What Did Nostradamus Think He Was Doing?

I mentioned the sixteenth century French seer Michel de Nostre Dame yesterday in connection with dubious skepticism. It isn’t necessary to believe in his prophecies to enquire as to what he thought he was doing, although there’s also the issue of whether he was a charlatan. This is further complicated by the possibility that a charlatan may turn out to be unintentionally accurate. My aim here is to give a mini-outline of what I think he thought he was doing, and to offer an opinion about the method and its metaphysical implications.

Just as an introduction, Nostradamus was a French herbalist of the sixteenth century who attempted to use attar of rose to cure the Plague and also published an annual almanack. The fact that he was a herbalist possibly gives his way of thinking an affinity with mine, since I am too, although a twenty-first century one. It might also be observed that attar of rose is currently one of the most expensive essential oils and that if someone did go around selling it to terminally ill people many of whom would also have their next of kin die, it could constitute a low-risk strategy for making money from them. Even so, I don’t want to malign his reputation and in fact attar of rose is strongly antimicrobial. Whether it works against Yersinia pestis or whatever the pathogen involved in the Black Death was (it’s been suggested that it was misidentified due to how it spread) is another matter, but it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that it did.

Nostradamus published his prophecies in 1555, claiming that all of them would happen by the year 3797. There are ten ‘Centuries’ – chapters – each originally consisting of a hundred quatrains (four line verses) making predictions in rather gnomic language. One of the chapters has fifty-eight missing quatrains, and unsurprisingly stories have grown up around this that he considered them too dangerous to published and hid them behind a walk in his house. There are alleged copies of these, but ignoring those leaves 942 verses, the first two of which describe his alleged method. I’ll come back to that. Over the 2242 years which the prophecies were supposed to cover, if the 940 verses each referred to a single event, the mean rate at which they could be expected to be fulfilled would be about one every two years and five months. A truly random distribution would probably contain clusters of prophecies coming true in quick succession and long intervals during which nothing happens. By now we could, with the assumption of randomness, expect about a fifth of them to have taken place. On the other hand, the distribution might not be random. More significant events might happen close together or something about his method of divination might make some more easily scryable, that is, viewable through a “crystal ball” or somesuch method.

A common misconception about the prophecies is that they aren’t dated. In fact many of them are, through references to seldom-seen astronomical events, though some of these occur more than once in the two millennia said to be covered. There are also at least two clear references to years, which are thought by some not to be intended literally – 1666 and 1999. The repeated digit when written in Arabic numerals suggests that something else might have been going on which means that the actual dates mentioned might not be as accurate as the allusions to astronomical events.

This brings up the issue of obscurity and it’s certainly true that many verses are repeatedly reinterpreted for each generation. That said, as I mentioned yesterday the quatrain said to refer later to 9/11, not to be confused with the fake version which appeared afterwards, was widely seen by 1980 to refer to an airliner crashing into a skyscraper in New York City. This can be verified if you find yourself a print copy of one of Erika Cheetham’s books on Nostradamus printed at around that time: there’s no need to take my word for it.

An interesting set of events took place in 1987 in connection with these apparent prophecies. Since about 1979 I had expected, due to reading his work, that there would be a Third World War beginning with a conflict between the US and Iran in the Persian Gulf on 22nd October 1987 and continuing for twelve years. In fact what happened at around that time, 19th October in fact, was Operation Nimble Archer, where the US Navy attacked two Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf. This is a matter of record, not false memory: it’s in my diary and explicitly linked to Nostradamus. Fortunately, nothing much came of it. But none of it is post hoc rationalisation.

Back to the opening couple of verses. These read:

Estant assis de nuict secret estude

Seul reposé sur la seller d’ærain:

Flamine exigue sortant de solitude

Fait prosperer que n’est à croire vain.

La vierge en main mise au milieu des Branches

Dear l’onde il moulle & le l’imbe & le pied:

Vn peur & voix fremissent par les Manches

Splendeur diuine. Le diuin pres s’assied.

In translation (not mine):

Standing alone at night in secret study

It is placed on the brass tripod

A slight flame comes out of the emptiness and

Makes successful that which should not be believed in vain

The wand in the hand is placed in the middle of the tripod’s legs

With water he sprinkles both the hem of his garment and his foot.

A voice, fear: he trembles in his robes.

Divine splendour; the god sits nearby.

This is what Nostradamus claimed he did to make his prophecies. Deep in the night he sat in front of a brass tripod (or did he? I’ll return to that) upon which a vessel containing water was placed, put a wand in the middle of the tripod’s legs, sprinkled himself with water, saw visions in the water and heard a voice.

This reminds me of tales of the Vatican’s Chronovisor. It’s exceedingly far-fetched, but Vatican City is said to own a secret machine invented by a Roman Catholic priest with a cathode ray tube on which pictures of the past can be viewed, back to at least Ancient Roman times. Unsurprisingly I’m highly dubious about this but the method Nostradamus described is somewhat similar.

Clearly if Nostradamus really did what he claimed, his method and apparatus, and the theory behind it, would be immensely important. It’s similar to the use of black mirrors and crystal balls. It’s also possible that this is fabricated or that Nostradamus was imagining or hallucinating things due to sleep deprivation.

The use of the word “tripod” in the translation is also interesting. Although I can’t find a reference to a tripod in the French, my knowledge of the sixteenth century version of the tongue is deficient. This could be a reference to the Platonic Triad of Beauty, Justice and Truth uniting in the One of the ineffable Ultimate.

Nostradamus was, like many learned people of his time and the previous millennium, a follower of the Neo-Platonist Iamblichus. Neo-Platonism is a retrospective label for an important school of philosophy which held sway over mediaeval and early modern thought. Plotinus, Iamblichus and their associates merely considered themselves to be Platonists but from today’s perspective they seem to have adopted a very different mode of thought. At the end of European antiquity, there having been an attempt to reconcile Christianity and classical philosophy, Western thought took a mystical turn, reflected in, among other things, Gnosticism. It’s esoteric and I personally find it irritating, partly because it marks a turn away from the clarity and rationality of ancient Greek philosophy and reflects the influence of what the Church had sadly become. Nevertheless, the phrase “what if?” comes to mind. To an outsider there seems to be no difference between scientific language and technobabble. How do we know Neo-Platonism isn’t simply a perfectly valid line of thought which was later thrown out due to the vagaries of history? In particular, how do we know that somewhere in all that apparently nonsensical mess there isn’t a genuinely reliable technique for predicting the future?

