VIDEO: The Truth about Truth

I wrote about this content in 2019, but I wanted to revisit it for a video as well as create a podcast audio version.

Video: YouTube version of this page content
Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

In today’s segment, I am going to share my perspectives on the truth about truth. To start, I’ll let the audience know that I do not believe in the notion of truth. I feel the term is ill-defined especially in the realm of metaphysics and morality. I feel that when most people employ the word ‘truth’, what they mean to say is ‘fact.’ That a fire engine is red, for example, may be a fact, if indeed the fire engine happens to be red, but it is not true. This is a misapplication of the term. If you employ truth as a direct synonym for fact, then this is not what’s being discussed here, and perhaps your time might be better spent watching some content by the Critical Drinker.   

My argument is that truth is not objective. Rather it is subjective and perspectival. I concede that there may be some objective truth out there somewhere, but it is not and will not ever be accessible to us because of limitations in our sense-perception faculties and cognitive limitations. Per Aristotle, we only have five senses with which we can connect to the world, and these senses are limited. If there is anything out there that would require another sense receptor—a sense receptor not available to us—, we would never be able to sense it, to even know of its existence. Perhaps the universe emits 100 sense signals, but we are only capable of receiving and translating five. We’d be oblivious to 95 per cent of reality.

I am not making any claims that this is the case, but human cognition is so limited, that we can’t even conceive of what another sense might be. If you can, please leave a comment.

To be clear, I am not talking about senses we know other species possess. Bats may have echolocation, and sharks may have electroreception. Some animals may have greater sensory acuity—superior vision and auditory senses, olfactory and gustatory, tactile, or whatever. Some can see into infrared or ultraviolet light spectra. Technology that includes biomimicry provides humans with microscopes for the microworld and telescopes for the macroworld. We have x-rays and sonar and radar, radios and televisions that extend our senses, but these provide no new sensory receptors.

Like the story of the blind people and the elephant, we are left grasping at parts. But even if we are able to step back to view the whole elephant, to hear the elephant, to touch and smell or even taste the elephant, if there is more to the elephant, we cannot know it. The same goes for ourselves.

I know that some people might inject gods or psychic or paranormal energy into this void, and sure, feel free, but I am looking beyond these pedestrian concepts. What else might there be?

But let’s depart this train and head in a different direction. I want us to focus on the senses we do have. For the typical human, sight is our primary arbiter of reality, at least as defined idiomatically. We tend to believe what we see, and what we see, we assume as real—even if we are later mistaken. I guess that wasn’t a unicorn or a pink elephant. I must have been hallucinating or dreaming. I could have sworn that was Auntie Em.

There are several competing theories around truth, but I’ll focus on the Correspondence theory, which is simply put, the notion that, proxying reality for truth, human perception corresponds with the real world. And a pragmatist might argue that’s close enough for the government.

Keep in mind that historically humans have contorted themselves into making calculations. Remember how long people had been tying themselves into knots to show planetary motion in a geocentric system creating epicycles and retrograde motion to map understanding to a perceived reality.

One might even argue that we’ve progressed. It wasn’t true or accurate then, but now it is. And perhaps it is. Let’s look at some illustrations.

NB: Due to an editorial mishap, this paragraph was dropped in the podcast, hence dropped from the video, which shared the podcast audio source. As such, this image was also not used in the video. This is unfortunate, as it was meant to introduce those with limited maths knowledge to the asymptotic curve, as described. Apologies, and I hope this serves to orient any travellers who may have lost their way at this point.

In this first illustration, we see Truth (or relative truthiness) on the Y-axis and Time on the X-Axis. On the top, we see a threshold representing Reality. In the plane, I’ve rendered an asymptotic curve, where over time, we get closer and closer to the Truth. But we never quite get there. More on this later.

The next illustration will help to demonstrate what’s happening.

Notice there is a gap between the curve and the Reality cap. For one thing, we don’t really know where we are relative to Reality. In the case of the geocentric system, we might have been at the leftmost space. Once we determined that the system is actually solar-centric, we might have moved right on the curve to close the gap. We might be tempted to defend that we’ve finally reached the truth, but we’d have been equally willing to make the same defence from the geocentric position, so we need to be mindful of the past.

Perhaps, this last example was too obvious. We feel comfortable staking a truth claim—or at least a claim of fact. So let’s look at another example.

Let’s re-use the same axes—Truth and Time—, but rather than an asymptotic curve, let’s presume something more polynomial in nature—or not particularly cyclic. Rather than retrograde motion in planets, let’s visit the supposed progress of Newtonian over Einsteinian physics.

This takes a bit more setup but bear with me.  In this case, I have taken liberties and illustrated the Einsteinian physics gap to capture an inferior vantage on reality over Newtonian physics. Granted, I need to rely on a bit of suspension of disbelief, but in the bigger picture, I am trying to convey a scenario where some new paradigm puts the prior knowledge in perspective.

