In response to my very recent blog post about consciousness in animals a follower tweeted/posted the following:
So I thought - great. I will do this. I’ll take the advice and open my mind to alternatives. So it turns out there exists a very popular podcast on Youtube with a slick website and lots of episodes (178 as of writing this today according to the website https://www.philosophizethis.org/, although in other places on the website episode 181 https://www.philosophizethis.org/podcasts and if you go to the feed itself it says episode 187 (like on Youtube)) That might seem pedantic, but it just means things are not synched up and it makes searching for specific recent episodes a little difficult. The host, Stephen, began "Philosophize This!" as a podcast not entirely unlike my own (ToKCast) remains - focussed just on explaining his perspective on ideas and certain thinkers. But he has moved recently more and more into another “interview” style podcast. Which is all fine - but the ones where he just speak are more illuminating about where he, personally comes from. His motto for the podcast is “Thank you for wanting to know more today than you did yesterday.” But, and this will sound terribly arrogant, at no point in over an hour listening to two episodes did I feel I learned a single thing - except about his personal approach to podcasting. Which I admit, and will come to, is interesting. And may explain why he has so many downloads and I do not by comparison. “Philosophize This!” Is hosted by Stephen West and he is even endorsed by a reviewer at University College London (no less) right here https://www.univ.ox.ac.uk/news/philosophize-this/#:~:text=The%20Philosophize%20This!,prior%20experience%20with%20the%20subject.
So that’s amazing. And he won’t be hurt by my saying that in the two episodes I heard it was less Philosophize and more “Misrepresent This” or perhaps “Misunderstand This” I will explain this further so it doesn’t seem I’m just slinging epithets. Misconceptionism after all, everywhere and I think he actually is doing something good here with the podcast. His listeners will find other thinkers - they would surely be led to Harris and some other mainstream podcasters and intellectuals and then maybe they will find David Deutsch. Which is why I say: it’s all to the good. He’s not promoting evil - he’s not out there spouting communism (from what I see) but some anti human pessimism and absolutely some prophecy some creep in. But then he is in good company there. He seems like a really nice guy. He says “Hello everyone. I’m Stephen West.
My only goal in life is to make a podcast that brightens people’s lives a little bit. I want to be the notification on your phone that doesn’t induce any stress. Thank you for making that dream of mine possible.” Which is sweet and nice and that’s great. But all that said it won’t shield him from my criticism. It’s what I do and I do not think criticism is anything but showing respect and taking ideas seriously in their own terms as I explain in many places but for example here: https://youtu.be/_vHAe86isdE?si=1Z3S1qqeJs7cndgg
Ok, let’s get to it. I listened to two episodes. The first was the episode all about the ethics of eating meat. I will come to that soon as that is the main point of my post here. The second episode I listened to was a far more recent one all about AI existential risk which can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UO6ZEeH9XNM and is titled “Episode #184 ... Is Artificial Intelligence really an existential threat?” This gave me a good gauge or benchmark of whether I should listen to more of his work. In both cases the episodes made very mainstream arguments of the kind I spend my podcast steel manning (or faithfully representing as Popper admonishes!) And then refuting. Only Stephen West puts those mainstream arguments made by other thinkers through a “Philosophize This!” Filter that extracts out muchof the more sophisticated details that actually make the cases passably work in many cases. So in the one on AI (which I won’t do a full breakdown of here - I’ve already done a breakdown of the steel manned version in many places not least of which is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCInMX7xj7g&list=PLsE51P_yPQCQMuCsxeUWxVWmEixmgnWJD&index=5 and here
Stephen in his episode on AI risk basically takes as read the work of Bostrom, Yudkowsky and especially Harris and rehashes all those arguments with little criticism. I heard nothing new in the entire episode that I have not already refuted as my own listeners will be well aware of. It’s a horse I have flogged not until was it dead but cremated and buried. Yes, I’ve overdone it. So I won’t recapitulate anything here except that the podcaster fails to deal with any of the substantive criticisms of those thinkers on any of this and he comes down on the side of “alignment” and the dangers of AI and compares it to the trope of nuclear weapons and so on. It is Bostrom’s perspective to the core filtered through Harris but, as I say, filtered again through a mechanism that makes it suitable, I guess, for people with almost no interest in philosophy at all. Which I admit is a very good idea. “Philosophize This!” has 125,000 subscribers on Youtube alone. It’s a huge podcast for this kind of material. So he won’t even notice my criticism and is no doubt big enough to take it (or simply ignore me). But he desperately needs to understand universality, personhood, David Deutsch and Karl Popper. We will return to that.
His technique of reducing almost all technical arguments has the effect of straw manning even what Harris, Bostrom and those he seems to be aping are actually saying. Which means he straw mans the opponent argument even worse (as we will see in the present critique on his stuff about the ethics of eating animals). This technique, as I say, will find a large audience who has no time for technical arguments and wants something not merely mainstream but also digestible in very sugary form. This is the other end of the spectrum to people like Sean Carroll or Eric Weinstein whose podcasts at times do not shy away from reminding the listener they are professional physicists and mathematicians and so will pepper episodes with talk of topology and tensor calculus, the wavefuntion, the Dirac Delta Function, manifolds, differential geometry and lots of things only those with a graduate understanding of physics would appreciate. Fair enough - some people like that style too. I try to walk a middle line where when the technical physics and mathematics comes up I always try to explain it in plain, simple English. I try to follow not merely the arguments of Deutsch and Popper but their style. Don’t talk down to the audience but do unpack the technical stuff in a new way that you think helps people you have talked to about this stuff who don’t have a background in science and philosophy. I may fail at this and sometimes get it wrong, but that’s the aim. I don’t avoid the technical stuff but I don’t leave the technical stuff as assumed knowledge either unless in the rare instance I have just talked about it in a previous episode (see my Multiverse series for examples of this where really the 5 or 6 episodes are a sequence where we build towards something quite technical and assume one is familiar with other episodes).
So all of this is to say thankyou to my new follower on Twitter who suggested (quote) “Anyone interested in this should totally watch philosophize this’s video on whether it’s moral to eat them. Search him up on YouTube” - this being my post about animal consciousness. Which actually was not about whether it was “moral to eat them”. And philosophize this did not talk about consciousness so actually there isn’t a close relationship. However there is some crossover.
But I want to thank him for the link. Genuinely it is very useful. 😊 But not for the reasons he might think. Now trigger warning again: this analysis and reflection will sound terribly harsh as perhaps the previous brief analysis of the AI one was. This one will be longer. But I did spend time listening to the entire thing at https://youtu.be/HsZsg3mlsNM?si=AdMtfT_rgbits22k called Episode #071 ... “Is Killing Animals For Food Morally Justifiable?” so unless there is yet another episode he does on this I get the idea of his ideas, his podcast and this issue in particular. And conjoined with his AI episode that I listened to straight after, I get the tone, tenor and methodology of his podcast. I get his worldview not only on these issues but approach to philosophy and epistemology. It is a kind of “Sam Harris Lite” take. I know that sounds terrible! But it’s just to give an indication of how I think he is coming from a mainstream perspective which, as I said, is further refined, so the speak, for an audience who might find even Harris too erudite and hence boring.
Brief Interlude on the thinking behind ToKCast
Perhaps I’d have more subscribers if I employed some of the tactics of those guys with massive audiences. Or not! I may just not be to most people’s taste. And that’s ok! I know precisely where I sit in the “intellectual landscape” and it is to counter mainstream misconceptions and by definition the mainstream is the majority. So I’m appealing, a priori, to a minority. And a minority within a minority. I mean compared to Rogan, Harris is the minority (people interested in the philosophy of science, neuroscience, computation, physics and all the stuff I talk about). But he takes mainstream views on those things and so appeals to a large minority of the “majority” of people interested in long form podcasts. I’m basically over here disagreeing with everyone on lots of things so of course Harris’, Carroll’s, Weinstein’s - and well even Yaron Brook’s audience (which is itself a minority of a minority) won’t like what I have to say. The worldview of Deutsch, Popper and Feynman is a very narrow intersection of refined ideas that forms a robust but sophisticated worldview that actually is coherent. Each part of the web holds together with the other and captures the fabric of reality to serve as a beginning of infinity (did you like that? Tortured, wasn’t it?)
There’s a few things to “get” with my podcast when you come to it especially “mid stream” to a random episode and I can never find the one easy way in for people. Is it conjectural knowledge? Guessing? The woven web? “Guessing knowledge” seems to put people off - they think “relativism”. Is it “people are cosmically significant” is that my “in”? No, rationalists think “religious sounding woo”. Is it quantum computation and universality? They think: technobabble. Optimism? They think glass half full self help. The problem is we use all the regular words…we don’t neologise wherever possible (unlike Weinstein who is a master of this) and try to explain things in common sense terms. Ultimately that works against us as people begin to think “I already know this” or at the other extreme “That is so preposterous and challenges my deeply held assumption none of the rest is even worth listening to”. So, as I say: small audience. But with Naval’s help and David’s increasing popularity we are getting there.
Back to “Philosophize This!”
This is not a post intended to be about me or ToKCast (although I now have an idea for writing about what ToKCast is for those new to it). This is about the "Philosophize This!" podcast and specifically the episode “Is Killing Animals For Food Morally Justifiable?”
I’m posting part of this (what will fit) to Twitter/X and so I’m again breaking my general rule t/here about making long posts on that platform just to get this out. These are my notes as I listened:
First: the misconception of “justificationism” is right there in the title and goes on to be deeply embedded throughout the entire piece. He keeps repeating what is “morally justifiable” over and again (rather than focussing on what is known and unknown and good explanations from science and epistemology) and at one point near the end compares the whole issue to the keeping of slaves and how we changed our opinion on that which is just a common, lazy, mainstream take and trope.
Second: Stephen then moves seamlessly into moral subjectivism (asking about what’s “good for you” not objectively good.) and so litters the entire tone of the thing with what is personally right for you rather than being concerned about objective knowledge and good explanations. It’s not even a “principled” stance where we can talk fundamentals. Instead it is all couched in terms of what is “good” or “right” FOR YOU.
Now, what I thought was *good* in the podcast early on was he says he doesn’t know the answer to whether it’s “justifiable” to eat animals. Ok. So I guess he won’t be judgemental? No. He then goes on to be judgemental of those who do eat animals implying he does indeed know and thus only makes arguments for one side of the issue (all the reasons against ever eating meat). He takes it for granted that the arguments for eating meat are just known by the audience but what he assumes is completely false in his attempt to refute those assumptions. Namely: it’s just not true it’s about about “nutrition” and “taste” (for example) when it comes to the philosophy of this. I’ll come back to that.
The episode is also fixated on how the animal suffers - like so many do. But this *begs the very question I am not*. I am asking: how can we know the animal suffers? What is the philosophical criteria? What even is suffering? He doesn’t say.
So the stuff about taste and nutrition is all irrelevant to the question but he spends a long time on it. Who actually makes that argument?
His argument from who is bigger and stronger? The idea people/humans are higher on food chain. I never actually hear that argument either *philosophically sophisticated* (like Harris or say Singer who is big on refuting arguments from meat-eaters on this) and understandably because it’s so bad. Even they don’t assume their opponents ever make those arguments. Sure, the guy down the pub might, but why are we worried about him here?
He then says, and returns to this, that all these arguments so made so far about eating other animals would also apply to eating other *people* too. This is completely wrong. No, they do not! No one makes that argument. It’s a very weak straw man.
But he makes this because at no point does he ever grapple with the crucial philosophical l question of *personhood*. What is a person? He just says more than once that we have a more “rich and vibrant experience of the world”. Again: who says *merely* that? It’s very weak. He hasn’t read the literature or listened even to someone as mainstream as Harris on this: at all.
So then he talks about aliens being better than us. Ok. So now he mentions an argument people like Harris also make. Which says very little. It’s a weak argument. Aliens would not want to eat us. If they’ve travelled across the galaxy they’re not looking for snacks on Earth and *they* understand universality and the moral qualitative difference between people and all other structures in physical reality. He doesn’t (of course then neither do the AI doomers, vegans, Singer, Harris, Gervais or anyone else pushing the “don’t eat animals” barrow).
Ultimately he comes down on the side of anti-humanism. Who are we to say we are more important than other animals? This is a standard trope. I deal with that at length in various places including directly in that post I made. This is the most obvious way in which Deutsch’s criterion of universality makes all the difference here. He’s not aware of it. Or fallibilism. Or “hard to vary” explanations. Or conjectural knowledge/Popper. Conflates pain and suffering: the main point of my post is to tease this apart. He doesn’t mention consciousness or qualia at all. Those are key.
None of this was at all insightful or made me think anything else he says would be worth listening to, I’m afraid. Again: that sounds a little harsh but we need heuristics in this world and “Philosophize This!” does not seem to have anything interesting on this issue to say in terms of actual, legitimate philosophy. He could change his channel, on the basis of this episode to “Misrepresent this”. That would be closer to the mark.
But as I say: thankyou to my follower for the link as it gives me an important insight into how yet another “type” of thinker goes about reasoning on these issues and representing their opponents and what the standard of discourse in general is. Even on “philosophy” podcasts.