Although my background is in Western academic philosophy, that hasn’t made me an expert on Aristotle or Plato. I find the pre-Socratic thinkers more appealing and relevant, and also the likes of Stoics and Cynics. One thing I do know, like many other people, is the World of Forms, which I may have mentioned in ‘Souls And Black Holes’ as the basis of the soul. There is, in Plato’s view, an eternal and unchanging entity corresponding to the merely physical examples of the things corresponding to it, for each “real” thing. I tend to feel this way about “ideas whose time has come”, such as inventions whose ideas are there to be had, including the likes of the filament light bulb, the ZX Spectrum, as mentioned previously, and the plots of certain novels.

Though I don’t know if Neo-Platonism went in that direction, I can also see that the idea of the soul as a Platonic Form works quite well in connection with those of the Resurrection and Day of Judgement. God firstly has to recreate everyone while maintaining their identity. If they are mere copies they can’t be accountable for the sins of the originals, and the Platonic Form works well for this in the absence of a ghost-like soul. God then judges those resurrected people as if they’re, as the current vernacular has it, the best versions of themselves. That is, they are seen by God as if they’d had all the advantages and a near-perfect life. This, as far as I can see, is very close to the idea of the Form although I don’t know if Neo-Platonism took it in that direction.

Consequently, this is what I think Nostradamus may have seen himself as doing, or at least portrayed himself as doing:

All events, past, present and future, correspond to an eternal Form of themselves, written, as it were, in a perfectly authoritative book of the history of the world. His divination process is accessing those eternal entities which he then expresses. In terms of Theosophy they are the Akashic Record. It’s probably never going to be clear how honest he was in expressing this, but I think that’s what he’s getting at.

Finally, Nostradamus is a good example of how current Christian fundamentalism projects its own values into the past. We are led to believe that all forms of divination have always been considered heresy or witchcraft by the Church. Nostradamus very publicly practiced two forms of divination, astrology and scrying, and wasn’t persecuted. There are apocryphal tales that he was. This is because all of that stuff was regarded as absolutely fine by the Church through most of its history. Only recent revision of that long tradition has promoted the idea that it was considered in any way problematic.

None of this is meant to imply that I believe in Nostradamus nowadays. Stopped clocks are right twice a day, after all, and having made almost a thousand pronouncements, it is possible that some would be correct. I do also find, though, that there’s an almost wilful rewriting of the past on the part of non-believers in this area which makes him look less plausible, and it rather reminds me of the rewriting fundamentalism has recently done to make it appear that Christians have always been against divination. Neither of those things are true.


Alack, Our Terrene Moon!

Continuing hardware problems mean this is the kind of image you’ll get from me for now. This is of course Cynthia, Earth’s moon, wherewith my relationship is complicated. Many other people, Sarada included, have a healthy relationship with our sleeping satellite, and are generally aware of her phase and position in the sky. This is very healthy. They also seem to see a face in it, which is rather less healthy and makes me feel like they see a human skull in the night sky which is a bit freaky, though perhaps a salutory memento Mori.

To my shame, I am generally way less aware of Cynthia than most people seem to be, although I share the oddity that it’s much bigger in dreams than in waking life, maybe as a clue that it’s night time and that one is therefore asleep. The fact that I call it Cynthia may be connected.

Now that the word “moon” refers generically to natural bodies which orbit planets, it’s anomalous for us to call ours just “the moon”. Various options are available, and my own choice is to refer to it as Cynthia. This has a precedent as it’s the name of a Greek lunar goddess, which I suspect is cognate with the Sanskrit candra. I do this because although Cynthia is special, she isn’t so special as to make us focus excessively on what goes on in cis lunar space and pretend that the rest of the Cosmos doesn’t exist, so I call her Cynthia as a reminder of the remainder of everything. That may be a mistake as in many ways Cynthia really is special and possibly even unique.

Leaving that aside for now, familiarity breeds contempt and for me Cynthia is no exception. I tend to prefer the obscure to the quotidian and in this case, of all the bodies in the Solar System she has struck me as one of the most boring. No rings, no Great Red Spot, no scintilla of the chance of native life – nothing! She’s about as interesting as a car park and to be honest footage from the Apollo missions confirmed the resemblance, particularly the ones with the Lunar Rover. I know this is most unfair. But if we had a different moon and Cynthia was out there orbiting Venus or whatever, I don’t think I’d find her any less boring. The result of all this, though, is that I’ve ended up knowing practically nothing about her compared to, say, Io.

I do feel a sense of shame about this and it’s even a little hard to confess to people that it’s so. I’m also sure there’s much that is fascinating about the subject. Part of it is based on the sentiment expressed by Tasmin Archer’s song ‘Sleeping Satellite’: it’s just really disappointing that nothing much happened in human space exploration after the Apollo program. But it’s also that it’s too close. It’s a bit like how I feel about birds. There’s something about their relatively easy accessibility that makes them tedious to me. I feel pretty bad about that too.

What if I do think of Cynthia as Cynthia though, rather than just “that moon”? How is she special? Well, one of the most striking things about the surface is that the lava plains referred to as maria or seas are practically all on the side facing us. There are a few small maria on the other side, notably Mare Moscoviense, discovered unsurprisingly by the Soviet space program, but it’s mainly just craters. I don’t even know if there’s an established theory about why that is. It must’ve been a heck of a shock when people realised this though, and considering the proximity it’s a pretty major and recent discovery. Besides this are the Transient Lunar Phenomena, TLPs, which are unpredictable alterations in the appearance of features on the surface as seen from Earth. These are colour changes, alterations in brightness and the appearance of what looks like fog. This being astronomy, the events are not reproducible, meaning that hypotheses as to what’s going on can’t be tested. I’m not sure why this would apply more to TLPs than anything else observed through a telescope. Patrick Moore was the expert on them, incidentally. He seems to have focussed a lot on lunar observation, which makes sense considering his situation.

It’s said that even experts can’t tell the difference between cratered terrain on Cynthia and Mercury, but I find this somewhat implausible. Many lunar craters are “flooded”: being located near the maria, they seem to have been inundated with lava before it solidified. Nothing like that seems to have happened on Mercury. I’m also not sure how common rayed craters are there.

The other features of the lunar surface are also pretty vague to me. I know there are mountain ranges, central peaks in some craters, valleys and “rills”. These last things I presume are ridges but I don’t know. I’m also pretty vague about the mountain ranges and valleys. On Earth the main mountain-raising process is continental plate collision, but there aren’t any of those on Cynthia, and I also seem to recall that the crust is much thicker. I can see how maybe a large crater obliterated on one side would make a mountain range of that violent impacts might cause rings of ripples around the site, as with Valhalla and Asgard on the Jovian moon Callisto. Rills? Well I’m not sure I’m even spelling that right but I wonder if they’re the result of shrinkage after melting and solidifying. I’m deliberately refraining from looking anything up so as to demonstrate my ignorance of the familiar.