In this instance, both Newtonian and Einsteinian flavours of physics are based on a materialistic, particles-based model, which is where the modern physics consensus resides. But, let’s say that consensus changes in such a way that it is determined that something else underlies reality, say consciousness per Analytic Idealism as proposed by Bernardo Kastrup or per Integrated Information Theory (IIT) as advanced by Donald Hoffman and others. As with retrograde motion, we might end up finding that we were barking up the wrong tree. This might be a bit different because the particles are a directly perceived manifestation of the underlying consciousness, but I wanted to create a scenario where knowledge thought to have advanced actually regressed, but this wasn’t revealed until a new perspective was available.

Yet again, an important aspect of note is that we don’t actually know the distance between our perceptions and real Reality.

This last illustration builds upon the first asymptotic chart but has an in-built error margin meant to reflect language insufficiencies. There is some concept that people feel they grasp, but the consensus is not as unified as the group thinks.

I’ll share two examples, the first being the concept of justice. To me, Justice is what I deem a weasel word. It’s a word we commonly use, but it means different things to different people. To me, it’s a euphemism for vengeance by proxy, but for others, it transcends that and mirrors some impartial dispensation of just desert—some good old-fashioned law and order.

[Justice is] a euphemism for vengeance by proxy

Without getting stuck down some rabbit hole, my point is that if we aggregate these beliefs, the asymptotic curve represents an average consensus vantage rather than something as obvious as 2 plus 2 equals 4. On this note, allow me to clear the air.

Some viewers might be clamouring to say, “but 2 plus 2 equals four is true.” But this is tautologically true, which is to say that it’s true by definition. It’s a similar tautology to saying that it’s true that snow is white, or coal is black. We’ve already defined snow, white, coal, and black, so these may be facts, but they are true by definition.

Revisiting the chart, notice that there are two curves in the space. In this case, I illustrate competing truth claims from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. The case is whether the earth is an oblate spheroid or is flat. I am going to go out on a limb and assert the earth is spherical, as represented by the top blue curve—and we have some margin of error as to what that might mean. The bottom red curve depicts the perceived truth of the flat earthers, who also have some room for semantic error.

Given that I am presuming that I am in the right adopting the majority position—please be right—, the blue curve is closer to Reality than the red curve. Of course, in the event that the earth is really flat, then it proves my point that we don’t know where we are relative to truth, so we assume that the state of knowledge at any given time is what’s real.

Again, forgive my fanciful examples. Please don’t tell me that this spheroid versus planer earth is tautological too because you’d be correct, but I am already aware. They are just nonsensical illustrations. Nonetheless, I hope they’ve served to express a point.

I could have as well created curves that depicted two cohorts’ beliefs on the efficacy of tarot or astrology in predicting the future. I am sure that it might render somewhat like the last chart, but I’d also presume that both curves would have very low truth values as seen from an objective observer. Secretly, I hope tarot wins the truth battle.

Before I end our time together, I’d like to convey that for an Analytic Idealist, these charts might be more acceptable at face value. For a Realist, Naïve or otherwise, they may argue that this curve is not asymptotic and may in fact reach some tangency. I don’t happen to believe this is the case or I wouldn’t have spent my time assembling and presenting this. Time will tell. Or will it?

Video: Blame and Causa Sui

In this segment, I ponder the interplay between blame and Causa Sui. I’ll discuss the implications for moral responsibility as well as legal responsibility, which are not as in sync as one might imagine they might be.

Video: Blame & Causa Sui

To the uninitiated, Western legal systems have no pretensions about being about morality or justice. Legal systems are designed to maintain power structures and the status quo. They are deontological machines, making them prime targets for automation by the machine learning associated with artificial intelligence. This would also diminish the power of rhetoric over facts to some extent. But, I am no legal scholar, and all of this will have to wait for another segment.

I recently shared a video on causa sui and the basics of blame and blameworthiness, so I want to intersect those topics here.

Peter Strawson suggested that for humans, blame is a reactive response. It’s reflexive like having your knee jerk when tapped. Essentially, his position is that if blame didn’t naturally exist, we’d have to invent it, mirroring Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him’. Of course, this is because they serve the same power control purpose.

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him


To be fair, blame is closer to real than God, but the point remains. Strawson’s point is also that humans are saddled with blame and it’s not going anywhere no matter how nebulous it becomes in execution. It’s natural.

To me, this starts to sound suspiciously like a naturalistic fallacy. Humans seem to selectively cherry-pick which so-called natural tendencies they choose to defend. One might use nature to argue that female sexual availability begins at menstruation, and yet we have decided to ignore this and defer this on the grounds of civility. It’s obvious that we could consider blame to be an animal instinct we want to domesticate away, but because it serves other purposes, per Strawson’s perspective, it’s a useful tool.
But what’s the causa sui challenge. Let’s quickly recapitulate.

