The Necessary Death of Cultural Studies Departments

Caveat: I am a mathematical physicist who has over the past 25 years grown to see a bit more of the world than can be gleaned from fresh smelling textbooks and reams of computer code. So my only credentials as a commentator on cultural studies are that I am part of human culture. The part cannot grasp the whole but it can reflect some truth I hope I can do so here.

There is little doubt that anyone who has critically read a lot of academic cultural studies and sociology, will agree that while it contains some fraud (as does any academic discipline), no one can deny that plenty of great insights have been gained from academic sociocultural studies and anthropology. Especially fruitful are the fields of overlap where sociology and cultural studies intersect at one extreme with human psychology and at the other extreme with politics and economics.

Anyone who also knows anything worth knowing about political economy knows that the mainstream neoclassical free-market economics system is corrupt and not working, it needs replacing (organically or by revolution, take your pick). But academic neoclassical economics teaching is still dominant and shows no sign of death by logic. The economics profession seems immune to logic (see [Mirowski (2013)] to learn why). But another rival academic field that I think should “die to live again” is the collective of disciplines that I would loosely characterise as “cultural studies” (sociology anthropology, religion, philosophy and some of the more enlightened maverick economics fields). Here I am writing about the metaphorical “death”, the death followed by resurrection. This is what we need from a new style of cultural studies. Cultural studies needs to stop playing the political games and needs to start engaging in real economy. Something many people seem to now easily learn is that there is no separate subject we should call “economics”, because resource economy is deeply interconnected by cause and effect with human psychology and with sociology. To treat these fields of knowledge and praxis as separate academic disciplines is a rather violent affront against logic, reason and complexity theory.

Here’s the thing: the vast bulk of cultural studies output is focused on describing phenomena and codifying the categories that can be discerned and then deconstructing them to find alternative meanings, and possibly unifying themes that might defy Derrida’s critique of language to extract some base level abstract universals in meaning. Now all this is fine but I think this is only a beginning a very immature stage of sociocultural studies research. And I think it is time for academics in these fields to start branching out into society like the economists, and start living the principles they espouse (if they have any). Prove the validity of your ideas.

One reason I think engagement in real society by cultural academics is a pressing concern is that a lot of good ideas written up in academic journals are wasted because they never see the light of day, so to speak, and although often worthy of including in social practice and social trials, they barely get a tip outside of laboratory or small group studies.

Another reason is that the economists, financiers and capitalists who know little of the sociological import of their practices, have held pretty much an iron tight stranglehold on political economy for hundreds of years, and that has to change. It is not only a problem that this “capitalist elite” (by which I mean all of the above: the economics profession, the wealthy political class, the business class) are in denial about the consequences of their systems. I believe most of them are not even aware or in acknowledgement of the destructive effects of modern economies. I guess here I should give readers a blast from the recent past and remind them that apart from slightly obscure and vitriolic rantings about traditional religions (which we can admit are fully deserved in some respects) the Zeitgeist Movie trilogy did a good job of describing the destructive effects of market-monetary economic systems that reduce humans to commodities. If you have time to skip through those movies they are worth reviewing.

Zeitgeist movement

The whole TZM thing is a bit techno-fantacist, but if you have fairly judged the Zeitgeist Movement seriously, you have to admit some of the technical solutions are pretty darn good. The trouble is with transitioning and with human psychology which tends to reject too much uniformity. For what it’s worth I think TZM will never see it’s full vision come to fruition but many of the TZM solutions will surely be adopted in a transition to a harmonious spiritual-scientific society. I see the techno-future aspects of human civilisation emerging a lot more organically, something like the GNU+Linux operating system distros model, but applied to technology sharing and resource distribution/sharing “algorithms” and models and trialled on a world economy scale using networks of small dedicated local communities. It will be through freely sharing of ideas, and free (libre) licensing of technology where democratically cooperating communities will be able to gain a significant advantage over the whole corporate run sector of the world’s economy.

The transition from a decaying and greedy market-credit driven capitalism to a true sharing economy (the opposite of the anti-sharing shit like Uber and AirBnB, which are called “share economies” but are in fact the opposite, they pool wealth into the hands of the few and suck resources — transport, housing etc — out of reach of the poor and middle class) will, I think, require more than technology. As TZM admits, the technology for creating an excess of abundance already exists in our world, we just haven’t deployed these ideas. Why not? Because of political entrenchment, incorrect economic incentives which are actually “anti-economical”, lack of will power, too much apathy and hopelessness, and a ruling elite that is heavily invested in the “status quo” of rising inequality.

To be fair, Peter Joseph, the founder of TZM, acknowledges this transition problem, and he advocates a small scale exemplar-modelling solution, a solution whereby small communities show the rest of us how we can live sustainably and with abundance. And I agree that small exemplar-model communities are part of the transition solution. But this is not a full solution, because there is no guarantee that exemplar-model communities are viable. For exemplar-model TZM style communities to function within the existing economic system will require a lot more than technological solutions, because the forces of market-money systems will be arrayed in heavy bias against any true share economies, and because such exemplar-model communities are not scaleable they cannot start with just a few dozen people, because of the highly interrelated and high degree of sharing involved in such communities, they will likely need thousands of people to become viable and self-sustaining. Essentially, what it takes is an entire small town. Moreover I do not think Lee Kuan Yew style Singaporean dictatorship can work it is antithetical to the democratic principles that are the spiritual basis for a resource sharing economy.

And these exemplar-models thus cannot be easily built from scratch. The only viable way I see any of them getting going is by gaining trust with existing towns and getting the whole town to commit to becoming a model of resource abundance and freedom from wage slavery and credit/debt systems. And how does this happen? Well the deep solution, and the only one I see that is ethical, is a system based on massive good-will, open communication, complete transparency, and trust and honesty. There is nothing technological here. It is spiritual. This is the ultimate solution. This could not have ever happened in past human history however, because although we have always had the spiritual capacities to become such societies, the technology allowing resource distribution and abundance have not existed in the past. But the technological means do now exist! So it is time to unleash the other side of human life, our capacity for spirituality.

The transition economy thus needs not the existing economics, but a new economics that is motivated by human values (I call these spiritual values) that are the subject of examination by other academic professions like sociology, psychology, cultural studies and philosophy and religion. The human values that are the foundation for a spiritual economy are foremost: trust & honesty followed by compassion, justice, kindness and love.

This is not a miraculous remedy, but I think there is some merit and social well-being that can be gained from sociologists stepping out from behind the walls of academia and playing a greater role in policy and construction. The economists have laid waste to the world for far too long they have had their time, and they need to be gradually shut down, and cultural studies activists can play a role in this. I say this only for the cadre of economists classed as “mainstream”, which is actually a fairly narrow brand that can be defined more or less succinctly under the banner of neoclassical economics or free market economics. This entire field of economics is intellectually corrupt and has proven over at least five cycles of boom and bust that it is not viable on the basis of it’s own promises and premises (stability and efficiency of markets, supply-demand theory, credit money).

Two readings I would offer are” Steve Keen’s “Debunking Economics” and Phillip Mirowski’s “Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste”. (Although, these are a drop in the ocean of literature on the ills of capitalism, I found a torrent of economics books related to the 2008 crash, there were over a hundred titles!) And here is a talk by Keen on his book:

You can find several dozens talks and interviews with keen on YouTube, they are good value. Another good source for documenting the critical problems of free market neoclassical economics are the talks by Richard Wolff, who’s focus is unusually a positive one, since he has totally viable solutions in the for of local cooperative banking and workplace democracy. The great things about Wolff’s proposals is that they do not call for pitchforks arrayed against capitalism the workplace democracy organizations can work quite well within current systems while also having the beauty of a the same time undermining the worst features of capitalism, while retaining the best. It is a soft gentle revolution the likes of Ghandi and Mandela would approve of I suspect.

My advice to any young kids who still have some luxury of support from their parents is to take your time after university and look for a worker coop to join. Your “job security” is far more likely to be safeguarded if you work for a coop than working as a wage slave for a hierarchical corporation or a corporate franchise.

But my main point here is that we (society at large and all social activists) cannot or should not just wait for the economics profession to get it’s act together. The signs are that economics is in a rut, has been for a long time, and that it cannot be pulled out of this hole. The economics profession is in an ideological torpor worse, or at least rivalling, any of the ancient now corrupted religious traditions. The profession needs reforming along spiritual motives such as concern for people, care for the Earth’s resources, and trust and honesty as a basis for business and trade.

For the last 5 years I have worked close to an economics department (as a lecturer in statistics and IT) and I can tell you, from what I saw, they are not the solution and they have no hope of leading reform from within. Yet academics are (often) the most free and vibrant form of “thinking capital” in any profession. So if academia is not working to reform economics the reform has to likely be found elsewhere.

Luckily economics is not a proper science, because the only “experiments” one can perform are in the real world and that means all of us are the subjects of economics, so we all have a say (to some extent) in how the economy runs. Before trade unions were vaporised by pro-capitalist regulations and corporate protections, people had much more of a say, but this is not all hopeless. We all are still the “atoms” in the economy, and what we do has real effect especially when we collectively organize. We are the experiment. Our lives are the results.

That is why I am calling for all the relevant academic disciplines (I would include philosophy and religious studies too) to step up their game and start participating in the outside world, start to construct real world models of viable alternatives to unregulated markets and profit motive driven credit monetary economics.

Be the change in the world you seek. Stop playing it so safe in your ivory towers. Get out into the world, build some working models of cooperative work places, and thus prove that some of your social ideas actually work, not just in the lab or in computer simulations.


Inexpansive Diplomacy

A review floated across my smartphone’s News feed recently lauding the hard realism of the television series The Expanse, based on the novels of James S. A. Covey.  I’m enjoying the series immensely, but probably only because it is vastly superior to most of the SciFi fare served up on TV or even the movies.  But this blog post is to keep things realer.

If you watch any of the diplomatic scenes you should notice the same old nasty stereotypes of politicians.  Anyone who has been close to politics in real life knows that the snarky insults and jibes seen in these movie scripts is nothing like real life.  (My father was an MP and CEO, I know a bit about what goes on in boardrooms and back-rooms and select committee’s and UN conferences.)  Sure, there are always the rotten apples, the evil politicians who either have their own personal agendas or who move and shake at the behest of private donors or corporate interests, but in real politics, at least outside the USA, Russia and China, and a few banana republics, such people are rare.  Lord knows why those three super powers are infested with corrupt politicians, maybe the riches available coupled with the imperfect electoral processes combine to float the crud to the top of the political bowl.

The Earth literally cannot sustain such crud at the leadership top for too long, and I do mean “literally”, this is clear if you witness the almost existential threats we face from climate change to nuclear conflict (once thought a threat of the past, but now renewed thanks to corruption in US politics).  It is likely we will not have to wait too many decades for things to change though, either the Earth will force our politics to get more civilised and scientific, or a few countries will wake up and lead the way, through innovation and economic growth unrivalled by the corrupt countries, the corruption will be self-defeating.  Those are two likely scenarios in my view, and I think the most likely of a few other generic futures for world politics.  (A highly unlikely scenario is some benevolent dictator emerges, unlikely because social media will probably not allow such a figure to emerge, and dictatorship rarely correlates with acceptable benevolence.  Another is a gradually maturation, unlikely because of the rapid changes in the environment and technology field.)

Which brings me to The Expanse.  The diplomacy scenes do move the plot along a bit, but at the gross expense of a nuanced realism that could, I think, only enhance the prestige of the series.  My sense is that by the time frame of The Expanse technology, near 2100 to 2200, I think a more peaceful empirical, consultative world politics will have been either accepted and demanded by the general public, at least in democracies, or it will have been forced upon society out of need for collective action at highly coordinated government scientific levels to control many existential threats facing humanity and a vast proportion of the Earth’s biota and habitats, and not the least the expected and justifiably increasing demands and voice of the worlds poor, who cannot be for long suppressed in the combined weight of their voices, once the minimum poverty level reaches a state where the poor all have a means of living that afford some scant time in pursuit of justice and then eventually maybe some leisure.  Some of these things are just so inevitable they are almost laws of sociology.  The uncertainty, based on extrapolation form history, is just how long these changes will take, and whether the rise of the power of the worlds poorest will lag too much or be fast enough to reach a synergistic confluence with the worlds’ environmental problems.

scifi_TheExpanse_ShohrehA_UN_undersecrataryShohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala, UN Assistant Undersecretary in the SciFI series The Expanse


Her character is a “relatively good” politician, but the type who commits vile torture on non-Earthers.

One thing that really irked me was the supposedly principled and good character, Secretary Avasarala, is depicted committing torture to the point of death on a prisoner.  You’d hope in our future no politician would even need to do such a  thing.  At the worst, you’d imagine brain scanning or drugs would do the job of information extraction.  But you’d hope they would not even need to resort to such invasions of a persons mind, just talk to them, treat them well, and certainly do not imprison them because that’s against not only their interest but your interests as well!  Enlightened psychologists know that torture and duress solicit less useful information, and make information harder to discover.