We still do not know if animals have "consciousness" because we just do not know what consciousness is yet. We can ascribe it to other people because they can explain they have it as I explain below in "Consciousness and Creativity". Animals close to us socially (cats, dogs (especially) and farm animals (such as cows, pigs, etc) and great apes and even monkeys which is to say largely those animals that have coevolved with humans in one sense or another display individual preferences (and hence “personalities). But those preferences are all due to genetic variation alone and so lead solely to entirely inborn behaviours or recombinations of inborn behaviours ("behaviour parsing". I.e: they’re due entirely to genetic *variation* (especially in dogs). This may indicate the presence of a kind of "mind" software running on the brains of those animals but in any case this "mind" is of an altogether qualitatively different kind to the mind of a person able to in principle universally explain the worlds both actual ad possible; physical and imagined.
Whether the existence of a rudimentary "mind" in dog or chimpanzee brains confers the experience of anything at all (qualia or consciousness) on them is *unknown*. Hence whether they experience pain as we do is unknown. But whether it gives them the capacity to explain anything is known. They cannot. so they cannot suffer - which is “pain” but with the capacity to explain it (even inexplicitly).
And because we do not know what consciousness is, we cannot know if animals suffer. Let me explain!
On the distinction between pain and suffering
Suffering and pain are not the same thing. Pain comes in many forms: physical (stress and distress) and mental (anguish). Physical distress is what most people think of when they think of pain. That's the sort associated with injuries: broken bones, cuts, burns, surgery recovery, headache, stomach ache and far worse. We all know some of this with some of us unfortunate enough to experience the worst of it. Living long enough the sad truth is many of us will experience some of the worst of it and we will beg for the soothing salves of modern pharmacological pain relief in the form of everything from mild analgesics through to the most powerful opiates science (in the form of highly expensive to do and carefully managed pharmaceutical research) has struggled to develop and refine. Thank God - or rather capitalism and science for that!
Then there is the pain that is merely a consequence of stress but not distress. This difference makes all the difference in the mind of a person. I have pain working out. Actual athletes no doubt have even more. But are we in distress? Ok, so some in Olympic Marathons might be. But in general, no. We enjoy training. I might feel "pain" when working out or running but I am also listening to my favourite upbeat music and I can reinterpret the pain signals as an indication to do more, go heavier, go faster and it actually begins to feel just a bit pleasurable. There's a fine line between pleasure and pain, as The Divynals sang:
"It's a fine line between pleasure and pain
You've done it once, you could do it again
Whatever you done, don't try to explain
It's a fine, fine line between pleasure and pain
Why do you push? Why do you push?
Break my body with the back of your hand
Doesn't make sense from where I stand
Please don't ask me
How I've been getting off
Ha, no, please don't ask me
How I've been getting off
Pleasure and pain (It's all the same)
You've done it once, you could do it again (It's all the same)
Whatever you done, don't try to explain (It's all the same)
It's a fine, fine line between pleasure and pain"
But only for people, right? Not animals. They (perhaps!) experience pain. They cannot tell us. We cannot rule out Descartes' argument that they might just be like a plucked violin. They make all the sounds as if they have emotion, but do they? Is it just a mindless automaton response that elicits in other animals mindless responses? But why? Well why anything in evolution? Survival? Why survival? Why life? Like Agent Smith interrogating Neo in The Matrix. Smith is not supposed to be "human" - he is supposed to lack empathy - perhaps even emotion. He is not a real person. He is the trope of "artificial intelligence" - a form of existence I do not think is physically possible (for one thing Smith gets increasingly angry in the following exchange which adds to the drama but undermines the philosophy). But let us put that aside for now lest I get sidetracked. Angent Smith says in one scene of "Matrix: Revolutions"
Why, Mr. Anderson? Why, why? Why do you do it? Why, why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you're fighting... for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although... only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can't win. It's pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson?! Why?!! Why do you persist?!!!
Neo : Because I choose to.
People are unique in physical reality
So people are a qualitative step above, beyond and on a different staircase altogether compared with what other animals are and the Matrix is confused at times with respect to providing a coherent philosophical perspective nonetheless it asks some of the right questions. By "people" I mean our erstwhile ancestors and ancient cousins bipedal hominid cousins who likewise had this capacity, extraterrestrial intelligence that must and Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) which will.
The observation that other animals also vie for survival on a finite planet does not indicate the existence of qualia in what might be mindless biological robots for all we know. Survival alone isn't an explanation. And animals don't know why they want to survive. Even we cannot say why animals seem to desire to survive. But we can explain why we do. We explain that we choose to, as Neo says above. This makes all the difference. Smith apparently has no choice. So he doesn't understand this. On this, the script writers were correct. If Smith is a "mindless" suoerintelligence he does not understand choice. But we do. He must just do what he is doing - destroy the Matrix. He has a purpose. The purpose does not change. He is turning the world into paperclips and cannot reflect on why. But he can only not reflect on that very purpose. ON everything else, he seems to have a general capacity to reflect. This is a paradox unresolved in AI doomer circles.
In any case, pain, for us, is a different kind of thing as compared to what other animals "experience" if they experience anything at all when a bodypart of theirs is damaged. Our pain, the pain of people, comes with an explanation. If it's the good kind from working out, when we are not in distress, even if the physical sensation is the same for a heavily worked out muscle as for a strained one we can interpret the former as fine, even pleasurable while the latter evokes suffering.
Suffering is pain with an explanation (of why it is bad).
Animals cannot explain anything ergo, they cannot suffer - in the way I have explained what suffering is - which is the way I think that matters. People understand the possibility of the future and pain, that we regard as bad, we expect to continue into the future causes us suffering. Grief over a lost person, concern about losing someone, how a recently broken bone will hurt for days or weeks yet to come and cause us to be immobilised. Some do say it is possible to learn this power - but I admit I have not myself, yet.
So far I have said little different to anything else I have said on the topic here. But let me add some things I have not previously or failed to emphasise or simply expressed poorly. And that is the following:
Cats and Dogs have preferences and personalities. But why?
Cats, dogs (especially) - cows and horses perhaps (i.e: especially animals that have coevolved with humans) or animals that most closely resemble humans in terms of hardware (nervous systems) and software (the code that controls their behaviour) - in other words all great apes, but also monkeys do have rather (and more or less) individual preferences (and hence “personalities") but they’re all inborn or recombinations of inborn behaviours. They "behaviour parse". See the work of Richard Byrne on this: https://pages.ucsd.edu/~johnson/COGS260/Byrne2003.pdf or the index of "The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch for a more refined and succinct explanation of Byrnes work on this. Who is all just to say: yes! Those differences in personality are due entirely to genetic *variation* (including, notably, in dogs). This gives a strong illusion of being "human like" - but only in comparison to animals that do not show so much variation. I am thinking the trope of literal sheep who are supposed to all behave alike. Although shepards no doubt disagree. Carefully edited documentaries of things like meerkats and kangaroos give a false (overly strong) impression of personalities where there are none. Or at least the variation is minimal. Or take it more simple still - rodent like mice. Or starlings. Or fish. Let alone mosquitos. The genetic variation causing behavioural differences is minor meaning their preferences are due entirely to minor differences in their DNA.
With dogs genetic variation between breeds is large so we expect the genetic variation in behaviour (i.e: "personalities") to be large too. And these creatures can behaviour parse in very different ways.
Do animals suffer? Can we avoid suffering as it includes the worst qualia people can experience.
So, do animals suffer? Perhaps. They experience pain is my guess and close to that of humans - but they do not suffer. Pain is just a kind of first blush "detection" of damage utilising circuitry the evolved in our ancient ancestors. But other animals today do not suffer. This pain experience they have, if experience it is, does not lead them to an appreciation that this experience (for example) means the end is near. Although they do seem to mourn death at times as dogs, elephants, whales and gorillas do. They do seem in pain or sad. That demands an explanation. Maybe they can explain some very limited things inexplicitly. But they are not universal and so their suffering, if it exists at all, is, thankfully, bounded. Small mercies. Maybe they already have a kind of native enlightenment without effort. I've often thought that having seen some pets near the end of their lives, in some pain, but going quiet, as if they have accepted it. Our suffering is not "natively so enlightened in that way - even if some are "enlightened" like James Pierce here: https://www.james-pierce.com/writings/the-experience-of-enlightenment and on suffering James says:
To which I responded, having made a similar point just a few weeks earlier:
Conclusions to my new editorial on animal suffering
So, I do not think animals can suffer though they may experience pain. But if they can suffer, their suffering is bounded and in any case we are not condemned to suffering. We can learn to experience the world better because we are universal explainers. Animals are not - even the more "sophisticated" ones.
In animals - especially those close to people (both genetically like apes and close socially like dogs and cats) display great genetic variation and the existence of literal memes. This implies something like a mind, but nothing like our mind. Moreover this does not necessarily confer upon them qualia or consciousness. It may but that is, for now, *unknown*. Hence whether they experience pain *as we do* is unknown. But whether it gives them the capacity to explain anything is known. They cannot. so they cannot suffer - which is “pain” but with the capacity to explain it (even inexplicitly).
Which is all to say: I still do not know as I admitted here: https://www.bretthall.org/humans-and-other-animals.html
But I wish to make clear, what I said there by emphasising these very real possibilities as outlined in my abstract above.
The problem with fallibilism is that it is not well understood. Well, there I’ve said it, so why bother going on with this piece? Well I want to attempt to understand why exactly this simple idea is deceptively simple and therefore so easily mistaken for something else. Moreover many who claim to be fallibilists of some kind often turn out to be dogmatists of another kind which means they never were (thoroughgoing) fallibilists to begin with. I don’t like labels - I’d prefer they not be applied to people and instead reserved for ideas as a matter of convenience. Persons are not defined by their ideas but rather the capacity to create them in the first place. Labels tend to negate whatever else a person might say on the topic once you think they are a “rationalist” of some kind, for example. Even the bright and cheery “optimist” label has become a little “cliquey” of late but more importantly it too is too easily misunderstood. “I endorse optimism in David Deutsch’s sense of the word”, I prefer to say rather than answering to “I’m an optimist!” like some yellow pilled cultist with a big silly grin. But fallibilist? Well I don’t much mind admitting I might be wrong and indeed to be accused of as such is never an insult. Even about fallibilism. We will come to that. So call me fallible. I don’t much go in for those “pilled” things though I’ve already mentioned yellow pilled (I don’t know if that is already a thing) but if fallibilism was to be “pilled” I guess it’d be pink. Is it a colour? Isn’t it? It’s not on the rainbow. It’s negative green as some physicists have joked: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9dqJRyk0YM
Pink is a kind of mysterious colour. Is it a boy’s colour or a girl’s colour? At one point it was a boy’s (or at least considered “masculine”) now it’s a girl’s https://edition.cnn.com/2018/01/12/health/colorscope-pink-boy-girl-gender/index.html Of course with what I guess can only be called the 2020s “Gender Wars” the meaning of pink is once again up in the air. So if a butch man thinks a pink shirt is just divine is he or isn’t he…you get my meaning. It’s all questions. Get pink pilled.
I tweet now and again that one way to think about fallibilism is simply the stance that “It is always possible to be wrong because there is something to be wrong about”. Very few people are thoroughgoing fallibilists. Even fewer than that recognise fallibilism in others.
The issue is that most people are either dogmatists (at least about something or other) or relativists (increasingly and sometimes even the same people on other issues).
Dogmatism is the misconception there exists something (usually many things, for a dogmatist) about which it is impossible to be mistaken. What is often held aloft are things like “1+1=2”. Pythagoras’ theorem. Everything in mathematics. Much of science. Or, of course, in a conversation with a sufficiently adept fallibilist the dogmatist will retreat like George Custer to the philosophical equivalent of Little Bighorn River: “I think, I exist” - Descartes’ cogito. Their last stand. They think that because they think then they are entitled to assert that it is absolutely certain and impossible to be mistaken at least on that point - they exist. They cannot imagine how it could be otherwise and so their lack of imagination on this point is somehow proof, in their minds, of truth. But why is it important for people to be absolutely certain they are in possession of a final truth? Isn’t simply knowing you exist enough?
Brett, why does the distinction matter anyway? Who cares about the difference between “knowing” and “possessing certain truth”?
It matters deeply for two reasons. (1) Dogmatism everywhere is dangerous and as Popper admonished “The doctrine that the truth is manifest is the root of all tyranny” and (2) because only fallibilism always allows the possibility of infinite progress via continuous error correction.
Admitting you can always be wrong (even about fallibilism) means that there is always more left to learn and understand. When it comes to “I think therefore I am” or just “I exist” as being a statement - indeed logical proposition one can utter as some kind of necessary truth about which one cannot possibly be mistaken - it can be difficult for people to doubt this. They desire a foundation and, following Descates thing “Well this is it! The foundation! I am certain I exist!”