Causa sui argues that one cannot be the cause of oneself, ex nihilo. Being full products of nature and nurture to adopt the lay parlance, any blameworthiness lies with the sources or creators. Since we are concerned with moral responsibility, we can eliminate nature forthrightly. Nature may be responsible—by many estimations approximately 40 per cent responsible—, it possesses no moral agency. And if the individual is not responsible, then we are left with the environment and society, including the social environment. Of course, the environment gets off the hook in the same manner as the genetic and hereditary factors of nature.

Before we consider society, let’s regard the individual.

Albeit the brain-as-computer is a bit facile, it’s still good enough for illustrative purposes. When you are born, your cognitive hardware is installed, as are your edge peripherals and update protocols. Any of these can become damaged through some degenerative processes, or external environmental factors, but since my interest is in optimistic rather than pessimistic scenarios, I’ll ignore these instances. Given that blameworthiness is directly related to presumed cognitive processing, factors that diminish these faculties, mitigate blameworthiness and factors than increase it, ameliorate it.

As a—quote—’normal’ child becomes an adolescent and then an adult, the probability it will become blameworthy, increases with age, ceteris paribus. A person with cognitive deficits or conditions such as aphasia or dementia decreases the probability of blame assignment. Even temporary impairment mitigates judgment—oh, she was drunk.

So, following the brain-as-computer analogy, your brain is a CPU with a self-updating cognitive operating system and instruction set. Essentially, there is also short and long-term memory.
In the case of cognitive deficits, one of these components might be effectively broken. The CPU might process too slowly; it might misinterpret what it receives; there may be issues with the sense organs or the nerves that transport signals.

I’ve got a mate who, due to medical malpractice at birth, experienced nerve damage. Although his eyes and brain are normal, his optic nerve cannot carry signals very well, effectively leaving him blind. Neither can he taste nor smell. So there’s that.

But assuming that this processing and storage hardware are intact, the causa sui constraint still applies, but let’s spend some time evaluating societal interactions.

All inputs come from society—cultures and subcultures. Apart from misinterpreted processing scenarios, if a person doesn’t receive a particular moral instruction set, that person should surely be considered to be exempt from moral blame. It may be difficult to assess whether an instruction has been input. This is a reason why children are categorically exempted: they may not have received all of the expected moral codes, they may not have been stored or effectively indexed, and their processing hardware is still in development—alpha code if you will. Brain plasticity is another attribute I won’t spend much time on, but the current state of science says that the brain is still not fully developed even by age 30, so this is certainly a mitigating factor, even if we allow leeway for the causa sui argument.

I mention subculture explicitly because the predominant culture is not the only signal source. A child raised by, I don’t know, say pirates, would have an amended moral code. I am sure we can all think of different subcultures that might undermine or come at cross odds with the dominant culture, whether hippies, religious cultists, militia groups, racial purist groups, and so on.

So, a commonly held moral in the subdominant group may counter that of the prevailing one. An example that comes to mind is some religious organisations that do not agree with human medical intervention. There have been cases where parents have allowed a child to die from an otherwise curable condition. Although in the United States, there is a claim of freedom of religion—a claim that is spotty at best—, parents or guardians in situations like these have been convicted and sentenced for following their own moral codes. But as with all people, these people are as susceptible to the limitations of causa sui as the rest of us. They are not responsible for creating themselves, but moral responsibility was asserted based on the beliefs of the prevailing culture. Even besides the legal context, persons in the larger society would likely blame the parents for their neglect—though they may be praised for being resolute in their righteousness by their in-group. This just underscores that morality is a collection of socially constructed conventions rather than something more objective.

Returning to causa sui, let’s say a person commits an act that society would typically assign blame. Rather than exercise some act of retributive justice—a concept with no foundation in a causa sui universe—the course of action was remediation. In this case, the desired moral instruction would be delivered thereby seemingly making the moral offender blameworthy. But would they be?

Presumably, (for what it’s worth) psychologists would evaluate the subject for competency in maintaining the programming. In the case of the aforementioned religious parents, they may be threatened with retribution for not abiding by the superseding rules of the prevailing power structure.

Although I might personally allow some leeway even with the causa sui in full force and effect, but I can’t say that I have much faith in the ability of humans to make a correct assessment. My impression is that any assessment would be one of convenience than something sounder.

Perhaps I’ll produce a more robust segment on retributive justice, but my feeling is that retributive justice is an area that legal systems should avoid altogether. If necessary, focus on restorative justice, rehabilitation (or ‘habilitation’ as the case might be) and quarantine models to ensure any bad actors are contained away from society. Again, this puts individuals at the mercy of cultures they find themselves a part of. I am not going to delve into this any further save to remind the listener of gang initiation schemes where a person needs to kill a member of a rival gang to become a trusted member. This is their moral code—quite at odds with the mainstream.