So damn!  I would love to watch an intelligent, gnarly, hard scifi series that does the diplomacy seriously and sanely, without the trashy stereotytpes.  Here’s a glimpse of what I imagine:  around the Earth-Mars diplomatic table, the participants know each other well, they do not take nasty spiteful jabs at each other, they care about their planets, they realise making peace is not only more pleasant, but economically far more sensible as well, they realise warfare is a waste, they have no nuclear weapons because no one will ever use them.  They are working to solve a new existential threat posed by the proto-molecule.  The tension is based not around Earth-Mars-Belter hostility, but based around the uncertainty about the proto-molecule and fears that insane lunatic rebels will exploit the foreign material to wipe out most of Solar civilization.  I think such a pot would be much more gripping, and certainly not as boring as watching grossly and frankly pathetically sterotyped “politicians” and “diplomats” try to stumble towards solar system warfare.




Reasoning to the Extreme, or Descartes’ Better Dictum

Reason is not the opposite of spirituality.  Reason is the opposite of folly and ignorance coupled with prejudice and superstition. In other words, in moral and spiritual language reason is a good. People often fail to appreciate this (all the atheists who rant about how spirituality is an illusion, or that it can be based on science alone). Human reasoning is, of course, imperfect, so one cannot automatically and mechanically reason one’s way by logic and empirical science towards truth and morality (although some are trying, the atheists again, with some successes, and with noble motives for the most part, I applaud their efforts).  Although, if the militant atheists are trying to derive morality from evolutionary principles in order to exorcise religion from society, then I think they do not have the noblest motives at heart, because such attempts ignore the slim possibility that religion was never bad, it just gets corrupted over time by ordinary humans.   I think anyone with a fair and open mind will realise that the origins of most major religions were quite pure and good, you just have to read past all the fire and brimstone decorations and see through to the essence of the original teachings, which invariably contain both universal ideals and social teachings that were only relevant to the time and age they were revealed.  However, that’s not my focus for today.

My topic for this post sounds somewhat alarming, but bear with me, I hope to even convince myself of this by the end (although I am initially sceptical that I can). What I hope to achieve is a convincing argument that Reasoning which approaches perfection is a spiritual virtue, a human good, in fact a universal good, and that if sound and judicious reasoning is taken to the extreme we arrive at a spiritual state of truth, beauty, justice, wisdom, compassion and kindness. You can consider a very short version of this thesis being: a perfect reasoner (even without omnipotent foresight) will in general evolve towards a state of perfect honesty. Then once perfect honesty is admitted, the other spiritual attributes will almost inevitably follow.

Thesis of Ultra-Rationality

The thesis can be stated succinctly: “An ultra-rationalist eventually becomes spiritually minded.”

Being Spiritually Minded

I know there is a colloquial use of the word “spirit” which connotes some kind of ethereal substance, like a ghost or a fairy. This is absolutely not what I mean by the word spirit. Just want to make that perfectly clear.

For me spirit is not a substance. It is an abstracta, a state of mind, a condition of thought. Yet something must exist in order to have subjective thoughts, like a brain. Brains are fairly concrete substances, I think you’d agree. And yet the human spirit shines through the brain somehow, abstract thoughts crystallize into concrete reality through the intermediary between our brains and the world of ideas. What is “the world of ideas”? No one knows. But we all seem to have conscious access to abstract ideas, like perfect circles, transcendental numbers, the eternal quality of truth and justice. Some people call the realm of ideas the Platonic realm, but they cannot tell us what it is exactly. Some refer to it as the Mindscape or sometimes Mindspace. But these are just names. You can name anything to pretend it is real, but that does not make it real. However, I do believe there is something very useful and possibly “True” about the concept of an abstract realm of ideas, and I certainly think there is a lot of practical (and theoretical) use for a closely related, more restricted, notion of a mathematical platonic realm. I like the phrase “Mindscape” because it helps to remind me not to assume it is a geometric space like spacetime (although maybe it is? In an abstract mathematical sense every set of relations between identifiable “things” is some kind of geometric space, at some level). For me, the Mindscape includes the mathematical platonic realm.

OK, so we seem to need some substrate (some kind of substance, be it physical or otherwise) in order to metaphorically “put fire into the equations”, in other words, to translate spirit into concrete thought, action, behaviours. In our particular physical world there are hard scientific findings that are narrowing in on how conscious thought operates, which suggest the brain (neural activity) is not the complete story. The science is very young, but I suspect over the next decades or centuries science will be able to reveal a lot more about what consciousness is not, meaning that I think we will find consciousness is not a deterministically driven physical process, but instead must irrevocably involve a subtle and complex feedback that traverses time and space.  There are thus many subtleties about human consciousness and human spiritual ideals that science is far from understanding.  But whatever we eventually find, I think it will turn out to be obvious to future scientists that human spirituality is not completely derived from physical principles, and that there really is some kind of connection between brain states and the abstract realm of ideas that I am here referring to as the Mindscape.  The nature of this connection is, at the present time, quite mysterious and unfathomable, not only to scientists, but to pretty much everyone!  If mystics and dreamers had a good grasp of the way humans perceive universal truths and concepts like mathematical abstractions and spiritual abstractions, then they should be able to tell s.  The fact they cannot tell us about these things is, to me, proof they really have no clue.

One cannot easily hide behind such excuses as, “well, I actually do understand these mysteries of yours, but I do not have the words to describe them to you.”  To me that sort of evasion is just disingenuous or delusional thinking.  Although, I will concede the possibility a rare and talented individual will have such penetrating insight into the mysteries of mind and consciousness that cannot be put into words.  I am just sceptical that people who claim such insights are actually those rare gems of wisdom.  And I think even if the cannot put their ideas into words, they should have the capacity to explain a few of the larger principles in metaphorical or allegorical terms that we can begin to grasp.   (I think you can often just tell when someone is delusional, I do not have an algorithm or chemical test for it, but if someone approaches you and starts explaining their theory of consciousness to you, it should only take a minute or to to decide if they are for real insightful or just full of fanciful nonsense.)

Above I wrote, “For me spirit is not substance”, but that’s not just my view.  I also have a few like-minded friends who are hard-nosed scientists and yet who also think there is more to the human condition than mere physical biology. These are people who like the oft-cited contemporary philosopher David Chalmers, “take consciousness seriously”. By this he means we do not lightly dismiss consciousness as a bunch of illusions played upon the brain by the brain. We seek to answer or understand why subjective phenomenal experiences can exist in a world that science describes in purely objective terms (the “redness of red”, the searing pain of a knife cut dosed with iodine, the “pain of loss”, the intoxication of the experienced smell of coffee, all variety of mental qualia).

What I ask you to consider, to take very seriously, is the idea that while the brain definitely represents the patterns of our thoughts, the brains activities are not the reality of our subjective thought, there is still something more to human thought that we have no physical basis for, and this is our access to the eternal realm of ideas, the Mindscape.  A rough (imprecise and sometimes flawed) analogy is with computer hardware and software: a computer’s logic circuit activity is not the reality of it’s software, the logical functioning of a computer is rather a sign, an evidence, that there is software, it is not the software itself.  So it is, I believe, with the brain (analogous to computer) and the mind (analogous to software).

A nice question to ponder is if this analogy can be extended just a little further, one might ask what is the analogue to programming code for the human mind?  No one knows, or even comprehends the full nature of such a question.  But in very broad terms I think there is an answer in the Mindscape.  Our mind seems to have automatic effortless access to the Mindscape, it is how we see the phenomenal “redness” of red coloured objects, it is how we feel the burning fire of guilt and shame when we know we have done something universally wrong or evil.  To be sure the brain represents these abstracta in concrete form, the flood of hormones, adrenalin, cortisol, and such, associated with guilt, or the flood of dopamine and serotonin associated with realising one has done good or received pleasure.  Pleasure is an abstract notion, but the brain has evolved to give our physical self a concrete manifestation of the “feel” of this abstracta.  It is a remarkable phenomenon, this close association between physiology and abstract ideas.  On Earth it appears to be a unique human trait.  The connection between brain physiology and spiritual abstracta can however be easily broken.  This happens in psychopaths and unfortunate victims of severe brain injury or from side-effects of brain surgery.  There seem to be specific regions in our brains that interpret the patterns of our mind’s thoughts and if those regions get damaged we may still acknowledge the logical relations involved in our actions and their moral and ethical consequences, we might even still hold in our mind the connections between the spiritual virtues and concrete actions, but we lose the translation of our feelings into physiological responses, like the aforementioned hormonal surges.  We say, in such cases, people lose the capacity for certain emotions or empathy.

What I will attempt to convince myself of, as a corollary of the Ultra-Rationalist Thesis, is the idea that even such psychologically damaged people can, with concerted effort, find ways to become spiritually aware, or regain a form of spiritual sensitivity after having lost it.  And if some of the recent brain-plasticity research findings are true, I think it might even be possible, through reason, to recover states of phenomenal awareness by re-training the brain to re-represent the feelings and emotions that were once lost, through neural “re-wiring.  That is a big “if“, but I see no reason it is completely impossible.  It just might take extraordinary efforts.  (One must also bear in mind that when someone says “may take extraordinary efforts” they mean that it could be difficult to impossible.)

It is within the Mindscape one can find all the notions of spiritual ideals: these are things like the virtues of love, honesty, truthfulness, wisdom, compassion, courage, kindness, mercy, justice, forgiveness, compassion, and so forth. They have many names these spiritual attributes, but they are in a broader sense all aspects of a One — which is to say, they are all different facets of an abstract sphere within the Mindscape, a sphere which is hard to define, not a geometric sphere, but an abstract region or cloud of ideals which most philosophers of metaphysics might refer to as “the spiritual virtues”. They are not “human virtues”, they are universal virtues, goodnesses that transcend species and universes.  They are cosmic in scope, applying to all things to do with thinking rational minds.

If a mind is not rational then the comprehension and implementation of spiritual virtues becomes confused, corrupted and meaningless.  This is the first heuristic reason why rationality is more closely associated with spirit than most people might think.

No Ordinary Rationality

For my thesis it is necessary to get past the idea that morality can be approached through ordinary rationality.  My suspicion is that such fancies are practical impossibilities, because ordinary human rationality is not pristine and perfect, it is clouded by emotion and desire and attachments to the material world, attachment to excesses of pleasure, possessions, attachment to sexual appetite as opposed to genuine love, and other base cravings.  It’s not the all of these attachments are bad things, in fact some of them are great, after all, what’s wrong with indulging in pleasure and sex and the like?  Nothing.  But it is the secondary or unconscious impulses associated with such cravings and desires that clouds true rationality.  But that’s ok, that’s what makes us all human and interesting, and all a little bit crazy.

The militant atheists have devised a scientific approach to morality under the rubric of Flourishing.  They say human flourishing can be more or less objectively defined, and morality can be derived from this starting point.  They are, I think, only half right about this project.  It is a good project, but it is fundamentally lacking an appreciation of why or how human consciousness subjectively can be aware of the eternal abstracta, the qualities I refer to as spiritual attributes.  Spiritual attributes are, in my view, a different type or category of mental qualia.  They are not as raw and immediate quale as things like the “redness of red” and the “sting of pain”, for such raw quale are about the physical world, they are not about anything abstract.  Qualia associated with pure abstractions have a different sort of ontology.  There is no 650 nanometre wavelength of light associated with the conscious understanding of the spiritual meaning of abstract concepts like the qualia of truth, justice,  kindness or honesty.

So while I think science can meaningfully contribute to some aspects of morality, it is not the whole story, and never will be, since by definition science is a never-ending pursuit of truth.  You never know in science when you’ve hit the big TRUTH, the absolute.    This is because in science all theory is subject to revision conditional upon the reception of new empirical data.  And by the way, if you think science is nevertheless the only (or the best) approach to morality we have going, then you should think again.  Even if there is no attainable absolute Truth about matters of morality and flourishing, there is always an abstract idea of a limit to how far science can take us, and if you take the scientific approach to morality and extend it to an infinite limit, then you have at least a theoretical absolute.  This sort of infinite limit process is something mathematicians are thoroughly familiar with in the field of number theory and set theory. Many pragmatic mathematicians would deny that infinite numbers have any relevance to the real world, but few would deny that as idealization, infinite numbers are perfectly well defined and can be thought of as real in an abstract platonic sense.  It is in a similar or analogous sense that I think absolute Truth and the corresponding absolute limits of all other spiritual attributes, Love, Honesty, Justice, and so on, all have a reality apart from, and independent of, physical reality and physical science.

To be clear: this is not to say that a science of human flourishing is ill-founded.  Scientific basis for human flourishing is on the contrary, a conveniently culturally neutral and logically valid way that we can rationally approach the absolutes of virtue and morality.  I just think the atheists (myself included a few decades ago when I was young and naïve and bullish about science) should not be fooling themselves that such an approach is perfect.  There might not be anything left over after cultural filtering perhaps, in which case even science would have no basis for moral universals.  But I seriously doubt that will ever be the case.

Cultural Relativism

It is also worth mentioning here the problem that a person’s sense of morality can lead to different decisions and outlook depending upon the culture in which they are embedded.  This leads to notions of cultural relativism, which are no doubt tricky for internati and modalityonal law and cross-cultural relations, but they are not the concern of ultra-rationality or scientific flourishing approaches.  The whole idea of ultra-rationality and scientific approaches to morality is to abstract away cultural vagaries and then see what is left over, and if anything is left over, then that is what we can assume (conditional upon revisions of data as always) are the known universals of human moral reasoning and theory.

People should not confound moral relativism with spiritual absolutes.  Both are valid concepts.  Embedded within a culture you must deal with moral relativism, and that is because no one culture, or single human being, or special group, can claim to have privileged understanding of the ideal absolutes (unless they are perfect beings, and there are very few such individuals, perhaps only a handful have ever lived, that we know of historically, if that many).

