Thursday 23 May 2024

Compass of hope

Over the last 6 months or so, I have discovered new dimensions to myself. Nobody ever makes discoveries like this alone. We need others, and it is a rare privilege when some interpersonal magic works like a revelation: an explosion of joy and light. Nothing is ever the same afterwards. The priorities shift to what really matters. For me this has brought a deeper grounding, patience and sense of responsibility. 

There is an individuation process which we all go through, but the twists and turns for some may be more marked than in others. The Jungian archetypes of self, shadow, animus, anima pass through stages. I often think about Tippett's Jungian opera, The Midsummer Marriage when thinking about this. The main characters, Mark and Jennifer, engage in a spiritual quest on their way to their wedding. On their individual journeys, they separate, with one of them going towards the dark "shadow" side of themselves, while the other goes towards the lighter "self", and later they swap roles before being reunited as transformed (individuated) people. The marriage only occurs after they have both visited these different aspects of their psyche.  

Tippett also drew on the archetype of the "Fisher king" - the wounded and alienated king, for whom all was material, possession and power, but who lacked the deeper spiritual aspects of the psyche. It was this lack which was his "wound" - the thing that disabled him. In  Tippett's opera, the Fisher King, becomes a cold-hearted businessman, "King Fisher", Jennifer's father, who absolutely forbids the wedding and tries his best to stop it. The mystical (and for some, frankly baffling) climax of the opera features another archetype, the "Wise old woman" who appears to bless the wedding, and cast aside the emptiness of King Fisher. As with the other operatic treatment of the Fisher King - in Wagner's Parsifal - there is some redemption for him in the Tippett. King Fisher eventually accepts the mystic realm, but dies - thus symbolically representing a new cycle of life, which affects the other characters.  

I find these stories powerful because they help me to navigate. We all know a King Fisher, we all have some understanding of our feminine and masculine sides (animus and anima), and we know we have a shadow, even if we would rather not look at it. The archetypes are rather like statues in a landscape through which we all pass, and because we pass through, our relation to them is always changing. We probably also know couples like "Mark and Jennifer". The problem with the way we live today is that we don't give ourselves time to really think about where and who we are, where we are going,  or how to become whole. In that sense we are all a little bit like the Fisher King. 

Sometimes, as in the opera, we do need to separate - at least temporarily - from the comfort of companionship and visit those different aspects of ourselves so as to discover ourselves. It is not any particular moment of experience with the shadow, or the animus/anima, or the wise woman, or the fisher king, that we individuate. It is through the slow and sometimes painful journey to understand the landscape of the psyche. Then we can be whole. 

So this time I have a more creative exercise. Can you draw, or take a photograph, of something that represents what it means to be whole? (Google for some reason requires a sign-in)

Tuesday 21 May 2024

Rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight

Elgar prefixed his second symphony with the quote from Shelley's poem saying "I have put my soul in it". The music certainly breathes with the depth of feeling which is unmatched not only in his output, but all but the best music. A friend once said to me that this kind of music sounds "sad". I know what she means, and yet, I don't think sadness is the right word. It is the feeling one gets from a deep sigh - and that is as much a feeling of connection with everything as it an expression of transient emotion. Shelley's poem is the same:
Rarely, rarely, comest thou,
Spirit of Delight!
Wherefore hast thou left me now
Many a day and night?
Many a weary night and day
'Tis since thou are fled away.

Really, it's about breathing, I think. If music or poetry doesn't breathe, it's no good - it has no life. 

This afternoon I'm giving a talk to the Liverpool University Music Theory Club (see Music Theory Research Group ( about breathing in a Haydn piano sonata.  Haydn is definitely one of the most cheerful composers - but his music breathes too. As I've been preparing this, I've been really interested in the question as why, despite it's amazing technical potential, AI doesn't breathe (obviously it doesn't have lungs - but that matters, doesn't it??)

I think the questions about music and the questions about AI are related, and they have to do with the nature of our 3-dimensional world, and the poverty of our description of that world. Breathing is of course 3-dimensional - as is everything in biology. The basic issue is that we struggle to grapple with 3 dimensions - only in actual practice or performance can the concrete experience of the dimensioned world be appreciated, but it cannot be codified without losing its life.

Most of the time in science, we attenuate dimensions. So, for example, we will choose to measure vaariable x, and ignore variable y. Statistical normalisation, correction for confounding, etc are all ways of attenuating the living world. 

However, if we understand the dimensional relations at the heart of the 3-dimensional world, then it is possible, rather than attenuate, to reduce dimensionality in a way which preserves the 3-dimensionality, but presents a 2-dimensional representation of it. This is what happens in a hologram: a two-dimensional pattern formed by interference between (say) light is an encoding of 3 dimensions. All those dimensions are preserved, but what we see, and can analyse, is a surface. This is why the holographic theory of the universe talks of a black hole being represented at its surface as a hologram - a reduction of the dimensionality which encodes the nature of matter. 

