Tuesday, 4 September 2018

What is it about mind which imputes the agency of a creator? What is it about nature which gives rise to a mind that does this?

According to constructivism, mind wouldn't work without some kind of stochastic process - there has to be some randomness (Bateson says this). That means that consciousness and life itself emerges from accident and what we understand as self-organising processes. One of the problems with this view is that it gives a very poor account of time. Obviously, accidents happen in time, and self-organisation happens in time, but time is taken as a given: it is not accounted for in the system.

Physics sees time, space, mass and energy as a kind of unity. Laws of conservation operate as if viewed from one angle, what we see is mass, viewed from another, its energy; from one angle its space, from another its time. But physics also understands that not all things are conserved. Mass is conserved, time isn't. Charge is conserved but space isn't. We understand these things in terms of those things which remain the same and those things which don't; between identity and non-identity.

Bohm regarded time as being "enfolded" in the laws of nature - what he saw as the "implicate order". What nature then presents to us is not a "process" operating over time, but a multi-dimensional structure which reveals time. What is meant by "structure" is an ordering of symmetry and asymmetry, and this order manifests itself throughout both nature and mind. It is, as Bohm susggested, holographic: within any part of consciousness or experience, there are symmetries that relate to the whole.

I'm currently writing about music. Music's diachronic symmetries and its synchronic symmetries are related. All that separates them is that the time dimension is magnified in the former, and not in the latter. When we talk about learning "processes" it may be the same - particularly so for learning conversations: what occurs over time is related to the structure at any single point. These dimensions: time, space, matter, energy, rotate into one another.

This is important whenever we feel compelled to construct stories about "origins". The structure of the story which unfolds in time is related to a kind of ordinal structure of categories which are used in the story. Religious stories and scientific stories about origins are the same in this regard. Science, however, looks for deeper reinforcement of the structure of its stories from empirical observation. In terms of evolutionary narratives this is difficult because nobody really sees evolution in action: all that is seen are the homologies between natural phenomena and the measurement of their historical emergence. But the scientific search for resonant patterns needn't stop with evolution and the fossil record. It can look everywhere - into art, education, cells, the universe and subatomic particles.

Science advances by closing-in on the coherence of pattern between mind and nature. Eventually I think we will understand that our very desire to pursue science and get deeper coherence is in itself part of the pattern.

Mind is driven to impute the agency of a creator because it is driven towards coherence with the way nature works. Nature works holographically, enfolding all the elements of human experience in a structure which is incorporated into physiology of consciousness, and the operation of mind itself.

Constructivism's overlooking of time leads to error and the assumption of accident. I doubt there are accidents...

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Beyond Left and Right: What would a safe and fair society look like with its Macbeths and Shylocks?

These are not normal times. It's hard to compose anything coherent to say. Every day I find myself feeling astonished by Trump - the cutting of funding to the Palestinians is just the latest horror. But it's on top of so many other horrors, we have become numb.

Brexit and the EU is really too confusing. How is a rational position even possible? No Brexit? Well, so you like being run by international bankers and corporations, do you? Isn't it all their fault in the first place? Brexit? Well, you'd like Boris Johnson for Prime Minister would you, and the country to turn into a tax haven? To hell with the lot of them.

Have the Whitehall mandarins made the best of things in coming up with a proposal? Would anyone else be able to handle the situation much better? I doubt it... just a bit hair-splitting. The thing is impossible. And nobody talks about what anyone wants at the end of whatever it is they are campaigning for. UKIP argued "Get out of the EU!"... ok, but what then? The government argued "Stay in the EU!"... ok, but what for? ("because leaving would be too disruptive" isn't a good answer)

I'd like a fairer society. I'd like people to feel safe for their whole lives, and have the confidence that their children weren't going to sink into the gutter because of the machinations of global finance. I'd like to feel confident that weather extremes weren't going to cause floods in the UK and war in the other parts of the world. I'd like everyone to feel open and welcoming to everyone else, and not to perceive others as a threat. I'd like people to be able to talk to each other about important things, and not contain anxieties in their own heads, where they are driven to mental illness and sometimes suicide.

So many of our problems stem from the fact that nobody feels safe any more. The guarantees of safety which were set up after the second world war have now been completely dismantled. Lose your job? You're pretty much on your own. The rich buy more houses than they need because they want their children to feel safe. Bosses increase their salaries and pensions to the hilt because they fear loss of security in old age. Yet, in the end, as Keynes said, "we're all dead".

