Plato’s weekend suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Long piece by Mary Midgley on “the mythology of selfishness.” She makes lots of good points to counter simplistic evolutionary psychological thinking a la Dawkins. But I’m not sure she gets everything right either.

Anti-intellectualism is taking over the US. Hmm, I’m afraid it’s a fait accompli, at this point.

Barbara Ehrenreich suggests that there is a selfish side to the latest craze in positive psychology: gratitude exercises.

What should  our attitude be toward a past from which we benefited, and yet that is objectionable on moral grounds? If you were born because the Holocaust happened, for instance.

Scientific American’s John Horgan is moving, and while packing he came across a number of reminders of why he has been so critical of certain aspects of science.


56 thoughts on “Plato’s weekend suggestions

  1. Michael, per Massimo on group selection, there’s also issues of co-evolution. Now, after her smash insight on symbiotic evolution of eukaryotes, Margulis overstated a lot of stuff after that, but, with much more tempered claims, that’s probably not a dead end yet either.


  2. For me it is not so much the scientists who over claim, although they are a problem.

    It is the ostensibly respectable science that is just plain daft. For me this was represented nicely the the absurd video of Koko, the gorilla, signing a message to the worlds leaders about environmental damage.

    It was edited, they say, for brevity and to make it more “fluid”. Pull the other one. It was scripted but Koko was allowed to “improvise”. She could only have been improvising if she understood the speech. Clearly she could not have understood it.

    But the newspapers report it as “Koko the Gorilla issues a warning to humanity of the the dangers of climate change”, continuing “Koko, the 44-year-old gorilla who is capable of communicating with humans via sign language, has appeared in a video urging humans to protect the environment.”

    The Gorilla Foundation also talk as though the message came from Koko “Koko was clear about the main message: Man is harming the Earth and its many animal and plant species and needs to ‘hurry’ and fix the problem.”. NOE Conservation said this was “Koko reacting after she has been informed about what is at stake at COP21.”

    No, Koko could have no more understood that message than she could have understood her review of “The Force Awakens” in the parody video.

    This just plays into the hands of those climate change deniers who like to portray environmentalists as deluded nature fantasists.

    And for me it raises the suspicion that most of the language claimed for Koko is in the same ilk as this.

    OK, The Gorilla Foundation and NOE Conservation are private organisations and mainstream science has no control over what they do.

    But there are a host of studies done in mainstream academies which overplay the similarities of other primates to humans, maybe they are not so obviously ridiculous as this.


  3. One point to consider about conscious intent is that we don’t chose to be this very essence of self and being and spending our lives dealing with its consequences and implications. So, yes, the conscious choices we make are intentional, but being conscious in the first place is not a choice.

    As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, this state of consciousness is vital. It acts as energy and that thoughts, the perceptions we sense, the decisions we make, are the forms it manifests. So this would be neither teleonomic, in only being the appearance of intent, nor teleological, in having a particular intent or purpose in mind. Purpose then becomes emergent from this vital beingness. Thus we keep creating and discarding purposes, much as life keeps creating and discarding individuals.

    Yet it is these goals and purposes which define our lives, just as our individual bodies define what we are.

    Such that we project out and set ourselves on courses of action, based on the feedback. Currently the linear narrative which we describe this process seems fundamental, with goals as peaks to the arc of narrative. Yet when we do step back and try to sense the larger cycles feeding through all this, coming to terms with the entire process seems much more fulfilling. From scaling the heights, to skiing the slopes. From the view from the top, to the networking of just being one more blade of grass in the valleys.

    “Life is what happens when you are making other plans.”


  4. Here is another example of science and stupid. This is Marcus du Sautoy (Mathematician and Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science) and John Dylan Haynes (Professor at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience) talking about Haynes experiments on a BBC documentary.

    The video is no longer on youtube, but here is transcript

    Haynes is clearly telling Du Sautoy that he can predict a choice Sautoy makes six seconds before he makes it.

    But if you are familiar with the series of experiments he references, this is clearly nonsense. In the experiments the results were aggregated across all subjects, across all trials and the aggregation showed a slight correlation between some neural activities and the choice they made. (correct me if I am wrong)

    So why are these two serious mainstream scientists telling us that this can be done?


  5. Hi Robin,

    Of course I always got that it was a metaphor, but Dawkins himself appears to lose sight of this in his more purple passages.