So there you have it. Owing to causa sui constraints, a person cannot be ultimately responsible for their actions. My primary thesis is—apart from metaphorical equipment failures—that any moral responsibility falls wholly on the society or culture. Full stop. And this isn’t as foreign as one might first feel. Although for most people blame is natural, in an individualistic society, people are interested in finding the culprit. In collectivist cultures, any culprit might do. Perhaps I’ll share some stories in a future segment.
Meantime, what are your thoughts on moral responsibility? Can someone be ultimately responsible? Some have said the ‘ultimate responsibility’ is a philosophical red herring and that we can still hold someone responsible, even if not in the ultimate sense, which causa sui disallows. Are you more in this camp? Is this enough to mete out so-called retributive justice? For me, retributive justice is a euphemism for vengeance, and justice is a weasel word. But that’s just me, and perhaps a topic for another segment.

Are there any topics you’d like me to cover? Leave a comment below.

Man versus Machine

Human-designed systems seem to need a central orchestration mechanism—similar to the cognitive homunculus-observer construct substance dualists can’t seem to escape—, where consciousness (for want of a better name) is more likely the result of an asynchronous web with the brain operating as a predictive difference and categorisation engine rather than the perceived cognitive coalescence we attempt to model. Until we unblock our binary fixedness, we’ll continue to fall short. Not even quantum computing will get us there if we can’t escape our own cognitive limitations in this regard. Until then, this error-correcting mechanism will be as close to an approximation of an approximation that we can hope for.

The net-input function of this machine learning algorithm operates as a heuristic for human cognition. Human-created processes can’t seem to create this decoupled, asynchronous heuristic process, instead ending up with something that looks more like a railway switching terminal.

Cover photo: Railroad tracks stretch toward Chicago’s skyline at Metra’s A2 switching station on March 29, 2019. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune); story

Unknown Dimensions

I mentioned in my last post about how Artificial Intelligence discovered a new variable—or, as the claim suggests, a new physics. This was a tie-in to the possible missing dimensions of human perception models.

Without delving too deep, the idea is that we can predict activity within dynamic systems. For example, we are all likely at least familiar with Newtonian physics—postulates such as F = ma [Force equals mass times acceleration or d = vt [distance equals velocity times time] and so on. In these cases, there are three variables that appear to capture everything we need to predict one thing given the other two that need to remain constant. Of course, we’d need to employ calculus instead of algebra if these are not constant. A dynamic system may require linear algebra instead.

When scientists represent the world, they tend to use maths. As such, they need to associate variables as proxies for physical properties and interactions in the world. Prominent statistician, George Box reminds us that all models are wrong, but some are useful. He repeated this sentiment many times, instructing us to ‘remember that models are wrong: the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful‘. But no matter how hard we try, a model will never be the real thing. The map cannot become the terrain, no matter how much we might expect it to be. By definition, a model is always an approximation.

All models are wrong but some are useful

George Box

In the Material Idealism post, the embedded video featuring Bernardo Kastrup equated human perception to the instrumentation panels of an aeroplane. Like the purported observer in a brain, the pilot can view the instruments and perform all matters of actions to manipulate the plane, including taking off, navigating through the environment, avoiding obstacles, and then landing. But this instrumentation provides only a representation of what’s ‘really’ outside.

Like mechanisms in the body, instrumentation can be ‘wired’ to trigger all sorts of warnings and alerts, whether breached thresholds or predictions. The brain serves the function of a predictive difference engine. It’s a veritable Bayesian inference calculator. Anil Seth provides an accessible summary in Being You. It relies on the senses to deliver input. Without these sense organs, the brain would be otherwise unaware and blinded from external goings on.

The brain cannot see or hear. It interprets inputs from eyes and ears to do so. Eyes capture light-oriented events, which are transmitted to the brain via optic nerves, and brain functions interpret this information into colour and shape, polarisation and hue, depth and distance, and so on. It also differentiates these data into friend or foe signals, relative beauty, approximate texture, and such. Ears provide a similar function within their scope of perception.

As mentioned, some animals have different sense perception capabilities and limitations, but none of these captures data not also accessible to humans via external mechanisms.

Some humans experience synesthesia, where they interpret certain stimuli differently, perhaps hearing colours or smelling music. We tend to presume that they are the odd ones out, but this assumption does not make it so. Perhaps these people are actually ahead of the rest of us on an evolutionary scale. I suppose time might sort that one out.

But here’s the point. Like the pilot, we can only experience what we are instrumented to experience, as limited to our sense perception and cognition faculties. If there are events not instrumented, it will be as if they don’t exist to the pilot. Can the pilot hear what’s happening outside?

This is the point of the AI experiment referenced above. Humans modelled some dynamic process that was presumed to be ‘good enough’, with the difference written off as an error factor. Artificial Intelligence, not limited to human cognitive biases, found another variable to significantly reduce the error factor.

According to the theory of evolution, humans are fitness machines. Adapt or perish. This is over-indexed on hereditary transmission and reproduction, but we are more vigilant for things that may make us thrive or perish versus aspects irrelevant to survival. Of course, some of these may be benign and ignored now but become maleficent in future. Others may not yet exist in our realm.

In either case, we can’t experience what we can’t perceive. And as Kastrup notes, some things not only evade perception but cannot even be conceived of.

I am not any more privileged than the next person to what these missing factors are nor the ramifications, but I tend to agree that there may be unknown unknowns forever unknowable. I just can’t conceive what and where.