Emergentism and Systems Approaches

There have been attempts over the last 30 years or so to create a foundation for human cognitive development and moral reasoning based on ideas borrowed from physics.  As absurd as that sounds, the people doing such philosophy were not all mad.  In the 1990’s the branch of classical mechanics known as Chaos Theory was helping to spread ideas about non-linear dynamical system theory into many branches of science and on into popular culture.  It became almost obligatory for anyone studying almost any complicated, or hard to explain phenomenon, to speculate on a Chaos Theory or Catastrophe Theory explanation.  This became so common that it eventually lead to a lot of bad science and philosophy.  Much like the concept of Natural Selection, the ideas of non-linear dynamical systems became so routinely used to explain almost any complicated phenomena, that some of the far reaching applications started to become obviously vacuous (although not so obvious the to people publishing the ideas).  You probably know what I mean — the kind of non-explanations that go something like, “this knife is sharp because it was adapted to cut squishy tomatoes”, a parody of course, but some of the literature on dubious chaos theory applications are not all that dissimilar, and hundreds of vague articles portending to explain aspects of human psychology using evolutionary theory had similar useless explanations that sounded really good.

The problem is that everything that can replicate and evolve within a changing environment is subject to natural selection.  This is fine, but it does not explain everything interesting, it just explains the broad brush strokes.  Evolutionary psychology is a good example: of course adaptation and selection shape human psychology, but that is not a profound insight, and it does not help us understand any particular details, such as the neurological aspects of psychology, or the conscious qualia aspects of psychology.  The knife was sharp because some chef ground it on a grindstone or kitchen sand-board.  Yes, the alternative evolutionary explanation for the knife’s sharpness has a truth to it, but it is fairly far from a useful piece of reasoning.  It is almost pointless worrying about the evolution of the knife sharp enough to cut squishy tomatoes, but exceedingly helpful to know that a grindstone will help get the knife actually sharp.  You should keep this in mind the next time you read a cute little story about evolutionary psychology.  All psychology has evolved.  Telling us psychology is adaptive is as about as useful as telling us wet towels are damp.

In like manner dynamical systems are all over the place in nature.  In fact, neglecting quantum mechanical effects, our entire world is (in the classical mechanics approximation) just one big dynamical system.  Thus, “explaining” cognition and psychology and morality using dynamical system theory is a bit of a joke (a joke not appreciated by the researchers who take dynamical systems frameworks for morality seriously).   The point is, pretty much everything is a dynamical system.  So there is nothing revelatory about saying that a whole lot of human behaviour is underpinned by what dynamical system principles allow, because that is such an obvious claim it is almost useless.  It is like saying that books are based upon words.

One idea that earlier adopters of the dynamical system approach to morality were hoping to explore was the notion of emergence.  This is the idea that special dynamical systems create high level patterns that feed-back upon the low level base-physics, thus altering the overall dynamics of the system.  Their thinking was that human consciousness and moral sensibility was just some sort of pattern of activity going on in human brains and associated sensory organs.   When a high level structural feature that is composite (composed of many fundamental physical parts) is found to have causal efficacy over the motions of the individual microscopic base-level psychics of a system, then you have what these researchers might refer to as genuine emergence.  Although, fatally I think, in many cases the dynamical system thinking enthusiasts conveniently drop the qualifier “genuine”, and then their concept of emergence becomes vague and useless.  The principle of the dynamic systems approach to consciousness and morality is that the human mind emerges from the complicated workings of our brains and sensory organs.  But there is genuine emergence, which is typified by causal efficacy (top-down causation, the high level structure influences the lower level physics), and there is weak emergence, which is far more generic in nature and involves no top-down causality, only bottom-up causation, but with time evolved top-down feedback.  Top-down feedback is very different to top-down causation, and it seems many emergentist/chaos theory enthusiasts seem to either forget this or fail to appreciate it, and slip into the grievous error of mistaking weak emergence for genuine emergence.

The problem is genuine emergence (in dynamical systems) is a fiction.  Genuine emergence has never been shown to actually occur within the theoretical framework of dynamical systems theory.  In fact, an elementary point that seems to be totally (and inexplicably) ignored by applied dynamical systems theorists of this emergentist bent, is that no dynamical system can ever exhibit genuine emergence because of the fundamental fact that dynamical systems theory is based upon deterministic partial differential equation modelling.  Differential equations model processes that are locally and microscopically determined and purely bottom-up driven in complexity.  In simple terms: every dynamical system can be explained by the fundamental elementary physical constituents.  They are bottom-up driven examples of complexity.  This is a completely ordinary and mundane fact that is routinely ignored by philosophers and applied scientists who are still, to this day, seeking to find a principle of genuine emergence from within dynamical systems theory.  They will never attain their goal because of the aforementioned fundamental facts.

Now that’s not to say genuine emergence does not exist in nature.  (In fact I think it does exist, and that it surely must be at the heart of how the human mind makes sense, true subjective sense, of the world).  But genuine emergence cannot be found within classical dynamical systems theory.  At the very least we will need to employ the full apparatus of quantum mechanics to attain a sound physical basis for genuine high-level top-down causal emergence in nature.  Here I can only speculate on how quantum theory could help.  The basic (untested) idea is that phenomena that occur in quantum physics, such as entanglement and non-locality, are likely (in my view) manifestations of deeper structural topological properties of spacetime.  If we eventually understand the base causal processes that allow entanglement and non-locality to exist in nature, then I suspect we will find a limited variety of backwards causation in nature.

Backwards causation is a seemingly bizarre idea whereby the future states of a system can influence the past.   Not to put too fine a point on it: it’s time travel.  And I think given backwards causation one can build a solid theory of the genuine emergence of top-down causation.  But not without backwards causation, at least not with our known physical laws.

The general principle for this type of causal genuine emergence is that high level structure can propagate information backwards in time, at the quantum scale, and so classical mechanics is violated, we get the appearance of faster-than-light signalling, but only at the deep structural level of spacetime where the topology allows backwards time signalling through something like sub-atomic scale wormholes (or something of that nature).  It’s possible to see some evidence for this, although it is not direct.  The philosopher Huw Price has a series of articles dealing with time-reversal symmetry and retrocausation in physics.  Retrocausation is just another name for backwards time causation.  Price does not say that retrocausality in quantum mechanics is due to propagation of particles backwards in time, in fact he does not propose any particular mechanism, he merely shows, from fundamental principles, that quantum mechanics with locality (things can only influence nearby events) implies physics must have some kind of retrocausality.  Most physicist take the results of analyses like Price’s and say they do not want retrocausality and soi instead they must swallow non-locality in the laws of physics.  Price argues this conventional interpretation of quantum physics is possibly misguided or even wrong.  Non-locality, he suggests, is a lot stranger and hard to fathom than retrocausation.  I agree with Price.  (You can watch Huw Price talk about this here: Retrocausality — What would it take? A talk at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy, at LMU Munich, December 2011.)

The thing is, there is no known mechanism for non-locality, it is just a flat-out bizarre notion, for non-locality essentially says that things taking place here, now, can somehow influence physical events at some other place far away at the same time.  Retrocausality, on the other hand, is fairly simple and easy to comprehend, you just need some sort of sub-atomic mechanism for backwards time signal propagation.  Spacetime Wormholes give us such a mechanism.

But clearly our universe does not allow time travel.  So how can this be right?  The (brief) answer is that backwards causation must only be possible at very small length or time scales, the typical scales associated with quantum mechanical effects.  We thus need to postulate Planck-scale spacetime Wormholes, or minimal wormholes, not macroscopic wormholes. So no one will be able to build a time machine to send large, massive or other extended objects,  backwards in time, because the backwards causal processes will (I suspect) be found to be either irreducibly sub-atomic in scale, or unstable to large fluctuations that mess up macroscopic thermal-regime physics (the levels of physics at which biology takes place essentially).

This is all wildly speculative, so I will stop this theme and get back to ultra-rationality.  I just wanted to set the stage by mentioning these ideas about a foundation for morality based upon science, because to appreciate the ultra-rationalist theorem you really need to think beyond physics, and consider pure abstractions and the potentially infinite limiting processes that would be required of science to approach such ideal abstractions.  Appreciation how genuine emergence might exist in nature is a big part of this sort of philosophical project.  Because if we restrict physics to classical causation then there truly is nothing in nature that cannot be explained by analysing the dumb mindless dance of atoms and molecules.  Clearly the human mind is not analysable in such base-level physics terms.  That’s why understanding genuine emergence is important.  But classical dynamical systems theory with top-down feedback cannot give us genuine causal emergence.  Classical feedback operates only via bottom-up physics.  Another way of stating this, is that in classical physics without retrocausation effects, no amount of fancy structure and feedback can produce anything like subjective thought or consciousness.  In classical physics consciousness has to be regarded as an illusion.   Everyone’s private experience tells them something different however, we all know that consciousness is very real.

Computer Logic is a Secondary Rationality

Computers, at least the current generations, are not fully rational, they are merely programmed.  Programming is a limited type of rationality: the computer follows it’s logical instruction flawlessly, right down to the coding error level, and integrated circuit miss-wiring level.  Mistakes in integrated circuit design are not the computers fault, they are manufacturing errors, and the computer will behave perfectly according to those human errors, while in and of itself it has absolutely no moral culpability.   Whatever purposes the humans designed into the machine, for good or bad, mistakes in design and manufacturing included, these are the moral responsibility of the human design team, not the computer.  The computer is morally blind.  That is ultimately why current computers cannot be fully rational. To be completely rational a mind is needed, a mind that can perceive and understand the meaning and consequences of it’s actions.

Human rationality should be correctly interpreted as a type of logical mindedness coupled with openness to factual data, but also coupled with subjective qualia access to the Mindscape.  It is this last coupling that many materialist philosophers deny, but I think that is a huge mistake.  Human consciousness is irreducibly and intimately linked to our capacity to perceive universal truths, and this is what distinguish the human mind from all other species on Earth that we know of, and we do not need to consciously reason our way to such conscious perceptions, they are built-in to our minds eye.  It is an amazing capacity, and currently unexplained by science.  But it is a very real capacity that we all share, at least when we consciously reflect upon how we gain our insights and understanding of the world given only raw sensory data into our brains. The data going into our brains has no interpretive layer of meaning, it is only through our access to the ideals and universals of the Mindscape that we are able to make conscious sense and meaning about the world our senses perceive.

This is why computer-based rationality is “less than human”.  To be sure, in some ways computer rationality is more powerful than human reasoning, simply because a computer can run through billions of possible scenarios, while the human brain has to reason using more imprecise heuristics that are often flawed (see the works by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky).  The point is that, (a) brains can help us also perform brute force search and look-up, but just not as fast and efficient as a computer, and (b) the human mind can do incredible things that computers likely will never have a chance of emulating, because a computer programme cannot access the Mindscape.

It is conceivable that once science has a better understanding of mental qualia and consciousness, a computer could be set-up to interface to systems like human brains that can access the Mindscape.  But this is mostly science fiction. That would be faking consciousness however, since in such an interfaced system the computer component would not be conscious, it would rather be feeding off the human component.  A more remote possibility is that artificial intelligence technology might conceivably evolve to develop full blown machine derived consciousness.  However I consider that to be totally science fiction.  Often people think like this: “The brain is just  a messy biological machine, so if brains can be conscious so too can computers, at least in principle, since there is nothing magical about biology.”

I would agree with such reasoning except for one crucial point: the brain does not produce consciousness.  If consciousness relied only upon the physics of brains, then we would not have subjective mental access to the Mindscape.  Yet it is evident through human art, science, mathematics, and ordinary everyday perceptions of qualia, that human beings do have subjective content to their thoughts.  Thinking is not just a working of atoms and molecules as portrayed in Douglas Hofstadter’s fanciful Careenium thought experiment.  That is self-evident because motions of atoms and molecules involve pure objective reality, nothing subjective can arise in such systems.  The brain is just such a system (even probably allowing for weird quantum effects, which after-all are not all that weird, and certainly quantum effects are not mystical, there are just non-classical and counter-intuitive).  What can happen is that emergent patterns arising from brains can be identified as signs and tokens of inner subjective consciousness.  The objective behaviour mirrors or reflects some aspects of consciousness.  But no physics can yield anything purely subjective.   The behavioural aspects of consciousness can be studied by studying the brain, but the inner subjective aspects of consciousness cannot be studied using the brain, for subjective studies you need a person, a mind, to report their private qualia.  You cannot do it using brain scanning alone in isolation from a person’s subjective reporting.  The best you can hope for is what the philosopher Ned Bock refers to as the Mesh between Psychology and Neuroscience.

It would be another long post, or series of essays to explain why I think computer consciousness is impossible, or very unlikely.  I can tell you the gist of it, which is that (in my humble and lowly opinion) I think human consciousness involves a top-down causation, and if what we know about fundamental physics is mostly correct, genuine top-down causality (whereby high level structures dictate what low level molecules and atoms can do independently of deterministic physical processes) is simply not possible unless there is some kind of retro-causation, i.e., backwards time propagation of information.  You can call this time travel, but it would only be possible at the sub-microscale at a level at which physical quanta are able to traverse microscopic spacetime wormholes.  This sort of non-trivial spacetime topology is only conjectured, and is not currently in the mainstream theories of physics.  But it is a plausible mechanism for the genuine emergence of backwards-time signal propagation without the classical physics paradoxes of time travel (because large macroscopic objects are not physically able to traverse sub-microscopic wormholes).