A few other things about Cynthia (used to it yet? I doubt it – I’m not):

  • She’s the largest planetary satellite in the Solar System by far relative to her planet. Charon is bigger compared to Pluto, but that’s not a planet, right? The next largest, relatively, is Neptune’s Triton. If Cynthia was proportional to Earth in size compared to Triton and Neptune, she would be sixty times smaller in mass than she is.
  • From the Sun’s perspective, Cynthia’s orbit is always concave, unlike all other moons which seem to loop. In other words she’s more like a planet than a moon.
  • Cynthia is the only known body in the Universe which can cause perfect eclipses. If probability is the only factor here, Earth is likely to be the only planet in this Galaxy from which eclipses can be seen. There are some bodies which adequately cover the Sun or other moons or planets, and others which are quite a bit smaller, but solar eclipses are only likely to be possible here.
  • Earth’s magnetic field is generated by lunar tides in the outer iron core. Without them, dangerous ionising radiation would be constantly sterilising Earth’s surface.

The exceptional nature of this situation bothers me because it means there seems to be something special about Earth, and that makes me wonder whether there is in fact life elsewhere in the Universe. Other planets like Earth might have much smaller moons, and if they do have life it might just be primitive or confined to the oceans. In fact it might not exist at all because photosynthesis needs radiation in the form of visible light, and anywhere light was visible there might also be the likes of beta radiation to destroy the organisms, meaning no useful external source of power to keep it going. I hope I’m wrong.

The other thing is that we only have one moon. Mars has two, captured apparently from the asteroid belt. Deimos is particularly interesting in this respect because it seems to be about the same size as the Chicxulub Impactor said to have wiped out most of the dinosaurs. It’s not scientific to draw this conclusion, but nothing rules out the possibility that the object concerned didn’t spend millions of years as a second moon of this planet in an ultimately unstable orbit.

Sometimes particular asteroids are sensationally hyped as “second moons”. Although this is never true because all of them spend at least some of their time in regions of space where the Sun’s influence is stronger on them than Earth’s, there are asteroids whose orbits are connected to ours. An especially well-known one is Cruithne, whose orbit looks horseshoe-shaped from our point of view. Others include Amor and Apollo.

The other possibilities are objects at Lagrangian points either of this double planet system or of the Sun and Earth. These are locations where the gravitational pulls of two celestial bodies are balanced. Between Earth and Cynthia there is a point where the one-sixth as strong lunar gravity pulling one way is equal to Earth’s pulling the other. Unsurprisingly it’s five-sixths of the distance between them. There are also two points which each complete an equilateral triangle with the two objects. Jupiter and the Sun have two families of asteroids in these positions, orbiting ahead and behind while keeping pace. These are known as Trojans due to them being named after characters in Homer’s Iliad such as Achilles and Hector. Earth, being puny compared to Jupiter, has so far only one detected Trojan, which has no name and is about half a kilometre in diameter. It’s also been claimed that dust clouds have been observed at the analogous points within cis lunar space but this has never been reproduced. They might well be there even if they haven’t been detected though.

As far as other people’s knowledge of the subject is concerned, I’m curious as to how it might look on a line graph (which I can’t draw because I’m on Android – sorry!). I presume it climbed in a steady slope up until the first successful Soviet probes, then steepened, then took a massive leap during the Apollo missions. But what happened after? It was presumably boosted by work which could be done because of Apollo, because of such things as rocks and laser reflectors left there, but compared to the human visits, how much knowledge has been added by the more recent automatic spacecraft? If the answer is “not much”, that would seem to support the argument that humans need also to be in trans lunar space. I want to know this more than I want to know about the main topic of this blog entry.

Two more things.

This blog entry isn’t just about my guilty ignorance concerning our moon. Any thoughts about what else it is?

And finally, YES WE DID GO! I can’t be bothered to debunk it here when clavius.org does such an excellent job of doing so. Just briefly though, there were seven missions to land there, one of which failed, a total of twelve people have walked on the surface, a further six on those missions have orbited, nobody has ever been more isolated than those people, and missions have also orbited as an aim. There were seventeen Apollos plus some more associated with Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz test project. And nobody has been back since ’72.

The Mandela Effect And “Skepticism”

In case you didn’t already know, the Mandela Effect (ME) is where large groups of people have discrepancies in their memories. Prime examples of these are that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the ’80s rather than becoming president of South Africa and the spelling of the name “Berenst?in” in the children’s book series ‘The Berenstein Bears’. Opinion is divided between several explanations, and notably people who see themselves as skeptics (note the K) generally cleave to the idea that it’s due to some people having false memories, confabulations or misconceptions. The only trouble is, that isn’t the most sceptical position to take on this.

The two most enthusiastically received explanations for the ME are that people’s consciousnesses switch between timelines and that the world as we know it is a simulation. Perhaps surprisingly, taking these hypotheses together and judging them in terms of rational doubt, the simplest one is not the classical psychological group of explanations at all. It’s the simulation one. Although I don’t personally believe we are living in a simulation, the idea as an explanation for the ME makes the fewest assumptions compared to the others.

I insisted earlier that skepticism be spelt with a K, and opposed it to scepticism with a C. This is because that spelling, popular with both Americans and Commonwealth people who could perhaps better be described as metaphysical naturalists and scientific realists, doesn’t really refer to scepticism at all. Real scepticism is the view that we fail to know anything, and the more sceptical someone is, the less they claim to know. Skepticism with a K is different, and is more about seeking a physical or naturalistic explanation even when the evidence is against such a hypothesis. The reason it’s spelt with a K, I think, is that it’s set up in opposition to the likes of religious fundamentalism in the US, and so has been forced to be quite assertive, in the sense that it makes bald assertions. Clearly the mere claim by a skeptic that something is not so does not make it true and there are plenty of well-argued positions of theirs with which I agree, but I can’t pretend I think it’s true scepticism. I also think it’s been exported to other parts of the world where religious fundamentalism is less of an issue and that in such an environment it can be positively harmful to intellectual discourse.