For a long time I've been interested in fractal analysis of music (fractals are basically like holograms, and like them, a dimensional reduction) - see, and Music, cells and the dimensionality of nature - PubMed ( But today I'm going to talk about the normal distribution of noise as another approach to dimensional reduction. Haydn's C major piano sonata looks a bit like this... Normal distributions are very interesting analytical approaches to dimensional reduction - although we tend not to see them like this. 

The interesting thing about this video is that it does look like "breathing". So here's a little experiment:

Take a deep breath. 
Clear your mind. 
And breathe out... 

here are a few questions about your experience: 

Sunday 19 May 2024

Trajectories of Oppression

It does seem that there are some quite unpleasant leaders in the world (Putin, Xi, Modi, Orban, Khamenei, etc) who seem to be gathering and organising in opposition to leaders in other parts of the world who present themselves as being less unpleasant (but may in fact be almost as bad! - Netanyahu, Trump, the CIA...). A balanced perspective on this is difficult, but there are certainly countries where speaking out against injustice will get you killed, or imprisoned. But "Being free" ought to mean something rather more than "they won't kill me if I speak out". 

Within all oppressive regimes there are restrictions on the range of things that can be said, and who they can be said to. This applies to countries as much as it does to family relationships, and indeed the most common form of oppression occurs in the home. It's always the same pattern though - there is coercion of communication, monitoring and control. Transgressing any boundaries may lead to a "visit" in one's work or home from some unsavoury character who, if not directly violent, will attempt intimidate through threats. 

Domestic oppression looks very much like this (from Jim Cartwright's brilliant play "Two"):

Free societies need to counter the tendency towards restricting communication. Openness and dialogue backed up by legal protection is always the best policy for dealing with threats. However, as the world teeters between liberty and oppression, there is a risk that this kind of behaviour spills over into normal life in free societies. So what should we do?

Thursday 16 May 2024


I find there are too many occasions when "coincidences" occur for me to believe that they are merely "co-incidences". We only really believe this because we imagine ourselves to be independent from one another - little self-contained robots pursuing our own algorithms, and only "understanding" each other through the perturbations that each of us produces in others. A "co-incidence" in this model of the world is merely a particular pattern that emerges at random in the processing of these perturbations that makes one of the robots go "ah-ha!"

But it may not be like that at all. In fact, we are very unlikely to be "independent" of each other: independence is an illusion. Every cell unites us. Every cell contains a shared history which maps each "individual" back to a shared origin. If that is the case, then it is not a surprise to think that our shared history isn't causal in our coordination with each other. What then is a "co-incidence"? It is not necessarily a random encounter, but the result of a deep coordination produced the internal selection processes of mechanisms whose components belong with each other, whilst being physically separate. It is further possible that such coordinations are related in some way to basic physical processes - entanglement particularly being a mechanism that would explain this kind of "strange relationship at a distance".

We are rarely aware that we breathe together - we only become aware of it when in a large silent room with many others. When we do become aware of it, we sense something "bigger" which unites us all. Is this an illusion? If it isn't an illusion, then what must be happening is some kind of "coordination of constraint": that what constrains my free will in choosing actions becomes coupled with what constrains another person's free will. 

The simple point here is that we don't know what constrains free will. We don't know what shapes the mechanism that chooses action x or action y. But just because we don't know it, doesn't mean that there might be something that constrains action x and y and that these constraints might become aligned. 

When people fall in love, there is a very strong sense of connection - even when there is an absence. People will report picking up the phone at the very moment their loved one calls. How many times have I opened WhatsApp (for example) to see at the same moment the person I want to call show up suddenly as "online"?  So the question is, How might those constraints become aligned? 

Rupert Sheldrake speculated that its a "morphic field" which unites the various constraints that affect us and steer us to action. He conducted experiments staring at the back of peoples' heads and timing how long it took them to turn round. I think there might be a simpler explanation based on the fact that we are basically made of the same stuff, and that stuff has a common history. We don't need to invent a field, because there is already a kind of "vector" in-built into each one of our cells. 

Now the question about telepathy arises because it might be possible to "tune-in" to the vector in each of our cells and coordinate its processes with the cells in someone else. Actually, this is pretty much what happens in sex, isn't it? Also in deep conversation. So why shouldn't the same process not be possible at a distance? 

We could probably explore this experimentally if there was a way to account for the constraints bearing on cellular behaviour. John Torday, for example, has subjected cells to micro-gravity and observed common changes in this way. There may be a mistake in thinking of telephathy as "exchange of thought". Rather it seems to be "coordination of constraints on physiological process at a distance". 

I've written something on a piece of paper, and I want to conduct an experiment. Here's another form with a few questions about thought and telepathy:

Tuesday 14 May 2024


 In the AI world that is unfolding around us, it is going to be increasingly difficult to know what to trust and who to trust. This issue has been known in science for a long time, but it is now becoming apparent in everyday life and politics. Von Foerster and Maturana gave this wonderful talk about it many years ago: 

Von Foerster makes the distinction between two words that mean "truth": the Latin "veritas" entails checking reality (German "wahrheit" derives from this). The English word "truth" on the other hand derives from "trust" - in other words, it becomes a matter of interpersonal agreement in terms of establishing truth. Since von Foerster was committed to arguing that there was no objective reality to check, the issue of trust and truth is central.