The question "Is a world of global safety possible?" has been troubling me. I've been thinking about a more nuanced version: "Is a world where Shakespeare isn't true possible?" That question I am really struggling with.

Shakespeare didn't talk in terms of left and right. He understood the machinery of the human soul to such an extent that the play of human passion could be presented in a way which seems eternal. How does he do it? I suspect because he understood something about the universe: that patterns are written all the way through nature. That nature, as David Bohm would put it, is holographic.

Our political positions are abstract codifications of the human passions. What motivates us, what we are driven towards - love, truth, money, sex, glory, beauty, etc - becomes "political" at some level. But in becoming political, a lot gets left out. This is, I think, one of the reasons why there are so many financial and sex scandals in politics: the codification isn't real. The Left talk of "solidarity" - all the time knowing that "solidarity" is an abstraction, and that what is left out is what internal party politics is about (this is what is happening with Corbyn at the moment). The right talk of "profit" or "freedom of choice" - all the time knowing that nobody is really free to choose anything: again these are abstractions, rather like the "Brexit" which has provided the backdrop for the most extraordinarily febrile in-fighting in the Tories.

So what would a future safe society look like with the Macbeths and Shylocks who will inevitably inhabit it? That's the question. 

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

University Closures and the coming Tsunami of Today's Students' Children

A number of commentators are predicting university closures on the back of significant realignments in enrolment to universities across the sector (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/ministers-are-anything-relaxed-about-university-closures). This year's A level students seem to have been able to select better (which means "higher ranking"... which may not mean very much!) institutions than their grades would have allowed in years past. Consequently, the middle and lower-ranking institutions who would have recruited those students have lost out, and this year, the loss has been big.

Universities are now competing businesses, and some of the competition has been rather unedifying (particularly the Essex University tweet against Leeds Beckett: https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/student-affairs-and-technology/sassy-or-snide-when-university-twitter-banter-gets-mean). These are competing businesses all making promises to students that they cannot possibly keep: statistics about average salaries, graduate premium, etc are made with all the confidence of a drunk Brexit commentator. Nobody knows what the future looks like, and a fast-changing labour situation promises little of the institutionally-guaranteed security of the past, whatever one's educational background is.

So, a considerable proportion of this year's intake into universities which trade on high reputations but with less experience of teaching mixed-ability classes, will end up disappointed with the performance of their educational investment.

Will they be more disappointed in Birmingham, Bolton or Buckingham? Who knows - it really depends on what happens in the world, whether they acquire any security in their lives, whether they see any difference between what they gain and what others who didn't go gain. But in an important way, it doesn't matter where they go. The effects will be the same, and they will hit all universities in the future.

The problem is not with this generation of students. It is with their children. In 25 years, will this generation of students be sufficiently satisfied with the actual return on investment of their degrees that they will recommend their children go to university? And, will they recommend a life of debt to their 18 year olds, when they could well be still repaying the debt they accrued all those years ago?

I think the likely answer is no. The implications are alarming, and although my generation will be retired (but our pensions may be in a far more precarious state than that which sparked the recent strike), we will witness this as grandparents, and see a society which has lost a vital part of the fabric which maintains civil society: a place where society goes to think.

When we look back from 25 years in the future, what will we conclude about the cause of the collapse of HE? I think we will see that setting institutions to compete against one another on the basis of market demands and false promises was a kind of cancer. It wasn't the poor performance of any one institution that caused the problem. All institutions produced the problem together by failing to work together, by failing to tell the truth to students, but instead feed them marketing nonsense,  and failing to change education into something that fitted the age we were living in. Consequently we ended up with a technological working and living environment that operated with the fleet-footedness of the conscious mind, whilst education simply tried to devise ever new "curricula" which maintained a stodgy Hogwarts feel whose Disneyfied impracticality, lack of fit to daily life, and sheer expense eventually alienated the population.

I'm not sure that a major collapse of HE isn't inevitable in 25 to 30 years. The urgent question for this generation is how to create a replacement: somewhere where society's thinking can still go on. Maybe it isn't helpful to call it a "university".

