Sunday, 24 March 2019

Human Exceptionalism and Brexit Insanty

Why have we managed to tie ourselves in knots? It's (k)not just over Brexit. It's over everything - austerity, welfare, tax, university funding, climate change, the point of education...

Following on from my last post, a thought has been niggling me: is it because we think human consciousness is exceptional?  Is our belief in the exceptionalism of consciousness in the human brain stopping us from seeing ourselves as part of something bigger? The problem is that as soon as we see ourselves as something special, that our consciousness is somehow special, we consider that one person's consciousness is more special than another. Then we hold on to our individual thoughts or "values" (they're a problem too) and see to it that the thoughts and values of one person must hold out against the thoughts and values of another. Is it because consciousness is not exceptional that this creates a terrible mess?

If consciousness is not exceptional, what does it do? What is its operating principle?

In my book, Uncertain Education, I aargued that "uncertainty" was the most useful category through which to view the education system. I think uncertainty is a good category to view an unexceptional consciousness too. Consciousness, I think, is a process which coordinates living things  in managing uncertainty. It is a process which maintains coherence in nature.

This process can be seen in all lifeforms from cells to ants to humans. What we call thinking is an aggregate of similar processes among the myriad of cellular and functionally differentiated components from which we are made, and which constitute our environment. The brain is one aggregation of cells which performs this role. It is composed of cells managing their uncertainty, and the aggregate of their operation and co-operation is what we think is thinking. Really, there's a lot of calcium and ATP which is pumped around. That's the work our cells do as they manage their uncertainty.

The same process occurs at different levels. The thing is fractal in much the same way that Stafford Beer described his Viable System Model. But we know a lot more about cells now than Beer did.

But what is the practical utility of a cellular view of consciousness?

Understanding that cells are managing uncertainty is only the beginning. More important is to realise that organisms and their cells have developed ("evolved") by absorbing parts of their environment as they have managed their uncertainty over history. This absorption of the environment helps in the process of managing environmental uncertainty: uncertainty can only be managed if we understand the environment we are in. Importantly, though, each stage of adaptation entails a new level of accommodation with the environment: we move from one stable state to the next "higher" level. You might imaging a "table" of an increasingly sophisticated "alphabet" of cellular characteristics and capacities to survive in increasingly complex environments.

The cellular activity of "thinking", like all processes of adaptation, occurs in response to changes in the environment. It may be that an environment once conducive to higher-level "thought" becomes constrained in a way that cells are forced to a previous, more simple, state of organisation in order to remain viable. It's a kind of regression. The kind that we see with intelligent people at the moment, paralysed by Brexit. In history, it is the thing that made good people do bad things in evil regimes. We become more primitive. Put a group of adults in a school classroom, and they will start to behave like children....!

Understanding this is important because we need to know how to go the other way - how to produce the conditions for increasing sophistication and richer adaptiveness. That is education's job. It is also the politician's job. But if we have a mistaken idea about consciousness, we are likely to believe that the way to increase adaptiveness is to do things which actually constrain it. This is austerity, and from there we descend back into the swamp.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Depth in Thought: Cosmological perspectives

Jenny Mackness is writing some great blog posts on Iain McGilchrist at the moment. Her post today is on the dynamic relationship between what composer Pauline Oliveros called "attention" and "awareness", and McGilchrist's take on this. As Jenny points out, this is not an idea unique to McGilchrist, and others - particularly Marion Milner, who she mentions - have had a similar insight. Her previous post was on "depth" (https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2019/03/07/the-meaning-of-depth-and-breadth-in-education/) and this is what I want to focus on.

McGilchrist's argument is based on a kind of updated bicamerality - not the rather crude distinctions about the "rational" left and "artistic" right, but a more sophisticated articulation of the way that attention and awareness work together. More importantly, he has pursued the social implications of his theory, suggesting that as a society we have created an environment within which attention is rewarded - particularly in the form of technology - and awareness and contemplation are confined to the shadows. There's a great RSA animate video of his ideas here:

There's much I agree with here. But something unnerves me in a similar way to previous theories of bicamerality like that of Julian Jaynes. Behind them all is the assumption that human consciousness is exceptional.