It is trust which is being affected not just by AI but by all forms of technological communication. Trust demands human intersubjective engagement - quite simply, looking into each others eyes - and most forms of technological communication do not allow this (text, phone, email, etc). Moreover, the interaction between people using these media of communication will unfold differently from how things unfold in interpersonal intersubjective communication. 

These days, we can't be sure about anything. We can't be sure that the sender of an email is who they say. We might assume, for example, when somebody calls us up, that the person on the other end of the phone line is the person they say: but it might not be. We can't be sure that a paper was really written by professor X, or that a student actually wrote the essay they submitted. 

This is central to the problems we are going to face in the coming years. So we are going to need new ways of establishing trust and confidence in communication.

I'm interested in what people think about this - about what we can do to establish new levels of trust. Since my googleform experiments are going reasonably well, I've created another one (I hope you trust me!). There is a very simple question: How would you establish the trustworthiness of a communication in the absence of being able to look someone in the eye?

Interested to hear the responses! 

Saturday 11 May 2024

Faure's Breathing

I'm really out of practice with my playing, so apologies for mistakes here. While I'm playing at this Faure Nocturne, I'm also thinking about the way that music breathes. If it doesn't breathe, it's no good. That is a real test for something like AI - because it doesn't breathe at all. Breathing is so important - partly I think because it's relational. We don't think of breathing "together" - but we actually are always breathing together.  

When we play music, we breathe with the universe. Or try to at least.

Friday 10 May 2024

Delius's Idyll

When I was about 14 or 15 I fell in love with the music of Delius. I had a few LPs, and one of them had a recording of the Requiem on one side, and on the other his setting of Whitman poems from "Leaves of Grass" - "Idyll", which was assembled by Eric Fenby with Delius in the 1930s. It was magical music - the Requiem's unconventional (and perhaps shocking) nihilism about sensual pleasure and the enjoyment of life resonated with my teenage mood, but the Idyll was the piece which really struck me.

Whitman's poetry is beautiful, erotic and mystical:

"Once I pass'd through a populous city,

Imprinting my brain with all its shadows.

Of that city I remember only a woman,

A woman I casually detained,

Who detained me for love of me.

Day by day and night by night we were together --

 all else has been forgotten by me."

But the music is something else. There's an extraordinary bluesy climax set to the words "What is it to us what the rest do or think/ What is all else to us who have voided all/ but freedom and all but our own joy." (section from about 16' 28'')

The music and words are really one giant fantasy - but what a fantasy! And then again, I'm now reminded that fantasies are not "made-up": they are real. Indeed, as both Tolkein and C.S. Lewis thought, fantasy is more real than reality: it is the place where we hope and dream, which is the essence of what it is to be human. The make-believe is the humdrum monotony of the world - that world is false. The music speaks the truth though: "Dearest comrade all is over and long gone, But love is not over."

Tolkien called fairy stories a "casement of the outer world": they were a space to explore possibility.  They are fundamental to humanity. Moreover, losing sight of fantasy is a deathly way to live. 

Also, sometimes, something happens in the outer world which is remarkably close to what happens in the casement. That's a reminder that there really is something "bigger than ourselves", and that it is our dreams which are our compass and guide. John Torday sees this perception of something bigger than ourselves as a reference to our fundamental connection to the cosmos. I think Delius might have agreed. 

I was once quite critical of an eminent music scholar who at a conference went on about the love letters of a composer and how they influenced what he (it was a he) did. I said that people deceive each other (I wasn't feeling particularly romantic at the time!) - I said it's easy to say stuff like "I love you" in a letter - but is it real? Now I think I was not quite right. Sometimes it's very real, and the energy that flows from it is indeed causal in remarkable things happening - like Delius's music.

(I've given up on comments on my blog - too much spam trying to sell me Viagra! So if you want to feed-back, do it here:  and I'll post them up)

Wednesday 8 May 2024


One of the problems with digital communications is that they are easily subverted. It can be difficult to ascertain the real intention behind electronic communications: they can be subject to deception or coercion and that can lead to serious consequences. With face-to-face communication we at least have some insight into the lived experience of the other in the flow of communication. Human trust relies on this. 

A friend of mine commented on this phenomenon a few months back when she said of Generative AI "I am not sure who I am talking to". Quite right. We know that we are interacting with some kind of process which in itself is amusing and fascinating, but it is also deceiving. The fact that we are looking for ways of exploiting this form of deception for real-life activities says more about the poverty of our inter-human engagement where communications have become transactions than it does about the miracle of the technology. 