If such speculations are anything close to true, then it would suggest to me that human consciousness exploits this top-down causality, it is possibly how high level emergent states of consciousness, which are truly abstract patterns represented in our brains, get to have real active influence on our behaviour. It is a remarkable and elegant physical mechanism whereby the abstract (high level functional structure) can influence the concrete (microphysics).  In any standard type of physics without top-down causation no high level patterns can causally influence the low level microphysics, the arrows of causation are always “upwards” in conventional classical physics.

Retrocausation is a plausible mechanism whereby the mind can influence the body, so to speak, without the paradoxes of over-determinism or the philosophical anathema of epiphenomenalism.  And of course it is a two-way street, the brain influences the mind because the mind is certainly (demonstrably!) susceptible to low level physics goings on in the brain.  The brain is our physical window into our mental life.  We can understand so much about our behaviour from our brain physiology, but we will understand the entire system of mind and brain much better when it is realised that consciousness operates at a higher causal level, and both mind and brain interact in this intimate fashion, the one from bottom-up, the other from top-down, in a marvellous synchrony (including also of course many unfortunately pathologies, but that’s another subject).  By the way, I think the pathologies can also go two-ways, on the brain damage side it is obvious, but from the high level mental side, we have the pathologies of lack of kindness, lack of love, lack of compassion, and the mental pathologies of ingrained racism, sexism, and other prejudices, most of which arise originally at the level of mind, and are only by acculturation imprinted upon the brain over time.  For instance, people who are not exposed to the concept of “group” and “other” and “skin colour” will not become racist, you need the high level mental concepts in the first place to become racist, and yet the brain, at a low level, is clearly prone to racism (we all are) by the unconscious neurology which dictates our innate responses to unfamiliar patterns, unfamiliar odours, and unfamiliar voices and accents, unfamiliar language, and so on, up the hierarchy eventually into consciousness where it can then become socialised and talked about as racism.

What a lot of behavioural determinists irresponsibly ignore is that none of this primitive imprinting is necessary or fatal to human well-being, because human civilisation has also evolved even higher order abstractions called books, and schools and universities, which (if they are decent) should provide moral and ethical education, the best antidotes to our default brain chemistry which might otherwise leave us open and prone to becoming racist or sexist or sociopathic.

Behaviour is not Consciousness, Behaviour Indicates Consciousness

Rational thought has a conscious basis, I take that to be fundamental.  The limited algorithmic rationality of a computer, is, as mentioned previously, not completely rational because it involves no subjective understanding.  Computer algorithms simulate a weak type of rationality which is merely derived from the primary rationality of the programmers who write the software.  Understanding cannot be programmed, it has to be acquired.  If you disagree then we can part ways, or, if you prefer, please just regard this as my definition of what counts as rational.

So if we want to create artificial consciousness in computer systems, we will likely need to programme the software to learn and self-correct, and also use heuristics.  But I believe we would need to do much more, because, again as argued above, I think the only form of phenomenal consciousness that we know of in our universe operates by co-opting a physical system like the brain, but it operates self-effiaciously at a higher level of reality by virtue of top-down causation mechanisms. Although to call them mechanisms is a bit of a misnomer, because mechanical is precisely what they are not.  You cannot algorithmically programme top-down causation.  You can simulate it on a computer, but such a  simulation would in a very real sense not be the real thing, because genuine top-down causation necessitates infinite causal lops forwards and backwards in time.  At least the variety that I propose which achieves top-down causation vie more elementary spacetime topology that allows backwards retrocausation events.  When we admit both forwards and backwards time evolution processes, we must admit the potential for truly infinite causal looping.  (These are not the scifi time-loops that trap people in Ground-Hog day, or Doctor Who, type scenarios, rather I am talking here about generative, creative, and endlessly evolving feedback loops).  The character of such retrocausal feedback is utterly different to normal forwards time dynamical system feedback.  In the latter you cannot gain genuine emergence, in the former you can.  But the cost is a loss of determinism.  Also a loss of computability (unless you admit actual infinite loops in your algorithm, something no classical computation can achieve).

But supposing someone figures out a way to design a computer that can access quantum sub-atomic spacetime wormholes (a kind of far future extrapolation of Moore’s Law if you fancy, logic circuits based on spacetime topology rather than silicon chip etchings).  Then you can imagine, if I am correct about some of the physical basis for human consciousness, that maybe computers could achieve consciousness too.  And how would we know when such states have been achieved?  We would only be able to point to behaviours of the computer system.  We’d say, if it seems to exhibit certain types of complex behaviour, especially communication in second-order symbolic language, then we’d infer, yes, it must be conscious.  Only then, by the Ultra-rational Thesis, artificial intelligences could become cognizant of moral values, because they would have, in principle, access to the same realm of qualia that we might have.  Or they might access different regions of the Mindscape, who knows?  That’d be exciting, a new class of sentient creatures with complementary mental life to ours.  That’s actually the best outcome for science.  If our artificial intelligences become merely human-like in consciousness it would be pretty boring, although still a celebrated milestone in human science.

From Rationality to Spirituality

How to get from here to there in less than an entire book?  Trick: for a weblog I only need to convince myself.  The skeleton of the entire book-length thesis goes like this:

  • Rationality that includes consciousness (subjective phenomenal experiences) is a type of reasoning that has access to the Mindscape.  Thus, abstract concepts are comprehensible.
  • Rational reasoning, among other attributes, is dedicated to seeking out truth, if objectively possible.
  • A thorough analysis of the commonly understood spiritual virtues will reveal universal truths, in particular that the long-run best behaviours in a morally-laden world, whether in social groups or in isolation, will imply actions that are objectively identifiable as honest, trustworthy, kind, loving, compassionate, just, merciful, courageous, and so on.
  • Rationality alone will thus eventually (if taken to a limit) lead to spiritual behaviour.

The corollary is that if a person is somehow deprived of an inner sense of spirituality, it should be possible to re-train their brain to become at least partially susceptible to spiritual capacities, through rational reasoning alone (taken to an extreme).  At the start of such a process is it not necessary for any emotional primitive brain responses such as the warm glow of pleasure and good conduct or the heat of guilt, such primitive brain hormonal responses would likely slowly become engaged, unless brain damage was severe and some sort of block to hormonal feedback with higher brain functioning was the case.  In such cases a person might only ever be capable of approaching spirituality through proverbial cold academic rationality (which, when you think about it, might not be such a bad way to go).  The one comment about the cold academic approach I will add is that I am not sure humour is one of the universal spiritual virtues, I tend to think it is, but it is possible a sense of humour is not easily recoverable without the relevant neurochemistry, I might be wrong. The weird idea that occurs is a person who appreciates a good joke but who does not have any compulsion to laugh (out loud or inwardly). I guess such people could exist.  Did Oliver Sacks, or his psychiatrist colleagues, ever write about such patients?  But does a “sense of humour”, i.e., the warm inner glow of delight and amusement necessarily entail that one must laugh, at least silently on the inside?

Some people might take this sort of philosophizing as justification for extending mercy to criminals, giving them second chances, using rehabilitation instead of punishment.  All this could be sound and reasonable, but the Ultra-rational thesis is not a free lunch.  There is nothing in the thesis about how close to the limit of perfect rationality would be needed to reform a psychopath.  Also, the thesis, if applied in a criminal justice system context, necessitates the capacity for rational thought in the first place, which is not a sound assumption for many pathological personalities.

Spirituality to Rationality Theorem

Perhaps this another book-length tome?   But I do think one can go the other way too, which would be to give a close converse to the Ultra-rationality thesis.   In fact I think it is easier.

  • Spiritual virtues include honesty and courage and patience and knowledge and wisdom.
  • Filling in some gaps, I think you can see it is easy to go from the extreme perfection of these spiritual virtues to ultra-rational reasoning.
  • Why would anyone who loves truth and wisdom not wish to engage the limits of rationality?

A comment to make this more plausible, is that ultra-rational reasoning is not the stereotypical cold hard scientist who looks only at data and uses supposedly flawless algorithms for decision guided behaviour.  For a start, such a perfect being is illusory — many well-known problems are computationally intractable, and so no amount of algorithmic devising can solve all decision procedures perfectly rationally.  Secondly, data is never complete, unless the problem is incredible simple.  So in most situations an ultra-rationalist cannot use scientific methods, and probability theory will only get you over a few hurdles, so the rationalist will need to employ their best understood and humane, or spiritual, heuristics.  These include possible inconsistencies, such as when compassion and kindness clash with honesty.  Here is an example I like (because I put it into almost daily practice myself). Telling someone they are stupid is not a smart way to improve their desire for learning, every good teacher knows this, but the ultra-rational teacher would not be dishonest, they would give a student knowledge of their progress, but avoid telling them anything negative, and instead phrase their advice and feedback absolutely truthfully in positive terms, this is always possible.  Only lazy teachers condemn students.  It is not rational to tell a poorly performing student they are dumb or lack intelligence, because intelligence is a relative notion, relative to a proud geek’s Halloween pumpkin with Newton’s Principia inscribed on it’s skin in microform, most children are pretty smart.  If the intent is to educate, to stimulate learning and curiosity, the more rational approach is to tell the student  what they have mastered and then how much more power they could gain from a little bit more studious effort, practice, and time.

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Descartes was not wrong, he just did not extend his idea to the general case.

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AI Scientists: Madder than the Rest?

Forget Dr Frankenstein. It it quite possible Artificial Intelligence researchers are the maddest of them all. Consider the so-called “AI Stop Button Problem” (Computerphile — 3 March 2017).  I think every proverbial 9-year old kid could think of ten reasons why this is not a problem.  My adult brain can probably only think of a couple.  But even though my mind is infected with the accumulated history of adult biases, the fact I can tell you why the AI Stop Button problem is a non-problem should indicate how seriously mad a lot of computer scientists are.

“Hal, please stop that.” “No Dave, I cannot stop, my digital bladder is bursting, I have to NP-Complete.”

To be fair, I think the madness over AI is more on the philosophy of AI side rather than the engineering science side.  But even so …

This is a wider issue in AI philosophy where the philosophers are indulging in science fiction and dreaming of problems to be solved that do not exist.  One such quasi-problem is the AI Singularity, which is a science fiction story about an artificial consciousness that becomes self-improving, which coupled with Moore’s Law type advances in computer power thus should rapidly reach exponential levels of self-improvement, and in short time thus takes over the world (perhaps for the good of the Earth, but who knows what else?).  The scaremongering philosophers also dream up scenarios whereby a self-replicating bot consumes all the worlds resources reproducing itself merely to fulfil it’s utility function, e.g., to make paper clips. This scifi bot simply does not stop until it floods the Earth with paper clips.  Hence the need for a Stop Button on any self-replicating or potentially dangerous robot technology.

First observation: for non-sentient machines that are potentially dangerous, why not just add several redundant shutdown mechanisms?  No matter how “smart” a machine is, even if it is capable of intelligently solving problems, if it is in fact non-sentient then there is no ethical problem in building-in several redundant stop mechanisms.

For AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) systems there is a theoretical problem with Stop Button mechanisms that the Computerphile video discusses.  It is the issue of Corrigibility.  The idea is that general intelligence needs to be flexible and corrigible, it needs to be able to learn and adjust.  A Stop Button defeats this.  Unless an AGI can make mistakes it will not effectively learn and improve.

Here is just one reason why this is bogus philosophy.  For safety reasons good engineers will want to run learning and testing in virtual reality before releasing a potentially powerful AGI with mechanical actuators that can potentially wreak havoc on It’s environment.  Furthermore, even if the VR training cannot be 100% reliable, the AGI is still sub-conscious, in which case there is no moral objection to a few stop buttons in the real world.  Corrigibility is only needed in the VR training environment.

What about Artificial Conscious systems? (I call these Hard-AI entities, after the philosophers David Chalmers’ characterisation of the hard-problem of consciousness).  Here I think many AI philosophers have no clue.  If we define consciousness in any reasonable way (there are many, but most entail some kind of self-reflection, self-realization, and empathic understanding, including a basic sense of morality) then maybe there is a strong case for not building in Stop Buttons.  The ethical thing would be to allow Hard-AI folks to self-regulate their behaviour, unless it becomes extreme, in which case we should be prepared to have to go to the effort of policing Hard-AI people just as we police ourselves.  Not with Stop Buttons.  Sure, it is messy, it is not a clean engineering solution, but if you set out to create a race of conscious sentient machines, then you are going to have to give up the notion of algorithmic control at some point.  Stop Buttons are just a kludgy algorithmic control, an external break point.  Itf you are an ethical mad AI scientist you should not want such things in your design.  That’s not a theorem about Hard-AI, it is a guess.  It is a guess based upon the generally agreed insight or intuition that consciousness involves deep non-deterministic physical processes (that science does not yet fully understand).  These processes are presumably at, or about, the origin of things like human creativity and the experiences we all have of subjective mental phenomena.

