politics will likely go hand in hand whether we like it or not. There may be a connection here with the correlation of a society's wealth  surplus and the emergence of government (cf Iron age Britain). It is an irony that compared to politics economics is relatively comprehensible - crude simulations of the market may be on a level with our understanding of atmospheric dynamics i.e. the weather. (However, probable chaos in both market and weather systems will compromise precise predictions and understanding).  All this is contrary to the libertarian idea that you don't touch markets because you don't understand them; the trouble is we do have a  modicum of understanding of market dynamics and that very understanding tempts interference!

SEVEN: Big production surpluses and increases in the overall wealth of a society lead to questions about the control and possession of that wealth, especially given human status driven motivations and the potential for human corruption.

EIGHT: Closely related to the latter point is this: Human beings are goal seeking systems (“complex adaptive systems”) and therefore will have a tendency respond in an adaptive way to their environment with declarative (that is "goal driven") social involvement. Ergo, modelling society as a pure “unplanned” imperative processes is unrealistic. Society has both declarative and imperatives influences impinging upon it. This point and the previous point aren't necessarily arguing for market intervention, but rather are pointing out the inevitability of intervention given that most real complex self-maintaining systems have available to them some kind of "central nervous system". 

NINE: Motivational theory: Commodities as a form of status symbol. The need for social status and a sense of community, belonging, purpose and identification. How well do monetarily valued market exchanges go toward satiating these all consuming human motivations and express human status choices? Is it likely that the human psyche can ever be completely satisfied with the way a free market distributes status values and community connection?

TEN: The “market of ideas": Perhaps not really a market because exchange doesn’t take place – ideas don't move about like conserved material commodities but can be copied and plagiarized with little cost. However, there does seem to be some kind of Darwinian struggle between ideas: Human beings are computational processors with limited computational resources and therefore can only entertain a limited number of concepts. The whole process looks to be more Darwinian than Smithian. Given that society is now linked by long communication links, this looks to be an important dynamic superimposed on society.

ELEVEN: Lastly the following point needs repeating (See ONE above): Are the feed back couplings of the market (see picture at the start of this post) nonlinear? If so chaos and market thrashings are a likely outcome when the market is subject to random perturbations. Under these circumstance the overall increase in wealth, measured as an average,doesn't carry a great deal of information if there is a huge background noise of troughs and peaks dwarfing the little human lives which live on these slopes. For some capitalism will feel like a bed of nails. 

This list has plenty of potential for expansion in length and detail. None of this necessarily attacks Smith’s minimalist idea that markets, if left to do their stuff, do a good job of increasing total wealth and should remain the core of any wealthy society. 


Finally I thought I would mention the libertarian paradox which I put to James and worded thus:

They (libertarians) claim the market should work for itself as government can't understand its inner workings (which is probably true) and yet how do libertarians know the market will work if no human mind can understand it?

James response can be found hereLet me quote part of that response:

But Tim's enquiry regarding how libertarians can know the market will work if no human mind can understand it doesn't strike me as being much of a conundrum, because in being asked to understand how the market works we are only being asked to understand that the market is society's aggregation of individual decisions by buyers and sellers made by people for whom those decisions brought about a mutual benefit.  

That is to say, while Tim is quite right that the free market is too vast and complex for politicians to understand its inner workings, it doesn't follow that because of this libertarians are on dodgy grounds assuming the validity of their position, because all us pro-market people are trying to say is that a free market in action must, by definition, be a system working for its agents, because it is quite simply the accumulation of activities that work for those agents.

There may well be unpleasant things in society that result from free market transactions, and concomitant power laws that cause discomfiture to certain socio-cultural groups, but us pro-market people are not primarily selling the qualities of the market per se - we are trying to advocate the freedoms from which things like the market operate more fruitfully.