Fernando Flores, in "Understanding Computers and Cognition", argued that IT systems were essentially communication systems for managing the commitments we make to one another. So, for example, the email chain quickly reveals who promised what to who and when. But there's a problem with this. In recent years, the evidence trail creates lots of noise as (for example) it is revealed exactly what some cabinet members thought of Boris Johnson. As more intimate communications are recorded electronically and subject to search, we see communications intended at source to be private become public. This happens in verbal communication through gossip, but gossip permits deniability which a WhatsApp message doesn't. Because the internet is increasingly wired into the psyche, intimations and thoughts are at risk of public exposure, with social and psychological consequences.  

We might think that total transparency of communication - the tracking of commitments - is a good thing. I used to think this. But not only can it be corrupted, it also throws away huge amounts of information from the embodied source of communication. When all channels of communication are subject to surveillance, communications themselves can be coerced. In domestic situations this can be worse, because it gives rise to a "double-bind" where messages of care go hand-in-hand with threats and intimidation. Work communications too can put people in very difficult situations where they have to communicate one thing electronically, but really think another. Imagine having both coercion at home and at work. It's no wonder there is an explosion of stress. 

We probably need what Stafford Beer called an "algedonic loop" in our communications - one that provides assurance to those communicating that they are in fact "ok" - or provides a way of pushing a red button if they really are not and need help. It's not hard to do - probably something like this would work: Wellbeing (

Monday 6 May 2024

Work, Labour and Occupational Health: Hannah Arendt and the boundaries of subsistence

I've been at the International Congress on Occupational Health conference in Marrakech this week. I gave a presentation on AI in occupational health, and also had a poster on synthetic data from large language models. I was pretty much alone in talking about AI, which I found hard to believe. It will be different by their next conference in 3 years time, by which time we may have an idea of the pathologies we might unleash upon ourselves. 

By far the best session I attended was on women and occupational health. Partly the reason why it was so good was because the general definition of work that most people would give you in occupational health is that it is "something you do for money". With women, far more than men, there is a huge amount of work which is not paid. Unpaid work such childcare, together with specific female health issues which directly relate to the viability of society, have a huge impact on paid work. I think this means that we need to re-examine our definition of "work". This has made me think about Hannah Arendt's distinctions in "The Human Condition" (which has been a book that has lived with me for most of my academic career)

Arendt (partly following Marx) makes the distinction between work, labour and action. "Work", she sees as a higher form of activity which leads to the production of things or structures which outlast the process of their creation. "Labour" on the other hand, is activity that is necessary for ongoing existence. One of the challenges for us to think about in occupational health is that a lot of the "work" we discuss (and its health implications) is really "labour". People labour cutting sugar cane, or mining: the purpose of this labour is to earn enough money to subsist, or to feed processes that require constant attention. It does nothing to create something new which will outlast the process. "Action" is specifically political - the negotiated engagement between human beings in the process of coordinating the navigation of the world.

In academia, much activity used to be "work" and "action" but has become "labour" - particularly with technology. Working with technology platforms, for example, seems to have become labour rather than work. Yes, using platforms to assemble resources for others fits Arendt's definition of work, but these administrative processes are becoming increasingly ephemeral. I have observed in my own university how meetings become dominated by discussions on what technologies to use for what, or what protocols to follow to achieve certain goals, with ever changing criteria demanding continual adaptation. This is all labour - activities for the subsistence of the operation. Very little time in such meetings is devoted to "what matters", which would be partly "action" in Arendt's sense, and work in the sense that it might produce something durable and new. Even deciding on and assessing "learning outcomes" becomes ephemeral labour, not work. Worst of all, we may have turned the intellectual journey of study itself into labour rather than work.

What technology and the complexity of modern life has appeared to do to us is to move the boundaries of subsistence. Today in order to subsist, it is necessary to perform often complex, and psychologically draining activities whose purpose is merely to feed the complex system that continually demands more input. David Graeber put a nice name to much of this activity as "imaginative labour" - the labour of guessing the requirements of those for whom we work.

It is important to think about why this has happened, since some of these psychologically draining tasks we might be tempted to allocate to AI in the future. Why should there be a desire to turn human work into labour? The issue of contingency - both in work and action - is helpful to understand this.

In Arendt's conception of "action" there is greater contingency than labour: this is partly because in political action, much is necessarily undecided. Organisations, however, are generally averse to dealing with contingency in an increasingly uncertain world. Dan Davies's excellent new book "The Unaccountability Machine" is basically a description of how organisations have designed-out the need to deal with contingency, instead seeking to attenuate-out the complexity of the environment behind anonymous systems. As long as we seek to attenuate the variety of the world, we will continue to turn work into labour.

The solution to this problem has always been to amplify contingency. It is only by amplifying contingency that the human processes of conversation and coordination where Arendtian "action" can be properly situated. So could AI amplify contingency?

The activities of work, labour and action are the result of a selection mechanism. We choose the actions of work just as we choose the actions of labour. We need to understand how the selection mechanism is constructed. The difference between them is the difference in the constraint that is operative, and the degree to which there is an increase in the number of options that are available for selection. When the number of options available for selection increases, then we are looking at work rather than labour. Where the options available for selection remains the same or even decreases, then we are looking at labour.