    Do you have any examples to support this claim?


  6. Another type of reduction:

    Interprogrammatic reduction – The translation or compilation of a computer program in one computational domain (e.g. to a computer program in another computational domain (e.g. or

    Whenever that happens. 🙂


  7. Philip,

    Possibly the bottom up substrate is analog, while the top down language is digital. In that while the essential process keeps bubbling up and stretching the waves, popping the bubbles, etc, any attempt to examine its structuring is necessarily static definition and the holistic basis vanishes into a bunch of nonlinear, discrete code. Then it becomes a process of trying to map out the code, rather than exploring how it came to be in the first place.


  8. brodix, Robin,

    I don’t know, but see “The Super-Turing Computational Power of Plastic Recurrent Neural Networks” ( This might be called called “unconventional” computational biology. “Undecidability of the spectral gap” (, could have implications for computational physics. How this results in programming in the two computational domains remains to be seen, I guess.


  9. Philip,

    I guess my point of reference is that it would seem quantum fuzziness is reasonably an aspect of the analog/wave aspect of nature and that our theoretical obsession with ever more defined point particles is blinding us to the macroscopic wave aspects of reality. That it is this instinctive focus on physical objects which is the real “naive intuition.”

    You might say that even a moving car doesn’t have an exact location, since if we squeezed the time frame to zero, the car would cease to exist.

    As I argued with Robin previously, given the current model has point particles statistically existing in 99+% empty space, maybe we should give up on the idea of “physicality” and consider reality might be better thought of as a hologram.


  10. I was just reminded of my other peeve about science by this tweet from New Scientist, the breathless announcement of something that was always obvious to everyone, except apparently scientists:

    Stop shoving! Experiments with sheep and humans show pushing can slow an evacuation

    As one of the tweets in response says “No sh** Sherlock”.

    I can remember my primary school in the 1960’s had an evacuation procedure and the instructions were “Walk, don’t run, don’t push”.

    It has been a standard part of evacuation procedures for schools and office buildings for a long time.

    Apparently they spend good money discovering this principle again and again and it gets reported on in New Scientist.


  11. Then a lot of those higher order effects, from love to political movements, might be better understood in terms of their wave qualities, than having to go into every chemical bond of every molecule of the medium.


  12. Hi Robin,

    Apparently they spend good money discovering this principle again and again and it gets reported on in New Scientist.

    This illustrates a common feature of science reporting so it’s worth replying to. News, in today’s world, is often led by attention-grabbing “soundbites”. Thus, a reporter will often think of a pithy way of summarising something in a way that interests people, and one way of doing that is to link it to something that “everyone already knows”.

    It would be erroneous, though, to then suppose that the sound-bite summary is the only interest of the research. I can think of lots of reasons why understanding the effect better might be useful, especially since it has led to deaths in crowds. So investigating the effect across different situations (humans, sheep, glass beads) as these researchers did, and investigating how big the effect is and how it varies under different conditions, could well be worthwhile.

    Further, lots of things that “everybody knows” have turned out to be wrong. For example, lots of people have a “folk intuition” about physics that is often very wrong. Even if a study does nothing more than confirm established wisdom, having better proof of that can be worthwhile.

    You say that knowledge of this effect has been part of established procedures for a long time. Yes, indeed so, but established procedures can be wrong, even if everyone “knows” them.

    As an example, the first researchers who applied statistics to the outcomes of medical procedures often faced dismissive responses from doctors who “knew” from their experience what worked. Yet, in some cases doctors were continuing to prescribe blatantly harmful drugs that (the evidence showed) just killed people. That’s because human intuition is often wrong (hence double-blind trials today).

    the breathless announcement of something that was always obvious to everyone, except apparently scientists:

    One notes, as in the mention of Dawkins above, the need-to-feel-superior sneery tone. Have you read the paper and considered what the researchers motives were? Perhaps they were well aware of the effect beforehand, but perhaps they wanted to understand the effect better?

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Coel,

    “lots of things that “everybody knows” have turned out to be wrong.”

    Could it ever be that the principle of atomism, that all of reality, from the entire universe, to quanta, or tiny vibrating strings, can be explained in terms of discrete units, might turn out to be wrong?


