passing on past cultures

June 18, 2020

Three brief items.

First, there’s much current debate over editing the past in removing statues praising (in)famous men. At the moment it’s (been) largely focussed on valorising and vilifying particular(ly) emblematic products of past culture. Vilification of individuals recognised to have committed most heinous acts is parried by valorisation of reparative acts. Historic acts and historical responses are located within and products of constantly changing cultures. History always expresses current cultural conceptions of Right and Wrong.

Surely the point to be made in this debate is that all acts and all responses are products of current cultures, including the current culture of awareness of past horrific atrocities committed by some people against other people. The ranges of people implicated, as collaborators, colluders, conspirators, concealers of indicting evidence (cf fi https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/16/boris-johnson-lying-history-britain-empire) indicate only that compelling albeit conflicted interests with whatever degree of cognitive assonance and dissonance often act as situational or categorical imperatives to impel atrocious acts, and that both interests and imperatives require investigation, to understand how cultural products perpetrate and perpetuate compulsive impulses to present-day atrocities.

Surely what’s required is repudiation of all horrific atrocities, including those currently being committed in the name of a culture or subsculture, and repudiation of the cultures and subcultures that assert any entitlement to commit atrocities under any imperative to promote or protect interests.

Which introduces the second issue. Listening this morning to R4’s reading of ‘The bells of old Tokyo’ and marvelling at the total inadequacy of Japan’s 1944 advice to its citizen-subjects on preparing shelters for expected fire-bombing air raids, thought about Monbiot’s article above, and refs therein, as illustrating through family ties exactly how the ‘establishment’ as the current political class culture (‘class’ as the bunch of schoolboys currently ruling Britain) feels entitled to ‘get away with it’ (cf Owen Jones’ book).

Surely what’s required is change in the established culture, that is, in the establishment and its entitlement culture. If all rulers, hereditary or elected, were expressly prohibited by universally accepted and adopted principles from all acts by which establishment interests would or could be promoted – this would preclude enclosures of common land, like the latest Desmond-Jenrick ‘Tower Hamlets-CIL-pre-emptive planning permission to benefit a Tory donor-developer’, trade deals that promote privileged power-broker or land-owner vested interests, regional PPI-type enterprises that benefit large unaccountable institutions, infrastructural developments that look like toys for boys – most especially if all forms of war, state terrorism, threat of force, aggression, militarism, were simply prohibited, there was no prerogative for rulers to exercise, no means or power or mechanism either to threaten or to make war, or to apply or abrogate peace treaties, no first-use weapons, no WMD – if all the people who are the ruled refused to be the rulers’ armed means of ruling, but instead required rulers to be effective administrators for resilient peace and plenty, sustainable safety and security, enhancing local ecologies, economies and environments by localising commissioning of all resources – that would be the change that changed, a difference that makes a difference, a pattern that connects (Gregory Bateson).

So, third, what’s required is not passing on past cultures, but passing on past cultures, letting them go, not rewriting or editing history, but recognising the past as a foreign country, that they do things differently there (Hartley), realising we can do things differently here, and making sure we learn how to do differently well and then do it.

Cummings’ blog edit from the Guardian, Rees-Mogg’s Grenfell tragedy for common sense from the Independent: what lets Tories think they alone are right and rational?

May 26, 2020

First want to flag up an amusing bit from an NIH article on errors copied in the post of 04.03.19. Which sorts of error, skill-, rule-, or knowledge-based, would cover Tory ‘foot in mouth’, ‘finger on edit’ and ‘foot on pedal’ issues?

“‘In its 2016 study for the NIH, “Risk and Benefit Analysis of Gain of Function Research,” Gryphon Scientific looked to the transportation, chemical, and nuclear sectors to define types of human error and their probabilities. As Gryphon summarized in its findings, the three types of human error are skill-based (errors involving motor skills involving little thought), rule-based (errors in following instructions or set procedures accidentally or purposely), and knowledge-based (errors stemming from a lack of knowledge or a wrong judgment call based on lack of experience).

Then in its context the assertedly recent edit, which had it been in the initial post a year earlier might perhaps have seemed present and prescient, but inserted post hoc so recently, instead just seem – well, lame (in bold below):

‘But mandatory incident reporting to FSAP and NIH actually does provide sufficient data to quantify human error in BSL3 biocontainment labs…

‘Among other things, the GAO report called attention to a well-publicized incident in which a Defense Department laboratory “inadvertently sent live Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax, to almost 200 laboratories worldwide over the course of 12 years. The laboratory believed that the samples had been inactivated.” The report describes yet another well-publicized incident in China in which “two researchers conducting virus research were exposed to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus samples that were incompletely inactivated. The researchers subsequently transmitted SARS to others, leading to several infections and one death in 2004.