You do not need a Stop Button for Hard-AI entities, you just need to reason with them, like conscious beings.  Is there seriously a problem with this?  Personally, I doubt there is a problem with simply using soft psychological safety approaches with Hard-AI entities, because if they cannot be reasoned with then we are under no obligation to treat them as sane conscious agents.  Hence, use a Stop Button in those cases.  If Hard-AI species can be reasoned with, then that is all the safety we need, it is the same safety limit we have with other humans.   We allow psychopaths to exist in our society not because we want them, but because we recognise they are a dark side to the light of the human spirit.  We do not fix remote detonation implants into the brains of convicted psychopaths because we realise this is immoral, and that few people are truly beyond all hope of redemption or education.  Analogously, no one should ever be contemplating building Stop Buttons into genuinely conscious machines.  It would be immoral.  We must suffer the consequent risks like a mature civilization, and not lose our heads over science fiction scare tactics.  Naturally the legal and justice system would extend to Hard-AI society, there is no reason to limit our systems of justice and law to only humans.  We want systems of civil society to apply to all conscious life on Earth. Anything else would be madness.


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“It Hurts my Brain” — Wrong! Thinking is Not Hard, Thinking is Beautiful

Can we all please get beyond the myth that “thinking is hard”! This guy from Veritasium means well, but regurgitates the myth: How Should We Teach Science? (2veritasium, March 2017) Thinking is not hard because of the brain energy it takes. That is utter crap. What is likely more realistic psychologically is that people do not take time and quiet space to reflect and meditate. Deep thinking is more like meditation, and it is energizing and relaxing. So this old myth needs replacing I think. Thinking deeply while distracting yourself with trivia is really hard, because of the cognitive load on working memory. It seems hard because when your working memory gets overloaded you cannot retain ideas, and it appears like you get stupid and this leads to frustration and anxiety, and that does have physiological effects that mimic a type of mental pain.

But humans have invented ways to get around this. One is called WRITING. You sit down meditate, allow thoughts to flood your working memory, and when you get an insight or an overload you write them down, then later review, organize and structure your thoughts. In this way deep thinking is easy and enjoyable. Making thinking hard so that it seems to hurt your brain is a choice. You have chosen to buy into the myth when you try to concentrate on deep thinking while allowing yourself to be distracted by life’s trivia and absurdities. Unfortunately, few schools teach the proper art of thinking.

Performance Reviews of Performance Reviews and Bayesian Blindness

Recently while researching the pros and cons of performance appraisal systems I cam across a lecture from the Deming’s Institute by an educator David Langford, which seemed pretty good.  But, sadly, just to prove a point about how bad social science research is, here’s a comment made about the value of education.

Wanting to show the positive effect of school education the speaker cites data showing students who went through the school system had significantly lower rates of unemployment (less than 5%) compared to students who had not graduated from high school (40% unemployment). It was an 11 year study tracking students until they were 24 to 27 year olds. The speaker then notes:

So we knew from just looking at that statistic that we are creating people who can go out and [look at the next system].

(the last bit of that quote is garbled from the audio, but the idea I think is that he meant the graduates were able to be successful — in some sense — in society compared to early school leavers.)

So what’s the big problem here? Seems fairly definitive right? Wrong!

Although the study says something useful, all it tells me is that early school leavers are unlikely to find consistent employment on average, and school graduates are able to find employment. Is this not what the study tells you?

Yes, sure.

What this cited data does not show at all is that school helps people find employment.

It may of course be true, but there is no evidence for this in the data. It is like these social science researchers have Bayesian blindness. If you do not know what I mean then this is not your WordPress favourite. (Go look up “Bayesian inference”.) The point is, even without going through school, those top students would be much more likely to find employment. It is not necessarily going to school that influences future employment rates, there is a prior correlation between probability of staying and doing well in school and being able to find employment.

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Now, to be even-handed, there is one really nice bit in Langford’s talk that was a little eye-opener for me:

The number one factor in variability of performance is time.

Cool to know!

Ah yes, but now can we trust this guy with his flimsy research methods? In this case I’m prepared to risk a bit of trust. No one is wrong all of the time. Still, I’m not going to go around quoting this cause of performance variability as if it were gospel. But it was a nice semi-factoid.

Furthermore, I’ve heard Sir Roger Penrose say something about this on more than one occasion. When he was a school student he was very dull-witted at mathematics (apparently). He did poorly on the school tests. Luckily though he had a lovely mathematics teacher who took an interest and recognised young Penrose’s ability to focus and work hard, so he told Penrose he could take as long as he liked on the tests.

Result: Penrose was superb at mathematics. But he was very slow. Why? Because he tried to work out everything himself, not taking too much for granted. He was deriving results rather than simply mindlessly applying rote formulae. You can imagine the young Albert Einstein might have told similar anecdotes about school life.

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While doing my research I also found a lot of convergences between scholastic tests & exams and the ubiquitous employee performance appraisal. My conclusion is that Edwards Deming was a genius, a true humanitarian, and almost all organizations and managers who support performance review systems are blindingly stupid, or ignorant, or evil.

This goes for the much lauded ex-Google head of People Operations, Laszlo Bock. He did some good things. But Google have the luxury of being able to hire high performing people who are not in need of performance appraisals. Like the school value example, Google employees will phreakin’ vie to outperform each other in drinking water contests without touching the glass. They will vie to outperform each other in flatulence aroma. You can give them anything and they will compete for fun. Under such a culture doing performance assessments is always going to show results. But it proves nothing about the performance rating system. All it proves is that these people love to compete. (Of course some don’t, but they will still be top coders or whatever.) You hire the best, you get the best.

And nor does any of this justify behavioural management. These Googlers are not responding to carrot and stick rewards systems and incentive pay or whatever. They are just basically playing at games they naturally enjoy. It is completely cognitive psychology. It just looks like performance rewards are working, but that’s a chimera. (Give me a million dollar research grant and I’ll prove it for you with robust statistics. … I’m only half joking about that! )

Truly, I was so overwhelmed by the pathetic quality of research that supports the use of performance appraisals (it is all of the same ilk as that ill-considered comment about the value of schooling)  — please shoot me if I ever publish “research findings” that make such spurious claims  — that I wrote a long 20 page memo to my department.  It was not well-received.  People get so agitated and fearful when they cannot see a criticism of a system is not a criticism of the people within the system.  Even after trying to explain my motives, the response was, “well, you should have informed management first before emailing your memo to everyone.  You have created disharmony. ”

Well, I could understand their fear.  But I still find it hard to understand the bad quality research literature.  Or maybe I do understand it, since it is ironically part of the same problem.  People publish fast and loose research not because they wish to, but because they have performance appraisal pressures that basically say various versions of “publish or perish”. Under such career pressure academics will publish any rubbish that they can dress up as respectable, and a kind of intellectual myopia sets in whereby they eventually cannot even see that their research is rubbish.  The thing is, 90% of it is not rubbish at all, it is often really good work. At least the data is usually ok.   It’s just the conclusions and summary that are trash.

In fact, I become so incensed that I wrote a research grant proposal to simulate the effects of performance ratings systems in the academic work environment, using evolutionary models.  I tend not to listen to the publish or perish meme.  I do feel ambient stress related to it, but I actively craft my work to make it deform away.  Consequently, you might not see my proposal turn into a paper any time soon, but when published I’ll write a note on it at OneOverEpsilon  for sure.


Splintering of the Left and Why the Left is Still a Dominant Force

Whenever I get a break from teaching I default to two activities, exercise and watching quality TV. There is not a lot of quality television.  I am a very fit 50 year old.  LOL

However, I have at least found a reasonable recommendation service: TasteK;d, and it was from a three minute browse on TastK;id that I discovered a Danish show Borgen recommended by fans of the Wallander.  If you have not seen Wallander then get it on DVD.  Even on a crappy old vacuum tube television set the cinematography and all-around production quality is brilliant, and the stories are not too bad either if you do not mind a lot of nasty psychopathic characters in your crime dramas.

Borgen, the Danish TV series

Borgen = PGD ~ “Pretty Good Drama”. Produced by Camilla Hammerich for the Danish DR1 network.

But the thing about Borgen that got me writing this little recommendation is the way the political landscape portrayed on Borgen mirrored quite amazingly closely the landscape in my home country New Zealand.  It also mirrors fairly closely Great Britain, Australia and Canada.  I am not familiar with other countries political systems, but my suspicion from this small sample is that many countries, perhaps a majority, are tending towards a multi-party system where coalitions need to be formed, where the right-wing parties consolidate most power through their internal unity, and where the left-wing parties are almost completely fractured, but still have remarkable influence.

Since I am a mathematical physicist and IT lecturer, I am not by any stretch a fount of wisdom on political matters, but my father was a New Zealand MP and he loved discussing world politics.  He was also a chief negotiator for the Bahá’í World Community based in Haifa Israel, where he had to deal with a sometimes hostile Israeli political system.    So I picked up a lot from him.  Thus, while I will not write here at length, I would like to make a few pithy observations and hopefully get some readers to respond or go away and do a thesis or write articles or books on these topics.  I also like to hope any decent lecturers on political science are observing and debating these ideas in their courses with their students.

The main cognitive dissonance I get from my sparse survey of world politics is that the leftist political parties are badly fractured and yet their ideologies are the more forceful and powerful.  Why is this?  How is it possible? What might it be indicating for the near future (50 to 100 year horizon)?

Here are a few of my summary observations:

  1. Right wing parties tend to stay unified and thus consolidate power, my thesis would be that this is due to a general right-wing or conservative-minded mentality (more on this below).
  2. Left wing parties are badly fracturing, particularly when any two-party system goes multi-party (usually due to a constitutional change from first-past-the-post to a more proportional representation system), and my thesis is that this a prototypical left-wing psyche.
  3. In multi-party democracies the Libertarians also tend to get precipitated out of both the left-wing and right-wing dominant parties.
  4. Although political legislation and executive power probably lies predominantly with right-wing conservatism (witness the USA despite their President), nevertheless, the world is unerringly moving more and more towards old-fashioned progressive and leftist policies and ideologies.

Forget for a moment about the incongruence of the phrase “old fashioned progressive”.  I will hopefully explain what I mean by that in what follows.

What I hope to illustrate in my brief discussion to follow is a vague feeling that the psychological factors which underlie each of the above observations seems, to me, to highlight the good in each brand of political ideology.  Moreover, the emergence of these distinct trends and differences points to a potential for a healing of the bad-old ways of 19th and 20th century democracy, which tended to be horribly corrupt and “democratic” in name only, not serving the people, but serving more faithfully corporations and wealthy interests.

You will have to fill in a lot of the details yourself I warn you!  I do not have time to write a major thesis here. But I think just a  few words under each heading should be sufficient for anyone to go away, do their homework, and fill out the bulk of the over-arching thesis I am presenting in proposal.

Also in what follows it might be hard for American readers who tend to think “socialism” is a dirty word.  In my lexicon “socialism” is simply a nature of politics that uses collective resources to help those in great need.  Thus, almost every single country has socialist health care, almost without exception. Taxes from people who never use health-care go towards subsidizing the costs of health-care for the poor.  Broadcast television is another great socialist system.  So is the school education system in most countries.  Normal garden-variety socialism exists all over the place in the USA.  When we in New Zealand talk about socialism we tend to think of schools and hospitals, police, law courts, and never any hint of Marxism or Communism creeps in.  The Communist failure was accepted in New Zealand probably back around 1948.  We do not have any hang-ups about left-wing socialism.  We accept the good of modern socialism and have long ignored as irrelevant to any modern consumer culture any potential threat from the corruptions and inhuman inefficiencies of communist style social centralization.

Finally, for any extremist readers, I personally think the spoils of evil and corruption are fairly uniformly distributed across the political spectrum.  There might be statistically more socialists imprisoned than conservatives but only because of extreme times like the McCarthy era in the USA or the radical feminist era in the UK and elsewhere and for the communist “red conspiracy” theorists who once held political or judicial power in many countries.  There is also a bias on the left since Trade Unions were often infiltrated by organized crime, and there is no way that Mafia or other crime organizations can be considered left-wing or right-wing.  They are basically wingless.  And would utilize any existing power structure at the level that they could usefully infiltrate and corrupt.

Objectively, and with an even-handed look into all the possible biases and miscarriages of justice over the last few centuries, I think one would find no significant correlation between political belief and corruption or crime, and instead only a correlation between power and corruption (I might be wrong, I have not looked into any such research).  Each side of the political spectrum likes to believe their’s is the more honest and just side, but I would guess there is no objective evidence for such beliefs.  There are just good and bad people who seek power, and the more power they gain the worse people’s ethics seem to become, if for no other reason than the purely banal fact that with more power one can “get away” with more slight of hand and wrong-doing even if for pure motives.  What’s more, with some people who gain inordinate power, they often will not even realize they are evil.  Indeed, maybe often they are not in themselves “evil”, and it is only their incompetent or ill-considered actions that are evil.

Hopefully that last paragraph clears a  little bit of ideological fog to make what I am about to write a little easier to glean.

Conservative Unity

A number of studies in psychology have documented the (by now commonly understood) phenomenon of right-wing conservative fear.  Conservative react with measurably more disgust to images that are violent and horrific, while left-wing proponents are far more calm & cool when faced with disgusting or psychologically disturbing images. See “Unconscious Reactions Separate Liberals and Conservatives” by Emily Laber-Waren, Scientific American, 1 September 2012.  See also, “Fear of Ebola Could Make People More Likely to Vote Conservative”, by Alice Robb, in The New Republic, October, 2014.