  14. brodix,

    Could it ever be that the principle of atomism, that all of reality, from the entire universe, to quanta, or tiny vibrating strings, can be explained in terms of discrete units, might turn out to be wrong?

    Lots of things could be wrong, but just saying that something could be wrong is trite. The hard bit is producing something better, and demonstrating quantitatively that it better accounts for observed facts.

    None of your commentaries on physics have any merit because you don’t seem to have realised that physics is a *quantitative* subject revolving around *calculations* of quantities that are then compared to measurements.

    So you want to ditch the principle of discrete units? OK, fine. Now, from your alternative account of how the world works, produce a derivation of the ideal gas law, or otherwise explain how measurements of the pressure in a gas relate to temperature and density. Show that this works better than (or, at least as well as) the standard accounts of the ideal gas law based on discrete gas particles. (In other words, give your alternative to this account.) Once you’ve done that, then proceed to do similar for all the other areas of physics. If you cannot do such things then all your commentaries have — in a quite literal sense — no merit whatsoever.


  15. Coel,

    The abstract starts by saying that this effect was first predicted in 2000.

    If it had said that they were investigating something that had long been believed, or long a part of established emergency procedures then I wouldn’t have complained.

    The conclusions, as stated in the abstract, are pretty high levelamd, again, pretty much what we knew anyway.

    The simulations commonly done by engineers for the design of, say, mass transit systems pretty much confirm the effect mathematically and observations of real crowds confirms the effect in reality. What new useful insight have they added?

    And, no, there was nothing tone that suggested that I personally was superior. I never credited myself with the insight, rather I credited people in general with knowledge and insight, something neither New Scientist or those scientists appeared to be aware of


  16. Coel,

    Well, OK, it seems that in this case I was wrong and the fault was with the “New Scientist”, I was going by the abstract linked in the article, But on finding a paper by Zuriguel it looks like he is bringing something new to the field and does acknowledge the ubiquity of the effect.

    But in my experience most science media stories originate from, and follow the lead of press releases from the scientists themselves or their faculty. I don’t know how this story originated.


  17. And, after reading the full text of the article linked by New Scientist, it seems my original comment was not that far off with respect to that one.. For example the paper states:

    “FIS refers to the finding that, under certain conditions, an excess of the individuals’ vigor in the
    attempt to exit causes a decrease in the flow rate.”

    Now tell me that this is not just an unwieldy restatement of what most people know to be the case and has been part of standard emergency procedures for decades, at least. Why “finding”?


    “Although potentially any system with these characteristics can display the FIS effect,
    this has been unnoticed in the literature except in the field of pedestrian dynamics.“

    This is either wrong or puts science in a very poor light. Even the dimmest junior at a bank counter knew that you shouldn’t put coins through the coin sorter too fast or it would clog. And they knew that if it did clog, then it was no use to push harder, you had to pull the coins up in order to break the arch that formed. Most found there was an optimum rate. That is not an intuition, it was empirically demonstrated to us each day.

    It is not too much of a stretch to see that this is the same principle as occurs with people crowding through a door or grains falling through a chute. Was that really unnoticed by science until 2015, as the paper suggests?

    Of course this is only one of the problems of pushing in a crowd, there are a number of psychological, biomechanical issues as well.

    Here is the full text of the article that the New Scientist linked, anyone can judge for themselves:


  18. Hi Robin,
    Someone whose face you already know is far more likely to appear in a picture in a newspaper than that of some random person. When a newspaper carries a picture of Obama or Brad Pitt, it is not because they think you don’t know what they look like, it is rather because they know that you *do* already know what they look like, and the decision to print is about connecting with a readership, not about informing you of what someone looks like.

    In the same way, the decision by someone (New Scientist or whoever) to hype this story, is not evidence that they think you didn’t already know about the effect; quite the opposite, it is evidence that they think you *did* already know about it, and are choosing it as a story for exactly that reason. Again, it’s about connecting with an audience, and linking to something that they already know does that much more effectively than something completely novel.


  19. Coel,

    And extending that to the sociological aspects of theoretical physics, possibly why they try to explain reality in terms of singular objects, in motion.


  20. brodix,

    And extending that to the sociological aspects of theoretical physics, possibly why they try to explain reality in terms of singular objects, in motion.

    Nope. The reason they explain things that way is because it works. If people come up with ideas that work better, those will then be adopted.


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