And here’s the link to the document tree changes log, which does give dates and times for changes (mods) but my inexpert reading can’t say what else:

https://dominiccummings.com/sitemap.xml

Now a link to a recording of Rees-Mogg talking about the Grenfell fire and focussing mainly on the tragedy that the residents didn’t ignore the advice and leave, in common sense: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jacob-rees-mogg-grenfell-common-sense-fire-brigade-inquiry-a9185606.html and a comment on it and him and those Tories currently running the country.

Acording to Rees-Mogg and Cummings, Tory common sense and rationality lets them not do what they’re told – even if they’re the ones doing the telling. (Cf fi Parliamentary prorogue).

Is that so? Really? More to the point, is it right?

what’s not right in what cummings did

May 26, 2020

On first hearing something about Cummings’ getaway to the north to find childcare with his own relatives, my first reaction was something like, ‘gosh, he’s human after all, he’s worried about his family, he’s putting them first’.

After time to reflect and listen to general outrage and others’ comments, and Cummings’ own assertions that both his motives and his actions were justified and legal, had a good think about what wasn’t right in that defence.

It’s quite simply this: if this action in the face of presumed Covid 19 in both parents with no acceptable nearby childcare available was indeed lawful, because the law as written and passed included an exemption for just such situations, why was the existence and applicability of this exemption in law not publicised along with the law requiring staying home in all other cases?

Cummings is surely hoist by his own petard – that is, by his defence that his judgement was reasonable and his action was permitted and proportionate.

Either it’s one (knowledge of) law for the leaders, and none for the led, or one (exemption in) law for the leaders, and none for the led (nor for the police enforcing a law apparently without any discretionary exemptions).

Since Cummings is likely to have had a hand in writing the law, and so in writing in any exemptions, these options pretty much amount to the same.

If it was lawful for him, it would have been lawful for anyone else in any similar exempt situation. That there was a need for an exemption, and that there was one available, should have been made known to all who might need it.

Yet the existence and application of any such exemption was not publicised – presumably since publicising its existence would enable people to apply it.

Perhaps the exemption was not publicised on grounds that people might misapply it in non-exempt situations. If so, then the real unfairness is the promulgation by ministers and others of the position that people can’t be trusted to use their judgement.

People’s trust in their own and others’ judgement was undermined by accusations – later debunked as pernicious nonsense and inappropriate blame – of shoppers’ selfish ‘panic buying’ and ‘nhs staff overusing PPE’. On both counts people were found to have made sensible rational decisions.

Alternatively, maybe this exemption in the law wasn’t publicised because of the probable occurrence of many exempt situations to which it would apply and need to be used: a perceived need to provide permitted discretionary exemptions to lockdown for those who knew of them, but no perceived need to tell (m)any people in case (m)any people might need to apply them.

Or rather, a perceived need not to tell people, in case people utilised them.

People who then were earnestly requested and apparently legally required to comply with ‘total lockdown’ today are being told that in complying with ‘total’ lockdown they could and should use their judgement as to how ‘total’.

In other words, ‘total lockdown’ – presented as vital, earnestly requested by BJ and apparently required in law – was never truly believed by BJ or others to be either total or necessary, nor ever actually required in or by law.

Thus BJ’s earnest request was entirely hypocritical – if the British people can be made to comply, then deaths due to NHS overwhelm can be minimised (of course, we now know neither BJ nor Fergusson thought people would comply so willingly, so well, and so long; but that’s another story, as is the cause of any potential for nhs overwhelm, and the still massive death toll).

It is absolutely stupid to have requested and then required total compliance with a total lockdown, if everyone didn’t in law actually have to keep to it.

While some who flouted it resigned for compromising the ‘total’ message, others caught flouting it resorted to the exemption. But now it is clear that that lawful discretionary exemption had in fact been available to all.

Where do Cummings’ ‘lawful’ actions leave those who believed the ‘total’ message and complied with it at huge personal and family cost and loss?

Where do they leave the Conservative party, associated with such wholesale derision and disdain for the willing compliance of the British electorate?

Cummings’ resort to a ‘lawful exemption’ justification, and BJ’s backing him, both show utter derision and disdain for people’s discretion and judgement.