But a fallibilist needs no such foundation. They can pursue instead conjectural knowledge. On this I agree with Descartes: “I exist”. I can say that honestly. There’s no problem here. I can even add, rather unnecessarily, “I know I exist”. That’s enough for me. So rather than say “it cannot possibly be false that I exist” or even “I am certain I exist” I just say “I know I exist”. Or even “I exist”. Just not infallibly. Because I’m not infallible. About anything. Including “I exist”. I can improve my understanding of “I exist” and correct errors in what I think about it. I might not know right now how to improve it, but that is true of almost everything I know so there’s nothing special about that. And much of what we know like “I exist” contains inexplicit content too. Like what “exist” means or what “I” means and so on and on. Much about any claim when you dig deep is inexplicit. Indeed an infinite amount of inexplicit content lies there in an infinite potential well of inexplicit possibility. This infinite depth of the possibility for further understanding underscores the possibility of progress: the possibility for improvement. Optimism.
I cannot say how it might be possible that “I exist” might be false - but this - my failure of imagination on that point - is no proof that it might nevertheless be false. I am a fallible human. There are many things I might be unable to imagine. Now having said all of this, especially saying all of this clearly and indeed coherently and even sometimes passionately then the criticism comes: well you sound terribly dogmatic. Which of course comes down to tone. Or not even tone but rather perceived tone. It’s like homophobia - one doesn’t actually need to be homosexual to experience homophobia. One only has to be perceived to be homosexual. And so too with dogmatism. The thoroughgoing fallibilist holds the position that all dogmatism is wrong is accused then of defending a dogma…about how all dogmatism is wrong. But that is simply a misconception to do with playing word games and trying to hold the fallibilist to the meanings of terms and explanations that the dogmatist insists on.
When I say “this is how it is: fallibilism is the only reasonable stance to take” - people think this is somehow self refuting. Indeed any time one explains any theory at all: matter is made of atoms. Or “I know that evolution by natural selection explains the diversity of species” or “The Big Bang happened” - people throw accusations of dogmatism around. “I know we people are universal explainers” really gets people’s backs up - especially in these times of discussions around AGI and AI. “You can’t know that! Dogmatism! You’re refusing to consider the alternative!” come the accusations thick and fast.
Let us linger on this related point for just a moment. Those who object to the claim “people can understand anything in principle” are arguing for a kind of anti-human alternative that…human beings cannot, even in principle, understand some things?
And yet I, like everyone else in history, has been steeped in that lesson - that people are rather pathetic creatures. I know the argument well. Here let me make the case:
Our memories are limited.
Our brains are finite.
We just cannot comprehend somethings.
You, Brett, don’t even understand the Korean language and yet you claim to have tried!
If you’re a universal explainer find the successor theory to quantum theory right now! You see? You’re not a universal explainer! I’ve just told you two things you cannot understand or do. You’re just dogmatically committed to a faith claim.
But all of that is to ignore the explanation offered elsewhere about all this. I know the retorts and objections. It takes time to appreciate the power of universality - what a deep shift in perspective it takes to appreciate this relationship between what a person is, how they explain and understand by generating models in their mind of anything else in physical reality and that physical reality itself. How, as David Deutsch explains in his TED talk: the one structure comes to resemble the other: the mind and whatever in physical reality it is explaining.
But if one does explain all that and says “that’s the way it is” because that is what we know and we know that because it literally follows from our rational understanding of the world (we reject the supernatural) and…the accusations of dogmatism flow.
Stating “It just is the case that X. We know X. And we know X because our best explanation of science - quantum theory - implies X. Or our best theory of epistemology - conjectural knowledge growth - implies X” is not dogmatic. All those claims might be false. For a fallibilist that goes without saying.
Of course when you do say it, as a fallibilist, the criticism flips. A moment ago the interlocutor accusing you of dogmatism now says “Oh, so you think nothing is actually true?! Relativist!”
This is the experience of the fallibilist. Stating as clearly as possible what we know and making the case with passion and curiosity and dare one say fun and excitement only to have that mistaken for dogmatism. At no point during what I sometimes call my “tirades” - which in truth are really just monologue summaries of explanations about exciting parts of science and philosophy - do I ever presume it’s not possible that I’m wrong. I could always be wrong. But how tedious would that become to add that caveat after every claim?
And as I say, having just made the exciting case for some bit of science or philosophy and being accused of dogmatism and so adding the caveat “no, I can always be wrong because of the universal fallibility of the process of knowledge creation” you are accused of relativism. All this is because the only frame many have is: either you’re certain of certain truths (dogmatic in some sense as they are)…or you’re untethered to these foundational truths of reality entirely and you’re a relativist.
This is the problem with fallibilism. It’s very poorly understood. But that should be expected because we’re all fallible. All is a woven web of guesses.
Note that this post is focussed largely on science and how it works.
If you think that it is possible to accumulate evidence for a theory then a red pen is evidence in favour of the claim “all swans are white”. How is this so? And, Brett, aren’t you one of those people who keeps on saying you cannot have evidence for a theory anyway? Yes, I am. But let’s understand the reasons against this claim at a deeper level than some realise.
It’s not enough to know falsification works - that the existence of one black swan refutes “All swans are white”. You have to also know why the alternative perspective - almost universally subscribed outside of what is called “critical rationalism” is false. It needs to somehow become a deep part of your thinking that *positive evidence* just is not a thing and never can be. Which is to say you cannot have evidence for a theory; evidence that supports a theory or makes it more likely to be true and so on. That is not only unnecessary but it is absurd and let us see why momentarily. Let us first recap why it’s unnecessary.
Once you have an explanation of the evidence, it no longer cries out for “support me” because there are no alternative theories. There’s just the one - the explanation. But, ok, imagine you’re in the rare position of having two good explanation. Well then if you find yourself in that rare position of having two or more good explanations then the function of evidence is to decide between those theories already guessed. When evidence does this it also serves the simultaneous purpose of serving as the so called “explicandum”: the thing to be explained. The explanation is there to explain the evidence. The evidence is there to decide between explanations. Ok, so all of that means “evidence in support” of a theory is unnecessary. But why is it also absurd?
Now we shall take a little lesson in logic. Consider if you like the claim “All swans are white” - so often held up as the pedestrian example of either “how falsification works” (find the unexpected - a black swan in other words, or maybe a translucent one these days) or as a way of teasing out exactly what Bayesian “epistemology” is trying to get at. How many swans need to be observed before we can say it’s “probably the case all swans are white”? Or likely? What is the threshold? And once you do employ Bayes’ theorem (that almost never happens, by the way: what is called “Bayesianism” never much involves Bayes’ theorem being actually deployed) - say you “update your initial prior probability in light of more white swans to 85% confidence that “All swans are white”) well then you can conclude, with something less than certainty, that “All swans are white”. Of course how certain you are that the 85% is 100% correct no one can say.
But let us put aside all of those concerns about how many white swans need to be observed before concluding “all swans are white” - put aside that no finite list of observations (like seeing one millions swans) can never logically be equivalent to a universal claim about “All” anythings - and let us even put aside science is not about making claims like “all swans are white” in the first place (it’s about explaining the world).
All that aside. The idea that one can have “evidence in support” of a theory or claim like “All swans are white” by finding ever more white swans is logically equivalent to my looking on my desk any seeing any random thing there - like a red pen as also evidence in support of “All swans are white”.
If that seems absurd to you, it is. But this is one of the counter intuitive things about logic and one of the absurd consequences of the “evidence can support a theory” account of how science functions. It is a problem for that idea - but not a problem for falsification or explanation. What on Earth am I talking about?
The red pen on my desk is…a non white non swan.
“All swans are white” is logically equivalent to: “all non-white things are not-swans”. (In formal logic this is known as the “contrapositive”).
So given this rock solid logical fact of reality, anything at all in the universe you can point to that is not a swan and isn’t white is evidence in favour of “all swans are white” if you think there is such a thing as evidence in favour or support of any claim at all. So on the inductivist or Bayesian account of things every time you observe non white non swans (basically everything in the universe) your confidence in your theory about the truth of “All swans are white” should increase precisely because it amounts to being evidence in support of your theory.
Do you see how absurd the inductive account of science is? Of Bayesianism? Of non-explanatory, falsifiable conjectural scientific knowledge?
Science does not consist of claims like “All swans are white”. It consists of explanations. Evidence cannot be used to support a theory. It serves only to decide between explanations already guessed.
No amount of gathering more evidence about the world allows us to extrapolate general truths about it. What we have are problems - that’s where we begin. Our ideas at times fail to account for what is out there in the world. In science to resolve this clash of ideas between what we think and what we observe we have to use our imaginations to conjecture - guess - into existence a new and better explanation. Once we’ve done that, once we can explain the “problematic observation” we have a solution. And once we have that, there’s no need to further support it because, it’s all we’ve got. It’s the solution. It’s the good explanation.
Credit to my lecturer at The University of New South Wales, Professor Michaelis Michael who, aside from being the only professor of logic I know to have a name which is itself a tautology (Michael is Michael) - was the lecturer I most admired. His lectures were always fun. He meandered through the luminaries of philosophy and his encounters with some of them and peculiar stories of their lives and his as well as diving very deep in the classes I took with him on formal logic. It was Michaelis who set us the challenge of proving the soundness and completeness of sentential logic for one assignment. Sometimes assignments can be fun - and that one I remember was. And it's him I credit for leaving our class one afternoon at the end of the lecture with the problem as to why, as he held his red white board marker up, it was “evidence in favour of the claim that all swans are white”. It was on the bus ride home I realised I had the answer. Of course next lecture so did many others. It was class of logic students after all.
Choice in the Quantum Multiverse
Preamble: This is a philosophical “self help” story that bends some rules and breaks minimal others just to get a couple of points across. Pushed too far, it will like all analogies break apart into demands for what things are *really* like and the answer there is simply: the corpus of fundamental physics as we understand it. But mysteries lurk in our circumstance as they always will. As fascinating as any other is the relationship between consciousness, choice, creativity and a fully deterministic universe of what can happen does happen - given the right knowledge and the decision to make it so.
By the way, I prefer the word “travelator” (and that particular spelling) to “moving walkway” or “conveyer belt for people”. I use all three terms here but it’s the one I revert to. Apologies to those who find it grating.
Imagine a flat 2 dimensional floor (as all floors tend to be): yet infinite in all directions. Like some vast aircraft hanger, but empty of aircraft and you cannot see the walls. You are on the ground standing. It is dark but where you turn your attention becomes lit with a bright light. You direct your attention to your feet - they are illuminated to reveal you are not standing on regular ground. You are on a travelator - one of those conveyer belts for people more common in airport terminals than aircraft hangers. You direct your attention left and right and lights illuminate a greater reality. The travelator you are on in this infinite space is not alone. There is another beside you running parallel. It’s moving at an ever so slightly different rate - a little slower to your left and another! A little faster to your right. And then you notice them all parallel travelators off into infinity all moving at different speeds as your vision suddenly explodes with the whole space illuminated with a great white light and travelators all across the infinite floor in every direction you look and parallel, though all going in the same direction: away from where you have just come. And then you notice it - all around you - as you imagine them into existence - places to go and experiences to have. You simply have to choose to move travelators to get to them. Or stay on the one where you find yourself. You can see what’s up ahead - more or less. It’s in your imagination for the moment but simultaneously it’s coming closer and closer - all you need to do is stay put. Doesn’t seem so bad. You’re reading something. This.
But over there: you can see something better and the more you look the clearer it is what set of travelators you need to jump on and cross over to, to get closer to that thing. Seems a bit of effort though. This is fun. Interesting for now, anyway. And besides all around you see an unbounded number of things that really exist and are out there that you would like to see and experience. Some are truly amazing. That’s real?! You wonder. That can’t be real. Can it? Could I actually go there? Your mind wanders. Some of those things seem far off and fanciful - it will take a long journey of clever choices to get to experience that - the travelators are moving at all different paces and they carry all sorts of wondrous things (and sometimes dangers). But they’re there. They’re real. But just because they’re real doesn’t mean you will ever experience them unless you choose to make the effort and - make it a reality *for you*. There’s a lot to think about. Maybe you’ll stay right here, carried along by, doing little more than choosing to just stay on this travelator.
But - there are simple things nearby - oh look one step over is coffee. Grab that. No wait…skip past that - grab the tea. You’re on another travelator now. Tea travelator. It’s…all the same it seems. Here you are reading this again. Well, it’s all the same - but now you’ve got tea. Looking around things still look basically the same here on tea travelator. As elsewhere except…you look back to where you were and…there you are! Still they're not leaping across. Just reading. But no tea. The copy of you continues along for a while until they jump to another travelator - but they leave behind themself again - yourself again - too! Or rather a copy of you. You’re here, not there. What you thought was you seems to be an inexhaustible supply of identical copies of you. You stand up and look down and…well there you are not standing up too. Ok, sit back down again, that’s a little too strange. Let’s keep on reading because this thing you're reading right now this very moment that's telling you about what's really going on right now tells you that up ahead you can see - (this is the power of your imagination in this multiverse!) - that some of those copies of you really do go on forever into immortality. You go on forever! You can see you need to follow this and that travelator and you can’t quite see how you would even get to some of them. Looks very difficult from here. Like: Climbing Mount Everest difficult from where you are. Maybe someone knows a faster route. You want to go on forever! Ok that’s quite a quest so let’s just take a breath because for now - tea. You notice another copy of you is on the coffee travelator. Over there the same thing is happening. Copies of them - you - are moving from travelator to travelator making different choices. But you’re here now so where to next? It’s all happening around you and it seems you’ve no choice in any of it. Except you do - you can choose which travelator to occupy. You can switch universes with a choice. Other copies of you seem to be having a much better time. Some of them - not so much. You call out to them: but they can’t hear you. This is a strange place. But at the same time, you’re more familiar with it than anywhere else. You’ve been experiencing this all your life. This is your life.