The problem is that "human exceptionalism" as biologist John Torday calls it, is a pretty devastating thing for the environment of everything - not just us. We think we're so great, so we have the arrogance to believe we know how to "fix" our problems. So we try to fix our problems - to treat our human problems as if they were technical problems (McGilchrist might say, to render the world in terms of the left hemisphere). And it doesn't work. It makes things worse. As an educational technologist, I see this every day. And I think if there is a "turn" in educational technology, it is that we once believed we could fix our problems with technology. Now we see that we've just made everything more complicated.

What if consciousness is not exceptional? We would first have to decide where it came from. Brains? Can we rule out consciousness in bacteria or plants? Eventually, we arrive at the cell. Brains are made from cells. In fact, recent research (which I know that Antonio Damasio among others, has been heavily involved in) in unpicking neural communication mechanisms has discovered that non-synaptic communication exists alongside communication along what we have always imagined to be a dendritic "neural network".

Cells talk to each other all throughout nature. The way they talk concerns a process which is characterised as transduction: the balancing of messages and protein expression by DNA inside the cell, with the reception to other proteins on the surface of the cell in its environment. I find this fascinating because these transduction processes looks remarkably like the psychodynamics of Freud and Jung. Is there a connection? Does our thinking go to the heart of our cells? (Or the cells of our heart?)

But there's more to this. One of the great mysteries of the cell is how it came to be as it is. Lynne Margulis's endosymbiotic theory suggests that all those mitochondria were once independent elements in the environment. Somehow an earlier version of the cell "decided" that it could organise itself better if it included those mitochrondria within its own structure. At an evolutionary level, cooperation took the place of competition. As a basic principle, Torday argues that cells have always organised themselves according the ambiguity of their environment. Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon arising from this process.

Each evolutionary stage moves from one state of homeostasis with the environment to another. Somehow, evolutionists tell us, we were once fish. Something happened to the swim bladder of the fish that turned it into the breathing organ we have in our chests. There must have been some kind of crisis which stimulated a fundamental change to cellular organisation.... and it stuck. Our conscious cells contain a myriad of vestigial fossils, of which the oldest is probably the cholesterol which allows my fingers to do this typing, and allows all of us to move about. In each of us is not only an operational mechanism which responds to immediate changes in its environment to maintain stability. In each cell is a history book, containing in a microcosm the millions of stages of endosymbiotic adaptation which took us to this point, and which we see in the physical and geological evidence around us. We really are stardust.

This isn't something that biologists alone talking about. It coincides with physics. David Bohm talked about the difference between the surface, manifest features of the world as the "explicate order", and the deep coherent structure of the universe as the "implicate order". This implicate order, Bohm imagined, was a kind of hologram - or rather a "holo-movement" (because it is not fixed), which acts as the root of everything. As a hologram, it has a fractal structure (holograms are a fractal encoding of light interference patterns of 3d images). This means that within each cell is a copy of a self-similar pattern of the cosmos, formed through the evolutionary history book that they contain. Each evolutionary stage of the cell, and each organisational configuration it forms (like the bicameral brain, bodies, fingers) is an express of what the physicists call "broken symmetries" of its initial organisation. Our manifest consciousness - the ideas we share (like this one) - are such a manifestation of our cellular broken symmetries.

When we think deeply, we think WE are doing the work. But the work is done by our cells (particularly the calcium pumps). They think deeply. Their behaviour is an attempt to bring coherence to their environment, and the ultimate coherence is to return to their origin and to get closer to the implicate order. Deep thought is time-travel. This is why, I think, a philosopher like John Duns Scotus in the 13th century could have anticipated the logic of quantum mechanics. In our current society, deep thought is not impossible, but the institutional structures we established to help it arise (the universities) have largely been vandalised.