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Marion Milner's Personal Learning Environment

Marion Milner's "A Life of One's Own" is a beautiful book documenting her self-analysis on the circumstances within which she is happy, over a period of 7 years. At the end of the book, she reflects on the relationship between introspection and science:

"During my explorations I had also discovered something about science. I had set out by using the scientific method of observations, to find out what made me happy and then found that it had led me beyond the range of science. For in observing what made me happy I had found something which could not be communicated, something which was an essentially private affair; whilst science, so they say, deals only with ‘whatever can be passed on from one social being to another’. 
I realised then that at one stage I had become disgusted with science for not giving me what was not in its power to give. One warm summer evening, steaming out of London on a weekend train, I caught a glimpse through the window of a fat old woman in apron and rolled sleeves surveying her grimy back garden from the door-step. At once I was seized with an impulse to know more about her, and then began wondering what the scientists who deal with different phases of social life could tell me. I had even got as far as resolving to read some books on sociology, when it suddenly dawned on me that that was not at all what I wanted: I wanted to know that woman as a person, a unique individual, not as a specimen. It was only later, when I read that science is concerned not with individuals but only with specimens, that I began to realise why I could not find what I wanted in science. For it seemed to be just the unique qualities of particular experiences which I wanted. When I considered anything that happened to me in terms of science, I had to split it up into parts and think only of those qualities which it had in common with others, as it lost that unique quality which it had as a whole, the 'thing-in- itselfness' which had so delighted me in wide perceiving. I wondered whether this was why sometimes, when I came out from reading in a scientific library, the first whiff of hot pavement, the glimpse of a mangy terrier grimed with soot, would make me feel as though I had risen from the dead. For this `dogness’ of the dog and `stoneness’ of the pavement which I loved so, were simply non-existent in abstract `dog’ and abstract `pavement’. It seemed to me that science could only talk about things and that discussion broke up and killed some essential quality of experience. Science was perhaps a system of charts for finding the way, but no amount of chart-studying would give to inlandsmen the smell of a wind from the sea."
 This identification of the map-territory problem which Korzybski famously identified, leads her on to a deeper reflection about learning and reading:
"I had come to the firm conclusion that reading must come after one had learnt the tricks for observing one’s mind, not before; since if it come before it is only too easy to accept technical concepts intellectually and use them as jargon, not as instrument for the real understanding of experience."
I am always telling students this! But then there's an extraordinary intuition about consciousness which resonates very strong with what science (particularly quantum mechanics) is telling us today... that consciousness has cellular origins:
"I had learnt that if I kept my thoughts still enough and looked beneath them, then I might sometimes know what was the real need, feel it like a child leaping in the womb, though so remotely that I might easily miss when over-busy with purposes. Really, then, I had found that there was an intuitive sense of how to live. For I had been forced to the conclusion that there was more in the mind than just reason and blind thinking, if only you knew how to look for it; the unconscious part of my mind seemed to be definitely something more than a storehouse for the confusions and shames I dared not face. For was there not also the wisdom which had shaped my body up through the years from a single cell? Certainly this was unconscious, my deliberate will had had no hand it. And yet I could see no way of escaping the idea that it was mind in some sense; nothing I had ever heard about chemistry made it possible for me to believe that such a job could happen as a result of the chance combining of molecules. Yet if it was my mind in some sense, why should I make a line between mind and body and limit its powers only to ordering the growth of cells? Certainly, my exploring had gradually made me aware of the existence of something – I can only call it a wisdom – something that seemed to be 'shaping my ends’, trying to express its purposes in pictorial symbols."

Monday, 20 August 2018

Is Educational Technology Over? (No - but we need to talk about consciousness and the universe)

I'm finding myself a bit dismayed by the state of the education system. It seems I'm not alone. Even my 18 year old daughter who survived education with good A-levels is committed to not going to university: "why do I want to pay for more school?". Even 10 years ago there was a lot of hope about what might be possible with technology, and personal technologies in particular presented opportunities for gaining knowledge which were unprecedented and which appeared like a significant threat to rigid institutional provision.

What has actually happened is that institutions have largely maintained their practices unchallenged. Rigid curricula are everywhere (although "curriculum review" seems to be a constancy these days),  and learning outcomes have made the assessment process an explicit exercise in measuring compliance with expectation rather than a consideration of understanding (things were better in the early 90s when I graduated). As David Sherlock reminded me the other day, the real threat to institutions now is not the current generation of students. It is their children.

One would hope that in the educational technology community (and education in general) there would be some soul-searching as to how we got it wrong and what to do next. Unfortunately, because educational technologists are mostly employed by institutions, their focus has shifted to how to keep their jobs and pay their mortgages rather than think of how the institution won over technology, and how we might fix what has become rather authoritarian and technocratic. The injustice of what has happened in education finds voice in various critical approaches to educational technology, which - from the institution's perspective - are now easily sidelined as a kind "two minutes hate": you can say what you like, but keep the VLE/portfolio/content-production going and keep the students happy!