Whoosh! Woah - look out. This travelator - just like the rest of them moves irrevocably forward. It just took you under a low hanging bridge where you could have bumped your head! You see - you’ve also got to pay attention. You might be able to choose which travelator to jump to, but you also can’t see everything ahead of time. Sometimes some things appear with very little or even no notice at all. Stay sharp!
But, you can also relax. Those things do not contradict each other. Stay in a relaxed state of sharpness as you’re carried onwards. That seems best. The best way to notice what is best and just in reach and which leads to better places. How to make progress towards the things in your imagination that you see out there.
Relaxed again and looking around there doesn’t seem to be anything urgent just now. You’ve got your tea. You’re reading this and being carried along. But look! Over there - you can see travelators with lots of different books coming into view. That journey to there looks like more of a commitment than just skipping over to the tea travelator. This choice seems like it’s gong to take a little more effort but let’s try. The closer you get the more you see persevering with that travelator seems committing yourself to a travelator that moves at a rate you’re not yet sure will be comfortable and then - wow - it branches into many others. But you can choose which to join as always, or…things are moving slow here you can leap back to here again without much fuss. But those others do offer you, as it were, more options and they bring new things into view. But you will be carried forward once you take that leap onto it. You’re always being carried onwards. You’ve got no choice in that. Whether this goes to a better or worse place well: that’s at least partly on you. You can see some of what’s around. You’re only limited by your imagination. You can imagine some pretty bad stuff. That’s ok: best to do what it takes to avoid bringing that any closer. Choose to switch tracks. Switch to what’s going to carry you to the good stuff.
Imagination is the mind’s capacity to see across the multiverse.
To actually experience what is for you for now only in your imagination means working towards it which means making active choices. What you are determined to do is determined by the laws of physics but you can choose between the things that are determined to happen.
Reality is like an infinite number of conveyer belts moving all in one direction: time away from the Big Bang. But some conveyer belts lead to far more interesting, fun and wondrous places than others. You can see some of these places. That is the power of your capacity to create. You can imagine a better place. That place is real (so long as it does not violate any physical law). You need to jump, leap, trot across the moving walkways making your way towards that thing you see. It may be a very long way off. You may not see it clearly. But it is there. And the more you focus on it the clearer not only it becomes but the route to getting there - the sequence of travelators you must traverse - becomes clear too. Step here, step there, watch out, this one’s fast. A little slower here. Bend down quick. Jump over that. Step, jump to the side, up and over and you’re nearly there. Wait - this looks like a maze and - bam. You’re knocked down. Oh that hurt a bit and damn! You’ve gone backwards. Never mind pick yourself up and - there it is again but wait! That over there. That looks even better. Let’s go there it’s closer and a far easier journey. Well now this is just too much fun! And someone has taken your hand and they’re helping you and now you’re in this together. Fantastic.
Between you and what you have imagined but are enjoying the journey towards now are other interesting places to experience and people to journey with. Many seem to have advice and offer assistance in ways to help you fly across the travelators much faster than you ever thought possible. Choosing to join travelators that have certain books or lead to certain people or require you to solve certain puzzles and problems or in some other way deliver you new ideas help you see new possibilities on the horizon. New ideas expand what you can see and imagine and then illuminate the path across travelators to make what is on the distant horizon something that is now well within reach for you to truly experience. The best source of new ideas besides books are other people. Although even books are really just other people talking to you when you cannot have them next to you. People and the ideas of people - these are what help you bring into view what you want and make it more beautiful and make it the journey there fun and worthwhile.
These travelators of time carry you irrevocably forwards and away from the start of it all and the start of your life. The pace of change when you pause to rest is not yours to choose either. Rather much is completely out of your control going on around you and no matter the choice you make it goes on - all determined to do so by a set of laws you can only vaguely guess at that controls all the motions of all the travelators and what is being built out there and brought into view. You don’t determine much of it - but you do determine some of it. Right now for example you can choose to go in this direction or that. Hopping upon this conveyer belt or not. How do you know which one to choose to get on? Which way left or right? You need to look and see what is the place you wish to experience. Envision it. It’s real. Now the world before you reveals itself as problems: the problems of travelators to get between here and there. I can’t tell you which belts get you where. That’s your job to figure it out (create the knowledge!) to bring that distant thing ever closer to you - to bring yourself ever closer to it and so you begin to see it ever more clearly and see ever more clearly exactly what it takes to get there.
It’s all determined. It’s all going on. It - that other better world you want with all you want in it is already there really happening. Copies you of you right now have already got there. Other copies of you chose poorly. They’ve been left behind going the wrong way. But they are in the tiny slender minority because you being you make the good choices you tend to and so have a purpose. Your purpose is to solve your problems - without this ever coming to an end. Even death if you can. But that’s just one problem. You’ve got many more to solve before that. What problems exactly? Again: that’s for you to figure out. There are preferences you have - things you would rather be experiencing and you can envision those because they are real. That is the great unique power of being a person. This capacity to see a landscape of possibilities that are actualities and can be experienced by you if only you choose to make the choices. Choose to move in that direction. How? Create the knowledge of how to make the requisite choices possible.
People can see genuine possibilities in physical reality. All fiction is fact somewhere in the multiverse. Or: everything in your imagination that does not violate the laws of physics is real somewhere in the multiverse. If it’s at all physically possible for people to experience then some people in the multiverse are *determined to* experience it. Which is to say they are experiencing it. Now. And if it’s a dream of yours, why shouldn’t you strive to be one of those people?
Afterward: The relationship between consciousness and its contents including the products of our imagination and the capacity to choose are unknown - let alone any of them explained by our present understanding of the laws of physics. You are a physical thing that makes choices as my story above tries to illustrate. Something of the character of our experience as multiversal beings I have tried to capture here but I cannot help but encounter genuine problems with the analogy. It seems that while the travelators obey one set of laws, you, the traveller in my story making the choices herein appears to obey different laws of physics. But that should not be so. Everything in this world obeys “travelator laws” - the traveller cannot help but be carried along - and just as any object on a travelator is (including the travelator itself - whatever that represents exactly). The difference is that you - the traveller - can make choices and "choices" are something that no travelator and seemingly nothing else ever brought into view can do. Except for other travellers - specifically people - on the travelators they make choices to do the things to have the experiences they wish to. Which means creating the knowledge of how to make reality around them what they want it to be like. To take what is in their imagination and to actualise it right in front of them.
People are unique in this world. Only people step from travelator to travelator because people are the only entities that see that there are other travelators. They’re the only entities that see possibilities. Options. And that those possibilities can be actively chosen. By them. By understanding them and what it takes (at least in part) to bring themselves into a world with the things they want - the things they imagine. Other objects including other living things that are not people lack the revenant “eyes” so to speak. They can’t look side to side and see the possibilities which is to say understand that there is possibility. If they have eyes then they are like the eyes of owls - but owls that can never move their heads. Other animals on travelators for are staring always straight ahead. Their heads and eyes fixed in one direction. They can see what’s up ahead of them and only what’s up ahead of them. The lion can rear up as it sees another lion strange to it up ahead. It cannot look to the right or left and consider those other possibilities where it could have done otherwise. Indeed in no universe does it. It never chooses. You can see what’s going to happen. It cannot. It just does what the that travelator it is on takes it to.
But we can choose another travelator. This is free will and choice in a fully deterministic physical reality. Your choice is determined by what you can imagine is possible. And what you imagine is possible is bound by what you think the laws of physics are and that knowledge is bound by what the laws of physics actually are.
Another problem with my analogy here is that you the traveller see copies of yourself really experiencing the world you are striving for. And copies of yourself at all stages along the way - even if some of them are not quite clear. The thought experiment would seem to imply a very crowded place and it is in reality we of course have no actual experience of it being crowded. My thought experiment here violates that part of quantum theory prohibiting us from actually seeing how crowded with copies of us the multiverse is right around us. But here we are not actually seeing. This is an analogy. Seeing is an analogy for your imagination. And in a sense even "genuine" seeing is just that. We are minds trapped in the darkness of our skulls. We imagine what reality seems like once the eye has collected photons and the retina converted their energy into electrical impulses and the mind interpreted those neural firings. We don't see our copies ever - we are alone. Alone but for the companions we choose (and perhaps some we do not from time to time) and only if we uses our imagination does the place get crowded again: but just in that direction of our imagining. And that line of people between us and the better world we can imagine are giving us important information: do this to make a little progress towards that thing you can only imagine for now but is real.
The point here at the end now is that right now, you’re here. And from here you’re determined to go somewhere. Why not choose to go towards where things are better. You’re completely free to do so. Just don’t expect to exceed the speed of light, know simultaneously with perfect precision the position and momentum of any particle around you nor use more energy than is available in the universe. Everything else is yours, and ours, for the making.
The laws of physics determine what happens in the universe. That is, they mandate everything in physical reality that occurs. It is sometimes then claimed, on the basis of this, that if only we had perfect knowledge of those laws of physics and a set of conditions at some moment in time and further a sufficiently powerful computer to do the calculation, then “in principle” we would be able to predict what happens from moment to moment - at all times in the future and the past.
But this is not so. Putting aside “in practise” where all agree this cannot be done and even putting aside that we ignore what physically might be required to build such a computer that could do the job of computing the motions of every individual particle in the universe moment to moment (including, recursively, its own behaviour which would have a model within it of the universe containing the prediction generating computer, within which there is a model of a universe containing the prediction generating computer, ad infinitum) such a prediction is not possible in principle. Indeed it would not even be possible to predict what happens moment to moment just on the Earth to any great accuracy because what happens here on Earth is determined by what happens (potentially) anywhere else (and almost any-when) in the universe. Here is why.
Firstly predicting the motion of all particles in the universe as a whole in principle: while we can imagine what some statement of the “final laws of physics” might entail (ignoring for a moment that the laws of epistemology in terms of our fallibility rule this out) what does it mean to have a statement of the “initial conditions” (or indeed the positions & momenta at any other time) of all particles in the universe simultaneously (which is what would be needed to make such a prediction in principle). Why? There is no simultaneous time in the universe. There is no time t, (i.e: for any value of t), where we can list all the particles in the universe next to where they are now and how fast they are moving (and what their mass is, say, among other things). So at the first hurdle, thinking that *now* we can ever have knowledge of all particles *now* in order to make a prediction just in principle now - is impossible. There is no simultaneous “now” for us on Earth even if we had the most advanced laser scanning system for locating all particles in our “frame of reference” because whatever the time is “now” for us (approximately speaking) there is no equivalent time for particles in the Andromeda galaxy - much less the “other side” of the universe.
Ok, but what about just predicting what happens locally? Never mind the rest of the universe - let's do something perhaps a little more tractable by a few orders of magnitude where the relativity of simultaneity can be largely ignored. This prediction is also impossible in principle precisely because what happens on Earth moment to moment can be (and is) directly affected by what happens in the rest of the universe. But we have already said "what happens" in the rest of the universe cannot be known in the sense we require because there is no "what happens" at any given time across the cosmos because...there can be no "given time" that applies to all places unambiguously.
And also, for example, if a supernova occurs on “the other side” of the universe but billions of years ago just so it is detectable tomorrow then no prediction made today about Earth can account for it. But why should that supernova, extremely dim when detected billions of years later, billions of light years from its origin and only via a handful of low energy photons reaching Earth, have any effect on what happens here even in principle? Those photons have nowhere near the momenta required to alter the trajectories of any particles here. Perhaps. But what if an astronomer detects light from that supernova tomorrow and it causes her to write a paper revising what we know about the brightness of (say) Type IA supernova and this initiates a complete rewrite of our understanding of the accelerating expansion of the universe and so on? Perhaps that astronomer earns fame altering the course of their life, and texts are rewritten altering the course of the lives of many more people and eventually a new version of The Big Bang is produced changing school and university courses across the globe - altering the course of the lives of almost everyone on the planet? None of that could possibly have been accounted for by some prediction made today based on where all the particles on Earth are now and what they are doing to perfect precision alongside the exact laws of motion. Any prediction made today will not have been able to account for those photons from just that tiny patch of sky arriving tomorrow at just the right time so it is observed by exactly that astronomer and so on. Any prediction our imaginary supercomputer (programmed with the ultimate laws of physics) makes ignores the rest what is going on far beyond the Earth in this supposedly far more reasonable version of the thought experiment. But the very reason it cannot take into account what happens elsewhere in the universe that might affect what happens on Earth in the way I suggest there is because it cannot be known what happens elsewhere to the level of precision required to make such a prediction even in principle, never mind in practise. To know what might happen in the universe that just might affect what happens here on Earth would mean knowing what has happened at all other times in the past across the universe which could, in theory, convey information a person might use as part of a hitherto unknown explanation. In other words: it would require perfect knowledge of the motions of all particles in the universe right now, which would include all photons already in transit to the Earth. But those photons cannot be detected without changing their trajectories (or better: destroying at least some of the information that would have caused a particular change here on Earth).