I can’t wait to get back to my Agency focus.

Intuition Showdown

Two different colleagues have independently recommended The Matter With Things by Dr Iain McGilchrist, who is also known for The Master and His Emissary, published in 2009.

As a result of these recommendations, I’ve watched some 6 or more hours of video interviews with Iain, some of which are hosted on his own site, Channel McGilchrist, including this one. Before I get to the topic promised by the title of this post, I’ll say that I like Iain. I respect his intellect, his demeanour, and his approach. If you are a credentialist, his an Oxford-educated psychiatrist—so he’s no slouch.

Iain’s positions are well researched, informed, and articulated. I could listen to him for hours. In fact, I have. And yet I disagree with a fundamental position he takes on intuition. Allow me to build up to that.

My first recommendation was due to a reaction I shared that depicting left-right brain hemisphere as analytic-creative was overly reductionist and quaint. McGilchrist was recommended because he disagreed. But it turns out his disagreement was more in the way it was being portrayed. The answer was wrong because the question was wrong. In a nutshell, his contention is that we shouldn’t be asking what each hemisphere processes, but how it goes about processing. I agree with this.

we shouldn’t be asking what each hemisphere processes, but how it goes about processing

His point is that in cases where an experience (inputs) might be processed on one side versus another, the interpretation (outputs) would necessarily differ. To make a false analogy, the left brain might be performing an exponential function whilst the right brain might be performing an arithmetic function. So, if ƒ(left) = xx and ƒ(right) = x+x, then an input of 3 would yield 27 and 6, respectively. There is nothing wrong with either side, they just produce different results. In context, this difference might matter: How many feet across is that chasm I must leap. I say, ‘Oops’, as I am falling to my demise having underestimated the difference, having used the right rather than the left function.

False Analogy by the Numbers

So where is this showdown you are wittering on about? A little more setup.

Science is stereotypically an analytic function, which is the say it requires a lot of left hemisphere processing. Psychology—and keep in mind that I cast psychology as pseudoscience, or para-science when I am being more charitable—elevates the notion of intuition as not only having value but of being largely ignored by science.

Those who have been following me for a while, know that I am also critical of Scientistm™, the blind-faith devotion to the current state of science as being some infallible truth. But neither am I an advocate for metaphysical claims. This is what I feel Psychology™ is trying to do with intuition. It feels like they are not only trying to inject a metaphysical claim; they are simultaneously making a normative claim that you should have (and trust) intuition; further, they are staking out the territory to be able to say an absence of this acceptance is pathological, so this is a power play. We’ve got the tea leaf readers taking up arms against science.

Of course, I am being hyperbolic and polemic for effect, but this division exists. Iain is not the first to attempt to elevate intuition. A central idea that Jonathan Haidt tries to sell the reader on in his book, The Righteous Mind, is that we need to be more accepting and trusting of intuition. Even Malcolm Gladwell pushed this point in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

I do think that this will escalate. Even if it doesn’t materialise into a full-scale war, people will take sides—they already have—, and we’ll see more us versus them fingerpointing. Whilst I am not fully on the side of science, my propensity is to lean in that direction.

UPDATE: Even before I post this, I discover that I am behind the times with this prediction. In searching for a suitable image for this post, I find the book Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, which calls out pseudoscience presented as fact not only in the obvious realm of pop psychology but in the offices of practising psychologists. I have not read it, so I am not in a position to recommend it. I may get a copy for myself, if only just to have it on hand.

Before I end this, I also wish to anticipate a point of disagreement. I’ve encountered practitioners of ‘scientific psychology’ who vehemently defend their vocation as science. Without addressing this directly, let’s just raise the point that applying the scientific method and maths to a discipline doesn’t graduate it to become a science. I can apply this to Tarot or haruspicy. If fact, this is how, in general, social sciences became so-called soft sciences: ‘Look at me, mum. I’m using numbers’.

Where do you fall on the topic of intuition? Am I exaggerating and making mountains out of molehills?

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Revisiting Time Reborn

I’ve just finished with Time Reborn. I wasn’t expecting to be converted to Smolin’s proposition that time is real rather than constructed. I enjoyed the book, and he provided a solid foundational understanding of the conventional scientific perspective (circa 2013, when the book was published).

I understand that Smolin is a professional physicist with a PhD and his grasp of the fundamentals is solid, and I am a peripheral scientist at best. I fully grant that I may be on the left of the Dunning-Kruger curve and making rookie mistakes.

The biggest contention I have is that he insists that everything needs to have a reason, citing Leibnitz. His argument is based on the question of why is our universe so perfectly structured, that it would be improbable to have happened purely by chance.

Whilst I agree that everything has a cause, reasons are an artifice imposed by humans. In practice, where reasons don’t exist, we make them up. This is how we get false theories and gods. Smolin does discuss false theories of the past and attempts to claim that the prevailing theories occupy this space whilst his theory should replace it.