All of this is market-driven nonsense. The environment of education is not a market; it is society as a whole in its scientific, historical, cultural, spiritual and emotional dimensions. Anthony Seldon is right that we barely touch any of these dimensions, and so our education is deficient. The suppression of understanding in favour of metrics of compliance is the most serious problem. Suppressing understanding is a route to alienation and mental illness. But we don't know how to measure understanding. We don't understand understanding.

David Bohm made the remark that "In the end thought produces results. But thought says it didn't do it". That is the problem we face: all our theories, critiques, technologies, experiments are the product of thought, or consciousness. Our thoughts about the physical world give us physics and biology. But the thinkability of those thoughts is emergent from the very biology that we thought of. It's a circular process.

Bohm thought that the way the universe really worked was as an expression of an "implicate order", where its expression articulated symmetries which recur throughout nature. Pattern was the key to apprehending the implicate order: the "pattern which connects" as Bateson put it, and the search for pattern and coherence in the symmetry between thought and nature was the driving force for intellectual inquiry, emancipation and understanding. A few years ago I asked Ernst von Glasersfeld "Where does the desire to learn come from?" He didn't have an answer. Bohm may have it, though.

One of the crucial elements to pattern is redundancy: the saying of the same thing in many different ways. It's what we do as teachers. It's what music and art do. It's what we do on Facebook when we share photos, and it's what I do on this blog. Technology has massively increased the degree of redundancy that we are immersed in. However, in our approach to technology, we have not focused on redundancy; we have focused on its opposite, "information". I think this is at the root of where we have gone wrong with our institutions.

Institutions were indeed threatened by the explosion of possibilities unleashed by technology. But they responded not by adapting their structures and practices but by wishing to maintain their structure. And they did this through attenuating patterns, producing more video resources, assembling more curricula, fetishising the VLE and the MOOC, and using the rationale of the market (which is an attenuation mechanism in its own right) to justify the whole thing. They became "information" organisations. Many years ago, Karl Pribram identified the problem "Redundancy in a world of Information". He highlights "values, redundancy, memory, - the enduring aspects of the word we live in - have been given short shrift of late in our scientific thinking." Pribram's model of consciousness drew heavily on Bohm.

Bohm's concept of consciousness and the universe is that it is a hologram: patterns are present at all levels, from thoughts to atomic structures. It is because of this holographic structure that he argued that dialogue was the most important thing in science and society.

We can use technology very differently. We can use it to harness the redundancy it produces. We can use the redundancy of technology to support rich dialogue in education. We can examine the self-organising processes of understanding for how they connect patterns. We can explore redundancies implicit in the expertise of academics and find new ways of communicating the patterns of their thought. We can create new contexts for conversation free from curriculum but with opportunities for students to pursue deep interests in dialogue. We can have a holographic education to fit our holographic consciousness. 

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Dialectical Materialism Without Matter

Here is a basic statement:

Matter, as far as anyone knows in physics, is composed of basic things like mass, charge, space and time. 

Of course, the key word in that first sentence is "knows". Mass, charge, space and time are ideas, the products of consciousness. Bhaskar tries to simplify this: there are "intransitive" mechanisms. But it doesn't get rid of the "knows" problem. And it gets more complicated because consciousness, which gives us all these ideas, itself appears to be emergent from the matter of physiology and brains.

Once we have got past the problem of "knows", we then have to think about "is composed of". "Is composed of" is a way of thinking about origins: where a story begins. What is it in our consciousness which leads us towards defining a beginning of a story? What is it in the structure of a story which determines an origin?

Marx's story of dialectical materialism grew from 19th century science, when evolutionary stories were much in vogue: first there was x, then there was y, then there was us... But there's no evidence for "first there was..." In fact, there is no evidence for evolution: evolutionary processes cannot be observed - Darwinism is abduction in the same way as creationism.

In Marxism, the relation between material conditions and consciousness is a tension between natural rights, equity and abundance against exploitation and power. Marxism draws its power from a fundamental emphasis on material origins.

But if we say that consciousness begins with physics, we are committing an epistemological error (thanks to Lou Kauffman for reinforcing this to me the other day!). Yet the lure of materialist origins is itself a phenomenon which cannot be discounted. There is something like "truth" in it.