Sometimes writers appeal to a proverbial “oracle” (or for those who have taken physics: "Laplace's demon") who knows the laws of physics perfectly and the state of the particles in the universe at any given time and therefore can make perfectly accurate predictions about the evolution of the universe over time. Or, even just a more restricted specific prediction about the future as it applies to a tiny sliver of physical reality (never mind the evolution of the entire universe). Of course new can see the oracle must be supernatural: it’s an omniscient god of a kind. So people being rational on this point reject the possibility of such an oracle. But science minded "rationalist” types will readily substitute a “super computer of the future” in place of the oracle that can do everything the oracle can. But because it’s just called “a supercomputer” giving it a veneer of scientific plausibility this cannot save such a so-called "supercomputer" from being just another appeal to the supernatural. And it is. There is no possibility for this supercomputer in actual physical reality (even if it could be built) to ever come to possess the data it would need to perform the calculation required for making any accurate prediction of such a kind. The data needed would literally be the positions and momenta of all particles in the universe…now. But, again, there is no universal “now” in a universe governed by relativity - as our universe is known to be.
And this is to entirely ignore the impossibility of knowing the precise precision and momenta of any individual particle simultaneously anyway because of prohibitions on this information given the laws of quantum theory. All we have is a range of values - and a range of values for any set of initial conditions means in principle a range in terms of the final conditions for the "prediction". But we are not after a "range" of predictions - we are after the specific prediction: what happens to us, in our universe, at some time t in the future? But say we ignored even that complication (in brief due "Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle") even if we did have those laws and specific individual values for each observable (and not a range) this would only in principle allow us to predict the evolution of the multiverse over time - not individual universes or individual particles or anything in between. And as we have been at pains to say: we we cannot know what we would need to know about all those particles simultaneously to make any such prediction.
But if the oracle or the omniscient god could provide a perfect prediction of how “the multiverse” (i.e: all of physical reality) looked tomorrow compared to today - any individual observer - any person in that multiverse - would not know what branch of the universe they would find themselves in. To them, such a prediction would be entirely uninformative on the question of “what happens next to me?” We don’t know what consciousness is, how creativity and personal choice works or how any of this is connected exactly to knowledge creating people and their place in the multiverse. But this is all a separate issue that merely adds to the complications here for a rational, scientifically minded “determinist”. One can be rational, scientifically minded and a determinist - but it is important for such a person to keep in mind that in physics as we understand it, “determined” does not mean “predictable” - not merely in practise, but in principle.
At one of the much better schools I worked at (better by the measure the teachers were very caring and better by the measure the students rather enjoyed their days as much as possible within a coercive system could) a well intentioned "service" reliably crushed the dreams of large numbers of teenagers on a single day each year. It was not the regular set of tests or assessments. Indeed the teachers had nothing whatever to do with this. In fact, it worked in opposition to those teachers' best efforts at instilling in students confidence, joy of learning and a sense of accomplishment and pride in themselves each year. The school administrators (because, presumably of parental demand) would go through one cruel ritual that undid for an entire cohort what was, I thought, otherwise less damaging work done over the previous 4 years of their schooling. Less damaging, as compared to almost all other schools. Schooling is compulsory in Australia - so it's important to choose a good one. But this is a tale of how even the best can utterly ruin what "good work" (or, as I say "less damaging work") was accomplished.
By “year 10” of high school this particular school had well qualified, kind and knowledgeable teachers helping the students learn, making it as fun as possible (and of course reliably failing - but they tried) - and helping ensure the “mental health” (psychological well being) of the students was, as far as possible within the coercive system, preserved or even improved. Teachers would do things like mark and remark and remark again assignments and essays and exams to maximise the performance of students. In short: the teachers were, broadly speaking *on the side of the students*. But the administration did one remarkable thing every single year to students in the 4th year (year 10) of their high school experience. This was the 15 and 16 year olds. And what was that?
Contract an outside company of psychologists to come in and administer a battery of intellectual IQ type tests on these students.
The students would undergo a number of tests from numeracy and more advanced mathematics, “mechanical reasoning” (physics type questions), other kinds of science type questions, grammar and vocabulary questions and solving of puzzles and more besides. What united all these questions and tests were that they were on content “you could not study for” - they were utterly unknown. The claim was: these were testing inherent mental skills.
I had the philosophy of mind I do now. As often as I could I reminded my own students: you can do whatever you like and learn whatever you like. The only difference is interest. If somehow you can find it interesting you will want to go home and just consume it and become a little obsessed with it and it will not be difficult but fun because it will be interesting. The trick is to somehow find it interesting. I don’t know what the trick is beyond just trying for a while or finding a teacher who can make it interesting - or a book, or something. These days there must be Youtube videos about whatever you want to improve in, if you really do, to help you find it fun.
So this is what happened: each year confident, joyful and bright students who I’d taught this lesson to year on year for many years and whom other teachers had likewise helped foster a sense of self confidence in and a “you can do whatever you want” attitude - were taken into the grand examination hall to undergo this battery of tests administered by “trained educational psychologists” - it was all very official and a little intimidating. It was said “the results of these tests have no bearing on your final marks” (relief - a little bit of fun indeed compared to those tests which did) and are more a test of your personality and might help with career choices later on (more fun! Just personality quizzes - and at that age, teenagers are passionately curious about things like their own personality and the possibility of careers are a major part of their dreams and goals - this would be fun!).
They sit the test and come out of it as they did any other test - though perhaps more dismissive, more smiles, less concern. After all “it didn’t count”.
But then, some months later, the results would come back.
And this is when everything changed. And for some students things changed dramatically. These students were impressionable. These students were told over and again: psychology is a careful and precise science and psychologists are the people you go to for help should you need it. While the latter is a fine heuristic, the former is utter baloney. What happened was, the results of these tests were broken down into types of reasoning. I cannot remember the exact details and do not want to provide them anyway in order to maintain the privacy of everyone involved. This school was not unusual. This is now a routine practise, especially in so-called “elite private colleges” in Sydney (but I think this is far more broad than this).
Students (and hence their parents - and the school administrators) were given a breakdown of their performance on these tests across things like “Basic Numeracy” and “Logical Thinking” and “Mathematical thinking” and “Mechanical Thinking” and “Interpersonal Skills” and “Communication” and “Vocabulary” and many more things besides. And many did not score as high as they might have thought in mathematical or logical or mechanical thinking. And this upset them. But that was not the worst thing. No, they left the absolute soul crushing for the end of the report. At the end of the report was a list of careers and professions you are most suited for and then careers and professions less suited for.
And you can guess exactly what happened. Not always. Once would be too often. But it happened every year to some large number of students.
Those who aspired to be scientists or engineers and had hitherto always performed well in every science and mathematics assessment task given to them at school were, for the first time, assessed low on mathematics, mechanics and logic and told: you’d be well suited as a journalist, or politician or lawyer (they did better on the vocabulary and grammar portion of the test) while aspiring artists, lawyers or doctors told they were not creative, good communicators or sufficiently empathetic respectively and would be better suited to perhaps a trade like hair dressing or working outdoors or perhaps going into child care work.
But the report had great authority - it was administered with gravitas and the results delivered with great seriousness. The report was always excruciatingly comprehensive too: printed on high quality paper with graphs and high-sounding terms: it resembled some kind of medical or pathology read-out in places returning the results of a blood test where experts had to worryingly pour over the numbers to see what it all meant for the well being of the patient. The numbers were then broken down into fine detail for the layperson, of course, but the data always seemed terribly complex. The "easy to digest" simple summary though meant you knew what it all meant at a glance. You didn't need to really look at the numbers much less question their validity or meaning.
Some teachers complained. Of course I complained. But there was a market for this. Parents demanded this kind of thing because other schools did it and after all psychology is a science so perhaps we should take seriously the results of this test.
And yes, even most teachers took the test seriously too. “Well although X has done rather well on their mathematics until now, the psychological assessment indicates their actual native numeracy skill is rather low. Are we sure X can take on the higher levels of mathematics in their final year of high school, pre-university?”.
I got to look at the test once. It was nothing but a set of puzzles - questions phrased in a way deliberately utterly different to the way students were familiar with how questions were put to them in other tests on a day to day basis in school. The psychological test, not studied for, was assessing perfectly learnable material. A bag of tricks and bits of knowledge any of those students could have learned in a week to ace the test across all indicators. But they were told this was assessing their natural talents in certain areas. So there was no point studying. And of course the test was strictly copyright. No one was allowed to keep or make copies of the test and they were carefully guarded online. We wouldn't want anyone "gaming the system", right?
It was a soul crushing, confidence destroying exercise. I saw many students lose heart - aspiring engineers simply give up from that day on - no matter my sitting with them in their exasperation and explaining “those psychologists don’t know what they’re talking about - this test means nothing”. The students appreciated it - but one could see it behind their eyes “There’s Mr. Hall again, just trying to explain why some subjects aren’t as good as physics - or real science. Now is not the time, Mr. Hall. This is a little more serious. Actual psychologists have assessed my brain. Mrs so-and-so who has a PhD in psychology taught us in psychology class how reliably predictive these kinds of tests are. The school carefully chooses to do this year on year. Anyways, I’ve always thought maybe I actually could just work with my dad. He’s got an accountancy firm and they take on trainees each year…”
An older version of this piece was written in December of 2020. Recent talk of high inflation and forecasts of recession make it seem things have only gotten worse since "stagnations" were predicted some years ago. My own views have not changed on any of this but I thought it useful to update the article in light of what many people have been saying about the extent to which younger generations can hope their future will be as bright as those of their parents and grandparents. They can have this hope - and one reason is that economic indicators are but one crude measure of how things were, how they are and how they might be in the future.
In the Western World it has recently been claimed that so-called economic stagnation has not seen the middle classes benefit from the great technological boom in terms of real wage growth. This, it is said, goes some way to explaining the rise of "populist" politicians and economic protectionism. I use a personal anecdote to illustrate a refutation of these ideas and conclude we are, all of us, more wealthy than the economists, politicians and pessimists want us to believe.
"Stagnation" is a term used in economics to denote a period of near zero economic growth. This is to be contrasted with inflation (more precisely "price increases" or better yet: a reduction in the purchasing power of money) and deflation (price decreases - an increase in the capacity of the same amount of money to purchase more). Sometimes high growth causes higher inflation, sometimes not. Things get complicated: https://www.economicshelp.org/blog/458/economics/conflict-between-economic-growth-and-inflation/) and while some are rightly interested in all this, I always find macroeconomic metrics (the numbers and rates and indicators of "positive" or "negative" signs - extremely crude when sometimes rather obvious real world physical stuff, rather than abstract measures reveal far more about what is, broadly, going on. Of course many things can be true at once: it can be there is high inflation and yet things are nonetheless getting better. All else being equal we should want everything to be getting better all at once: low inflation, low unemployment, high growth and increasing productivity - but when one or more or all of these seem to be pointing to "bad times ahead" let us keep in mind the things economists tend never to even consider. What is going on in the physical world of people and what they are creating? It will be my thesis here that when the news is "inflating" all the bad news and hammering to death the notion that various economic indicators portend something like a global catastrophe - turn off the television, pick up your smartphone (or turn on your television) and perhaps listen to a podcast or watch an interesting lecture and just reflect: when have things ever been better?
It has been argued that much of the Western World, but especially the United States is in an extended period of stagnation-and now, as 2022 rolls into 2023 inflation is high and a debate rages over whether we are in a technical period of recession or not. Emblematic of this idea is the work of Economist Tyler Cowen, whose 2011 pamphlet "The Great Stagnation" argues that the causes of growth in America are largely spent and we are now in a period where there has been little "real growth" in wages for some decades and will be for some decades to come. My aim here is not as a critique especially of the work of that economist or even that pamphlet (which is worth reading) but rather the broader idea that things are not much better now than they were a decade or more ago as measured against the index of "real wage growth" or the thesis that is contained in the article already linked to above by Amanda Novello where, writing about the economic "recovery" that is discussed post the 2008 financial crisis:
"Digging deeper exposes that middle and low-income workers and their families in the United States have not reaped their share of the benefits of the apparent recovery, benefits that such a recovery should produce for all, and not only the few. Data shows that, in fact, it’s only wealthier households and larger corporations that have gained noticeably since the recession ended a decade ago. This is because long-developing trends of inequality have proven impervious to the decade’s economic growth."