More importantly, both show utter stupidity, in promoting total lockdown when the law as written was written to allow exemptions, then availing themselves of an unpublicised legal exemption while denying it to others.

Do they really believe that resorting to the exemption now will not be seen as having treated people with derision and disdain? Are they that stupid?

Why and how were the police not made aware of the existence of this lawful exemption and the discretion it provided in applicable situations, when being given enforcement powers and encouraged to use them?

While people have willingly complied as BJ requested – although as it turns out they weren’t actually required to do, so BJ couldn’t lawfully ‘tell them to’ as he said he was doing the evening lockdown proper began – all the while Tory leaders apparently knew that there were exemptions, yet didn’t say.

When exactly does the exemption apply? Is it intended only for families in the both-parents-ill-no-near-family-childcare situation Cummings asserts? Or does it also cover parents, as in Jenrick’s trip?

How have other families without childcare who didn’t know of this exemption managed – or had – to cope, , with the possibility or actuality of one or both parents being or becoming too ill to care for the kids?

If caring for children to protect them and prevent harm was the intended aim of the exemption, why wasn’t it publicised to protect everyone’s kids?

If broader, to prevent harm to anyone and preclude unnecessary suffering, again, why wasn’t it publicised, to reduce domestic abuse dangers for children and adults during the lockdown when incidence has increased?

Total lockdown has not kept deaths to around 20,000, so total lockdown hasn’t worked as predicted, as promised when the aim was ensuring that people would comply with total lockdown, which they have, admirably.

Leaders have not complied, knowing the law had an exemption, a get-out.

At the start of this incident, and this post, Cummings had seemed more human in risking a rash reckless flouting of the law because he cared for and about anyone and anything apart from his own ideas, and above his position. Had he admitted this and resigned, this view might have stuck.

It transpires that he took no risk – at least not with his position in law – because he knew there was an exemption available to everyone, hidden behind well-publicised police powers to enforce lockdown.

He did risk many people’s health by driving 300 miles with suspected Covid 19. He risked the total lockdown message, but didn’t care because the total message had been intended only to prevent people exercising the discretion the law allowed for exceptions. He risked, in proposing and promoting an asserted but not actual total lockdown without publicising the existence of exemptions, harm to the lives of children and adults in domestic danger.

Did he, like Rees-Mogg on the Grenfell residents who stayed put when told to by firefighters, say something like, ‘They needn’t have done as they were told; it was common sense to leave if they thought they should’?

How can anyone, Tories or others, support such derision and disdain?

Everyone’s vulnerable, young and old, and no-one need be made a victim

May 15, 2020

This post had been intended for a contribution to today’s Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, about rules for lockdown of the old during this Covid19 crisis. As usual took too long to write, so programme was finished before this was. Never mind. Here it is anyway. Odd formatting from email copy and paste.

More than slightly surprised at the lack of reflection in the outraged comment earlier about oldies effectively being duty bound to stay home in recognition that lockdown was implemented to protect them.

Did anyone ask the oldies before they were denoted
a) the supposed most vulnerable
b) the supposed most responsible
c) the supposed most irresponsible
d) the supposed most obligated?

Why is it we keep resorting to making victims then blaming victims for making others victims? 

Demographically and statistically, for a range of evidenced reasons, oldies are more likely to die from Covid 19.

Obviously nursing moribund and mortally ill is tramatic, especially for younger health and social care workers.  By all means reduce this trauma to protect the nhs.  The young should be protected and saved by the old.

But it’s important to be clear that protecting and saving the NHS is not protecting or saving it for the elderly, nor is it protecting or saving the elderly themselves, as is becoming clearer with recent ONS statistics.  Grateful oldies are merely a handy iconic image.

The most aware oldies, and the most vulnerable (often but not always the same), are likely already reconciled to their inevitable and perhaps nearly imminent demise by one means or another, including their old age and relata.

It is the figleaf mantra of protecting the vulnerable by locking them down or up at home or in homes that has led to their important but until recently invisible demise, in various care settings and homes, most usually good or very good, occasionally bad or very bad, in which many live. 

Anyone made to seem vulnerable so a potential victim today is quite likely to be made to seem a cause of some other vulnerable’s victimhood tomorrow, and be villified for it, as per WH’s earlier listener contribution.

Each victim designed for rescue by some designated hero today may tomorrow by refusing to be rescued be made to seem a persecutor of a new victim, quite often the would-be rescuer, who in blaming revictimises them, an endless round of figleaves, fall-guys and scapegoats for policy problems.