I share many of McGilchrists concerns about the modern mind. But we need to look deeper than the brain. And we need to look deeper than us. I once asked Ernst von Glasersfeld, whose theory of Radical Constructivism has been very influential in education, about where the desire to learn came from. It was all very well, I suggested, to say what we thought the learning process was. But we never say why it is we want to learn in the first place. He didn't have an answer. Now I can tentatively suggest an answer. We don't want to learn. But our cells, and we who are constituted by them, need to organise themselves in relation to an environment so that it is coherent. Our drive to learn is the cell's search for the implicate order at its origin. All we need to do is listen - but in today's world, that is getting hard. 

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Implication-Realisation and the Entropic Structure of Everything

The basic structure of any sound is that it starts from nothing, becomes something, and then fades to nothing again. In terms of the flow of time, this is a process of an increase in entropy as the features of the note appear, a process of subtle variation around a stable point (the sustain of a note, vibrato, dynamics, etc) where entropy will decrease (because there is less variation than when the note first appeared), and finally an increase in entropy again when the note is released.

A single note is rarely enough. It must be followed or accompanied by others. There is something in the process of the growth of a piece of music which entails an increase in the "alphabet" in the music. So we start with a single sound, and add new sounds, which add richness to the music. What determines the need for an increase in the alphabet of the sound?

In the Implication-Realisation theory of music of Eugene Narmour, there is a basic idea that if there is an A, there must be an A* which negates and compliments it. What it doesn't say is that if the A* does not exactly match the A, then there is a need to create new dimensions. So we have A, B, A*, B*, AB and AB*. That is no longer as simple as a single note - for the completion of this alphabet, we not only require the increase and decrease of entropy in a single variable, but in another variable too, alongside an increase and decrease in entropy of the composite relations of AB and AB*. The graph below shows the entropy of intervals in Bach's 3-part invention no. 9:


What happens when that alphabet is near-complete, but potentially not fully complete? We need a new dimension, C. So then we require A, A*, B, B*, AB, AB*, C, C*, AC, AC*, BC, BC*, ABC, ABC*. That requires a more complex set of increases and decreases of entropy to satisfy.

The relational values AB, AB*, AC, AC*, ABC, ABC* are particularly interesting because one way in which the entropy can increase for all of these at once is for the music to fall to silence. At that moment, all variables change at the same time. So music breathes in order to fulfil the logic of an increasing alphabet. In the end, everything falls into silence.

The actual empirical values for A, B and C might be very simple (rhythm, melody, harmony) etc. But equally, the most important feature of music is that new ideas emerge as composite features of basic variables - melodies, motivic patterns, and so on. So while at an early stage of the alphabet's emergence we might discern the entropy of notes, or intervals or rhythms, at a later stage, we might look for the repetition of patterns of intervals or rhythms.

It is fairly easy to first look for the entropy of a single interval, and then to look for the entropy of a pair of intervals, and so on. This is very similar to text analysis techniques which look for digrams and trigrams in a text (sequences of contiguous words).

However, music's harmonic dimension presents something different. One of the interesting features of its harmony is that the frequency spectrum itself has an entropy, and that across the flow of time, while there may be much melodic activity, the overtones may display more coherence across the piece. So, once again, there is another variable...

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Dialectic and Timelessness

One of the great arguments in physics concerns the nature of time: is it real? or is it a fiction which we construct? Physicists like Lee Smolin argue that time is not only real, but it's the foundation of every other physical process. Leonard Susskind upholds what he calls the "anthropic principle" - we make this stuff (time) up. Smolin's objection to this is that it is unfalsifiable (see https://www.edge.org/conversation/lee_smolin-leonard_susskind-smolin-vs-susskind-the-anthropic-principle).

I want to approach this from a different angle. Physics underpins biology in some way, and our biology appears to be the basis of our consciousness. Consciousness in turn is responsible for social goods and ills in the world, and these social goods and ills seem to be produced over time. Moreover consciousness gives us our ideas of physics and biology, and it allows us to create our institutions of science wherein those ideas are manufactured. To some extent, these ideas imprison us.