James provides a very general answer here. If I'm reading him right then according to this answer all we need understand about the free market is that it is an expression of the bulk of consumer decisions and that each of these decisions entails an exchange of mutual benefit: e.g. one party wants and benefits from a competitively priced pen and the other wants and benefits from the money paid for it; what can be wrong with that? How can one be so crass as to deny that something mutually worthwhile has taken place and the market ensures that this happens millions of times daily? There is clearly an immediate local satisfaction here almost as if the whole population was engaged in mutual masturbation and getting immediate kicks. It can't be denied that accumulating the linear sum of the parts here it follows that there is a lot of pleasure/benefit entailed by market exchanges. However, as we know interacting parts are often more (and sometimes less!) than the sum of their parts. When a low level phenomenon such as local exchange of goods is aggregated there is the well-known phenomenon of emergence; that is, consequences at the high level which are difficult to anticipate without constructing a sophisticated simulating model. It is this difficulty in simulating an emergent outcome which I take to be the real content behind the view that we can't comprehend the emergent outcome myriad market interactions. However, James does acknowledge in the last paragraph of my quote those conjectured power law inequalities which I keep harping on about and the question mark which hangs over them, so we can't be far apart.

My answer to James blog post is this: Whilst at the low level, yes, markets generate a big linear sum of benefits, nevertheless that still leaves us with the question of emergent phenomena: If the claim is that we don't understand the complexity of all those myriad market choices then how do we know that it doesn't generate some unpleasant emergent effects? (Like dictatorial Marxism!) If you are spending all your days mutually masturbating one another, are you going to have your eye on the ball when it comes to things such as the ecological effects of human productivity, population explosion, the plutocrat in charge of a large media outlet or even nuclear bombs, social fragmentation and alienation, widespread Marxist disaffection cued by huge status inequalities, chaotic market instabilities causing unrest, technological advances perturbing the market and disrupting short lives, raw material shortages that take time for market driven technological solutions to fix etc, etc. Sometimes I have seen libertarian attempts to employ convoluted logical contingencies explaining why the free market will solve, say, the pollution problem after all. But this argumentation is usually carried out on a case by case basis with logic specifically tailored to the case in question and, unsurprisingly, always falling out in favour of the free market as a panacea. In physics when the same observation crops up again and again (such as the conservation laws) in widely different connections we don't expect it to be the outcome of a patchwork of miscellaneous and idiosyncratic proofs where the logic of each proof is entirely contingent upon the case in question; rather we suspect some general logic to be behind the conservation law in each case, logic which will one day, we hope, become clear.  So in the absence of demonstrably universal/general logic which might explain why free market economics is a catch-all solution, the idiosyncratic contingent logic of a case by case advocacy of the free market gives rise to the suspicion that a preconceived polemic is in fact the underlying and covert factor at work rather than some general principle.


In many ways capitalism with its restless adventurousness, sense of purpose, opportunities for creative innovation, its incentives, its concept of personal property & responsibility, production of wealth etc fits human psychology. But it doesn't fit it like a glove. Humans are not productivity termites and, moreover, the downsides of capitalism can lead to defections sometimes expressed as the cloud-cuckoo-land philosophy of Marxism which is a charter for dictatorship. It is likely that if elected to government Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party, although strongly socialist, would necessarily have to compromise with capitalism. But Corbyn's labour policies are very likely to depress the current industrial output leading to further dissatisfaction and the inevitable calls from the extreme left to go the whole Marxist hog and dismantle the UK's democratic and commercially based social order. The cry would, of course, be that you can't compromise with capitalism and therefore it and its state institutions must be cleared away for pure unadulterated Marxist communism. The extreme libertarian right argue similarly for the status quo version of capitalism; it's not working well, they claim, because we haven't gone the whole hog with unadulterated free marketism. The idealists of both  extremes seek social nirvana and don't tolerate the muddle, contention, compromise, and half way house solutions that are the natural state of human affairs. The other thing which the extremes of left and right aren't too partial to is system theory; that's just a complication clouding the cartoonish clarity of their thought.

* "Information & control" is another name for "cybernetic circuits"

End-note on planning
Clearly large commercial projects like the development of the latest car or the building of a cruise ship involve huge levels of centralised I&C. Moreover, a large commercial conglomerate also entails a high level of centralized I&C. However, there comes a point when human cognitive, epistemic and organisational limits stultify the ability to influence outcomes via centralized I&C; for example the industrial revolution was obviously not an outcome of central I&C, but  was an emergent phenomenon arising from the net effect of much more fragmentary I&C systems. Moreover, technological innovation is a function of nature and of course we can't predict what nature will throw at us via the next scientific discovery; this defies the foresight of centralized I&C. However, within  human  cognitive and epistemic limits it is clear that central I&C is very much part of human nature and as information and processing technology improves centralised I&C is likely to be enhanced.  It is probably no coincidence that the first big cities appeared around the same time as writing appeared, the latter enhancing centralised information and control.