Modern quantum mechanics is telling us something different about the nature of the physical world and historical emergence. In place of a mechanistic, sequential set of knock-on effects, its grappling with non-locality, superposition, uncertainty etc is suggesting that broken symmetries at different orders of reality create patterns in nature. David Bohm's idea of a "hologram" is, I think, the most powerful idea here: that the patterns of symmetry breaking at the smallest unit of nature are reproduced at higher orders. John Torday is suggesting that the symmetry breaking of consciousness itself is tied to symmetry breaking at the material level - particularly to that contained in our cells. Karl Pribram also held to a holographic view of consciousness, also influenced by Bohm.

There is a musical analogue here. Music appears to be composed of redundancies which articulate broken symmetries related to music's originating material. The different aspects of music's holographic structure become aligned and unaligned at various moments. This raises a question: when we think of material origins, are we really setting our consciousness on a path to find alignment between the broken symmetries of thought and the broken symmetries of biology and physics in its historical emergence?

SO... Materialism is holographic alignment between thought and physiology?

That's an interesting idea. So where does that leave exploitation or dialectics? They are accidental misalignments of the hologram: surface broken symmetries which are detached from deep resonances. Capitalism is noise.

What do we do with noise? Redundancy is what is required. The pattern is already written - it just needs amplifying.


Saturday, 11 August 2018

Does cybernetics understand complexity?

I'm writing a paper about music at the moment and questioning my understanding of the word "complex". That's a bit embarrassing for someone who considers themselves a cybernetician - a subject which is fundamentally concerned with complexity. This is a moment where I have to ask myself if I really understand what "complex" means.

This is the definition of complexity that I have believed up until this point, in a beautifully argued explanation by Ross Ashby:
"The word ‘complex’, as it may be applied to systems, has many possible meanings, and I must first make my use of it clear. There is no obvious or preeminent meaning, for although all would agree that the brain is complex and a bicycle simple, one has also to remember that to a butcher the brain of a sheep is simple while a bicycle, if studied exhaustively (as the only clue to a crime) may present a very great quantity of significant detail. Without further justification, I shall follow, in this paper, an interpretation of ‘complexity’ that I have used and found suitable for about ten years. I shall measure the degree of ‘complexity’ by the quantity of information required to describe the vital system. To the neurophysiologist the brain, as a feltwork of fibers and a soup of enzymes, is certainly complex; and equally the transmission of a detailed description of it would require much time. To a butcher the brain is simple, for he has to distinguish it from only about thirty other ‘meats’, so not more than log2 30, i.e., about five bits, are involved. This method admittedly makes a system’s complexity purely relative to a given observer; it rejects the attempt to measure an absolute, or intrinsic, complexity; but this acceptance of complexity as something in the eye of the beholder is, in my opinion, the only workable way of measuring complexity." (Ashby, 1973 - "Some peculiarities of Complex Systems", Cybernetic Medicine, Vol 9, no. 1) 
On the face of it, this is perfectly sensible. But there are things in life which are not like bicycles or brains, butchers or detectives.

If I was to point to three problems with Ashby's view, they are:

  1. The problem of reference and meaning: Ashby sees information as being about something - the brain to the butcher is information about something, just as it is to the brain surgeon.
  2. The problem of ergodicity - Ashby's examples are inanimate and static in the information they present - but nothing in life is really like this, and neither are observers (or what a friend of mine calls "systems of reference"). Whatever information is conveyed and how we think about information is not ergodic. That means that the features of its "alphabet" are different from one moment to the next. 
  3. The problem of the non-arbitrariness of the diachronic emergence of understanding. This is the really tricky one, but basically the fact that human agree on distinctions, that we are capable of love, that somehow we resonate with each other in the face of phenomena is not the product of a kind of random search for coherence in the manner of Ashby's "homeostat". There seems to be some underlying principle which guides it. 


Music and education are where these problems become most apparent. Bach's music, for example, is often called "complex" because of its counterpoint. But if you examine it closely, all Bach's music is simply an elaboration of chords which are rather like a hymn. And what Bach does with the chords is not to add entropy (or disorder); instead, he adds and overlays new patterns, or redundancies! His complexity arises from the interaction of redundancy. If he added entropy, the music would never have any coherence. But there's something else. These emergent patterns are not random. Each of them appears to be a re-articulation of some fundamental symmetry which is expressed through the whole thing - even when they appear to be initially "surprising". The music is holographic in the way that Bohm describes. Its aesthetic closure appears to be arrived at when sufficient redundant descriptions are overlaid and coordinate rather like different colours of the spectrum combine to make white light.

Cybernetics has no understanding of how this might happen as far as I can see. We need something else.