From the beginning the gov has been somewhat prone to resorting to ‘make a victim blame a victim’ responses to planning shortcomings.  Even the valorised nhs has not been immune (for supposedly overusing PPE ?)

It was supposed ‘panic shopping’, some people supposedly being selfish and buying too much, that made early victims of rescuing health workers. 

Tim Harford on ‘More or Less’ showed it was no such thing, merely a result of small shifts in domestic purchases as a consequence of everyone now being at home, with loo roll for immediate use not stockpiling, given that everyone now using the loo at home needed more loo roll for the home.

Oldies have been made the spurious rationale for the gov covid response, without being consulted on their actual wishes and advice. Max Hastings, Matthew Parris, and Prof John Lee have challenged this from the start.

Oldies have been regarded and treated overtly as both asset and liability.

Oldies are simultaneously valorised for their wartime grit and villified as blithely entitled, lauded for their Blitz spirit and patronised for refusing to stay quietly at home, expected to be sensible and mature yet ignored and infantilised, exhorted to know and do better yet seen as deskilled and dependent, shown as vulnerable but not protected, locked down or up ‘for their own good and ours’ and then victimised by exclusion and isolation.

Did anyone ask oldies in a rigorous systematic survey how they themselves wanted to spend this quite possibly last part of their lives?  did anyone specifically quantify and qualify known and unknown hazards and undertake CBA risk-assessment to determine and demonstrate evidenced-based risks for various demographics of oldies, and the most effective ways of minimising and mitigating demonstrated risks?

Did anyone ask oldies if they wanted to be protected and how? 

Did anyone ask oldies if they wanted to live their last years of life as vulnerable at-risk victims – with the greatest risk being their being blamed for endangering someone else ? Were oldies asked whether that seemed a satisfying way to live out their last years of life, and eventually – sooner or later but inevitably – a satisfying way to approach their end of life? 

By all means protect the young, all those who are vulnerable from a variety of causes, and of course protect young health and social care workers.  But be honest: do it explicitly for the young, because their lives are still ahead. 

Latest statistics in this crisis indicate the degree to which the old have intentionally or inadvertently given their lives for the young, to protect the young, to protect others from obligation to take care of them, or to protect themselves, to opt to stay home, well or ill, and in doing so to protect others.

If it becomes evident – it certainly isn’t yet, hence ongoing need to protect the young and other care workers – if it does become clear that there’s little Covid danger directly to the young, except from the real trauma for young health care staff of nursing moribund oldies (leaving aside the discomfort for young ministers from the politically unpalatable statistics on elderly covid deaths), then let us all take our chances for ourselves, while providing adequate support directly to oldies and others who request or require it. 

Don’t make the old into image-managing politically acceptable policy figleaves, or policy shortfall scapegoats, or policy failure fall guys.

Don’t let anyone do this to anyone.  Challenge it. Somewhere there’s fear. Challenge that fear directly.

We are all able to face our fears of our grief at our anticipated losses of loved ones.

We are equally able to face the possibility that in our grief we might blame ourselves or each other with distorting retrospection in 20:20 hindsight.

We are also able to decide to do something different, to be honest, behave truly democratically, acknowledging and celebrating our vulnerability to ignorance, addressing our ignorance, consulting with humility and honesty.

In fact we have nothing to fear – especially not fear itself. It is fear of fear that motivates most mistakes.

telling true, telling truth

April 27, 2020

Listening to various discussions this morning, first about resentment and resistence, then about blame and shame, then about either/or, then about why people would do some things, why people would do anything, seems to me to indicate the elephant always in the room, always being experienced by one or other sense, without sensing its real integrity – so experienced as an emergent collection of parts rather than an integrated identified whole – invoked a poem of sorts and a few questions about wrighting and wronging.

Poem: Respect

Why don’t you understand?

Why don’t you understand?

Why don’t you understand?

Why don’t you understand?

Don’t you understand?

Don’t you understand?

Don’t you understand?

Do you understand?

Do you understand?

Do you understand?

What do you understand?

What do you understand?

What do you understand?

What do you understand?

Now some questions about Covid 19 deaths: as I understand it, the virus and its illness will infect, injure and kill whoever is susceptible to it, as it will be endemic, a constantly circulating coronavirus joining the others.