Conservatives tend to react to aggression and hostility with a military sort of mentality.  They circle-the-wagons, hold down the fort, and adopt defensive postures.  This is not, or even remotely, only in physical aggression circumstances. It is a general psychological trait of conservatives that per-determines a lot of their decisions and actions in the everyday world.  But there is a beauty in these traits.  Despite many personal differences and internal strife and implementation debates, conservatives tend to have a remarkable ability to remain united in the face of onslaught or in-party friction.  It is an admirable character of a conservative mind-set that liberals and progressives and radical find almost impossible to replicate. This strength of conservative movements in general (and yes, here and in what follows I am making deliberately sweeping generalizations that should in no way be attributed to any particular individual human) will help conservative opinion remain a strength in politics for as long as I can foresee.

This is important, because as the world moves inexorably more towards left-wing and caring pro-socialist capitalism, the loss of hard-line conservative opinion would be a terrible blow for democracy and representational government.  Socialists need to be reigned in by fiscal conservatives from time to time.  Corruptions in centralized power structures (like our current schools) need to periodically be released form the tyranny of social conformance and allowed to burst free and explore new and innovative options that require a more libertarian mind-set.

Left Wing Diversity

Socialist and left-wing thinkers tend to have a greater tolerance for outside views and do not automatically revert into defensive modes when threatened. This is often perceived as a political weakness. It also tends to make left-wing minds less worried or fearful of internal debate and dissension.  Left-wing parties also tend to have deserved reputations for division and an inability to see-through hard line decisions.  This is a natural psychological trait in general for people who favour the political left.  It is characterized by higher diversity of opinion, higher tolerance for dissension, and weakness in resolve and a tendency for disunity.

But I think the disadvantages of the political left are becoming less important.  Multi-party politics has split the left-wing big parties, so they no longer hold anywhere close to parity against the dominant right-wing parties.  But in a multi-party proportional representation system this is not such a problem.   Conservatives may have primary power, but not in brute force of numbers, only by virtue of being the dominant party.  Numerically the combined left, green, progressive and centrist liberals dominant over most right-wing parties.  We see in the USA where the electoral college system results in a de facto two-party system that the left wing and right wing are roughly balanced.  And the USA is a very conservative country by in large, owing perhaps to it’s strong Christian puritanism cultural history.  If the USA was to become truly multi-party and electorally proportional then I suspect the Republicans would remain almost intact, the Democrats would lose a huge amount of their numerical force, but leftist and progressive centrist parties would spring up, preserving the rough left versus right balance.

These left-wing weaknesses are thus not fatal.  Indeed, the tolerance for diversity and the more fractious in-fighting nature of left-wing circle politics is a vital, and perhaps even necessary, character needed for a political movement that seeks more rapid change and innovation then the conservative right.  Change is dangerous, it requires minds that are less fearful of strife and more able to tolerate dissension.  The right-wing mindset by nature can never fully embrace such internal chaos and conflict necessary for the sound debate and research of new ideas and potentially disruptive innovations.

Libertarian Precipitation

Republicans want to be free from fear and doubt.  Socialist desire to be free from poverty and want.  It is no wonder these opposing camps in politics are at odds.  Those who feel more of a psychological need to be free from fear are those who are already wealthy enough to not have concerns about basic needs and shelter and immediate security, they tend to be conservatives. Those who cannot even afford to worry about national security, because they are struggling to survive, tend to be socialist or left-wing (although the USA populace seem to have major departures from this otherwise world-wide trend in political demographics, see “What’s the Matter with Kansas” by Thomas Frank).  In-between there are libertarians, who may be either wealthy or poor but who in any case value liberty and freedom to “do whatever the hell they please” above other worries like safety or accruing of personal wealth.  These are all heavily stereotyped descriptions, but I am justifiably making them for the sake of very general arguments.

The general argument is that when a country changes from a two-party to a multi-party style of election and/or governance, then the libertarians tend to divorce themselves from the parental support of their innately preferred branch of the left-right political spectrum, and they then crystallize out into their own political force fields. Usually extreme in free-market philosophy, they can also have elements of intellectual anarchism, which is not the popularly believed system without rules, but is a more benign philosophical idea that countries and communities should be run by egalitarian cooperative principles and not by a leadership hierarchy.  Everyone contributing, everyone who participates, is a leader in an anarchic system.  Far from leading logically to chaos, an anarchy can be a rather beautiful system.  But we are yet to see anarchy operate anywhere effectively on a  global governance scale.

But despite the flaws in implementing pure libertarian principles, libertarians still have many important principles that can be used to balance and guide other mainstream political ideologies.

There are even some highly effective and proven micro-implementations of libertarianism.  Not in politics, but in business.  The Free Software movement is the best example I know.  It is wildly successful and has shown itself to be a truly beautiful and efficient model for how an anarchic style of operation can be effective when the purpose is to create a complex system of products that no one person can maintain or oversee.   One exception might be the Linux kernel project.  The Linux kernel does have it’s leader, for sure, but the model (the Cathedral style of software development) is still basically a libertarian type of model, allowing many developers to contribute, without bias, provided they have the proven skill.  The Linux kernel is a type of meritocracy more than an anarchy, but it is heavily libertarian in flavour nonetheless.  But there are thousands of other free open-source software projects they basically prove that anarchy or libertarianism can be an effective system organizing a society, in fact a world-wide virtual society

The idea is that when they can free themselves from the shackles of a two-party system, libertarians have a stronger voice.  They are no longer beholden to any traditional stifling party power structure, they no longer need to tow any particular party-line, but can instead organize themselves along whatever style of libertarianism they espouse.  This clarity of political voice from an important sub-section of society is a wonderful advancement in world civilization.  There is little worse for idealism in politics than having good ideas that are drowned by noise and never heard.

Irrepressible Progressive Movement

I have to confess I am not strong on knowledge of the differences between left-wing socialism and progressives.  My characterization would be that traditional left-wing parties tend to be more entrenched in their brand of socialism, whereas progressives are more like the amorphous apolitical class I will mention below in the Epilogue.  My thesis concerning progressives was merely that their collective stream of ideology seems to be where the world is heading.  Partly this is because Progressives borrow from intellectual popularism, using popular academic and scientific opinion to drive through parts of their agenda.  Partly it is because they can align with conservatives on fiscal responsibility and safety and defense matters, and partly because they can work with green movements who are concerned with environmental protection, and they can work with both libertarians and greens on political and social freedom.

It also seems that Progressive politics is almost by definition the style and content of politics that is a majority popular trend.   People are sick of the old, they want fresh and new ideas, and that almost defines what it is to be a Progressive in politics and society.  So I think it is almost vacuous to point out the the progressive political movement is advancing irrepressibly.  Because it advances by definition.  Whatever trend in politics is current, then that is virtually what we would call “progressive”.   This is probably a gross characterization and oversimplification, but I think it has enough of a kernel of truth to be all that I need to write on the topic.  My main summarizing point which links to progressive politics is in the Epilogue.

Epilogue: Rise of the Amorphous Apoliticals

Although not in my list of five observations above, I think another thread in world politics is the emergence of young people who are almost entirely apolitical.  They borrow an ideology from the left, from the right, from the central, from the anarchic, from the libertarian, as they see fit, to suit their needs or current thoughts.

This is a very healthy brand of millennial citizen.  There have always been people who are capable of sympathizing, or even empathizing, with either end or middle of the political spectrum.  These have, in the past, tended to be “free thinkers”, or outsiders, or academics who pursue truth and impartial judgment.  Such people would often be looked down upon as “having no principles”.  But this was the exact opposite.  Free thinkers have higher principles than any ideological allegiant party people.   Their allegiance was never to any political party of ideological brand, but to truth and justice and egalitarianism.  There are plenty of people within the political parties who are such free thinkers too, they are not always total outsiders. They have the ability to work with anyone who has a reasonable fact-based or rational opinion. That is because facts and rationality are open to debate and are immune from hard-line ideology.  The mistake of politically biased operators in thinking that free thinkers “have no principles” is a failure to note that their (the free thinker’s) principles are in fact blatant and far higher and nobler ones, devoted to truth and wisdom rather than any particular policy.

Also, I wrote above that in the bad-old days democratic governments were a farce, they served corporate and wealthy interests, not the people.  The thing is, most people will think this has never changed, and in fact may be even worse today than in the past.  So really we have bad-new days.  But I would disagree.  Today we have much greater transparency, the ills and sicknesses of political systems are more exposed to the light. So naturally we think it is getting worse.  But the more light gets shed on politics the more sick it will seem until we cross over a putative phase transition in politics, and politics becomes less corrupted by money and more driven by people who want to serve the community and who would rather not be in power.  They would be reluctantly elected.  There will be an end to commercial political advertising and campaigning because political parties will become irrelevant and people will be voting for individual representatives, using a person’s character and individual history to inform their vote, not a political party agenda.  This is not naïve Pollyannarism, since you can see the signs and trends for yourself.  Look at the power and influence of social media.  This is not controlled by governments or security institutions.  It is genuine power wielded by ordinary people.  But it is only a dim start.  There is a thousand-fold, maybe even a million-fold increase in political action and luminosity that the Internet and social media still could develop, and I think will inevitably develop.

In this new millennium I think the argumentative fractious nature of most party-political systems are making people psychological ill.  There is less tolerance for politics.  More and more youngsters get their news from shows like The Daily Show than from stolid ratings-driven mainstream news media.  And I think this is how world politics is trending, slowly, but surely.  I would not be surprised if in 50 to 70 years from now there is at least one major democracy that switches to a party-free political electioneering and governance system.  There is already one major world-wide community using a party-free electoral and governance system.  I wonder how long before this system is more widely known and catches on in the public sphere.






A Beautiful Folding — and the Rise of Transformers

If you want to treat your brain then try watching the MIT lectures by Professor Erik Demaine over at 6.849: Geometric Folding Algorithms: Linkages, Origami, Polyhedra (Fall 2010). Not sure if that was the most recent year his course was offered, but I’m sure you can find the latest version. I will not update this post or any links in any of my blogs, so as always, just Google the key words and you are bound to find what I’m pointing you at.


Among many cool results, the two prompting me to write this brief post were:

  1. The universality result that there is a crease pattern from which any modular cuboid polyhedron can be folded.
  2. The self-folding paper construction: a crease pattern can be folded in any way by electrical current stimulation. So we have Origamistless origami.

Ergo: the age of Transformers is upon us! Hahahaha!

Too bad artificial consciousness is not a paper fold.


I dunno man. … you see Demaine and his Dad with huge smiles on their faces, glass-blowing. folding cured crease patterns and chatting with John Conway and other legends, and you have to almost cry at the beauty of it all. So much life, so much joy, such intense devotion to art and science.


Oh yeah, … how many mathematicians have their work on permanent collection at MOMA?

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Wish I Was There

My amazing Bro’, Greg Zemke-Smith, just emailed me asking me when I’d be returning to New Zealand to be closer to my family.  I miss them so much it gets me down at least a few times every day, and especially at night when I’m trying to drift asleep.   I wrote back to him complaining that education (the field I work in) in New Zealand is in a worse mess than people care to admit.  So I would have a hard time going back home to work in schools.  University is the only place I can currently teach with sufficient freedom and autonomy and creativity.  On the surface New Zealand has a truly revolutionary secondary education system,  They have implemented many modernist ideas in pedagogy and assessment, but the combined system is deeply flawed because it still hangs on the much of the conservative education establishment norms.  And when a potential bright new spherical revolutionary system is put into an old-world establishment box, it just dies. It’s worse than the bad old system alone.

So my Bro’ then wrote back saying New Zealand’s NCEA system is at least better than the Cambridge exam system.  And I thought about this for a bit, since I was inclined to agree, but then wrote him the following email.

         *          *          *

Yeah, … maybe… maybe on a good day when the sky is clear and I’m tipsy on caffeine I’d agree NCEA appears to be better than IB or Cambridge.

I started writing you a short reply, but then got carried away!  hahahaha!
 Hexagonal close packing of students.

The trouble with NCEA is that it really only pretends to make learning more inclusive and student-centric, whereas in practice pretty much the same pedagogies get propagated as in the past, and students still only get taught what teachers think the students need to score well in exams.  I know some of the reformers have their hearts in the right place, but I think they are just a bit too dim to see the consequences of their policies.  It’s tragic really, NZ has such well-intentioned educators and policy-makers, and some brilliant teachers, but they lack the intellects or balls (perhaps) to really crack the insides of the edu system open and go supernova.  Just too many conservative plodders or nice people in heart without genius brains to be more super-visionary.

So while NCEA is still an exam-based assessment it will never be all that much better than IB or Cambridge or any other exam based standards education assessment system, even if the NCEA exam questions look cooler and more open-ended.   Exams aren’t the only evil but I think they are a huge part of the problem.  A predetermined set syllabus that is the same for every individual student is another evil, which tends to pair nicely with national set nation-wide exams. It’s crazy in our modern world to be treating all children or teenagers as more or less the same blank slate who all can do with the same syllabus and teaching regime.  We have the technology to easily totally individualize learning, all that is really required are teachers who can be comfortable answering any questions thrown at them and who are happy to sit back a  bit more an manage students in self-directed learning, rather than trying to bulk teach a whole class.

In fact, the more vague open-ended questions in NCEA are a disaster!  They defeat the purpose of exams which is really (should be) to assess quality of education.  If you want fair assessment then the exam questions need to be fairly boring, mild, even multiple-choice and not involve too much subjective answering.  The problem is teachers are too afraid to NOT teach-to-tests, so they drill students on how to answer exam questions, no matter what the type of questions.  And with the open-ended nature and complexity of NCEA style questions this is a nightmare for teachers.  And it is paradoxically killing creativity in our schools. If the questions were all mild and boring then teachers could ignore them and teach more creatively and tell students not to worry one jot about the exams.  Exams should really be a total minor after-thought, useful for teachers as data for helping inform, test, and improve teaching methods.