Any universe created without the ability to sustain life would not have us asking why it did not support life.

My reaction is that it just is. Whether Roger Penrose is correct in saying that the universe is continually recreated and destroyed, rinse and repeat, the reason the universe is constructed in such an (improbably) ordered fashion that can sustain life is that there is no reason. Any universe created without the ability to sustain life would not have us asking why it did not support life. It does. We are here to question, and so we do. End of story.

We can make up all sorts of stories, whether through science, religion, or some other origin myth. None of them is provable. As Smolin notes, this is a one-time event. If it is destroyed, so are we and our memories. If life is sustainable in a future—or even parallel—configuration, we’re sent back to start where we can fabricate new stories.

Perhaps in another universe, it will be configured so differently that some other sort of life is created, perhaps this life will not be DNA-based and be anaerobic? Who knows?

It seems that he has an interest in reserving a place for human agency, which has little room for movement in current scientific models. His model provides this room. Moreover, he further thinks that even in current models, human agency should be injected into the models. I suppose he is not familiar with Keynes’ animal spirits.

For some reason, he decided to devote the final chapter to the hard problem of consciousness. This was a particularly hot topic around that time, so he didn’t want to miss the boat. The long and the short of it, he didn’t think the qualia-consciousness answer would be found through physics—though he reserved that there was a non-zero probability that it could be. He posits this as an existential, experiential challenge, and science is not designed to address such affairs.


There is a battle being waged in the United States today, but it is not centred on the lack of separation of Church and State. I suppose this may be a uniquely American issue given its Constitutional roots, but the root cause is rather a lack of separation between Natural and Supernatural, not between Church and State.

Tomorrow America is celebrating Independence Day [sic], but until we are independent of religion, we cannot be independent. The only real independence is for the politicians who are independent of British control. There is nothing more substantial than this, and nothing for the ordinary citizen, who might as well be taking orders from England. Canada doesn’t look any worse for the wear and tear. I’m not a Monarchist, but it’s no less ridiculous than the Oligarchy or Plutarchy in play today.

I’ve got nothing again churches, per se. I don’t prefer the brainwashing that passes as organised religion, but neither am I fond of the brainwashing that is organised politics. And why is it called ‘brainwashing’? It’s clearly mind-muddling. I digress.

I do believe that it’s in the best interest to separate Church and State, not least because I need freedom from religion. It is already force-fed down my throat and codified into laws. We need less, not more.

Of course, a key topical debate is the abortion issue. This is strictly a religious issue. Even if you want to argue that it’s a moral rather than religious issue, it is still the result of supernatural beliefs. This is where the separation needs to happen.

Why won’t it happen? It won’t happen because people who believe in supernatural forces—especially active supernatural forces—are easy to manipulate. This has been true historically as well as contemporaneously. It’s too convenient for politicians to pull the old Santa Claus trick—if you aren’t good, Santa won’t give you any presents; and if you’re bad, he’s going to bring you coal instead.

I’ve said my peace. In the end, I don’t really even care if you believe in the supernatural, but if you believe that you (or anyone) can interpret these forces, I claim foul and out of bounds. This belief is not different to believing that you can understand what your dog or cat is ‘saying’—or your pet unicorn in the garden. It’s certifiable.

I know that other countries have to contend with this interference. Some even don’t mind the union. Is this a problem in other countries? Is it a problem in yours? Or do you consider it to be a necessary solution?

DISCLAIMER: This post has absolutely nothing to do with the Supernatural television series.

The Infertility Trap

A colleague who happens to be a professor in New South Wales shared this video with me. I am tempted to just recapture the presented content here, but I feel everyone should just watch it for full impact. I intentionally used a cover image that is counter to the narrative. The challenge is not overpopulation. Rather, it’s the opposite. Find out why.

Video: RSNSW Clarke Memorial Lecture 2021: The changing tide of human populations: an infertility trap

I’ve cued the video beyond the introduction—feel free to rewind for context, but there is no material content to be missed—, and there are a couple of minutes of additional material at the end, making the content closer to 50 minutes (48.5) than an hour.

The Infertility Trap was published last month as a book. I’ve not read it, but it was referenced. Countdown, by Shanna Swan is also referenced.

Some highlights follow:

The Rise and Rise of Humankind

Geometric growth commenced after the Black Plague was driven by the discovery of how to harness fossil fuel. As with Malthusian predictions, The Population Bomb missed the mark—but not for all of the reasons you might be thinking.

Changing Pace of Population Growth

Population growth rates were already on the decline when The Population Bomb was published in 1968. This trend was a result of the fertility trend that became precipitous circa 1963.

The Demographic Transition: Population Momentum

Though birth rates may seem to be increasing, this is merely optics as this is a legacy of positive population momentum stemming from high birth rates a few decades prior to the impending decline in fertility.

The Malthusian Paradox

Thomas Malthus didn’t grasp the paradigmatic shift technology would provide nor the relationship between fertility and prosperity.