Our lives appear as an ecological ebb-and-flow of perceptions and events which from a broader vantage point look like what philosophers call "dialectic". For Marx and Hegel, dialectic is one of the fundamental constituents of reality - although Hegel's dialectic is an "ideal" one - it is ideas which oppose one another synthesising new ideas - whereas Marx's dialectic has to do with the fundamental material constitution of reality, which underpins social structures. The Marxist underpinnings are scientific - it is physics at the root. However, if time is not real, what happens to dialectic?

The intellectual challenge is this: imagine a timeless world where there is no past or future, but a whole and total "implicate order" from which we construct our "now" and our "then". In our constructing of a "now" and "then", we give ourselves the impression of a dialectical process, but actually this is an illusion which causes us to mistake the nature of reality, and in the process, leads to social ill.

So how might we re-conceive reality in a way that we don't impose an idealised dialectical process, but rather attempt to grasp the whole of time in one structure?

One of the problems is the hold that evolutionary theory has on us - and evolutionary theory was also influential on Marx. What if all the stages of evolution co-exist at any instant? It's not so difficult to imagine that the "you" that is now includes the "you" that was a child. But it's more challenging to think that the cells that make up "you" each include the cells that existed in the primordial soup of the beginning of life. If we accept this for a minute, then some interesting things emerge. For example, we might think of a dialectical process being involved in being struck by a bacterial infection, and fighting it off: in Hegelian language, thesis - healthy cells; antithesis - cells under bacterial attack; synthesis - healing, production of antibodies. This is time-based. But what if it is seen as a step-wise movement through a "table" of co-existing biological states?

Let's take our healthy cell as a stage in a "table" of evolutionary states. When the cell is attacked by bacteria, its physical constitution changes. In fact, it seems to regress to a previous stable evolutionary state (you might imagine the cell "moving" towards the left of a table). The healing process finds a path from this regressive state back to its original state - moving back towards the right. This is "dialectic" as a process of movement from one stable state to another - rather in the way that electrons shift from one energy band to another. John Torday remarked to me the other day that the cells of the emphysema lung become more like the cells of the lung of a frog. Disease is evolution in reverse.

So what about social disease? What about oppression or exploitation? If the free and enlightened human being exists on a table of possible states of being human (probably on the right hand side), and the slave exists on the left, how does this help us think about a dialectic of emancipation? Like the cell under attack, what pushes the cell to take an evolutionary step backwards is a threat in its environment (bacteria). What matters in both cases is the relationship to the environment:  the relationship between cells, and the relationship between people. In examining people at different stages of freedom, we are seeing different sets of relations with others. The pathology lies in the master-slave relation, not in the slave; health resides in the convivial openness of the enlightened person with all around them, not in the person themselves.

Marx's principal insight lay in the recognition that emancipation from slavery could arise from the organisation of the oppressed: workers of the world unite! The organisation of the oppressed might be seen as the creation of the conditions for growth from a basic state of evolution (slave) to a more advanced state. It is similar to the healing process of a wound. Marx's dialectic becomes a coordination between people where the collective management of the environment outweighs the pathological effects of that environment on any one individual. Each stage of development towards emancipation is a "stable state" which can be attained progressively with the production of the right conditions. Equally, evolution in reverse can be produced with the creation of negative conditions - for example, austerity.

Dialectic is not a temporal process: it is not a matter of "now" and "then". It is a process of structural alignment in a structure which simultaneously contains all possible states of increasingly sophisticated "wholes". Time is implicit in this structure. The better we understand the structure and how it affects the way we think, feel and act, the better our chances of survival in the future. 

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Los Angeles's Ethic with a Busted Gut

I'm in LA at the moment - part holiday, part meeting with academic friends. I have been to LA before, but never to stay for a longer period. What a strange place! Beautiful weather, homelessness, gated communities, sandy beaches (Santa Monica is like a lovely upper-class Blackpool!), crazy traffic, overt racial profiling by the police... it feels ready to snap. Like the world more generally.

I had some very bad news from work before I got here, and have struggled to sleep as a result. But it's only work. Being in LA has brought home to me the extent of a state of crisis in the world - education has become part of the problem. This is the richest country in the world - where entire families with young children march the streets carrying their entire belongings in a shopping trolley. It's normal - nobody seems to notice. What waste.