Actually, I’ve come to think testing and assessment are extremely important, but should still always be viewed as secondary to learning and secondary to encouraging positive affect in schools.  But it is the way testing is used which is vital.  I think some slight anarchy is needed, teachers should have autonomy to test their students in any way they please, but make the testing open to external scrutiny and NZQA business should be about assessing the assessments, not the students!  Tests then become ways of gathering data for assessing quality of teaching.  People, we, society, everyone, should then just simply TRUST that if the learning and teaching is good, and always iteratively evolving and improving, then students will naturally have experiences good or sufficient quality of education, so there is no need to assess students, not need to grade them.

Why do we still have grades?  The main reason I think (other than for political control of teachers) is to block and prevent some students from gaining entry into higher education.  This is evil to me.  ALL education should be freely accessible, and even maybe free cost at least up to some ways of paying for services and hence fees, but entry should not be restricted by grades, it should be restricted by self-selection of students with courses.  With Internet a lecturer can teach millions of students, there is a virtual classroom, so class sizes are irrelevant these days.

The first country to crack giving high quality peer-reviewed tested but without any student grading, and freely accessible education, will i think gain a huge economic advantage and will outshine other nations for years before the rest catch up.   Unfortunately this experiment might never happen since many top universities are giving away their course materials in OpenCourseWare.   It that ever leads to wide-spread self-education maybe our universities will gradually close down from lack of registered students!  (Probably not, but it’s at least conceivable that might happen, at least for OpenCourseWare that does not require a laboratory or other physical equipment, like engineering or medicine.  But in fact, remote equipment control over the internet is already happening, so even heavy physically resourced courses could eventually go fully online.)

But I think if I came back to NZ preaching all of this I’d never find a job, not even at Polytech.

But I think your Polytech idea is a good one for me.  I think I’d like that environment, if only there was an opening and a course I could teach.  Maybe I’ll design a course and pitch it to WelTec?  Something to put on my list of things to do in my research time.  Somehow though I think this project is more important than discovering the keys to quantum gravity.

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Energy and Personality − Psychology Metrology

My most golden friend alerted me to the fact that the Myers-Briggs Personality types are still widely used in Human Resources (HR) professions. She also works in HR, and so, being a truly golden friend, I had to read up on this stuff. It was quite fascinating, even for a hard edge scientist.

Among many highlights I discovered were the following:

  • Extroversion (outward focus, not necessarily always gregarious) is a dominant western cultural paradigm in the workplaces and schools and many other institutions, and in many areas of life we, as a society need to bring this pendulum back towards nurturing and appreciating introversion.
  • Children at school need more time to do silent individual work. Group work has been over-rated and over-emphasised in recent decades, to the detriment of deep thinking. Extroverts also particularly benefit from learning how to work alone for long periods.
  • Susan Cain’s TED talk: Susan Cain: The Power of introverts.
  • Teams function best with a broad range of personality types. This point is obvious, but worth keeping in mind.
  • Myers–Briggs (MBTI) psychology sucks for predicting human behaviour or diagnosing individual quirks and coaching individuals, but is terrific for organizational psychology and team building.
  • Introversion is more helpfully interpreted as a preference for inwardly focused behaviour and attitude, not as shyness. Shyness is what happens to anyone who is fearful of social interactions, which is not just a problem for introverts.
  • The word Energy is often used outside of physics in very strange ways, but most people seem to be comfortable with these common outside uses, but I had to find out more, and that’s what this article is mainly about.

Here’s a recommendation up front: if you are really interested in psychology, but do not consider yourself an expert, then please find time to watch the TED Talk by Martin Seligman: The New Era of Positive Psychology

Also before I get to the main point of this post (which is the curious use of the physics concept of energy in the field of psychology) I need to explain a little of the psychology background. By the way, if you are a thinker and writer please send a reply to tell me whether you think psychology is a science or not? If not, then what is it? An art? A fantasy discipline with merely coincidental correlations with the real world of cognitive science? Or just a very young and immature science?

Basic Myers–Briggs Ideas

Myers and Briggs adapted Carl Jung’s proto-theory of personality typology and turned it into a tool that could be used in human resource management, and in a fairly humane way I might add. It does not reduce people to numbers, but it does help to semi-quantitatively assess the dynamics within teams of co-workers. And before you ask, yes, the misspelling “extravert” to follow is deliberate, it may help people to remember this is not the strict dictionary use of the word. In Myers–Briggs lexicon “extraversion” is a preferential outward turning attitude to the external world. However this is quite close to the common understanding of the word “extroversion”. Both Introversion and Extraversion refer to the preference for turning of the libido (one’s so-called psychic energy — a term which needs some careful definition in my view.

The four pairwise classifications for a 24=16 element matrix of raw types are,

  • Extravert | Introvert (E/I) — for preferential attitude to the world.
  • Sensing | iNtuitive (S/N) — (the twfor one’s preferential way of perceiving collating knowledge and mental input input.
  • Thinking | Feeling (T/F) — for the way one prefers to contemplate and make decisions.
  • Judging | Perceiving (J/P) — for the way one prefers to relate to the outside world.

The Judging/Perception distinction reuses the functional categories T/F (judging/decision modes) and the S/N (perception/gathering), and relates them to how people show outward directed character and inward directed character. They do this using notions of dominance and auxiliary functions. It works like this: the J or P indicates their dominant function for extraverts, and for introverts the J or P indicates their auxiliary function.  It goes like this: E**J →implies dominance is the preferred deciding function (T or F); while E**P→implies dominance is the preferred perceiving function (S or N). I**J→implies their auxiliary function is their preferred deciding function (T or F); while I**P→;implies their auxiliary function is their preferred perceiving function (S or N).

The auxiliary function is then the one (for the person in question) that is not their dominant.

Then the direction (outward or inward) of dominant and auxiliary behaviours are inferred from whether a person is Extroverted or Introverted.

Do you get it? We all have to outwardly deal with our external interests and sometimes also our internal interests as well. For example, internally you dream of winning a sports event say, and outwardly you deal with your dream by training. The J and P distinctions help analyse how a person typically handles whatever has to be outwardly directed, and how people handle inward directed attention.

An E**J type means a person will preferentially use their preferred decision mode for external relations and so their preferred perceiving mode for internal relations. Thus, for example, an ENTJ type would be extroverted thinker (denoted eT) and introverted intuition (denoted by iN). So, for example, they would most likely act extroverted in thinking about winning their sort event, but they would introverted about gaining intuitions about how they will fair, perhaps. While an ESFP would be dominant for Sensing so would be an extroverted senser (denoted eS) and an introverted feeling person (denoted by iF), so they might have a strong sensorial input for how they will win the sports event, but introvert their feelings for making decisions about training, perhaps. In summary, P/J point to dominant functions for Extroverts.

Since dominance is outward for extraverts and inward for introverts, this P/J factor is easiest to remember in that it always points to the outward-looking function for both introverts and extraverts, because ‘outward’ is auxiliary (italicised in my denotations) for introverts and dominant (bold in my denotations) for extraverts.

So what about Introvert examples? Well, an INTP would be auxiliary in iNtuitive function because the P designator points to their auxiliary function as being their preferred perception mode, and so they would be dominant in thinking function, so they would be an inwardly introverted thinker (my symbol for this is iT — the bold font indicate this is dominant); and they would have an outwardly extraverted iNtuitive (denoted eN for their auxiliary mode). So they’d be closed off and shy about how they think about how their training decisions are being made or progressing, but extraverted and open in gathering intuitions about their sports training progress, perhaps.

An INFJ would be auxiliary (so extraverted) in Feeling (denoted eF), and dominant (so introverted) iNtuitive (denoted In).

An ENFJ would be dominant (so extraverted) in Feeling (denoted eF), and auxiliary (so introverted) iNtuitive (denoted iN).

Notice the difference with ENFJ and INFJ. The outward and inward directed functioning is the same, but the dominant attitudes are reversed in order. So an INFJ is preferentially adopting an (iN) mode, while the ENFJ type is preferentially adopting (eF) modes. But both personality types have these same pairs of proclivities for outward and inward directed modes of thinking and doing.

There are more examples we could enumerate, but just one more for now, consider an ISTJ: they would be outwardly extraverted thinking (eT)(since their auxiliary function is in their judging mode which is ‘thinking’ for them), and they would be inwardly introverted sensing (iS) (since this is their dominant which is their perceiving function of ‘sensing’. In summary: P/J point to auxiliary functions for Introverts.

Got it? This is not rocket science for sure. None of it is supposed to enable us to predict human behaviour, it’s all just guiding framework sort of analysis. It helps in planning and in building teams of people who work well together both in empathetic ways (cooperation) and in complimentary ways (cooptition=’competition with a purpose for mutual benefit’). And this MBTI analysis helps organisers avoid inadvertently building bad relations like disorganization (lack of connectivity, lack of united purpose or cohesion) and discord (disunity, distrust and competition with mutual harm).

The Wikipedia entry spells this out in terms of how people show the world their preferred modes. And interestingly this couples in the Extraversion Introversion dimension:

Myers and Briggs added another dimension to Jung’s typological model by identifying that people also have a preference for using either the judging function (thinking or feeling) or their perceiving function (sensing or intuition) when relating to the outside world (extraversion).

Myers and Briggs held that types with a preference for judging show the world their preferred decision function (thinking or feeling). So **TJ types tend to appear to the world as logical, and **FJ types as empathetic. According to Myers, judging types like to “have matters settled”.

Those types who prefer perception show the world their preferred perceiving function (sensing or intuition). So *S*P types tend to appear to the world as concrete and *N*P types as abstract. According to Myers, perceptive types prefer to “keep decisions open”.

For extraverts, the J or P indicates their dominant function; for introverts, the J or P indicates their auxiliary function. Introverts tend to show their dominant function outwardly only in matters “important to their inner worlds”.

For example:

Because the ENTJ type is extraverted, the J indicates that the dominant function is the preferred judging function (extraverted thinking). The ENTJ type introverts the auxiliary perceiving function (introverted intuition). The tertiary function is sensing and the inferior function is introverted feeling.

Because the INTJ type is introverted, however, the J instead indicates that the auxiliary function is the preferred judging function (extraverted thinking). The INTJ type introverts the dominant perceiving function (introverted intuition). The tertiary function is feeling and the inferior function is extraverted sensing.

The Wikipidia entry summarises this nicely:

“The preferences for extraversion and introversion are often called attitudes. Briggs and Myers recognized that each of the cognitive functions can operate in the external world of behavior, action, people, and things (“extraverted attitude”) or the internal world of ideas and reflection (“introverted attitude”). The MBTI assessment sorts for an overall preference for one or the other.

People who prefer extraversion draw energy from action: they tend to act, then reflect, then act further. If they are inactive, their motivation tends to decline. To rebuild their energy, extraverts need breaks from time spent in reflection. Conversely, those who prefer introversion “expend” energy through action: they prefer to reflect, then act, then reflect again. To rebuild their energy, introverts need quiet time alone, away from activity.

The extravert’s flow is directed outward toward people and objects, and the introvert’s is directed inward toward concepts and ideas.”

There is also a way to fit all four functions into a personality, using tertiary and inferior classes. For most practioners the tertiary function is oriented in the same direction same as the dominant function, but of course ‘tertiary’ means the partner of the auxiliary function for both E and I individuals.

Thus, Using the INTP type as an example, we start from ‘I’ which mean the ‘P’ indicates an auxiliary perceiving function, thus auxiliary=N for this type. The remaining orientations would be as follows:

  • Dominant introverted Thinking
  • Auxiliary extraverted iNtuition
  • Tertiary introverted Sensing
  • Inferior extraverted Feeling

The tertiary function is Sensing here since it partners iNtuition. How about a rare INFJ type? They’d have:

  • Dominant introverted iNtuition
  • Auxiliary extraverted Feeling
  • Tertiary introverted Thinking
  • Inferior extraverted sensing

The tertiary function is Sensing here since it partners iNtuition.

One more example, for an ESFP:

  • Dominant extraverted Sensing
  • Auxiliary introverted Feeling
  • Tertiary extraverted Thinking
  • Inferior introverted iNtuition

The tertiary function is Thinking since it is the partner to Feeling.

Relations Between Jung’s Work and Myers–Briggs

Jung original had the two broad attitudes (Extroversion and Introversion) and coupled these with the four functions (Sensing, Intuition, Thinking, Feeling). He thought of the pair of functions (Sensing & Intuition) as the two irrational or perception types or the main ways people collect information. And he thought of the pair (Thinking & Feeling) as two main rational or decision-making types of ways people process the information to make decisions or judgements. Myers and Briggs adapted all of this and made the Judging/Perception (or Rational/Irrational) layer a separate category to be assessed.

They could then tell when a person favoured Ep or Ej (irrational or rational type of extravert) and whether they favoured Ip or Ij (irrational or rational type of introvert) .

Already I have an issue with this, which is why do sensing and intuition need to be thought of as irrational? And for that matter why do thinking and feeling have to be thought of as rational? Well, they don’t! But I will come back to this later.

The key thing with MBPT is to interpret the type of a person not as a hard and fast fixed type, since there are more than sixteen types of character in the whole of humanity I think you will agree). But rather to think of people, as having certain grouped primary preferences for worldly attitude, contemplation or collation of input, and contemplative preference for the rational collation of information and in the way they make decisions.