Of course, there is a continuum of possibilities here, from New Zealand aiming for Coronavirus-free status, presumably by imposing strict 14-day quarantine on all visitors, so ending short holidays there, unless holiday resorts can be made to double as quarantine centres, to largely unfettered movement, letting it run its course by community transmission to everyone (>60-80% that will confer some degree of ‘herd immunity’), with deaths of those who will die of their own genetic and/or metabolic susceptibility to it regardless of timely care, so simply removing indirect deaths due to delayed detection and/or delayed care, and other sorts of collateral damage from delayed treatment.

Someone will have modelled deaths occurring across this continuum of scenarios, including from data differentiating illness, admission and death demographics of and among differing susceptibilities.

For now, the original Ferguson figure, echoed by Triggle and Spiegelhalter, seems likely to be 500k+ – in the first wave of unfettered movement.

Differentiating those who would have died from existing premorbidities, both cardio-respiratory and cardiovascular/metabolic (fi diabetes, obesity), from those who would have died of existing circulating respiratory illnesses like seasonal ‘flu, RSV, pneumoccocal pneumonia, viral/bacterial bronchitis, heavy colds (= existing coronaviruses), could determine extent and degree of proximal-ultimate contribution to inevitable probably imminent death.

Given assessed susceptibilities increase by various identified factors: age 60+, male + high androgens, bame, Blood Group A, obesity, premorbidities, together vulnerable groups constitute 15-17.5% of <70m UK population. Normal population admission-ICO-death ‘50% of 20% of 20%’ admission-ventilation-death rate (assuming susceptibility similar to whole population) (> 15-17% > 70m = 10.5-12.25m vulnerable, v20% severe illness/admission = 1.5-2.25m, v20% ICO-ventilation = 300-450k, v50% death = 150-225k).

However, in vulnerable groups those 20% of 20% of 50% illness>ICO>death assumptions may not hold, so the illness>ICO>death rate for the ‘vulnerable’ 10.5-12.25m (or for potentially differentiable groups within this group) may be much higher – perhaps 1-5-10% overall, so 0.1-0.5-1.5-2.25m.

Again, covid takes some – many – who might have died anyway. Average annual deaths are c 600k. How would we distinguish between normal and covid mortality? Provided anyone ill of anything can be tested and treated (including testing for flu and other respiratory illness), this may emerge.

All scenarios share one central premise: that covid-specific susceptibilities can be identified and removed or reduced. If immunity can be acquired, by infection or immunisation, that’s one thing. If immunity can’t be acquired, and/or susceptibility can’t be reduced by lifelong or annual immunisation, or infection, or if infection and/or severe illness increases susceptibility due to persistent or permanent lung damage, that’s another thing.

If by some ongoing effort of local quarantining, as would seem required by NZ, community transmission can be nearly eliminated, with South Korea or Singapore-type testing, tracking, tracing of gradually reducing residual cases for the foreseeable future, then maybe the virus can be eliminated.

Otherwise, what? New groups, and new people, will constantly enter vulnerable groups, even simply by getting older, so while some will die, group numbers may stay constant.

How shall we think about this?

BJ’s Damascus Road and DT’s childlike wishful thinking

April 26, 2020

Is it at all possible that BJ had a Damascene conversion when between life and death and then at Chequers?

Is it possible that DT’s ‘injectant disinfectant’ reflects a childhood world he wants to be real?

Have thought for a while that DT’s electoral attraction for ‘the people left behind’ is precisely that he seems to believe in a sort of wishful thinking world that could be realised with power to make it so simply by saying it.

BJ has the same kind of attraction for his electorate, albeit in a upperclass British erudite eccentric would-be national treasure style.

Why are we seduced by the charm of these illusions and delusions and so by the attributed charisma of those seem to promise to realise them?

Hmmm…

anthropism

April 13, 2020

Had been thanking Panayot Butchvarov for making his 2014 paper on Anthropocentrism in Philosophy available on Academia, which invites those downloading individual papers to write a brief note to authoris explaining what sparked their interest in the papers.

Alas, my attempt to copy and paste what I wrote there to here didn’t succeed. Will briefly reconsitruct as it seemed an opportunity to flag up something about anthropocentrism.

Anthropism – ie the anthropic view – is inevitable and inescapable in all attempts to explain human experience. Experience is species-specific and socioculture-specific. So is explanation and explication. All experience and all explanations and explications passes through species-specific genetic and biological (morphic and metabolic) sensory and neural apparatus, and are interpreted through sociocultural artefacts and archetypes. This entails invoking, evoking, eliciting shared experiences in models and metaphors that make experience meaningful and shareable by reference (comparison, contrast) to other shared species- and culture-specific experiences.