Just to be briefly sympathetic to the classical psychological explanation of the ME, some people see the fact that large numbers of people remember something in a similar way which seems to be at odds with observed evidence as supportive of the idea that confabulation is an inadequate explanation. This is not so. Optical illusions tend to work across cultures and lead to the same misconceptions, although not always. For instance, there’s a forced perspective scene in ‘Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind’ where Joel appears to be the size of a small child and his babysitter, Clementine, is of adult size. So far as I know, no viewer of that film initially perceives that scene as having distorted props and normal-sized actors, even though that’s clearly the case. Similarly, just because more than half the people who knew about Nelson Mandela might think he died in jail doesn’t mean he did, and even quite detailed apparently counterfactual opinions widely agreed upon could be false. That in itself is not a valid argument for a non-psychological explanation of the ME.

One of the things which bothers me about skeptics is that I get the impression that some of them, doubtless a minority, play dirty. If you search on Wikipedia for “Mandela Effect” you get redirected to “Confabulation”. To illustrate why this is not simply a case of correcting a failure to understand, it’s possible that the classical psychological explanation is not confabulation at all but misconception. People might just not have learnt the correct version of events in the first place. By contrast, confabulation is more likely to occur in people with memory problems due to head injury or dementia. Even if the explanation is not misconception, the facts fit false memory better. The reason, I think, that people get redirected to the article on Confabulation is that Wikipedia has an in-built bias towards, for want of a better word, nerds, who may also be skeptics. Having said that, this is not so much playing dirty as unconscious conformity. It would be entirely feasible to write a balanced article on the ME but it would very probably be speedily deleted.

There are also apparent examples of skeptics deliberately misleading people. A case in point which is not directly linked to the ME is the idea that Nostradamus predicted 9/11. Since I have previously gone into this on this blog, I won’t go into a huge amount of depth on this. There is a hoax quatrain which seems to refer to the destruction of the Twin Towers. Skeptics claim that the idea that Nostradamus knew about 9/11 postdates the event itself and results from the fake verse. In fact, this is, remarkably, not so. There is a perfectly legitimate stanza in Nostradamus’s writings which was interpreted by believers as predicting an airliner crashing into a skyscraper in New York City decades before the event, and there are published records in print of people making this exact interpretation at the time. If you don’t believe me, there are copies of Erika Cheetham’s books on Nostradamus, published in the 1970s and ’80s, which explicitly make this exact claim. In this case, the skeptics’ claim is easily refuted and the sceptical position is to accept that there is a firm correlation, for whatever reason, between how Nostradamus was popularly interpreted in about 1980 and the events of 9/11. That’s closer to true scepticism.

The simulation argument is the fairly widely-held belief that our experiences are not of the physical world but of a computer simulation thereof. It’s not just suggested by ME people but by very mainstream thinkers. Elon Musk has suggested it, among others. There are different degrees of idea here. At one extreme, even our consciousness is simulated and there aren’t even brains in vats. Then there’s the possibility that there are brains in vats, and beyond that the ‘Matrix’-style idea that we have bodies in the physical world but never experience them for real, or at least have forgotten that we ever did. There is an opposite extreme which is also relevant to the ME and has also been suggested as a solution to the Fermi paradox.

In case you don’t know, the Fermi paradox is “where are all the aliens?”. We seem to be living on a typical planet of a typical star in a typical galaxy, and we are intelligent life forms who might be expected to go into space and visit other star systems at some point in the future. However, if all of that’s so, why haven’t we been visited by aliens ourselves? Where is everyone? Loads of suggestions have been made, including the idea that this planet is just very lucky to have intelligent life on it, that we are unusually early, that most life is bacteria-like and that all intelligent life wipes itself out somehow before it can get anywhere else. I could go on. The explanation which could lead into the ME and simulation suggestion is known as the “Zoo Hypothesis”. In this version, aliens are fully aware of us and may even visit us regularly but are containing us in a special region of space including Earth, hiding any evidence of their existence. We’re like pets, scientific specimens or maybe just being protected until we’re ready for the truth.

One version of the Zoo Hypothesis suggests that the sky is not entirely real. Although the Solar System exists, it’s contained within a gigantic sphere with something like a pretend hologram of the rest of the Universe on it. Similarly, one of the more outré explanations of the ME is that some people have been moved across the Milky Way to a subtly different planet. Although this is the kind of view which most people would reject out of hand, in order to be truly sceptical one must attempt to find evidence for and against the idea.

The reason people believe this is that they remember the location of the Solar System being marked in a different place on pictures of the Milky Way Galaxy and the name of the arm of the Galaxy where we are situated as being different. I’m not going to contradict this but I will point a couple of things out. Suppose we take two stars on opposite sides of the sky, Alpha Camelopardalis and Eta Carinae. The first is six thousand light years away in one direction and the second 7500 light years in the opposite direction. Both would historically have been visible at twice their current distance. This means that a sphere around the Solar System at least twenty thousand light years in diameter would have had to have shifted with us for the stars to appear to have been in the same apparent positions and that it would have had to have moved at least that distance. That is, unless for some reason the Galaxy has repeating patterns, which it feasibly could if it has two symmetrical halves. If that were so, though, the two prominent satellite galaxies of the Milky Way, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, would be in different positions in the sky since they are both only about 150 000 light years away. And this is where the simulation hypothesis comes in: all of this can be explained if we’re not seeing the real sky.

Now I don’t believe in this at all, but it should be noted that there is a sense in which not believing in other star systems and galaxies based only on the presence of their light and the parallax they show over the year is in fact a more sceptical position than believing in confabulation. At the same time it’s also a very limited version of the hypothesis which places an arbitrary and convenient limit for the simulation way beyond the orbit of Pluto. It’s also possible to draw that limit in and the closer it gets to one’s neighbourhood, the less one has to take on faith with no incontrovertible evidence.

The limit of this, of course, is Cartesian doubt. The seventeenth century philosopher René Descartes set out to doubt everything he rationally could and found that all he could confidently assert was the famous cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore I am”. This is of course not the limit of rational doubt, because for example there might be no self, so all that’s left then is something like “experience exists, therefore something exists”, but in fact he chose to stop there and proceeded to put the rest of the world back in by attempting to prove the existence of a benevolent Creator who wouldn’t deceive him. This is highly dubious, but the method of doubt, that is, Ockham’s Razor, is paid a lot of lip service by skeptics. Well, if you really want to start from a position of certainty and proceed to rank explanations of the ME in terms of which makes the fewest assumptions, the very highest-ranked item of all just isn’t mere skepticism about memory. It’s scepticism about the reality of the external world.

This is why skeptics are not real sceptics. A real skeptic would have to reject confabulation as an explanation. Now, I don’t believe for a moment that the simulation hypothesis is correct, but maybe I believed that a second ago and have confabulated the rest.