Contingency is the key to increasing the options for acting. It is only with uncertainty that the conversational mechanisms are introduced which steer selection processes to engage with one another and acquire new options from each other. This is similar to Leydesdorff’s idea behind the Triple Helix: new options arise through the interaction between the many discarded ideas from different stakeholders. So the correct question as to the possible impact of AI will be whether it can be used to amplify uncertainty.

If AI is used to automate tasks, it will reduce uncertainty. Increasingly, discussions will focus on the function of AI, and options will reduce to the technical details of one AI or another. However, if we see that the function of a whole organisation - a business, a university, a government - is to make selections of action, then the scientific question we can ask is "how does it construct its selection mechanism?".

AI is really a scientific instrument that can help us to answer this question and gain deeper insight into our organisations. To use it correctly is the work of science that will provide new adaptive capacity to deal with the future. To use it badly will turn what little work still exists to labour and shift the boundary of subsistence even further to encompass the gamut of human action.

Sunday 24 March 2024

In the Vineyard of Music Scores

In the wake of the lack of mainstream public comment on the death of one of the world's greatest pianists, Maurizio Pollini, last week, there has been a lot of commentary on the apparent dismissal of classical music by people who should know better. Coupled with the closure of a number of university music departments (with a number of others under threat), alongside the existential threat to some leading orchestras, there does seem to be something going on which bodes ill for music, and for the richness of "culture" - although, as Niklas Luhmann pointed out many years ago, that word "culture" is very slippery indeed.  

Posts on social media talk about the "rot" of the declining civilisation for which they blame the present vogue for revisionist iconoclasm that reads cultural history as essentially colonialist, patriarchal and racist. As is often the case, the sins of those who are accused of destroying culture are very similar to those who make the accusation. The common point of error is that both sides in the debate cannot imagine that contradictory positions can both be true simultaneously. It is true that classical music, like much high culture from past centuries (and like the intellectual roots of many academic disciplines), is sometimes colonialist, patriarchal and racist. Given our history, it is hard to imagine it could be anything else. It is also true that it represents the deepest expression of the basic human condition that humanity has created. Like quantum mechanics, or like the magnificent logic of John Duns Scotus's "synchronic contingency", it is true and not true at the same time. And unfortunately protagonists on both sides the debate cannot deal with it.

If there is a decline in culture, it lies in this very point - the inability to deal with contradiction and ambiguity. It is a symptom of reductionism. Were the artists of the renaissance aware of the ethical contradictions that lay beneath their art? Of course they were. This has always been the essential content of art. 

The art of classical music, represented in the performances, scores, treatises, biographies, etc, is the quintessence of ambiguity -  of "synchronic contingency". A score created by a great composer is an artefact created as a biproduct of an intellectual (for which we might say biological) process dealing with contradiction. A score not only enters into the space of synchronic contingency, but it spins something out of it, without ever resolving a matter as one thing or another: a cadence merely closes - it is not an answer. 

More than any other art, classical music demands the intellectual skill to navigate the indeterminate space of black dots on a page so as to attend (with ears - our organ of balance) the fact of music's internal contradiction. It's rather like Ivan Illich's beautiful book "In the Vineyard of the Text", which discussed Hugh of St Victor's "Didascalicon" as an intellectual journey of appreciating the broad field of religious and secular texts, through entering the minds of their various authors. In entering into the space of the score, we enter into the space of the composer and their experience of grappling with the indeterminacy and contradiction of life. In trying to play the notes, we physically experience exactly the same constraints of human anatomy and emotional reaction that the composer would have known in creating it in the first place. The score is "writing as transmission" across centuries of physiological experience in a way that no other form of human communication can achieve. To be in a library full of scores from all periods of music is to be immersed in the sheer consistency of the endeavour to engage in music's ambiguity over the centuries.  

It is not music which is under threat. It is ambiguity. We will preserve music by seeking to uphold ambiguity. Unfortunately, neither side in the debate about music wishes to do this, and educational institutions have no interest in ambiguity since their business models insist on reproducible and measurable "learning outcomes". Decolonisers attack music with blunt instruments of a shallow "ethical emotivism", while those opposed to them too often appear reactionary and tone-deaf, craving an educational world which force-feeds children a didactic diet of Bach and Beethoven. 

The irony is that this situation is the product of our privileging of text over more refined forms of communication. The privileging of text has also made us very vulnerable to artificial intelligence which appears to be able to select words often better than we can. But AI is not good at ambiguity either, and it is certainly not good at music.   

We will need music in the future precisely because of its ambiguity, and also because of the intellectual demands it makes of us to appreciate its ambiguity. It is this ability to deal with ambiguity and contradiction at a deep physiological level which, in the end, differentiates us from machines. While it is obviously now possible to create a computational mechanism for selecting words which is topologically similar to our own human mechanism for selecting words, the creation of a selection mechanism for selecting sounds, or instructions to make sounds, with a specific meaningful intention, is far more challenging.  Computers are not connected to the universe. But we are. And the skills of understanding our connection to the universe lie in music and its ambiguity.