Then the police handling of black homelessness beggars belief. It's as if they are on commission to make arrests (are they?..https://www.latimes.com/local/politics/la-me-homeless-arrests-20180204-story.html) I saw one guy wrestled to the ground in Pershing Square and then arrested. Nobody did anything. It's normal. Christ, this is not normal! Someone said that it's got worse under Trump. I'm sure it has, but I suspect it was always a bit like this. Cruel place.

How can a country with such contradictions produce Gershwin, Google and some of the kindest and cleverest people I know? I don't get it.

Except that in Stafford Beer's Platform for Change, there is a chapter called "Ethic with a Busted Gut". Beer knew America. He pointed out, after being warned that Washington DC was so dangerous in the 70s that he shouldn't venture outside his hotel at night, that this situation would only apply to a garrison town. That's American cities, he argued - they are garrisons: the poor and dispossessed are kept out with gates. Walls with bars in them work. But whose behind the bars? It depends which way you look.

The Ethic with a busted Gut is a protestation that something is "right" when deep down we know it to be "wrong". It's an ethic, but it makes us feel a bit sick. One of the friends I met here was biologist John Torday at UCLA who I think has an analogous way of describing this "ethic with a busted gut" - he calls it "deception", and argues that this is a fundamental mechanism of communication from cells upwards. It's a way of coping with uncertainty.

In humans, the busted gut ethic can make us behave in a cruel way, holding on to deceived reason and "logic" to defend our inhumanity. Every act of "selling" is like this. It is this that kills Arthur Miller's Salesman. "Hey, we can fix this!" - when you know you can't, or even that your "fix" will make the problem worse. Mirrors in space to fix climate change? You got it!

If you can overcome your busted gut, you can sell anything. And you can be very successful. Enter Facebook and Amazon. People seem to prefer their guts busted than their hearts whole. Deep down, the problem is an allergy to uncertainty or ambiguity.

The music reflects the wailing traffic of the place.


Friday, 15 February 2019

Becoming 50 and being grateful

I became 50 on Wednesday. I can't say I was particularly looking forward to it. But when the day came, there were many surprises which made me realise something about the importance of our interconnectedness. I am grateful for many things, but to have a loving family and so many friends from all over the world is something which makes me very happy.

I'd decided not to do anything 'big'. A quiet family birthday. Astrid had prepared a beautiful birthday table for me, and some lovely presents (including a new dressing gown because my old one smelt like a dead hamster). My brother sent me a very meaningful model Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car, which took me back to when I was about 8, obsessed with the film, and determined to turn our go-cart into the car with a spanner and a tiny hack-saw. That was a long time ago. Before the internet.

Of course now the internet allows us to do wonderful meaningful things like this card I had from my sister, who collected old photos and sent them to moonpig on a giant card!


The internet. What a wonderful, terrible, pernicious thing that is. It's the defining invention of our age and my generation saw the transition before the personal computer and after. What is striking is that it can be a medium for profound acts of kindness and warmth.

2018 was a year of educational innovation in Russia. So messages from my Russian colleagues were lovely. Mostly these were rather Russian exhortations to "more success! more innovation!". I joked with one friend who sent a message like this that it sounded like a Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times too!" I replied (I knew she'd get the joke!). But one gesture blew me away. It was a photo:

I was gobsmacked. An image has such an impact when we know what it means - how much work and thought and care went into it - just like my sister's card too. And it's not just the care and trouble of making a cake or assembling photos. But the knowledge of the impact that it would have on me when I saw the photo. Amazing. "Get on a plane!" they said. I said "My heart is in Vladivostok, but my stomach is on the train to Liverpool"

It's striking that my daughter, a child of the internet, chose a much less technological form (but equally thoughtful and creative) to wish me a happy birthday:

And in Liverpool, a nice surprise greeted me in the afternoon. Lovely cake and warm wishes from colleagues - many of whom are a good deal younger than me. They're the generation (like my daughter) who face many challenges in a world which has been up-ended by the internet - but they all remain positive.

So it was lovely. Onwards. California on Tuesday - a long chat about biology in UCLA and a talk about education.