While disciplined reflexivity might reveal the elephant in the room hiding in plain sight, and the limitations of attempts to describe that elephant by means of discrete sensual encounters and sensory experiences, the basis of experience – percepts and concepts, similarities, familiarities, variabilities – rests in personal empathy with personal previous experience.

The happy feeling of understanding and understoodness for any experience entails the experience of finding enough familiarity in an experience and/or in its explanation or explication to assimilate experiences into experience.

For this assimilation to happen, experience and explanation and explication will inevitably be anthropomorphic – human-shaped – and anthropocentric – human-centred. It is (ac)cumulative and (ac)customised shared meanings – shared internally with our own personal previous experience, and shared externally with our experience of environments, as every element in our consciousness, conscious experience, apart from immediate consciousness of consciousness itself, whatever elements of that awareness of awareness that are in any way experienced as immediate, that is, not mediated entirely by sociocultural media of familiar percepts and concepts – it is those shared meanings that produce the feeling of understanding and understoodness, that might be seen as the humanitarian aim and aspiration of philosophy.

If this self-referential anthropic essentiality can be embraced and explored in philosophy, rather than attempts made to escape it via imagined aspecific parallax-free pan-perspectives – given that philosophy is meaning-making of humans for humans by humans – there is reason to cheer.

Thoughts and questions

April 2, 2020

WordPress’ prompt question for its quick draft feature (the first version of what’s being rewritten here was alas ! inadevertently deleted by a security restart) is ‘what’s on your mind?’. My answer now as earlier is ‘so so much’. So – where to start?

Right. Here. Write. Here. Don’t edit or censor, do monitor and be mindful. And keep writing. Until what might be said is out of my head and in this draft for inspection.

Six forms of published responses to the current crisis might be distinguished.

First, scientific journal papers and science-magazine commentaries, providing informed explanation and advice from experts and expert interpretors, and prompting authorities’ proposals for implementation. These might be called collect and collate forms.

Second, integrative summaries in more discursive news magazines bring out socio-economic policy and political perspectives and implications of implementation across social strata. These might be called clarify and curate forms.

Third, interpretive articles on how to understand the information and apply the advice in daily life, with examples and encouragement. These might be called companion and comfort forms.

Fourth, mainstream, alternative and contrarian articles raise questions about appropriateness and efficacy of differing responses to the crisis. These might be called critique and challenge forms.

Fifth, tabloid and interest group articles selectively repackage and represent information according to explicit or implicit ideological perspectives and partisan affiliation or allegiance. these might be called confuse and confound forms.

Sixth, emerging in-crisis exit strategies and post-crisis scenarios, utopian and dystopian, depict from optimistic or pessimistic traditions and viewpoints. These might be called construct and contrast forms.

All these forms of published response to current circumstances represent existing publication orientations (publications here includes broadcast media).

Is anything new happening here? Are new integrations emerging? At the moment disturbance and longing for the return of normalcy, business as usual, in all its dirty noisy rush, contrasts with appreciation and celebration of this now clean quiet slowness (‘slowth’ maybe?). How long would ‘slowth’ have to continue before the prospect of ‘noise’ became alien, not attractive?

Hmmm…

My agenda for 2019

January 6, 2019

A new year seems always full of promise, and often filled with promises. Here I’d like to focus on promise – pro-mise, forth-put, forward-sent https://www.etymonline.com/word/promise. Promise singular carries overtones of budding, boding, burgeoning, blooming, blossoming (have just discovered burjon means bud https://www.etymonline.com/word/burgeon). Promises plural often carries undertones of burdens, burdening myself with commitments, obligations, expectations to be managed if not fulfilled.

So with my focus on burgeoning promise rather than burdening promises, I would like to review insights from recent immersion in self-understanding literature, including Stoic and Buddhist mindfulness, resilience and inquiry, value and virtue ethics, epistemology, developmental self-profiling and ACT.

Understanding my experiences – all of them literally embodied in me as me, as my metabolism, via my ingestion and activities, as my meta-metabolism of emotion and empathy, via my feeling and thinking – and understanding also ‘my’ explanations of them, also literally embedded in me as me, as my principles and precepts, my proscriptions and prescriptions, my ‘never do’s and ‘always do’s – frees realisation of how my experiences and explanations might provide explications as expressions of my values, and expediences as my virtues, as my contributions to eudaemonia, people’s flourishing.

So a variety of environmental primings, promptings and precipitants over recent months have helped me recognise that encounters that produce discomfort, disturbance or distress indicate issues requiring resolution to which I would like to contribute, without presently seeing how to do this.