Saturday 9 March 2024

Music and Breathing

There is an oscillation in my academic work between thinking about things which are practical and of importance - either in health or education (or both) - and thinking about music. Music, of course, is extremely practical and very important, but few people will support research work into music directly. They should of course. I've found that techniques for thinking about music become applicable to more practical stuff. Most specifically, developing information theoretical techniques of analysis of music is highly valuable across many fields. In addition to education, I'm currently working on the organisational impact of AI, AI and information theory (specifically focusing on my work on diabetic retinopathy diagnosis), and work-based stress. 

Why is music so important? Quite simply because it protects us against hubris in our analytical thinking. Whatever social theory one might have, it has to work for music, or it is no good. Or at least, not good enough. Most cybernetic theories fall short because they can't "breathe" - and that is the key. Much as I admire and find very useful the work of Beer, Luhmann, Bateson, Von Foerster and Maturana, in each case their theories don't breathe properly. Not in the way that music does. The wisest of them (particularly Beer and von Foerster) knew it. 

This is partly why the deep physiological ontology of John Torday, Bill Miller, Frantisek Baluska, Denis Noble and others has attracted me, and music has often been at the centre of discussions with Torday and Miller. By situating consciousness with the smallest unit of biology - the cell - breathing becomes foregrounded because it is obviously biologically fundamental. This is really what my recent paper for Progress in Biophysics and Molecular biology was about (see Music, cells and the dimensionality of nature - ScienceDirect)

Within this biological perspective, there are two fundamental principles: the maintenance of homeostasis and the endogensation of the environment through symbiogenesis (i.e. how cells absorb factors in their environment like bacteria, which become mitochondria). The two principles are deeply related in ways which challenge the conventional cybernetic view of homeostasis. 

Endogenisation turns the cell into a history book - a memory of environmental stresses from the past, for which adaptive strategies can anticipate the recurrence of similar stresses in the future. Cells are anticipatory agents which maintain a deep homeostasis - not only with their immediate environment, but with the entirety of their developmental history. That history is itself a vector which points to some originary state, and through the commonalities of these vectors, a deeper level of biological coordination can be organised. No current AI can reproduce this. If we were to have an AI in the future which could, it's architecture would be so fundamentally different from what we have at the moment: more like biology. 

ChatGPT and the like are clever illusions, behind which lie some deeper truths about nature - not least it's recursive structure, and the anticipatory capability that recursion provides. But it is nonetheless a useful illusion. And it might be able to write great text (although the more I use it, the more I can detect it's hand), it remains rather poor at music. It simply cannot breathe. 

Current social theories, theories about stress, methods of epidemiological study, etc, all have a breathing problem. You can often tell, because the champions of these theories tend to be a bit breathless in the way they articulate them. They desperately WANT to have the answer, for their pet theorists (Beer, Luhmann, Giddens, Bhaskar, whoever...) to be able to blow away the cobwebs of confusion. But it never works and it's always breathless.

This is not to disregard those theories - they are all great. But the high priests of those theories knew the limitations of the theory, where the clergy who slavishly follow them do not. This is why I stay close to music. It is to stay close to breathing amid a lot of breathless exhaustion.  


Sunday 11 February 2024

Cybernetic Boa Constrictors

Brahms described the symphonies of Bruckner as "symphonic boa constrictors". After going to a performance of Bruckner's 3rd symphony last night in Manchester, I knew what he meant. I needed some music after sitting in a rather constricting online session on consciousness from the American Society for Cybernetics. But I didn't need to have all the life squeezed out of me. That had already been the experience in the meeting.

Damn it - what's wrong? Not with Bruckner - that, unfortunately is a matter of taste (I just thought I might give the snake a second chance. I'll know better next time). But what's happened with cybernetics?

To put it very simply (and perhaps, rudely), cybernetics started as science - Wiener, Ashby, von Foerster, Bateson. But it has ended up as religion. There is no longer cybernetic analysis - no consideration of what "variety" means - or homeostasis, transduction, viability, difference, information (ok, that's tricky), entropy, regulation, recursion, distinction, construction, ontology, epistemology, etc. Evan Thompson - who was the star turn - asked the most intelligent question "What is a system?" - but then there is a pretence that anyone knows the answer to that most basic of questions for the systems sciences. 

There is a reasonable definition that says "systems are constructed by observers" - but that doesn't say very much. It doesn't say what a system is, but merely says that a process of observation is involved in their coming to be. Ok. But can we say more about this process?

Systems, like words, are selected. There are any number of possible selections that might be made, and out of that set of possibilities, something is chosen as "system". And of course, we are remarkably inconsistent in choosing what is selected: at one moment we choose system x, and at another system y, often forgetting that the operating principles of system x are completely incompatible from those of system y. The cybernetic boa constrictor sets to work when the inconsistency between what is professed, and how people actually behave is at its most acute.  

It's a mechanism well-known to cyberneticians - the double-bind. It's well-deployed by boa constrictors... "oooh warm and cosy... shit I can't breathe.... oooh so cosy... arghh!" So how do we get out of it? Bateson tells us - we need to step outside the double-bind and describe what is happening.