Is it true that "only wealthier households and larger corporations" have experienced benefits over the last decade? Economists will say numbers speak for themselves. Look at "real wage growth", for example. Real wage growth is a measure of how much wages have grown as compared to the rise in the cost of living (or broadly the average cost of other things in life). Real wage growth is supposed to be a proxy for a quantitative measure of one's standard of living. So if there has been no "real wage growth" is it true one's standard of living has not improved? This is all a very abstract way of talking about people's actual lived experience: their work, their lives, their day-to-day activities (including, in small part, their spending habits). In particular we must consider actual individuals - not groups of people. People seem to think that if those on minimum wage have, as a group, not seen "real wage growth" that this is a cause for concern. But which person on minimum wage 10 or 20 years ago is still there, in the same role? Don't people change jobs - and, in part, because they no longer wish to be on the wage they were? Don't people take on other responsibilities (like study) in order to improve their lot? Economists are quick to define into existence something like a "real wage growth" metric and claim this indicates some deep truth about the lives of individual people. Rather than bring to bear various other metrics that might stand in contrast to this, I want instead to simply consider a narrow aspect of my own life and ask the question: am I no better off? Obviously a single data point cannot refute a trend, but I am doing this for the pessimists who are complaining their lives are no better off. Those who, at 30, 40 or 50 complain things are not much better for them now than when they were 20. I hope that any reader who persists with this piece simply compares my life with theirs. I note that my story parallels that of all my family and friends - many of whom, I would suggest, are far worse off and less mobile than I will demonstrate I have been.
In recent times there has been an absolute obsession in the western world with whether, how and to what extent young people can enter the housing market: https://www.afr.com/property/residential/more-difficult-to-get-into-the-housing-market-than-it-s-ever-been-20210205-p5702q Of course the real headline is: it's more difficult to enter the housing market where people have already built houses which they now own and have upgraded over time increasing the value of. Previous generations have sunk their long earned wealth into a single thing: their physical home. So, no wonder it is now so expensive in the most desirable places. The most desirable places become increasingly more desirable as they are constructed to be more desirable by those older generations who have continued to "gentrify" the already gentrified. The 20, 30 and even 40 somethings who complain their parents had it easier than they do in finding some vacant block of land, or "fixer-upper" house close to the centre of the city with a large garden for a tenth the price a similar thing costs today is rather like their parents complaining their great grandparents were able to purchase a 1 bedroom wooden shack without electricity or plumbing right on the water but with a beautiful view of the "city". It is hardly comparing like with like. Technology means that those in the housing market today can indeed still buy cheap housing - just not where those of their parents generation already live. Sure, it seems unfair "I was born in 1990 and now there's only space far from the central business district where there is so little public transport and the restaurant scene is non-existent". Yes, how terribly unfair. But what of the argument "I was born in 1950, and though I live in a multi-million dollar home right in the city, walking distance from beaches, cafes and restaurants to my hearts content, my heart itself is nearing 80 years old and it seems terribly unfair I was not born decades later when, sometime during the next 50 years, there will be technology to allow me to live 50 more years and experience the joys of technology we could never have imagined when I bought this home."
The property market is the one thing young people reliably complain about as if they have been particularly hard done by - as if "the boomers" are especially out to get them and ungenerously guard the very thing they were brought up to value almost above everything else besides their own family. Even "conservative" thinkers on the topic sometimes even agree with this millennial angst about not being able to find a 5 bedroom mansion on the water (or even an apartment in some tiny high-rise crammed into the tiny footprint of one of the few megacities around the world). Douglas Murray, of all people, bemoans "capitalism" as perhaps deserving of the blame for a "housing crisis" https://unherd.com/2018/04/talking-housing-crisis-means-talking-immigration/ linking it, dubiously, to immigration. But are unskilled and illegal immigrants buying up the best properties in San Fransisco and London? Is that really the problem? It is true many more people these days are renting. There is some argument that maybe for some of them it would be better were they instead mortgaging. And they could: if they made different choices. Generations that grew up in the 40s near the coast anywhere in the United States or Australia might well reflect "It's so unfair I could not get a waterfront property. Instead, here I am 2 streets back with barely water glimpses." It is simply reality that the beachfront is finite in length and not everyone can live there. Then, those who grew up in the 60s complain "I'm an entire suburb away from the beach. It's so terribly unfair that property prices where I want to surf, swim and walk my dog along the promenade means I need to take my car all the way down to the seaside. How unfair! I'm locked out of beachside property". And those born in the 80s. "I'm barely even in the city anymore. I'm so far out in the suburbs - it's unfair. All those people born before are so very lucky and now they are locking me out of city living." And so it goes. This fixation on one metric - how close your house is to the most desirable location and how big it is, while ignoring how wonderful the rest of life and the world has become is no indication that you are worse off than any previous generation.
Before I go on, and because I am about to say what I am about to say less I get flamed for being "out of touch" or some such, I will reveal just a little of my private circumstance. I do not own property. I rent. I have always rented. I have not bought. Perhaps one day I will. I made different decisions. I decided to plough rather a lot of my (rather meagre!) income as a student (and soon after) into paying for my studies. Perhaps too much. And then? I was focussed on travel. Whilst others did what may have been the "mature" thing and saved and worked and invested in property I did not know what I wanted to do exactly but high on the list never was: I want a stable job so I can have property as close to the city as possible. Of course, that's just me. Now I happen to also know there existed members of the generation before me, on relatively low incomes who managed to: both get a loan and purchase a comfortable home not far from the city and travel the world. But what they did not do, because they could not even imagine doing, was travel the world and work or move from job to job, having different experiences and sampling from the most diverse range of experiences because they needed little more than a roof over their head anywhere, a device and a wifi connection.
The very generations doing the complaining about not being in the property market (well to be fair the very media doing the complaining ostensibly on behalf of these apparently "hard done by" generations) simultaneously are those also wanting and able to do almost everything remotely. "Why do we need offices?" they ask - and rightly so. So much of what they do can be done behind a desk anywhere - without the boss over their shoulder either leering, scolding or monitoring their every moment "on the clock". Their parents and grandparents were required day after day, month after month, year upon year, decade upon decade to go to the same repetitive, uncreative job, with far worse conditions and no expectation of doing anything other than that same job for all or almost all their entire life. Perhaps their "big dream" was to one day be elevated to the position where it was they who would be able to leer at the new generation of subordinate workers in their factory or office? This is the generation who had it easy? Their reward? They got to go home to a house of 2 or 3 bedrooms on a quarter-acre block of land with...a television that had a choice of 5 different stations where one watched whatever was playing at the time because not only was nothing on demand - nothing could even be recorded. Where the kitchen was the most comfortable room in the house during winter because that's where the oven was on. Where the car literally needed to be started on those cold winter mornings a few minutes before you wanted to go anywhere because you needed to "warm up the engine so as the carburetor would function". Economic metrics suggest high inflation - and I agree it's bad. Recessions are always and everywhere bad things. They are caused almost entirely by bad policies of governments - state intervention into the economy where the state has no business intervening in the first place. Simply "printing money" is a recipe for price increases and affects the worst off most of all. It is a form of taxation. It is an evil - literally - because it is due to a lack of knowledge by some about basic economics. And yet for all of this we should remind ourselves: people are fallible and so in matters political and economic - problems are inevitable. But what I want to say is that if we only focus on certain crude economic metrics it may seem that everything is getting worse when that is far from the truth. There are other ways of measuring progress and how things get better. So here's my story.
(What follows is a true story, and you may be able to predict where it’s going. So, if you want, skip straight to the final two paragraphs.)
My father was (and remains) what has become known as an “audiophile”. These days the suffix “phile” is added to just about anything one likes to indicate a passion for: numberphile (i.e: a mathematician), retrophile (one who loves cultures of the past), bibliophile (you get the picture). Anyways, before the term existed, my father was an audiophile of the kind that today is rarer than one might think. Or at least I might think. He used to obsess - during the early stages of CD audio - about whether the CD was recorded in DDD or some lower quality like AAD. The "A" was for "Acoustic" and the "D" for "Digital" and the three letters in a row told you something about each stage of the recording process. DDD was clearly "Digital recording" at all stages - so of the highest quality. I knew of no one else who cared about this. But today - I get it. So often I walk along a street to hear a person blaring music for themselves from an iPhone or some other smartphone. I mean - public music played from an iPhone speaker! Now don’t get me wrong - the latest iPhones have reasonable speakers given their size. But outdoors on noisy streets? Putting aside what I consider the discourtesy to fellow pedestrians and others to have their senses assailed by music they may not like following them to the train station, there are very very cheap alternatives that solve all the problems of: faster battery drain, annoyance to fellow travellers and chief among them to my mind: the quality of the sound. Any half decent (and cheaper by the week) set of ear buds or phones completely outclasses inbuilt phone speakers. If one can afford a smart phone, one can afford a reasonably cheap, reasonably high quality pair of earbuds. Whatever the case, I have inherited (ok, learned) this preference from my father. People who listen to the sound from the television’s inbuilt speakers rather than always ensuring it runs through their separate amplifier and high quality speaker system instead - a mystery to me. People content to remain using the included white wired headphones with their iPhone - I just do not understand. I also do not understand Apple's AirPods, period. Given the price - why is their sound quality so low? Why aren't they noise cancelling or at least noise isolating? Earbuds half the price do a far better job. But I digress.
When I was a child - under 10 - I really wanted some good, private set of speakers I could tune into a radio or - even better - play cassettes. I wanted to emulate my dad, of course, and be something like a connoisseur of sound. The first bit of tech I got in this regard was a little mono radio - and I was very proud of it. But within a year - I guess for a Christmas present - I was bought a portable stereo cassette player with radio. And that, to me, was simply amazing. Stereo I could carry around…and play cassettes on. I’m not sure I ever carried it far. It ran on something like 6 D-size batteries. It looked something very much like this.
Next I found, I guess in a catalogue, a pair of over-the-head headphones that had an aerial and could be used to tune into the radio. Well now that was really it! I could walk around listening to the latest hits and not annoy anyone else. These didn’t predate the Sony Walkman - that had been out for almost a decade already - but the Walkman was well over $100 - and in our family - back in the 80s - $100 may as well have been $1000.
But the problem was, it only played whatever the radio stations were playing. I wanted to be able to play my own cassettes. Back in those days, the technique was to wait by the radio station until your favourite song came on, and hit record. This way you could make your own "mixed tape". I wished I could play my various "mixed tapes" on some portable audio device. Alongside my love of portable audio, I had begun to develop a love of hiking. I lived in a part of Sydney surrounded by bushland (forest, in other words) - and in other parts quiet suburban streets. I could imagine few greater pleasures than walking, jogging or running and listening to music. The problem was, of course, the batteries never lasted long with these things. A few hours at most. And, back in the day, you really did stand out as odd wearing such a contraption as pictured above on your head. They simply were not that popular. Especially among people my age. Nevertheless I do recall dreaming of the possibility that I might be able to actually record my own favourite music rather than have to listen only to what the radio was playing at any particular time. This was something a walkman - with in built cassette - would allow me to do. But, again, they were for rich people…not children from the suburbs until, I guess, sometime towards the end of the 80s. By then, there were cheaper (Chinese, I guess) knockoffs. And so finally I was able to get a portable cassette radio. Now I was really cooking because I could record my own music, from the radio on my stereo system (no doubt in violation of copyright law at the time), onto a cassette and then carry it with me. This was the height of technology and personal agency. I think it was in 1993 I was able to ask for my first “digital” actual Sony branded Walkman. I say digital, because it had an LCD read out. It looked exactly like this:
The absolutely remarkable thing about this walkman was that it could store in memory your favourite radio stations. So by hitting the 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 position one could quickly switch from station to station at will rather than, prior to this, having to manually find the station by tuning using an analogue dial. I was able to record from CD onto cassette all my favourite music - and some comedy radio shows I enjoyed. The first CD player had arrived in our home in 1988 and so I was building a library of cassettes to carry about with me. The only problem with this procedure was that I would often hear a song on the radio and have no way to record it on the fly. I would either have to wait until it came on the radio when I got home - or (increasingly) buy the CD and then transfer it to cassette. I dreamed of the capacity for a walkman to record onto cassette whatever was playing.
When I left school I went to university - full time. By which I mean, 5 days a week, for 7 or 8 hours a day. Lectures commenced at 9am and finished at 4pm, except on Wednesdays when it was 5pm. Uni was located a considerable 90 minute journey away using public transport (which I did) and after university on some days of the week (especially Thursday) I was a security guard at the largest shopping mall in Sydney - and also on weekends. This left very little “free” time except travel time (which was around 3 or more hours a day), but a part time job did make me more wealthy than most of my friends - at least in those early years - because while they went to university as well, they did not tend to work jobs as I did to pay their own way and save a little. Or where they did work part time jobs, they chose to work in fast food or at a grocery store and so on. A security guard required a little training, and there were hazards, so there was a monetary reward for making that choice over some other kind of minimum wage position. Nevertheless it was never paid well (for example, in the late 90s, a weekday shift would be around $13 Australian dollars per hour. McDonalds paid something closer to $10 per hour. In both cases the evening and weekend rates were more (on Sunday, I got "double time"!).