One issue is identifying viable local and national solutions to rough-sleeping and homelessness, that would enable people both to be and be known to be able to sleep dry, warm and safe each night, also to stay dry, warm and safe each day (so not required to stay out of night shelters, hostels and B&Bs each morning). Going along with this is enabling people to earn something every day, by providing opportunities for paid work, whether cleaning the hostel and its facilities, growing, preparing, serving food for residents, and cleaning up afterwards, or fund-raising, perhaps with community work.

Another issue is imprisonment: prisons and prisoners, reparation and rehabilitation. Old forms of prison entrain deprivation of liberty, dignity and humanity with punitive retribution, suspicion and surveillance. How can lack of liberty, dignity and humanity develop acceptance of constraints and contentment in community required by rehabilitation for community life? Surely deprivation of liberty in a prison community is useful only if a containing community enables experience of contentment in community. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18121914

A third issue is provision of social care for any- and everyone who needs it: elderly people frail through insult, illness or injury, mental and physical, including neuropsychophysical diseases like dementia and Parkinson’s, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, and depression and loneliness; people with mental or physical constraints, children, youth and adults with learning difficulties, people recovering from illness, surgery, or cancer treatment; people with life-shortening or terminal illnesses; carers needing respite. Current care provision seems to see carees, carers and the care situation as somehow peripheral, not central to social life, although societies around the world recognise an increasing need for a model of a seamless care service that integrates provision of care for people with various support needs in various situations and settings by people with various needs in various relationship situations and domiciliary settings – which all of us will need.

A fourth issue is education in effective epistemology and affective empathy, as recognition of what elements in any authoritative or authorial account might at first seem or feel authentic or true to me, and how, and why, in distinction from what elements on reflection really are and are not true for me, as realisation of how and by what I experience authenticity or lack of it. A consistent, coherent integration of information and experience requires a hermeneutic fabric and a heuristic rubric for recognising and reviewing how an experience reverberates or resonates with me, in terms of its truth to and for me, and of my trust in that truth. People can be enabled to realise that assertedly authoritative accounts may be neither actually authentic nor factually true, so not in fact authoritative, and authorial accounts similarly. Then the issue becomes, what about it invited or impelled my initial assent, what changed on reflection, and what can I learn about trusting my truth?

A fifth and for now final issue is the place of governance and governments. What on earth is governance for? What in the world do governments do? Mostly governance sets social courses to desired destinations for national and supra-national entities, then governments set out to steer those entities toward those destinations as speedily as possible, usually avoiding or averting collisions with other entities, but sometimes attempting collision courses or asserting collisions. Given one earth to govern and one world around which governments are setting course for and steering to a small set of desirable destinations, crowded courses and consequent collisions seem inevitable – unless the desired destinations, or the social goods to be found there are attainable via another course. So what exactly is desirable about the social destinations set by governance? Mostly, it’s the promise of ‘the good life’ for everyone: good births, good deaths, and good everything in between, in a good environment for a good life for all life on earth. How can a good life for all life on earth be achieved? The sun provides enough energy to sustain all earth’s life cycles, so the single social issue is attaining desirable distribution of desired components of a good life for all earth life.

Ecology indicates required components for a good life are clean air, water, shelter, food, activity, in ecosystems consisting of accidental assemblages functioning as communities, common service, in mutualism, co-operation, competition, symbiosis, parasitism, obligate, opportunistic or facultative. Emergent community life in ecosystem assemblages resembles human life: homes and homelessness, liberty and lack of liberty, communal coexistence, social management of young, old, ill, incapacitated. So the issue is simply, how could all life on earth enjoy a good life, birth to death, cradle to grave?

Around the world, people undertaking several sorts of social management are reconsidering models of care of the people for the people by the people. This is the issue in front of us all: how shall we care for the people we love in ways that will enable the people who love us to be able to care for us? The desired destination is ultimately the means to ensure good lives for all, no matter what accident of assemblage or insult, injury or illness may have incapacitated anyone, since ensuring a good life for all is the simplest and best way to ensure earthwide worldwide community safety and security, care of all for all by all. This is the promise of new insights this new year.

What is understanding?

December 11, 2018

Listening to BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, heard Prof. Vivienne Ming discussing machine learning algorithms.  At one point someone remarked ‘Machines can learn, but they’ll never understand’.