Yes - systems are selections made by an observer. But, what constructs the mechanism that performs the selection? That question was often suggested by Loet Leydesdorff, and his approach to constructivism has been most useful to me, and he pointed back to the origins of phenomenology to defend his approach. 

What is constructed is not "knowledge", or "system", or even "reality". What is constructed is a mechanism that selects "things that we know", "patterns of operation within an environment", or "beliefs and conjectures". How is the mechanism constructed? Well, Leydesdorff had a powerful insight that an effective selection mechanism would have to be anticipatory. It would have to be a "good regulator" - to have a model of its environment. How could a system which has a model of an ambiguous environment be constructed? 

One sub-question here is whether such a "good regulator" could be constructed all at once out of thin air, or whether it would have to emerge, or evolve, over time. I cannot see how the latter case is not likely. So the construction of a selection mechanism is evolutionary - from the smallest units to the emanations of modern consciousness.

At each stage of evolution in the construction of a selection mechanism, there must be selection taking place. So a selection mechanism selects its ongoing evolution. Rather like music improvisation. But where does this process start?

Does it start in physics? The problem here is that we cannot conceive of a physical world beyond our own biology.  We know (at least we select!) that our cells are made from molecules, some of which like cholesterol, appear to be astrobiological fossils. The behaviour of those molecules must have something to do with physics, and physics does have a selection mechanism of sorts - the geometry of the four forces, Pauli exclusion, the spins of electrons, etc. But only through biology do we have that knowledge. There is no physics without biology. There is no observation without biology.

Biology brings observation and with observation there is increasing sophistication in the selection mechanisms that are constructed. Why would the universe create biology? Does it need it? If so, how?

There is a clue to this question in how biology works. Biological selection mechanisms work by endogenising their environment. The cell becomes a fractal of environmental history, where the capacity to anticipate revolves around the fact that what is to come rhymes with what has gone before. This includes the "what has gone before" in terms of the fundamental laws of physics. But deep down, the fundamental laws of physics and the anticipatory selection mechanisms of biology have one thing in common: they both operate to maintain homeostasis: that is, the balance between some locality in the universe (an atom, cell, star, planet or a plant), and the non-local context. 

Selection shifts the balance of the whole. Constructing selection mechanisms is about maintaining stability in the balance of future selections, and to do that, increasingly sophisticated phenotypic mechanisms are required to convey information about an increasingly complex environment. The universe needs life because it needs to maintain homeostasis between the local and nonlocal. 

Was there a point in the evolution of the universe where life wasn't inevitable? I suspect not. Any more than I suspect there wasn't a point in Bruckner's 3rd symphony where a catatonic state of boredom wasn't inevitable. 

Thursday 8 February 2024

Agency from the Zygote Up

I've never understood what "agency" is. We do stuff. Is to say that "doing stuff" or maybe "selecting what stuff to do (and then doing it)" is "agency" to say anything at all? It's agency to say what agency is, after all. Not sure that gets us anywhere. Agency doesn't explain anything. 

Can we rob people of agency? People talk about giving person x agency, by which they mean person x has the option of doing things that (perhaps) they might not have otherwise had. But even in cases where people have very limited options for acting, they still do stuff. It's generally a good idea to increase the options for people to act, and sometimes people act in way which reduce the options of other people to act. Agency doesn't explain this though. 

But I want to know what it's all about, and "agency" doesn't help. So how about looking at this differently...

The problem may be with Darwin: we act to survive, because acting is selection.... to reduce the options for acting is to reduce the chances for survival. But do we act to survive? Or is survival a biproduct of something else? Disastrous actions which lead to a swift demise perhaps amuse us in jokes, or myths and allegories giving warnings like "don't do this". Those myths and stories are important for the survival of the species. But that is about information. 

So this is the perspective I am interested in: Phenotype as Agent for Epigenetic Inheritance - PubMed (

Paraphrasing this argument, acting gives rise to "information" - differences that make a difference. At a fundamental level, that information must be biological - the differences that make a difference are in the physiology of every cell. What are its dynamics?

The hormonal responses to "differences that make a difference" make a difference to cellular machinery. Specifically, there are epigenetic transformations to stress and other factors in the environment which will either be exposed through acting, or which will cause subsequent actions. Those epigenetic changes are carried back to the core of reproductive physiology - to the gametes. Why might this happen? Well. it's quicker than natural selection... 

The zygote that is the result of future interaction between male and female gametes therefore carries some blueprint of whatever environmental conditions imprinted themselves epigenetically on the agent's gametes at some point in their earlier existence. In other words, the information is carried forwards as a pre-programming of the next generation. 

Now is it too far-fetched to suggest that the point of "doing stuff" is that it is all about this "pre-programming". After all, it is the survival of the species which must be the abiding concern of evolution. And in considering this, species is not a collection of phenotypes - people, birds, insects, bacteria, etc. It is a process involving a collection of information-gathering entities which collectively perform information-harvesting in an ambiguous environment in which future generations will need to adapt and perform the same function. Fundamentally, the whole thing is a homeostatic process. 