So it was, then, in the late-90s I was able to upgrade my older “play only” Sony Walkman for one that could indeed record. Not only did it have a record function it had so many other features (like a digital equaliser and “bass boost”). The great advantage now was that my journeys too and from work and to and from university could be accompanied by my favourite radio shows even if they were on whilst I was at work or in lectures…because I was recording them for my travel time. I absolutely loved train/bus journeys with music of my choice, or radio show of my choice while reading/studying my university notes...or rather more often some popular science book I had bought. I seemed to have reached the absolute zenith of what I wanted from portable audio. Although I did imagine the possibility of having a recordable CD. Whatever the case this walkman also accompanied me on long patrols of the shopping centre late at night (always at low volume, sometimes with one earpiece out so I could still hear if there was ever any broken glass. Only ever once did this happen - and the alarm system was loud enough that no set of earbuds at whatever volume would ever drown those out)
But, as the 90s rolled into the 2000s and I was merely a security guard on minimum wage in an unskilled job - I was nevertheless able to afford almost as much technology and creature comforts as my imagination allowed me. I was able to build my own PC from buying the best motherboard, CPU, RAM, Hardrive and so on I could find…and I could afford among the best portable audio. Somewhere in the 80s the Sony “Discman” came out - it was a portable CD player…but it was never popular because it wasn’t really very portable. The slightest bump and the machine skipped making listening and walking (for example) an intolerable experience. In around 1999/2000 I did buy one of the first CD-walkmans which came standard with a RAM buffer which meant if it did get bumped, it was able to store about 30 seconds worth of audio on solid state memory rather than skip. But actually my top of the line Sony Walkman then had sound quality that easily matched the discman - because the earbud headphones had really increased in quality. One of my friends, who was also in a low-wage job, bought this for me for my birthday:
That walkman was set apart by the quality of its earbuds as well as its excellent record feature and pseudo-digital fast forward and rewind (it could tell where songs stopped and started again, making your favourites on the cassette easier to find). All of this made my life absolutely wonderful because…as I said, I loved walking. And the more I loved walking and hiking, the more I wanted to listen to music and other audio (like my favourite radio shows I had recorded). But the problem was, one had to carry additional casettes and each cassette was usually only 90 minutes or so. For long hikes that just really did not do. And during this time I went to Africa (Zimbabwe) on Safari which included lengthy hikes...and lengthy travel times and also South America for some months, even hiking the Inca Trail in Peru…a three night long trial at high altitude through the Andes. I think I carried 6 cassettes with me for that journey. There are only so many times you can hear your favourite hits over and again. If only cassettes were smaller…or could store more songs?
Now in truth the Sony Minidisc player had been out since 1992. But it was well outside my budget. So it was not until 2002 I bought one - and what an astonishing device it was. I still have it. It looks like this:
This was merely incremental progress in some ways, but seemingly revolutionary for my life. Casettes had improved in quality markedly over the decade, but now the option of a small optical disc - much smaller than a cassette - could store many hours of audio. Indeed one could choose the sampling rate - the highest selection meant your minidisc could store about 70 minutes of audio, while the lowest quality meant 4 times that amount. There were science, philosophy and other radio shows I could download/record straight from the radio in low quality and keep, while I could transfer my CD audio music collection to minidisc - all stored on generic branded discs which were very cheap, and getting cheaper all the time as competition entered the market. And of course, at this time, this was one of the first devices one could actually hook up to a computer and download songs and other audio directly to via USB. Now that, I guess, deserves the term "revolutionary".
Throughout this time I changed jobs - going from being a security guard, to a “science communicator” with the university (which actually was paid quite a bit less - but this was an exchange I was happy to make as the “confrontation” - physical and otherwise - which is the life of a security officer - had become something I felt I had outgrown).
In the early 2000s, parts of the education system in Australia permitted graduates with just a Bachelor’s Degree to work as casual teachers in schools - so I took on this while I completed a Bachelor of Teaching (which would entitle me to work in schools on a permanent basis, for substantially more money). This brought with it a real increase in my financial position - money like I had never had before and didn't even know what to do with (I should probably have invested - but no, I was having too much fun travelling). But, once more, during this period I was working, then studying, working, then studying. Nevertheless I was able to save more. I paid my way through and completed two more degrees and then used these as tickets to travel for even longer periods. I had been to Africa, and South America and to numerous places within Australia (Tasmania was and remains my favourite. I agree with Edmund Hillary who described it as "the greatest hiking country on Earth".) After saving up from all those jobs, I moved to London and my minidisc player went with me - as I could download music from NAPSTER (which ages you, if you remember it) and radio shows from Australia to salve the homesickness as early versions of podcasts began to become popular. But, of course, the minidisc player still had the problem that the finiteness of the discs meant carrying quite a number of them, if one did not want to get repetitive with their audio. Solid state MP3 devices early on never had much memory - but were better for jogging (minidiscs were still liable to skipping). But the move to solid state seemed inevitable.
As I have continued to work, I migrated fully to an Apple device. At first it was the iPod nano - which was amazing - great for the gym and for jogging because it could store thousands of songs and podcasts in a device one barely noticed they were even carrying. But the first iPhone was for me also truly revolutionary because now, here was a device effectively with unlimited storage: the cloud meant that radio shows were there for download so long as you could find a WIFI or 3G signal. Especially for exercising and jogging this was a true game changer. Suddenly everything on the internet was accessible from my pocket for the first time - and streaming became a thing. The finiteness of the memory was barely a factor anymore.
And now we come to today -and on my wrist is an Apple Watch, as small as an iPod nano with so many of the features of an iPhone - and in my ears are wireless bud earphones. This is the stuff of dreams for my 10 year old self. Or my 20 year old self. Or my 30 year old self.
If I had remained a security guard at that shopping mall all these years - I guess I would not be paid much more now in "real wages" than I was then. Indeed I know, because I can look up, what that job pays here in Australia. And given the rise in living costs - indeed, it’s not like “Security Guard” is a more attractive job now than it was then. Why should it be? Jobs like those, in the main, are not meant to be kept for life - unless one really wants to get into the security industry say and own their own security company. That certainly could be a reasonable ambition. But had I stayed there, in that shopping mall, wearing that uniform, I expect I would have been promoted to supervisor, then manager and so forth up into the corporate section of the centre (interestingly the rank-system in a large shopping centre like that was quite a complex affair!). So no one stays in an entry level job like that forever, that’s common sense. Unless they really try hard not to try to get promoted or find some other job more attractive. People do get promoted, they do gain experience and so are moved into “higher” positions of greater responsibility, or sideways into a position where the ladder is easier to climb. Or they do a course for some hours a week and retrain to take on a different, by their lights better, role that pays more (or is more interesting, more fun, less hazardous and so on).
But say, for argument's sake, I never did any of that and remained a security guard in precisely the same position. Is the lack of increase of income of “security guards” relative to the cost of living - some sign of “stagnation” as it is often suggested to be? People say things like “real wages have not increased” as if people are stuck in the same job, forced to make the same choice day after day? Whatever the case - say I did make the choice to stay in that job and not made the choice to spend the rest of my time studying whenever I had the chance (when I wasn’t listening to recorded radio shows) - would it be fair to say I would have been “no better off” now compared to then? That because my "real wage growth" had been near zero that I was someone being "left behind"?
No. No way! Not by a long shot. Because today, even on that same wage, I could have afforded an Apple Watch and wireless earbuds. Which is exactly what I have now and the pinnacle of portable audio technology for me, so far as I am concerned. The Apple Watch I have comes to me on a “plan” via my mobile provider. It costs me $20 a month to pay off. I could afford that, even as a security guard. Easily! And yes, my data on top of that costs a little more (which I can share across multiple devices) - but the point is - the very best technology and access to the world’s information and music library - almost unimaginable technology to me 20 years ago - is available even to some of the least wealthy people in modern western societies - and soon to everyone else too!
Wealth is not about how much money you have, or cash you can pull out of your bank account. It includes that - but it also includes all the many things that money can buy and which you already have. My Apple Watch - if I could travel back 20 years - I imagine would have been regarded as one of the most astonishing devices in existence making me one of the most wealthy people on the planet. By this measure: the technology on my wrist would have been bought by Bill Gates or some other billionaire - for many billions of dollars if I could have convinced them what it truly was. If you have seen the movies: it would have been like the chip from the first Terminator which, if you recall - was not destroyed when Arnold’s evil character was killed. That last remaining chip was used by a technology company to “go in directions they never could have imagined”. It was basically alien technology. So too my Apple Watch placed in 2000, or let’s say 1990
The Apple Watch really does confer wealth onto you far beyond what its price would suggest. If you own one, you are more wealthy than anyone living in 1990. In 1990 there was no way to get any book in the world fed wirelessly into your ears - read to you by a machine. To thus learn the knowledge that could, potentially, improve your lot so easily. There was no way to call overseas…all from your wrist. People are rather pessimistic about the idea there has been such astonishing progress and an increase in wealth over time. They point to statistics like: wages have not increased while the cost of homes has. Some use this to explain the appeal of particular political movements. The same house today in some town costs 10 times what it did some years ago while the wage for the same job has only increased by a factor of 2. Doesn't this mean society is "going backwards" in some way? Now there may be some legitimate concerns here: there may be government regulations making the cost of housing greater in some places and more or less appealing in others. But none of this is really about how "wealthy" one is. Or if it is, that is merely one metric: how big is the house that a particular income earner can purchase now?
The security guard that I was from 1996 to 2000 no doubt was right to think he was near the bottom of the “Australian” wealth pecking order. But today - were I in the same job, being paid the minimum wage today - I would nevertheless be far far more wealthy. Not because my income relative to other jobs would have been greater - it isn’t. And shouldn’t be expected to be. But rather that the “purchasing power” of that same amount of money is unimaginably greater than what it was in 2000. Namely it can purchase technology absolutely unthought of in that time and which makes any security guard today in Australia on minimum wage the equal of the most wealthy on the planet by the metric that they can buy the best of certain things. I don't know what Elon Musk wears on his wrist in terms of smart-tech - but I know it's not much better than what I do, if at all. And the quality of his earbuds and audio he experiences each day I can bet is not much better than mine. In many ways I am just as wealthy as Musk on a number of metrics even though I have but a fraction of his income. Yes: he can build rockets. But I don't want to build rockets. I quite like doing with my time...precisely what I do with my time, much of the time.
If I had been told in 2000 all the features of an Apple Watch and then asked to guess what it cost, I do not know exactly what I might have said. But given that the cost of the best Walkmans at the time were well over $1000, and the best earbuds (wired of course) some hundreds, I guess I would have thought $5000 would have been a steal. And back then I could not have afforded the best quality walkman with all the best features. But now - the Apple Watch I has does precisely what the best smart wearable tech can do for the wealthiest. Everyone now is far far more wealthy according to that standard: they can afford personal technology that is not super outclassed by people who have much more income. Wages have all gone up in the sense we can all buy more than we ever could because there is more stuff to be purchased - more innovation and creation and technology to make our lives easier, more interesting and more mobile. And by more mobile I mean both more portable and more able to move into other jobs or other interests. Because we can put on our wrists (you don’t even need an Apple watch - there's lots of "wearable tech" far less expensive with almost all the same features) devices that can feed into our ears lessons that can lead us down lanes that in decades gone by would have required us to enrol into university courses at great expense. Now, it’s so much easier. So much more fun, and all so liberating. So is there stagnation? Stagflation? Recession? Cause for pessimism? Whatever the technical definitions from economics behind these terms, it should not cause one to think it has any direct bearing on their own individual life (unless they lose their job, let’s say). Those terms are never about individuals - but groups. Individuals are mobile and move between jobs and thus income bands and, meanwhile, as they do - the innovation continues despite what the naysayers say. Because whatever the gross metrics happen to be, they tend never to account for all the other ways life has improved, individual wealth increased and our personal purchasing power so much greater. Those who claim you’re worse off or that things have not improved are trying to sell you something. Something political rather much of the time. The truth is rather different: wealth continues to increase - you can do far more for far less cost. David Deutsch says in "The Beginning of Infinity" that wealth is “the repertoire of physical transformations that one is capable of causing.” Now just consider all the ways in which your own life has been transformed by technology and ideas, regardless of your income having increased or not and all the ways in which you can, now, if you choose make choices to transform your own life through - for example - education at near zero cost by downloading anything you like - the knowledge - so you can make things better for yourself. By any measure, almost all of us are far more wealthy now than we have ever been before.
There is no perfect policy; there is no solution that will once and for all solve a problem unproblematically. This is to say: no solution, however good, will not open up more problems. And oftentimes our circumstance is worse than that, for while moving from worse to better problems is a virtue and indeed one of the joys of life - a beginning of infinite progress - there can be occasions where purported solutions turn out to be anything other than genuine. Some (so-called!) "solutions" exacerbate our circumstance: they actively make things worse. We cannot know ahead of time how things might fail or succeed. All we can rely upon at any moment are our best explanations and those can always be improved.
It is for this reason, that in the area of politics, our system cannot be designed to install the optimal solution or the best solution or the solution that will once and for all solve our problem(s). The world simply does not bend to the hopes of some that once the best policies are enacted that finally then, there will be relief from needing to continue to strive for something ever better or, in many cases, to undo an attempt to improve things that turned out only to make things all the worse. But people can and do become ideologically wedded to particular policies even in the face of failure and so this is why we need a system for removing those failed policies and people in power so wedded to them.