A Trio Of Words From Isaac

Yesterday I had occasion to refer to ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ by Karel Czapek The Misspelt. Today I seek to combine yesterday’s post with that of the day preceding it, though with fewer newts than you might expect, by referring to the renowned SF author and biochemist Isaac Asimov and his three donations to English vocabulary

The first is surprising. Asimov was apparently the first person to use the word “robotics” as a term for the science of robots. He claims that the word is not found in Webster’s Third International Dictionary‘, published in 1961, although I find that rather far-fetched and haven’t checked, but it is undoubtedly the case that it wasn’t in the dictionary when he first used the word in about 1940, I’m guessing in ‘Robbie’. It’s a very obvious and natural coinage and the fact that he was unaware of inventing a word when he did so indicates how language evolution just lumbers on headlessly without much control from anyone, which is why invented gender-neutral pronouns, for example, are unlikely to catch on and also why, on a much grander scale, Esperanto was such a failure.

This links once again to politics. One view of conservatism is that it’s about organically growing institutions such as the Church and the House of Lords, and woe betide anyone who attempts to tinker with society in a planned and rational way. The workings of that organic product of humanity known as language do seem to work in such a manner quite often although sometimes planning does work. The Korean script was consciously designed and remains popular, and amazingly the Turkish attempt to minimise words of Arabic origin seemed to succeed, although it left the language quite impoverished. It is, however, quite worrying to contemplate the degree of coercion which was probably required to secure that change. It might therefore be considered quite problematic to someone who believes in social planning to acknowledge the recalcitrance of language change when she contemplates other cultural products such as the social order. Having said that, there might be other “organic” processes which are either unacknowledged or suppressed, such as the drift towards monopolies and riots respectively.

Back to “robotics”. It was once claimed that nothing good could come out of television because the word is a mixture of Greek and Latin. This is also a mix, from the Czech “robotnik” (yes, as in Sonic the Hedgehog) and the Anglicised Greek “-ics”. “Robot” itself may be an imperative verb in Czech, along with Polish and I assume Slovak: “work!”. It seems to be linked to the word “arbiter” and the German verb for work, “arbeiten”, through metathesis (swapping sounds). R<=>B-T.

Another word which is often falsely used as a synonym for “robotics” is “cybernetics”. This word is connected to “governor” – the Greek word “kybernetes” is clearly connected. K=G, B=V and so forth. Cybernetics is, though, not robotics. I often describe medical herbalism as medical cybernetics, but that’s a subject for a different blog. Cybernetics is about homoeostasis, feedback and self-controlling systems, which would include robots but also ecosystems and the human body, which is where herbalism comes in. It could also relate to the workings of the mind and body as an integrated system, meaning that the emotional and empathetic aspects of medicine would also be included. But I’ve covered this elsewhere.

Asimov’s other word is “psychohistory”, which he helpfully defined with a quote from the Encyclopedia Galactica:

That branch of mathematics that deals with the overall reactions of large groups of human beings to given stimuli under given conditions.

The idea is that a sufficient number of human beings can be considered to act en masse in various predictable ways and that laws and equations can be drawn up to describe how this happens. The main point of the Foundation Trilogy, before Asimov’s publishers decided to ruin it by having him churn out endless sequels, was that a mathematician, Hari Seldon (yes, now you may have twigged where another fictional character’s name is from), uses psychohistory to predict that the Galactic Empire is about to fall and finds a way to shorten the dark age that will inevitably follow from 30 000 years to a single millennium. He is arrested for sedition and the plan must continue in secret.

Unlike “robotics”, the word “psychohistory” has not retained its original meaning. Nowadays psychohistory is the psychological analysis of the behaviour of individual historical figures. For example, Papa Doc Duvalier, former dictator of Haiti, seems to have become paranoid and more despotic after he gave himself a mini-stroke by overestimating a dose of insulin. Hence such incidents as the Haitian diaspora and the consequent entry of AIDS into North America, resulting incidentally in Asimov’s premature death in 1992, can be partly accounted for by the head of state’s psychosis. This, however, has almost the opposite of the original meaning, as it deals with individuals and is tantamount to a Great Man Theory of History.

An American quadrillion (1 000 000 000 000 000) individuals live in Asimov’s Galactic Empire, which he deemed a sufficiently large number to enable accurate mathematical generalisations to be made about them. The analogy is with the kinetic theory of gases. This theory deals with gas particles statistically because there are so many of them in any sufficient amount of gas, predicting their pressure, conductivity, viscosity and volume, among other things. On a smaller scale, Brownian motion occurs where for instance particles of pollen and smoke appear to jitter randomly because the number of gas particles hitting them tends to push them unevenly temporarily in a particular direction, then another and so on, depending on how many are hitting them on which side at the time. Albert Einstein used this as evidence for the existence of molecules. Similarly, on a small scale psychohistory in the Asimovian sense breaks down and is unable to make reliable predictions: Seldon is able, for example, to predict the probabilities of the outcome of his trial but not with any degree of certainty because only a few people are involved. Asimov illustrates Brownian motion elsewhere in his 1966 adaptation of ‘Fantastic Voyage’, where the miniaturised submarine Proteus is unevenly battered by water molecules, causing it to judder. This is of course not in the original movie and reflects his frustration at lack of control over the plot, characters and the like.

Asimovian psychohistory is of course a form of sociological positivism. As I mentioned the other day, positivism as the word is used here means the idea that human society is governed by scientific laws and can be meaningfully analysed and its behaviour forecast qualitatively, e.g. by gathering data and doing stats on it. Many people object to this idea for all sorts of reasons. For instance they may see it as an attempt by sociology or politics to pull itself up by its own bootstraps like Baron Munchausen, since it’s the political science community trying to analyse itself when it’s marinaded in exactly the same happenings as it purports to analyse, or that it confers a spurious sense of authority by providing reassuringly objective-seeming statistics and numbers which in fact fail to capture the essence of what’s going on. Max Weber, for example, opposed positivism quite strongly and, perhaps surprisingly, Marx himself objected to Auguste Comte’s attempt to apply a scientific approach to sociology. Marx, coming out of the Hegelian tradition, was sceptical about the possibility of analysing society empirically.

In fact Marx’s very immurement within the perceived murk of Hegelianism, with its apparent florid circumlocution as opposed to the plain directness of English-speaking academic philosophy, led to the development of Analytical Marxism, an attempt to theorise in a Marxist way without what was seen as the unnecessary philosophical baggage of Continental philosophy. Although I can understand the appeal, much of what is good in Marxism results from its dialectical background. For instance, the metaphysics that everything is connected and must be considered dynamically seems much Greener than the mechanistic alternative. Nor is that anti-positivist, as the principles of dialectical materialism can be usefully applied to the ecology of the margins between biomes. Nowadays Analytical Marxism is discredited although I can’t remember why.