I like this because it suggests that the practice of science and art is deeply related: both are about discovering information, and that this process is driven by the physiological imperative which feeds information discovery back to successive generations. Beethoven and Einstein were phenotypic agents performing this function, and - in their case - because of particular conditions, their information harvesting operation was particularly profound. 

I also like it though because it means that there is no life that is not profound. There is no life which does not contribute to the future possibility of human flourishing. No life is wasted. Yet there are questions here about those who are truly evil, or who inflict suffering which I need to think about. The uncomfortable answer to that is that information about evil is necessary. I suspect Shakespeare might agree. 

Thursday 11 January 2024

Self-Provisioning of "Tools for Knowing" using AI

In my own teaching practice, I have become increasingly aware that preparation for sessions I have led has involved not the curation/creation of content (for example, in the form of Powerpoint slides), but the construction of tools to support activities driven by AI. The value of this is that the technology can now do something that only complex classroom organisation could achieve, namely the support of personalised and meaningful inquiry. I have been able to create a wide variety of activities ranging from drama-based exercises, to simulated personal relationships (usually around health). I am aware that the potential scope for doing new kinds of activities appears at this stage enormous: powerful organisational simulations (for example, businesses or even hospitals) with language-based AI agents are all possible, allowing students to play roles and observe the organisational dynamics. 

Of course, a lot of this involves coding or other technical acts, which I quite enjoy, even if I'm not that good at it. At some point the need for coding may reduce and we will have platforms for making our own tools for learning (actually, we kind-of already have it with OpenAI's GPT Editor). But the real trick will be to allow teachers and students to create their own tools supporting different kinds of learning activity, provide different kinds of assessments, and maybe even provide ways of mapping personal learning activities to professional standards. 

A lot of focus at the moment is falling on how teachers might use chatGPT for producing learning content - basically amplifying existing practices with the new tech (e.g. "write your MCQs with AI!"). But why shouldn't learners do the same thing? Indeed, what may be happening is the establishment of a common set of practices of "learning tool creation", which may be modelled by teachers, and then adopted and developed by learners. Everyone creates their own tools. Everyone moves towards becoming a teacher empowered by tools they develop. 

Why does that matter? Because it addresses the two fundamental variety management problem of education. Firstly, it addresses the problem that teachers and learners are caught between the ever-increasing complexity of the world, and the constraints of the institution. My paper on Comparative judgement and the visualisation of construct formation in a personal learning environment: Interactive Learning Environments: Vol 31, No 2 ( (long winded title, I know - but this paper is interesting me more now than when I wrote it). It argued that the basic structure of the pathology of education is this (drawing on Stafford Beer's work): 

The institution wants to control technology, but personal tool creation means that it is individuals who could create and control their own tools. This is to shift much of the "metasystem" function (the big blue arrow) away from the institutional management to the individuals in the system. This was always the fundamental argument of the Personal Learning Environment: it's just that we never had tools which could generate sufficient variety to meet the expectations of individuals. Now we do. 

The second problem is the problem of too many students and too few teachers. That is a problem of how the practice of "knowing things" can be modelled in such a way that a wide variety of different people can relate to the "knowledge" that is presented to them. This problem however may be addressed if we see knowledge not as resulting from a "selection mechanism that chooses words", to instead being a "selection mechanism that chooses practices" - particularly practices with AI tools which then perform the business of "selecting words". If teachers model a "selection mechanism that chooses practices" which can result in a high variety of choosing words, then a wide variety of students with different interests and abilities can develop those same practices to lead to the selection of words which are meaningful to them in different ways. In fact, this is basically what is happening with chatGPT.

Teaching is always modelling. It is the teacher's job to model what it is to know something - to the point of modelling what they know and what they don't know. Really, they are revealing their own selection mechanism for words, but this selection mechanism includes their own practices for inquiry. Good teachers will say things "I can't remember the details of this, but this is what I do to find out". Students who model themselves on those teachers will acquire a related selection mechanism.  

The key is "This is what I do to find out". Many academics are likely to say "I would explore this in chatGPT". That is a technical selection made by a new kind of selection mechanism in teachers which can be reproduced in students. Teachers might also say "I would get the AI to test me", or "I would get the AI to pretend to be someone who is an expert in this area that I can talk to", or "I would get the AI to generate some fake references to see if anything interesting (and true) comes up", or "I would ask it to generate some interesting research questions". The list goes on.

Is "Knowing How" becoming more important than "Knowing That"? To ask that is to ask what we mean by "knowing" in the first place. Increasingly it seems that "knowing how" and "knowing that" are both selections. ChatGPT is an artificial mechanism for selecting words. It begs the question as to the ways in which we humans are not also selection mechanisms for words - albeit ones which have a deep connection to the universe which AI doesn't have. 

We are moving away from an understanding of knowledge as the result of selection towards an understanding of knowledge as the construction of a selection mechanism itself. This may be the most important thing about the current phase of AI development we are in.