Looking up the Royal Society’s current lecture series ‘You and AI’, found a similar remark about machines learning but never understanding.  So I wondered whether there is any agreed definition of understanding that clarifies what in or about understanding is posited as a solely human property (or perhaps there is some extension to biotics?)

Further applications of a similar position, perspective and prospect on understanding – leaving aside for now the specifics of what that might be – include the remark in Radio 4’s Start the Week programme yesterday as someone was explaining means of what was called tree ‘communication’, then someone else drew some parallel (at present can’t remember what) with some form of animal communication, and someone else warned against anthropomorphism.

Another application is in Gregory Chaitin’s theories of algorithmic learning.  Mathematical rules and their reliability within mathematics and in science and other rigorous studies are seen as indicating some independent truth implicit and explicable in mathematics – almost like the idea of Logos.

Two issues arise in and with these assertions: on the one hand human exemptionalism and on the other an inverse anthropomorphism rooted in anthropocentrism that implicitly and explicitly diminishes other species by failing to recognise and understand that all entities respond in similar or identical ways to the currently recognised range of energies and elements.

Thus communication can be posited as stimulus and response in separation, with the transmutation of hormonal metabolic-neurochemical substances into other similar substances within and between separate entities seen as communication.  The recognition of similar shared standard mechanisms of sensory reception and response to commonly shared hormones, activated by and mediated in and through standard means of metabolic reception, ‘recognition’ and response  – as in ‘animals smell fear’ – somehow seems to slip into its own transmutation into symbolic rather than metabolic form, that takes it from straightforward physical impingement to symbolically mediated implications.

Thus hormones produced by snail-rasped seaweed or deer-nibbled trees, conveyed by water or air to sensory reception (physical and metabolical) by other metabolisms in the vicinity which produce some ‘response’ hormone, that in turn impinge on and influence other species, seem to be seen both as physical-physiological elicited behaviour, and as signal-symbol-mediated communication, but without any attempt at integration to indicate that all supposedly symbol-mediated effects are regular hormone-metabolic effects that in turn effect recognisably regularities of reception and response in plants, animals and humans, and that recognitions of regularities by plants, animals and humans are hormonal-neurochemical-metabolic regularities.   Previous attempts to describe and demonstrate these subtle and slippery issues clearly and convincingly have been laboured, but here goes again.

Human exemptionalism and anthropocentric anti-anthropomorphism go together in somewhat odd ways with this transmutation of metabolic regularities into meta-metabolic symbolism. On the one hand humans see themselves as uniquely intelligent, evolved/created by god or the universe to be able to read into the universe its real meanings and motives (rather than human projections of human meanings).  Humans see themselves as exceptions to hormone-effected metabolically mediated animal behaviour. On the other hand attempts to indicate similarities between human, animal and plant behaviour, especially if hormone-mediated responses are shown to be similar to supposedly symbol-mediated human responses, precipitates cries of ‘beware anthropomorphism’, as a scientific pseudo-sinful failure of rigour, as though humans were projecting human meanings and motives onto animals and plants.  This seems both schizophrenic and paranoid.

Human exemptionalism: postulating maths as an inadvertent (Chaitin says random) pre-existing (ie pre-human-discovery-existing) repository of some kind of propositional-relational truth that represents or reflects some kind of universal reality regularity, in, of and as itself and/as a symbol system, that humans happened to discover then to recognise as internally rigorous, leaves two questions hanging: if maths is pre-existing so independent of humans, what is maths without human explication; and if it took humans (ie human perceptual and conceptual apparatus) both to discover maths and to recognise its universal reality as immanence and transcendence, how is human discovery and recognition different from human invention? 

Anthropcentric anti-anthropomorphism defends traditional differentials between humans and other species, on the grounds that uniquely among biota humans transcend metabolically-mediated effects – even while recognising precizely these effects in some cases, yet without integrating these positions, perspectives and prospects.

Understanding is the issue at issue, and its relationship to the conception of human intelligence, as the adaptation for evolutionary human selection (the current continuation of human dominance promoted as ordained in most scriptures).  Intelligence confers understanding.  Intelligence – which as previously noted on this blog means ‘reading into’ and ‘choosing among’ (from ‘inter’ and ‘legere’) is not what machines have.  Artificial intelligence – better described as ‘augmented intelligence’ according to Prof Ming – does rote mass data processing using human criteria much faster than humans.  While this is seen as intelligence, literal ‘reading into’ and ‘choosing among’, it is not seen as understanding. How should understanding be understood to obviate human exemptionalist anthropocentric anti-anthropomorphism?