Some former Analytical Marxists moved on to attempt to adapt Rawlsian theory of justice to a socialist perspective. More traditional Marxists have objected to this on the grounds that Marxism is not so much a theory of justice as an attempt to analyse social forces, and there’s the similar controversy of whether Marxism has an ethical aspect. Clearly Marx and others have made ethical statements about capitalism, but membership of a particular social class is also seen as determining one’s values, which suggests ethical scepticism since we are all, including Marx, understood to be members of one class or another.

The idea of psychohistory intrigues me because it’s “almost Marxism”, but proposed by a liberal American without much interest in politics. Asimov was in fact approached by the Communist Party at one point but rejected them. Although he was clearly to the left of Heinlein’s public persona, to pick another giant, and cared enough about social issues such as the Cold War to make fairly bold statements out of some of his stories, he was no socialist. Nonetheless psychohistory holds out the idea that there could be a valid natural science of society, though one founded on different principles than mainstream Marxism. One of the interesting things done in the name of the analytical flavour of that approach was the use of game theory and even more so rational action theory. The latter is based on the idea that large scale social behaviour can be explained as the aggregate of the behaviour of individuals, which is remarkably close, to my mind, to the kinetic theory of gases in principle, and hence to psychohistory.

It would be nice if there could be a scientific social theory and I’m not even sure there can’t be. Marxism may not be it and may also be good at illustrating its impossibility. If such a theory can exist, the question arises of whether it would be okay to reject it.

Asimov also invented a third word which has come to be widely accepted: positronic. This is directly associated with robotics in his fiction, but deals with positrons, the antimatter version of electrons, in the same way as electronics deal with electrons. He was much vaguer about this than the other two, but his initial idea was inspired by the discovery of the positron in 1932, which resulted from the predictions of Paul Dirac and the observation that there is a particle which behaves like an electron but veers in the opposite direction when it responds to electric charge. He used the positron because of its ephemeral nature when surrounded by ordinary matter, which leads almost immediately to its annihilation along with the electron it encounters. This brought to mind the idea of a quick-witted robot brain. Thus the positronic robot, and Asimov’s comment about it: “no, I don’t know how this is done”. Star Trek took this idea up but failed to do much that was sensible, using it as technobabble. To be fair, this is the most technobabblish of the three words, and in fact unusually so for the person who made it up, who generally writes hard sci-fi. This is a much more impressionistic, arty notion.

A positronic brain is made of an alloy of platinum and iridium, which are very dense noble metals. Noble metals are very unreactive, meaning, I presume, that their electrons are reluctant to leave their orbitals. Platinum and iridium are also among the densest of all elements. I presume, though, that the platiniridium positronic brain is mainly said to be made of that stuff in order to confer an air of preciousness, which is again more impressionistic than usual.

In reality I can think of two ways that positronics could be anywhere near as sophisticated as electronics. One is simply as antimatter electronics – circuits made of anticopper wiring powered by batteries made of antimatter acid and antilead driving dynamos with anti-iron for example. There’s no reason to suppose that positronic circuits of this kind would be advantageous over electronic ones, and they could only work in a vacuum. Also, the matter from which they’re made is not available. It would, however, be possible to levitate such a device in a vacuum chamber and have it work, and also to have it sensitive to light and emit light. The question “why?” is quite a pressing one. The alternative would be to use radioactive material which emits positrons and manipulate its flow using magnetic fields. This is rather more fruitful, as for example it could be used to make self-powering devices which would also be able to manage on tiny levels even of their own energy. The antimatter equivalent of a cathode ray tube – an anode ray tube? – is one possibility. The problem is that they would be highly radioactive. It’s not clear how useful a telly without an external source of power would be if it would have to be contained in a lead box and invisible to potential viewers. It would be possible to build a positronic computer, something I outlined on the Halfbakery.

Those then are Asimov’s legacy to the English language. The last is oddly poetic and detached, the middle is intriguingly close to being plausible and an odd concept for an American as well as being routinely misused, and the first is just an example of him going with the flow and does exactly what it says.

Newt Points

As I’m currently relegated to using the Android WordPress app owing to a laptop problem, you may have noticed that recent posts are text-only. I may get adventurous but so far this one is not planned to be an exception. Well, let’s get adventurous and put a picture of a face on FB (bet it won’t work):

Apparently it can be done. This is of course Ken Livingstone, whose face will probably trigger many people to go on and on. On this occasion he is not here in a political capacity but as a newt enthusiast.

The word “newt” is one of several words which has issues with words immediately preceding it, including “apron”, “orange” and “adder” (the snake). The Latin for the final word is natrix, becoming “nadder” in English and eventually losing its N, presumably due to people panicking and saying “lookoutitsanadder!” really really fast. “Orange” is a bit different because oddly it seems to have started out without an N as aurantium, acquired one to become naranja in Castilian and then losing it again in English, having formerly been “norange”. I suppose if an orange fell off a tree someone might say “lookoutitsanorange!” really fast but that story’s less plausible than the adder one. It doesn’t seem to work at all with naprons, although it’s a pity because it means the obvious connection to the nape of the neck has now been lost.

I haven’t checked, but the word “newt” seems to be the only English word that seems to have gone in the opposite direction. The older words for newt, “eft” (not to be confused with Emotional Freedom Technique) and “evat”, seem to have acquired an initial N. Given that some salamanders are poisonous to the touch, I can see why someone might want to warn somebody quickly, but why it would be the other way round I have no idea.

Incidentally, another word for “newt”, “ask”, is bizarrely from the Proto-Germanic agithsahsijo , which means “badger lizard”. Whereas it’s understandable that a newt might be mistaken for a lizard, why the animal was associated with badgers is harder to explain. In modern-day Sweden there are no amphibians or reptiles with striking black and white markings, that area being the native land of the Proto-Germanic language, although slightly unexpectedly there are native Swedish tree frogs. It’s conceivable that there was such an animal there at some point in the Bronze Age or perhaps in other areas frequented by Aryans before they reached the North, but it is also alleged that Swedes are unusually afraid of badgers. Maybe a Swede can confirm or deny that. If it’s true, well it makes me wonder.

So Zerothly, I hear you ask, what is a newt? I’m glad you asked me that! More specifically, how are newts different from other salamanders? The answer is apparently that they are largely aquatic, unlike other salamanders who mainly live on land, and although they were once thought not to be closely related to each other they have in fact turned out to be so. It can’t be that simple though as there are other aquatic species in that order such as olms, axolotls and Chinese cave salamanders:

Newts have lungs as adults, so it might be that. I don’t know.