This is why democracy is about not installing the ideal or best leader who will do the thing that solves the crisis because they can no more foresee the future than any of us. They are guessing their way to a better future - but they, like we, are fallible. Their policies and plans imperfect and the world changes around them anyways in ways they could not have foreseen with political culture such that “changing ones mind” when new evidence is found is a virtue and no vice. We should expect our politicians and their policies to fail just as we should expect our scientific theories to eventually fail. Politics, to a large degree, is still mired in a philosophy of being deeply committed to one’s beliefs and for this reason punishes those who might try to adapt and change when the circumstances do. This is unreasonable. It is irrational. The eventual failure of any solution is the normal state of things and so being wedded to any particular solution is a recipe for disaster. We must always be willing to adapt, change our minds and perhaps on a dime turn around and go completely in the other direction. Or simply change tac so our progress can be far more rapid.
Our political system is not for answering the question “Who should rule?” so the answer cannot be “the most erudite; the most qualified, the educated and the experts” - for they are just as fallible as the rest of us. Plato’s mistake was not necessarily in thinking that philosopher kings were preferable to rule by the demos (the citizens) because the demos was a mob. It may very well be that the demos is a mob and should not rule over other minorities. It may very well be that philosopher kings would be preferable to rule by a rabble. Or it may be the opposite. It does not matter in either case because what Plato imagined was not democracy. And democracy is the only rational system for governing a group of people. So what is democracy?
Democracy is not rule by the demos. That is not what it is. Democracy is a system for removing the rulers without violence when those rulers fail. Whether those rulers are “the mob” or “philosopher kings” does not matter. It does not matter if one of them claims to be “a man of the people” or “the smartest person on Earth” - they are part of a democratic system if they can be removed from office without the use of force. Votes are cast and they leave with the traditional peaceful transfer of power.
In any modern democracy, the mob does not rule anyway, though their representatives may. And once in power they might try to implement the policies of the mob. And those policies may succeed to solve the problems that caused them to run for election in the first place - in which case one presumes they will be re-elected. Or, of they fail, they will lose the election and be removed from office. And the self-designated “best and brightest” can try their hand at fixing things. And when they succeed or fail, the cycle continues.
But what no one can expect is an unproblematic state. Because even if the very best happens: even if your favoured candidate succeeds and your party wins an overwhelming majority and all of their policy platform enacted with very little delay - those solutions reveal new problems not able to be seen before. Obscured, as it were, by the detritus of problems right in front of your face and only once removed is your view now clear and you are able to see so much more. And besides, our universe is in flux and at any moment the unexpected and inherently unpredictable happens to undo all of your grand plans for finally setting up society in a way that is better. And the existing policies will fail to make things better - to solve the new problem at hand. And creativity will be needed, and thus new policies. And if the existing people in power lack new ideas then the purpose of democracy is to remove them. Guessing a new answer and checking it against reality. Iterating by error correcting. Because problems are inevitable. There is no way of installing the best candidate because "best" is always relative to a problem situation and different people have different problem situations.
Civilization could well be regarded as the state of removing the initiation of force - of violence - from a society. It may well begin with knowledge - take no one’s word for it. The removal of “authorities” when it comes to “what one should endorse as true”. We rightly recognise now that religious zealots beating children into submission until they can recite pages out of some holy book is the sign of an uncivilised society. Learning through violence does not work. We rightly recognise now that commissars and barons who would by decree divide up the labor of the peasant farmers by sending soldier backed tax collectors to take all of the grain and the cattle - is the sign of an uncivilised society that has no learned how free trade can benefit both the baron and the peasant. And democracy is where not the will of a tyrant is imposed once and for all upon the citizens not even the will of the people imposed once and for all upon the citizens. But rather leaders and policies are tried and tested and when they fail, just as in science, they are discarded as not actually solving the problem after all.
We are part of an ever improving civilisation. Our institutions are a recognition of the fact there can be no unproblematic state.
Our education system, ideally, does not use violence or coercion of any kind to inculturate and teach those who come new into it, the lessons those who went before us learned over millennia. Violence is anathema to learning.
Our methods of research - in science, technology, art, the humanities, academia and industry do not use violence to insist that their way is the best way. We try, we fail, we try again and improve. We know this enables the most rapid progress. Violence is anathema to discovery.
Our business and commerce is predicated on the assumption that providing a service is the way to provide value to the rest of society. No one is compelled to purchase your good or service. They can walk right out of the store or not renew the contract. Violence is anathema to trade.
Our democracy is predicated on the assumption that no one has all the answers and no policy can provide all the solutions. Any actual solution will reveal more problems and any ruler will, eventually, fail to offer up something as good as some alternative. So we have elections - the purpose of which is to remove peacefully, without force, bad policies and bad rulers. Violence is anathema to democracy.
Becoming civilised is the state of gradually eliminating violence wherever it still lurks in our society. It is the incremental removal of authorities who can make and enforce rules or the adherence to ideas at every level in every place, where possible, and where we know how in such a way as to not make things catastrophically worse. (For example: eliminating police tomorrow in any major city would fail to make things better - the exact opposite). People are fallible and will not always be reasonable (including most especially people we are yet to encounter) and so a civilised society must also have at its disposal the option to use force where necessary and so it will need individuals especially highly trained in its use because a civilised society will not be civilised for long if it outsources all expertise in violence to the uncivilised - especially to vast uncivilised mobs.
But, as a rule, civilisation is where peace reigns. Swords and guns exist but they are almost all of the time sheathed and holstered because the business of civilisation is to peacefully keep on trying to solve problems that have nothing to do with violence as rapidly as possible. Because problems are inevitable. Happily they are also soluble. As people that is our very purpose of life: to solve our problems today so that new and better and more fun problems can be solved tomorrow. Civilization is what allows us to continue to do that peacefully.
(Postscript: By the way so called “direct democracy” is not democracy either. It seeks to install, as a tyrant of a kind, the demos. Direct democracy is this idea that for any problem a particular set of policies are put forth (exactly by who and how, is another matter altogether) and then these are voted on by everyone. It has recently become popular with the advent of the internet and the real possibility of being ruled by some sort of technocratic voting system on…well anything people can think of presumably. But this is just to say: we can imagine a system where the majority can never be removed from power, by definition - because their votes on any given issue will always win the day and if you tend to disagree with their underlying philosophy the only thing for it is to leave that society or tolerate living subdued beneath it - for you cannot ever vote out those who rule over you and try out something different. Again: democracy, properly conceived, is the ability not to install any particular policy but to remove it. Minorities, outsiders and iconoclastic rebels need protection and representation too. A "direct democracy" is a direct path to their removal from a society and that would be the undoing of any such society because it is often those people who push genuine democracies forward.)
Some time ago I responded substantively to the content here: https://meaningness.com/ via a podcast-type bit of audio that can be found here:
What follows is a supplement to that motivated by some further tweets that came across my feed. Hence it seems to be worth emphasising the following if they were not clear from that audio:
“CR” is just an account of how knowledge is created. It is not an ontology. Realism is not a hugely substantive ontology either - it’s little more than the stance “reality exists” and CR says both “it’s knowable” (in the Popperian sense) and we can be wrong about it (which is “fallibilism” by another route and merely underscores what “in the Popperians sense” is getting at with knowledge and our relationship to it). a
Unlike with what is stated here https://meaningness.com/resolution and here https://meaningness.com/nebulosity and at the links one follows from those pages about “meaningness” and “nebulosity”, CR, fallibilism and realism are silent on *ontology* in a way “meaningless” and “nebulosity” are not.
The epistemology Popper and Deutsch among others - what we simply call “epistemology” (along with science & everything else) allow us to create knowledge about reality but are silent on what reality “really” is (which is to say “ontology”).
In other words what that reality is *ultimately* like (the ontology) is not knowable by fallible means - by any epistemological, philosophical, scientific or other methodology. And these (and related domains like mathematics, introspection and so on), broadly speaking, are all we have and the only means by which we imperfectly access reality - never directly - only through our knowledge - our interpretations of our theories which are themselves interpretations of that underlying reality which exists but in what form precisely we cannot say.
So it seems “ontology is nebulous” or meaning is, and so forth are far stronger claims than anything in CR, the work or Popper, Deutsch or other kinds of “vanilla realism” so to speak. Because we cannot utter perfect truth (which would require us speaking in perfect propositions - an impossibility) we cannot make claims about ultimate reality rather only claims about reality as it is known. So we stay silent on final reality aside from the rather prosaic claim that it - reality - exists and we can know it imperfectly.
Beyond that there are only faith claims and *no problem is solved* by conjecturing what final reality is like in any sense. So, instead, we just do science, mathematics and philosophy and create fallible explanations which are imperfect but somewhat accurate (they are not utterly false) accounts of what is out there and how it works. But whether reality is made up of “discrete” or “continuous” quantities, or only one of those, or some combination of those, a “third option” which is neither of those at all and entirely separate to them, whether is be something “nebulous” or something physical, abstract, physical and abstract or something stranger than all of these realism does not say. It - realism - merely says reality is knowable imperfectly. I raise all this only to highlight how far divorced from dogmatic claims, superstitious claims or faith claims this philosophy descended from Popper (and, say, Xenophanes) is. We only admit of what we know (in the Popperian sense as fallible conjectures) and remain silent on either statements or propositions about (ultimate) reality. Not because we know that reality is or is not nebulous or that it is in reality nebulous or not but rather because no such claim can be made. What we know instead is reality in terms (and via) of science, reason, philosophy, morality - explanations as a whole. What we understand at any given time are theories of reality - not reality itself. So we understand general relativity that describes a continuous spacetime and a (quantum) physics that in part describes discrete quantities and physical “stuff” as well as a continuous aspect of those things across the multiverse. So is reality nebulous or not? Again, that is not knowable anymore than “it is discrete” or “it is continuous”. Our theories now say of some things: they are continuous quantities and of other things: those are discrete. But is reality as a whole discrete or continuous? Both? Neither? Nebulous? Wait and see until we learn more? None of those as a stance (which “meaningless” seems to admit on one page: https://meaningness.com/stances-are-unstable only to make the substantive claim, and take the stance, “meaning is nebulous” https://meaningness.com/nebulosity-of-meaningness and reality is nebulous https://meaningness.com/countercultures. We are more modest in making no strong claims about “reality” in this way or what “meaning” or “knowledge” and so forth might represent in some “final” sense because all of these set the stage for answering the wrong question given how knowledge works and what we are as conscious explanation creators that only access reality only ever through interpretations indirectly - not “perceiving” the ontology directly.
But there is a sense in which none of these statements about “meaningless” or “nebosity” ever “land” so to speak as the philosophy does tend to hold itself immune from criticism by claiming logic does not apply to it as it would to other “stances” https://metarationality.com/formal-logic and can seem to say of itself - it is not a philosophy as such https://meaningness.com/complete-stance-appeal and the author claims not to be “doing philosophy” https://twitter.com/Meaningness/status/1258138059415019520?s=20&t=0ruRGIsW8vKtpYgt4ulMYQ
Which might all suggest that this is more akin to religion of a kind or as the author says “To help the reader…shift to a more enjoyable way of being (thinking, feeling and acting).
Which is great - but would also entail not engaging philosophically either. But its adherents do engage with those who want to pin them down on what is being claimed about reality exactly and those adherents do indeed defend the thesis as a substantive philosophy.
Of course saying it’s “not philosophy” can act as a way of holding the arguments made immune from criticism when “the mood strikes” so to speak. Very well. But here we might all do well to follow Wittgenstein’s lead and endorse “Whereof we cannot speak thereof we must remain silent”. In other words: we can take the author at his word: it’s not philosophy, it need not be regarded as being about anything but rather is more of contemplative, subjective tool of introspection couched in (at times) the language of philosophy. Which as hinted at already, is reminiscent of a more religious sensibility or, more precisely still: theology. This is not meant to be pejorative. Theology can serve a useful purpose. And what “meaningness” is, could be something more like an English translation of some of the central messages of a version of Buddhism. Personally useful and even, for some perhaps transformative - but, despite the superficial similarities: not a philosophy and not able to be understood as anything like a domain of explicit and explanatory knowledge as (say) some field of science (even a first person science) or philosophy might be despite what is claimed explicitly here https://twitter.com/JakeOrthwein/status/1386922593052094464?s=20&t=0ruRGIsW8vKtpYgt4ulMYQ
So it can be confusing for anyone who wants to understand this vision of reality. Which, yes, even science can be. But at its best science and philosophy strive for clarity. It is not at all clear this is in any sense a priority for the content of meaningness at times. Sometimes it seems clear that it is a philosophy making substantive claims about ontology which will be defended by its adherents...but to be blunt, when the questions begin to pile up there is a retreat position open to "meaningness" at that point. Namely: this isn't philosophy - with an implication almost of the kind "Why are you even asking these questions? The fact you are means you do not understand the true purpose of this - which is not to do philosophy." And so we go in circles. One thing can be acknowledged: this is indeed a branch of something like philosophy, theology, religion, introspection and self help and a style of explaining those things that does have its audience who do claim benefit from it. So, to that end: more power to everyone involved.
The most valuable thing you can offer to an idea