Charts: Prosperity, infant mortality, child mortality, and fertility rate

As prosperity (as measured by GDP) increases, infant and child mortality as well as total fertility rate, each decrease. (I’m calling out the poor statistical representation of the non-zero-based Y-axis, but I don’t believe this was done to exaggerate the slope. It’s apparently just out of index.)

Reproductive Patterns: Australia vs !Kung Hunter-Gatherers

Notable in the charts above, are the delays in reproduction by the average Australian woman to around 30 years effectively limits the delivery to about 2 (1.7) whereas the hunter-gatherers commence closer to 20 years, yielding them an average of 5 children.

Rapid decline in semen quality

Semen quality (motility) and count are down.

Projections: Countdown to sperm count of zero in Paris and New Zealand

If declining semen count trends remain unabated or unaltered, one might anticipate a point where male fertility (potency?) reaches zero. This is characterised as azoopermia and projects this on Parisian males just past 2030 and by 2026 for New Zealanders.

Secular trend in declining testosterone levels

This downward trend is not constrained by region.

Trends in Testicular Cancer (NSW)

A correlated trend in fertility rate is an increase in testicular cancer, as shown with NSW data, even as ovarian cancer remains steady and cervical cancers are decreasing.

Reproductive Cancers in New South Wales

Conversely, other reproductive cancers (in NSW)—uterine and breast cancers—are on the rise in sync with testicular cancers and the drop in fertility.

My intent with this post is to share rather than editorialise. The video speaks for itself. I’ve provided some excerpted content for those who can’t spare the time to view the source.

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How come why? What for?

Video: Why? – “What for?” or “How Come?” — Daniel Dennett

As a rule, I don’t have much faith in humans. It would be apparent if you read some of my posts. I find most people to be akin to vapid sports fans: Hooray for my team—whether that team is political party or persuasion, science, religion, and whatever. Not a lot of critical thinking or reasoning. I believe Geuss mentioned that most people are just trying to make it to the next day and acquire more stuff—at least more stuff than the neighbour. Social media is a turn for the worse. Luckily and thankfully, there are exceptions to this rule.

Engaging in a CS Peirce forum that I was invited to because of some interactions I had in a postmodern forum, I asked for the source of a Peirce claim made by another Lee Smolin.

When you explain a system by referencing the laws, that’s not the end of the explanation; you have to—we must explain how the laws came to be and why there are these laws and not other laws.

Lee Smolin on CS Peirce

At 8:43, Smolin cites Peirce by saying ‘that when you explain a system by referencing the laws, that’s not the end of the explanation; you have to—we must explain how the laws came to be and why there are these laws and not other laws—and he goes on to say this is 1893…’

Video: Are the laws of the universe immutable and unchanging?

Not being a direct quote, I was experiencing difficulty finding the source of the citation, so I asked in the Peirce group. As I am wont to do, I added that I didn’t buy into the assertion, but if I could find the source I could gather more context.

I don’t buy into the assertion that in describing a system one needs to provide an origin story, so I was hoping to discover context to determine whether it’s Smolin or Peirce to have an issue with.

I was given a citation that didn’t happen to be accurate,

A second member chimed in that of course one needs an ‘original state’, so I clarified that it was not the original state that I held issue with. It was the narrative behind it—the story of the origin, not the origin itself.

He responded, ‘That’s Deacon!’ More precisely, the response was as follows:

YES!!!!!!! That’s Deacon!!!!

I’m not even schooled in Peirce, and now I’m getting his classmates.

To my origin clarification, I also added this bit:

I feel that ‘reasons’ or ‘whys’ are less important than ‘how’. In fact, I feel that ‘why’ is often used in English as a synonym to ‘how’ in many contexts.

So when asks ‘Why are you late?’ they are really asking ‘How it is that you’ve arrived late?’ or ‘How come you’re late?’ Why feels like a metaphysical stand-in for how.

…to which he responds with the top clip by Dan Dennett making my same point a decade ago—or I suppose that I am making his same point a decade later.

It seems that I’m late to the party yet again. This is becoming a trend.

Time Reborn

Einstein was wrong. Time is not the relative factor in space-time. Space is. Time is constant. Here’s a lecture on the topic of the book.

Lee Smolin Public Lecture: Time Reborn

As a result of a discussion with a colleague, on the possibility of variability or mutability of so-called physical laws, he recommended Lee Smolin’s book Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. He mentioned that it would be suitable as an audiobook. Since I had a credit on Audible, I decided to use it so I could listen to this without deep scrutiny and a need for taking notes.

There is a nice review in the Guardian from 2013. I suppose I am a bit behind the times.

Whilst running errands, I listened to the Preface and Introduction. I stopped at the start of the first chapter, and am debating whether to continue. Given his setup, I don’t believe I am Smolin’s target audience. Many of the beliefs he is attempting to dispel, I already don’t hold. Yet I don’t feel that I need to hold time as a constant to hold them. He seems to feel otherwise.