Without entering into the question of Ken Livingstone’s exact politics, since I have myself long been drawn to newts I’m given to wonder if there’s a correlation between being left wing and liking newts. The anti-fascist writer Karel Czapek, whose name I can’t spell properly on here due to the paucity of features on the user interface, wrote a satirical novel called ‘War With The Newts’, rather more obscure than his ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ which bequoth the world that word, which deals with the discovery of a species of marine amphibian which ends up taking over the world by flooding it and enslaving the small remnant of the human race to work in its factories – this is of course a reference to the Nazis. What bothers me about this novel, though, is rather tangential. Firstly the word “newt” is a mistranslation of the Czech “mlok”, which means “salamander”, the word for newt being something like “czolek “, again misspelt, if I recall correctly. Secondly, amphibians, having thin moist skin easily penetrated by oxygen and carbon dioxide, cannot survive in sea water because osmosis would draw much of the water out of their bodies. So I have an issue with Czapek there which is only partially assuaged by the fact that I’m spelling his name wrong.

I suspect that Mitteleuropa, with its relative abundance of salamander species, would be an area where newts would themselves shrivel in significance in the Czech mind, and it’s a sign again of low British biodiversity that here we have to contend with not only no native tree frogs but also only three species of salamander, all of whom are newts. That said, at least we’ve got those for now and they are relatively zealously protected. Even so, it’s sad to be deprived of such animals as the one that lives in Morocco, Spain and Gibraltar who is up to twice the weight of a Yorkshire terrier, forty centimetres long and defends herself by fracturing her ribs which then scratch the skin of potential predators, allowing the poison she sweats into their bodies. Another record-holding salamander lives in the Alps and is pregnant for up to three years at a time, though since her body is at the same temperature as her surroundings this varies a fair bit. But no: we just have the three, though I should appreciate them more.

Salamanders themselves are the order of tailed amphibians known as caudata or urodela, which has three families. There are few known fossils of urodela and the oldest are Jurassic, which is odd because they look superficially like our ancestors who crawled out or through the water twice as long ago. Furthermore, the DNA of the three surviving amphibian orders, all categorised as Lissamphibia to distinguish them from the classic and rather reptile-like labyrinthodonts and other groups, are not even closely related to each other, having been separate since soon after they were fish. What they were doing in all that time is a bit mysterious, to the extent that it even used to be thought they had evolved from fish independently from all other land vertebrates. I wish that was true but sadly it isn’t, and I’ve mentioned this elsewhere on this blog anyway.

I’ve recently become aware that there was until fairly recently a whole other group of tailed amphibians called the Allocaudata. This roughly means “other tailed amphibians”, which is not terribly informative. These two are known first from the Jurassic but sadly died out tantalisingly recently, just before the onset of the recent spate of Ice Ages about two million years ago. I have to admit to being rather badly-informed about these but I do know they look very like salamanders. Then again, so do lizards, who haven’t shared a common ancestor with them for something like 400 million years. The situation with the Urodela and Allocaudata is rather like that of rodents and shrews, which look very like each other at first glance but are in fact very different.

One feature Allocaudata do have which Urodela don’t is their bony scales. It was once common for fish to have bony scales, which is how our teeth orignated. This, I presume, means that they couldn’t breathe well through their skins so I imagine they used lungs, gills or cloacae (basically the anus, which some turtles partly use to respire through) instead. The very last known Allocaudata were burrowing animals living in Pliocene Southern Europe, and are thought to have died out when the climate became Mediterranean. This is fairly typical since often the last representatives of a group are often oddities in specialised niches, such as the duck-billed platypus and echidna.

The question arises of why people understood to be left wing find newts so fascinating. I have only given three examples of course, and three arbitrarily chosen points on a graph might more or less look like a straight line without actually being so. There’s not enough information here to be statistically significant. Even so, I can possibly suggest an association in my own mind. When I’m in a particular mood, perhaps not a terribly empathetic or tolerant one, I find the fact that we’re not living in a socialist and green society kind of tiresome and irritating in a kind of “why can’t we just learn to get along?” kind of way. That is, sometimes to me green libertarian socialism simply reflects the most straightforward and rational way of organising things which corresponds most closely to the laws of nature. Some would of course claim that the market is a similarly “natural” phenomenon which arises organically without conscious intervention, but that happens not to be how my own politics have personally developed, substantially because I think there’s an inevitable drift towards monopoly.

But how on Earth can this have anything to do with newt-fancying?!

Well, land vertebrates have a basic body form from which others have evolved. This can be seen in the lizards, that rare survivor of the rhynchocephalians the tuatara, the Allocaudata and of course newts. They have four slayed out feet with distinct digits, fairly sinuous torsos, long tails and short necks. Crocodiles and their kin are rather like this too. Then there are the more derived body forms such as hummingbirds, giraffes, turtles and frogs, and of course humans. Though there’s nothing wrong with being any of these, who are each in their own way beautiful examples of evolution, all of them are, to an ordered mind, candidates for being seen as aberrations. Hence my thesis is that to a socialist wanting a neat and sensibly-organised society, newts, being neat and sensibly-organised animals, appeal for the same reasons. Or maybe it’s just spurious correlation.

Theory vs. Conspiracy Theory

First of all, it isn’t my intention here to debunk conspiracy theories as a whole. Groups of people do organise secretly to achieve ends against public interest. In fact I shall be mentioning some here before I get down to the nitty-gritty. It’s more that they’re symptomatic rather than holistic, and holistic social theories do exist and should be applied.

Just to demonstrate goodwill I shall now mention a few genuine conspiracies:

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

This is a study carried out in the American South from 1932 to 1972, where African-Americans were deliberately infected with syphilis spirochaetes without their knowledge and left untreated even after it was known that penicillin was effective against the illness.


The CIA pursued a research project from the early ’50s until 1973 to find a way to elicit accurate confessions from people using the likes of drugs, particularly LSD, sensory deprivation and isolation. Freedom of information laws led to this becoming apparent in about 1975.

Nayirah Testimony

More recently, a fifteen year old girl called Nayirah testified in 1990 that Iraqi soldiers had taken incubators out of a Kuwaiti hospital and left the premature babies to die. This was repeatedly quoted by George Bush in connection with the Gulf War but turned out to be a complete fabrication and it emerged that Nayirah was the daughter of a Kuwaiti ambassador, and that the point of the story was to encourage support for Western military intervention.