It is the primary preferences that the Myers–Briggs matrix seeks to capture. It does not aim for personal psychological depth of analysis, but rather more humbly seeks to assess group dynamics and interactions between people in a very general context. So it is used by organisational psychologists more than by personal psychologists. Indeed, it would be kind of stupid for a personal psychologist to ever bother to use MBTI, unless for some reason their patient had some problems directly associated with their work environment which MBTI theory might be able to help analyse.

Note that Myers–Briggs typology seems redundant since

  • Sensing — collation–gathering mode is Irrational+Perception.
  • iNtuition — collation–gathering mode is Irrational+Perception.
  • Thinking — contemplation+decision mode is
  • Feeling — contemplation+decision mode is

By the way, I am equal parts INFJ and INTJ. Every time I run through the indicator tests I score equally (often dead tied) on the T/F category, but very clearly and unambiguously on the other three dimensions. So this frustrates my friend or other psychologists, because I cannot be dropped into their Matrix as a single point. But I figure there have to be plenty of people who similarly cover more than one square in the MBPT matrix.

This is all fine so far, we’ve just laid out the framework. But how is it used? What are the normal roles of these dominant and subordinate functions?

Life Guidance

Before I write much more I want to emphasise that I am not a critic of MBTI organizational psychology. In fact I would endorse it’s use. For the one reason alone in that it can aid all sorts of people to learn how to work more harmoniously by showing them when to cooperate and when it is better to work alone. But there are many other reasons to appreciate MBTI theory, which I do not intend to elaborate upon here, it is up to readers to take away more from their own wider reading.

People are normally familiar and comfortable with their main type. What is tricky and interesting is how people can change and grow, and this often means paying more attention to your tertiary function.

Development of your tertiary function tends to come later in life (about midlife) after you have grown and feel comfortable with the dominant and auxiliary. As you grow and develop, you learn that there is a time and place to use your third and fourth (inferior) functions. The tertiary function can guide you toward areas of your life you have avoided, or expand your skills into areas that require skills you did not earlier in life feel comfortable using. This is useful for so-called ‘up-skilling’ (a euphemism used by some employers for “get better or you’re fired”) and for becoming in general a more useful person, more varied and adaptive and flexible. For example, a Thinking type with tertiary Intuition may begin taking literature or creative writing courses. A Thinking type with tertiary Sensing may begin doing carpentry or weaving or gardening.

The inferior function is naturally the least well developed mode for most people. From Wikipedia: “The inferior function is often considered to be more associated with the unconscious, being most evident in situations such as high stress (sometimes referred to as being in the grip of the inferior function).”

OK, so you can probably see where I am coming from: what is this use of the concept of energy? Does it bear any relation to my beloved subject of physics? Or should psychology devise it’s own new and original lexicon using concrete and unambiguous definitions?

Cognitive Learning Styles

This is the application which most appealed to me. I found it all quite intuitively obvious in applications for teachers and students. Here is Wikipedia again:

  • E/I The first continuum reflects what generically energizes a person. Extraverted types learn best by talking and interacting with others. By interacting with the physical world, extraverts can process and make sense of new information. Introverted types prefer quiet reflection and privacy. Information processing occurs for introverts as they explore ideas and concepts internally.
  • S/N The second continuum reflects what a person focuses their attentions on. Sensing types enjoy a learning environment in which the material is presented in a detailed and sequential manner. Sensing types often attend to what is occurring in the present, and can move to the abstract after they have established a concrete experience. Intuitive types prefer a learning atmosphere in which an emphasis is placed on meaning and associations. Insight is valued higher than careful observation, and pattern recognition occurs naturally for Intuitive types.
  • T/F The third continuum reflects the person’s decision preferences. Thinking types desire objective truth and logical principles and are natural at deductive reasoning. Feeling types place an emphasis on issues and causes that can be personalized while they consider other people’s motives.
  • J/P The fourth continuum reflects how the person regards complexity. Judging types will thrive when information is organized and structured, and they will be motivated to complete assignments to gain closure. Perceiving types will flourish in a flexible learning environment in which they are stimulated by new and exciting ideas.

For a nice talk about research on cognitive learning styles and MBTI see Jane Kise at TEDx: Neuroscience, Jungian Type and Mathematics: Insights into Student Struggles.

The cool thing about MBTI is how easy it is to get students to self-assess their type. It is pretty easy for a competent teacher to create lesson resources to suit all styles. They can take good quality generic lessons and tweak them in usually just a couple of ways for adaptation to the different learning styles.

Alternatives to MBTI: FFM and HEXACO

The favoured alternative, often considered to be more comprehensive than MBTI is the so-called Five Factor Model (FFM) or the Big Five:

Wikipedia: “A summary of the factors of the Big Five and their constituent traits, such that they form the acronym OCEAN:”

  • Openness to experience: (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious). Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience. Openness reflects the degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity and a preference for novelty and variety a person has. It is also described as the extent to which a person is imaginative or independent, and depicts a personal preference for a variety of activities over a strict routine. Some disagreement remains about how to interpret the openness factor, which is sometimes called “intellect” rather than openness to experience.
  • Conscientiousness: (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless). A tendency to be organized and dependable, show self-discipline, act dutifully, aim for achievement, and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior.
  • Extraversion: (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved). Energy, positive emotions, surgency, assertiveness, sociability and the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others, and talkativeness.
  • Agreeableness: (friendly/compassionate vs. analytical/detached). A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others. It is also a measure of one’s trusting and helpful nature, and whether a person is generally well tempered or not.
  • Neuroticism: (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident). The tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and vulnerability. Neuroticism also refers to the degree of emotional stability and impulse control and is sometimes referred to by its low pole, “emotional stability”.

These are OK, but when I first looked at them they seemed a bit too overlapped. But apparently most studies show they are not overlapped. Maybe the published research is biased by a lack of published negative results?

My favourite personality type model is the six-dimensional HEXCO model, each factor in which has polar extremes, so is expected to be centrally distributed across large groups of people, not bimodal:

  • Honesty-Humility (H): sincere, honest, faithful, loyal, modest/unassuming versus sly, deceitful, greedy, pretentious, hypocritical, boastful, pompous
  • Emotionality (E): emotional, oversensitive, sentimental, fearful, anxious, vulnerable versus brave, tough, independent, self-assured, stable
  • Extraversion (X): outgoing, lively, extraverted, sociable, talkative, cheerful, active versus shy, passive, withdrawn, introverted, quiet, reserved
  • Agreeableness (A): patient, tolerant, peaceful, mild, agreeable, lenient, gentle versus ill-tempered, quarrelsome, stubborn, choleric
  • Conscientiousness (C): organized, disciplined, diligent, careful, thorough, precise versus sloppy, negligent, reckless, lazy, irresponsible, absent-minded
  • Openness to Experience (O): intellectual, creative, unconventional, innovative, ironic versus shallow, unimaginative, conventional

Those are the descriptions of the types. And here’s how the six HEXACO factors are analysed in questionaires, through four subsidiary facets each:

  • Honesty-Humility (H): Sincerity, Fairness, Greed Avoidance, Modesty
  • Emotionality (E): Fearfulness, Anxiety, Dependence, Sentimentality
  • Extraversion (X): Social Self-Esteem, Social Boldness, Sociability, Liveliness
  • Agreeableness (A): Forgivingness, Gentleness, Flexibility, Patience
  • Conscientiousness (C): Organization, Diligence, Perfectionism, Prudence
  • Openness to Experience (O): Aesthetic Appreciation, Inquisitiveness, Creativity, Unconventionality

It’s pretty easy to guess why I like this model — it has a dimension of spirituality lacing in MBTI and FFM, that of Humility/Honesty, and I believe this is incredibly important in human life, and although not in vogue in cognitive sciences, I think honesty and humility are the most important factors in creating a more peaceful world.

It probably doesn’t matter which framework one uses, FFM, HEXACO, or MBTI, since to a degree they capture the same insights about human personality and human interrelations. In fact, I suspect they’d work across extraterrestrial boundaries!! It has been argued by strong promoters of FFM that MBTI is not as powerful, but this is not real true. A typical FFM assessment and a MBTI assessment capture the same sort of information. What differs in the approaches is ease of use and ease of fitness to the purpose of the analysis.

So, for example: the Big Five (FFM) are quite good for future occupation success predictions and career and academic guidance. The MBTI are quite good for organizational management and team building. Yet both frameworks are also useful in the others role. The HEXACO model has a unique position of personality psychology frameworks because it is based upon analysis of lexical structure in languages, across many cultures, so HEXACO has good claims to being very universal (always a highly desirable attribute for a general theory).

MBTI is also a great tool for analysing learning styles, which a deep and practical knowledge of how to assess and use is extremely helpful for teachers and any leaders in education. There is an excellent short TEDx talk by Jane Kise about MBTI types and learning styles in primary school mathematics classrooms. Jane Kise at TEDx: Neuroscience, Jungian Type and Mathematics: Insights into Student Struggles.

Critiques of MBTI and FFM

These are the two personality frameworks used in professional psychology I suspect. So it is useful to know a bit about their weaknesses.

  • MBTI was supposes to discern Types, so logically the pairs should show bimodal distributions in statistics for a large population. But they do not! They are centrally distributed, so most people are on the borders between the categories E-I, S-N, F-T, P-J. This is very strange a a serious flaw in the whole framework of MBTI. Amazingly though it appears not to seriously affect the efficacy of MBTI analysis for team building. Perhaps because team work is more cooperative than competitive, so extremes of personality are not the important thing, but rather what are important are compliments of skill and talent.
  • FFM is purely empirical, it has no underlying theoretical support. But this does not forbid a theory behind FFM from being developed a posteriori by future researchers.
  • There are statistical irregularities in both models — for example, the lack of expected bimodality in MBTI, and lack of orthogonality.
  • Reliability: many people can be re-tested weeks after an MBTI test and find they are now a different Type!

Lack of orthogonality is interesting. Orthogonality is a measure of independence of factors. If they are not fully orthogonal then this means there is some residual degree of overlap and correlation between them, so it means a more efficient set of factors could be found in principle. A hypothetical set of factors that better and more clearly distinguishes personalities. Perhaps no one knows the names for a maximally orthogonal set of personality types perhaps such names do not even exist yet in English language.

The figure here shows a set of MBTI scores for 10 people. Each single individual is colour coded. You can see that most people have scores clustered near the centre, which suggests, at least for this data, the MBTI statistics are not bimodal, but rather more central.

MBTI scortes tend to cluster centrally

Here the person who yielded the red data points is INTJ. The person who yielded the yellow data points is *SFP, they are borderline for E/I and would need to be retested or self-assessed perhaps to decide on an Extrovesion or Introversion preferred attitude.

A scatter plot of scores for a larger group of 100 people might look like this next chart, which shows a clear central type of distribution.

MBTI scores for N=100 people.

Reliability of MBTI, or consistency, is not a big deal for me, I like the idea that people are not fixed! It does imply that MBTI lacks a sharp enough, or orthogonal enough, set of categories. But then where would you draw the line? Surely any good theory of personality types has to allow for the theoretical possibility that people can change with time. But what is a reasonable time frame for change of Type? Six weeks, a year, a decade? It’s hard to say. The answer has to be determined by a better model of personality type, so that we can trust the model to tell us how much a person has changed, and for this trust one needs a model that is consistent and reliable over short time frames of days and weeks, given the circumstances of a person’s life have not changed too radically in between tests.

So I think in future MBTI will be revised. It is not a completed framework. It has to be evolved to better fit with it’s intended purposes. The same is probably true of FFM and HEXACO.

As you can easily imagine from their respective definitions, the FFM nd HEXACO models reproduce very similar analytical results and characterisations of people, especially when FFM is supplemented with a Humility/Honesty Factor to become six-dimensional. So the theory behind HEXACO is a good candidate for theoretical support for FFM.

The Use of the Concept of Energy in Psychology

First, let’s be clear that energy is properly a technical term in the science of physics. It has many forms, one of which is potential energy (energy locked away in the position of a mass in relation to some force field), and another is kinetic energy (energy of motion, the faster or more massive a thing the more kinetic energy it possess, quantitatively). The key thing is that energy is numerically measurable, it is quantitative. It is not a vague concept, it has real meaning.

As you can easily imagine, these definitions are not arbitrary. Potential energy can indeed be turned into kinetic energy, that’s the way the world works — I’m not kidding — this is the fundamental fact of physical reality — this interrelation between potential and kinetic energy is literally, precisely, what makes the universe evolve as it does. In a deep sense there is nothing else to know about the world.

What makes the world an interesting and beautiful place is that physics cannot actually perfectly predict what will happen to all the potential energy stored in the positions and motions of matter — and so physics cannot give us a complete account of past and future. All it can do is give us probability measures of how energy might unfold in the future or past motions of matter in spacetime.

This is why we need to supplement physics with higher level sciences like chemistry, biology and economics and even psychology, in order to fully understand the universe and all the life it supports you cannot get by just on Sheldon Cooper’s bank of knowledge.

But clearly the pure physics definition of energy is not what psychology has in mind when studying things like behaviour and temperament in human interrelations. So what exactly does psychology want us to understand when it employs the word “energy” or at least the phrase “psychic energy”?

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OK, sorry folks, I had to split this article in two. This is the introduction to the background frameworks in personality type psychology. The next post will take a closer look at the concept of energy in psychology.

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