For the record, Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist, who has written several books in this space. Quickly, recapping some of his points:

He provides examples of various illusions humans tend to be swayed by:

  • Matter appears to be smooth but turns out to be made of atoms
  • Atoms seem indivisible but turn out to be built of protons, neutrons, and electrons
  • Protons and neutrons are further made of still more elementary particles called quarks
  • The sun appears to go around the Earth, but it’s the other way around

Smolin relates that the prevailing perspective today is that time is an illusion—name-dropping Plato and Einstein, who hold this view. He conveys that he used to share this belief, but now he disagrees—whence the book. He tells us:

Not only is time real, but nothing we know or experience gets closer to the heart of nature than the reality of time.

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

Next, he posits that some people believe in timeless events—events outside of time, eternal and not a function of time. Here’s where he goes off the rails in my book.

“We perceive ourselves as living in time, yet we often imagine that the better aspects of our world and ourselves transcend it. What makes something really true, we believe, is not that it is true now but that it always was and always will be true.”

Evidently, he feels or felt this way. I am sure many others. I am not among them.

“What makes a principle of morality absolute is that it holds in every time and every circumstance.”

My position is that all morality is a social construct, so this doesn’t resonate with me.

“We seem to have an ingrained idea that if something is valuable, it exists outside time.”

Again, I am not in his intended audience.

“We yearn for “eternal love.” We speak of “truth” and “justice” as timeless.”

Love, truth, and justice are all human constructs—weasel words.

“Whatever we most admire and look up to — God, the truths of mathematics, the laws of nature — is endowed with an existence that transcends time. We act inside time but judge our actions by timeless standards.”

Yet again, I am unburdened by these beliefs.

Nothing transcends time, not even the laws of nature. Laws are not timeless. Like everything else, they are features of the present, and they can evolve over time.

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

I think that this quote is a reason this book was recommended to me. I do believe that the properties that comprise laws can evolve over time. I’m not sure if this is by a probabilistic process or something else. There are a few possible implications. One is that the laws at the onset of the universe may have been different, making the understanding of that time more challenging if not impossible. I don’t know if I believe in multiverses, and I doubt I may ever live long enough to discover. However, even if there is only one universe, per the name, perhaps universes can exist sequentially and when one dies another appears with a different set of initial conditions and properties. Borrowing from evolution, perhaps these survive or perish based on the viability of this combination.

Smolin goes on to posit that, ‘thinking in time is not relativism but a form of relationalism‘.

He continues,

“Truth can be both time-bound and objective when it’s about objects that exist once they’ve been invented, either by evolution or human thought.”

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

I’m not sure he is going to define truth, but I believe he conflates moral truths with axiomatic or tautological truths. Perhaps it doesn’t matter because both are constructed.

Smolin makes it clear that he is not a determinist, but unless you take the view he is proposing, as a physicist, you almost have to be. As he says regarding Determinism, theoretically. a person could suss out a mathematical equation to predict every future event. He also considers this belief to be a metaphysical vestige of religion.


According to [the] dominant view, everything that happens in the universe is determined by a law, which dictates precisely how the future evolves out of the present. The law is absolute and, once present conditions are specified, there is no freedom or uncertainty in how the future will evolve.

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

He continues to describe a deterministic system without mentioning indeterminism, which may be a more prominent belief given what we understand about quantum mechanics. He claims that this perspective diminishes time for several reasons. Inflating or at least elevating time is important for his thesis, and I am thinking that this is more an act of wishful thinking.

He takes a stab at the inherent reductionism of physics—it reduces everything to parts until there are no longer subparts, at which point the process fails—and explains that by adopting this approach, one needs to get outside of the universe to make some evaluations, but this is impossible. And this might be a true statement, but so what? The answer is not to make up a story that creates an environment where that’s no longer necessary.

Smolin reiterates over and again about timeless laws in a time-bound universe, but I question his notion of timelessness. He admits that he has no grand theory—just an idea he hopes others can pursue and build upon. Emergent properties appear to be an emerging theme.

Leibniz is next up, in particular his principle of sufficient reason. Leibniz’ vision is a relational universe composed of a network of relationships—the space is simply the absence of things. He contrasts this with Newton’s view that space is absolute and serves as the container for things. He sets up a future chapter that he says establishes that Leibniz’ vantage precludes the possibility of absolute time, but I don’t see this as a challenge for those of us who believe that time is constructed in the first place.

The Newtonian view prevailed until Einstein resurrected Leibnitz with his general relativity theory of space and time. The trending vogue is about relationalism, whether biology or information science.

He cites the challenges of maintaining Locke’s views on autonomy and personal liberties in a deterministic world (again leaving indeterminism unmentioned).

And he’s back on the emergence of emergence. (I was in the midst of writing a post on emergence when this interrupted my flow. I suspect it should be forthcoming in time.)


As it turned out, I ran another errand and listened to the first chapter of part 1. It is about gravity and parabolas, but I shan’t recount it here, save to note that he seems to be of the opinion that many people have the desire to transcend the bounds of human life. He may be right. I am not one of these people.

I don’t feel that I am in his target market.