Our time feels very pregnant - there are moments when everything feels so pent-up and ready to pop. Universities, politics, the environment are all in deep trouble, and that matters to me (particularly the universities because they ought to be leading us towards a new civilisation, not ramping-up the pathologies of the old one). This is a very different world to that of the 1970s when I was trying to make Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The computer and the internet changed everything - and we are about to see just how much.

Would it be a surprise to see it all go pop at once? The ice-caps, the institutions, politics, capitalism...  Just in the way I was dreading my birthday, but then it turned into something lovely, I'm anxious about the future, but I know that it will bring new things which will probably be better. And what will almost certainly be better is that I don't think I am the only 50-year old who is now thinking about making a better world for after I am not here - and that involves breaking with the status quo.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Letting the bad guys take over: what it means for the future of the university

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's brilliant performance at the congressional committee where she invited her fellow politicians with "let's play a game" (https://www.theguardian.com/global/video/2019/feb/08/alexandria-ocasio-cortezs-brutal-take-down-of-us-political-finance-laws-video) was a simple (and rare) political pedagogical intervention which lifted the lid on the dynamics of power. I'm sure this speech will be analysed by politics students for many years to come.

It's not just the dynamics of power that puts a president above the law though. It's the dynamics of power which puts the likes of Philip Green, Mike Ashley, Harvey Weinstein, etc, in power. So many big institutions and corporations have unpleasant characters at the top who are out for themselves.

The acid test to spot these people is to consider if they care about their business, corporation or institution's future after they retire. It is whether they act in the interests of a viable future for the institution for the next generation. But the mentality that put them in charge is often a selfish one. Its become socially acceptable to say "Why should I care about that? It's not my problem". Yet for the institution itself, it is a perilous position. How did these people get appointed in the first place?

I'm tempted to play a similar "let's play a game" with those at the top of our universities. A number of them are losing their jobs at the moment, and a number of institutions are in serious trouble. There has been a blind dash for cash in monetising education in what is presented as a global market (but is something else I suspect). Universities have raised small fortunes by issuing bonds in themselves with the narrative that "We've been here for 900 years. We're not going away. We are a secure investment". Ironically the narrative of security has created the conditions for the employment of people at the top of institutions who have become the greatest threat to their long-term survival.

These are people who believe that universities are so secure, there's nothing anyone can do to destroy them. So sell bonds, spend huge amounts on building overpriced student accommodation, push up fees, reward senior managers with huge salaries... it doesn't matter. The universities will be here for ever. Nothing can go wrong.

As we now know from Reading, Cardiff and de Montfort, things are going wrong. But this is nothing compared to what's going to happen in the next 20 years or so.

Today's students are tomorrow's parents. Most of them will be poorer than their parents. Many of them will struggle to buy a house, and their employment will be seriously threatened by technology. Some of them will be still paying off their student loans when their own kids are 18.

The problem is the inter-generational narrative about universities. And this will co-exist with technological options for higher learning which we haven't conceived of yet, but which will offer increasingly rich opportunities for higher learning and self-development that have far greater flexibility than the rigid institutional offering of conventional institutions.

That this is going to happen is obvious. But few at the head of the sector want to think about it. It is, after all, going to happen after they retire. "It's not my problem".

I think this thinking at the top of institutions is new. 30 years ago, people at the head of universities saw themselves as custodians, whose job it was to care for and hand over the institution to the next generation. They would have worried about this, and they would have taken action in their own present time to head-off future threats.

As universities are faced with so many concerns in the here-and-now, and these appear to be getting more and more complex, the capacity for thinking ahead is disappearing. Yet if we don't think ahead and prepare for the most substantial threat of the "inter-generational narrative", universities are simply done for.

The question to think about then is whether the demise of the university is a problem. If technology takes over, isn't that ok? I'm not sure about this. Somehow we need to preserve what's best in the institution: the maintenance of a discourse which connects the past to the future, the library, the archives, and a space for scientific inquiry. Can technology do this? Perhaps, but it needs planning for.

This is what should be happening now. That it largely isn't should concern us all.