There are naturally many more of these. As well as the ones I’ve mentioned, there are many more which fit into politically conservative agenda. For instance:

The New World Order (NWO)

As a phrase, this was notably used by George Bush in connection with the first Gulf War in 1991, but had previously been used by various world leaders far back into the twentieth century. The general idea seems to be that economically and socially liberal values should be imposed on the world, to which end for example such incidents as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait should be met by a kind of international policing via warfare. This doesn’t really hold together because the West provided arms to Iraq in the first place, and continued to do the same elsewhere, leading to further problems down the line. However, the conspiatorial version of this process is that there is a secret attempt to create a totalitarian world government which is essentially secular and liberal. It’s difficult to disentangle the views here but although there clearly is a trend towards globalism, it supports the current world economic system rather than working against it, whereas the conservative view is generally that the goal is something like global communism. There’s also a mixture of other views such as anti-Semitism which places the theory, in my view, firmly on the Right. It’s also associated with fundamentalist Christianity of a particular kind with its the familiar mix of homophobic and sexist attitudes.

White Genocide

This is very clearly a right wing view. The idea is that abortion, high rates of immigration, lowered fertility and homosexuality are all promoted to eliminate the “white race”, and that anti-racism is in fact racism against white people. To be honest I can’t see how this could be seen as anything other than right wing.

Cultural Marxism

The actual phrase is from the Frankfurt School and refers to an academic movement opposed to the pervasiveness of the profit motive and mass production under monopoly capitalism. The term has been adopted by the Right as a label for an alleged conspiracy employing political correctness, the counterculture and progressive politics to destroy Western society.

It’s not feasible to describe these in more detail here but they can all be seen as essentially right wing, and to me it seems that there are a lot more conservative conspiracy theories than left wing ones. This is somewhat complicated by the mixed nature of many of them. For instance, the NWO to me clearly is linked to a political trend towards neoliberalism which does fit with much of what is observed, but that doesn’t mean it’s orchestrated or that it correlates with communism – rather the opposite in fact. Nonetheless my impression is that the majority of conspiracy theories are mainly held by conservatives. Note, however, that this is a rather narrow and pejorative use of the word “conservative” which certainly fails to capture the more cosmopolitan or socially liberal conservatives who are out there. There is no one strand of conservatism.

As mentioned before, one of the ways in which conservatism seeks to portray itself is as a pragmatic approach which is opposed to ideology, in other words social theory. Some conservatives would bracket the ideologies of fascism and communism together as inevitably leading to coercion of some kind, and oppose it to their own more liberal views. In view of this fact, it seems rather anomalous that right wing conspiracy theories even exist, as having a theory about how the social order works is in many people’s views opposed to the spirit of conservatism. As such, it’s probably quite unfair to associate such views as typically conservative, but it is odd in a way that they exist at all.

The Left, on the whole, does have social theories, particularly Marxism and its derivatives. Unlike conspiracy theories, though, these views tend to be more totalising and are about the behaviour of the whole human species rather than about specific circumstances engineered consciously by individual agents. That doesn’t mean there can’t be specific situations which, say, Marxism doesn’t seem to offer to explain, but there is a more general and explicit framework behind them. For this reason, there isn’t much room for conspiracy theories on the Left.


It’s helpful to look at the world and attempt to predict what happens in it on the basis of theories arrived at through observation and testing. It isn’t clear that natural science really does exactly this in spite of appearances, but many people would probably agree that medical research or theoretical physics has gotten quite good at finding out what’s going on in the world. Nonetheless there are certain apparently rigorous natural sciences which can’t be pursued in this manner, such as palaeontology and astronomy. These generally do connect with other sciences such as physics and biology. The idea that something similar can be done with social sciences such as politics is known as positivism, a word also used in a much bigger context.

Marxism could be seen as a form of positivism, in the sense that it seeks to make testable predictions about society, and it certainly counts as an attempt at a total political theory. It should also be noted that just because it tends to be used as a polemic against right wing views that there’s no reason why it can’t be used to arrive at conservative approaches to policy-making if it really is value-neutral as a science should be. One problem with this is that it has traditionally predicted the downfall of capitalism. Except that it often hasn’t.

My experience of academic Marxism is that it talks about “late capitalism” while primarily focussing on reasons why it won’t lead to a socialist world order. As such, it works absolutely fine for conservatism in that sense, but if one does see the world as problematic in a particular way, it’s a bit like medicine meticulously describing an illness without coming up with any therapeutics.

If Marxism really is a science, and a well-corroborated theory, it could be seen as having the same status as evolutionary theory or relativity, and as such someone who didn’t agree with it would be like a creationist or climate change denier. This sounds like thought policing or brainwashing, but why? Is it because Marxism isn’t really scientific?

I would in fact see Marxism as non-scientific although it makes brilliantly accurate predictions. The problem, of course, is confirmation bias, which also happens with conspiracy theories. The non-scientific nature of the theory, however, isn’t quite the same as that of a conspiracy theory because Marxism can be applied to itself. Marxism has a social context and its principles of connectedness and dynamism can be applied to itself. For instance, in the mid-nineteenth century the roles of different classes applied to a whole class and its members. Today those interests are less clear cut, because for example many people have investments in pension schemes or savings accounts, and are therefore to some extent owners of the means of production. This is effectively a form of intersectionality – many of us are both oppressed and oppressors. It’s also possible to extend the model of class in Marxist terms to other categories such as gender, and with it such ideas as economic determinism and class consciousness. Having said that, this impinges on the topics covered on the other blog.

To conclude, it seems to me that conspiracy theories tend to be right wing, and this is because left wingers generally have the big theory of ideology which means that their own versions of conspiracy theories should really be specific applications of a grander social theory. I was going to say a lot more but this got away from me!

Four Questions

There’s a fine balance between disrespect and disagreement, and also the principle that one should not speak ill of the dead, particularly when they’re only just gone. On the other hand, nobody is perfect.

Stephen Hawking is too significant a person to devote just one entry to. I’m not denying that he deserves respect or that he was a prodigiously deep thinker. There is also a bias known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is that knowing little or nothing about a subject confers the illusion that there’s little or nothing to know about it. This would be a neat way of teasing apart the world, were it not for the fact that both sides of a debate can be seen in that way. In other words, your opponent can often seem ignorant due to how you personally see an issue. Nonetheless, Dunning-Kruger is important and applies to everyone, no matter how experienced or learned they are once they venture outside their field.

This applies to Stephen Hawking as much as to anyone else but the difficulty here is deciding what counts as his field. Being in a sense an expert on the Universe, it’s forgiveable to see him as effectively an expert on everything. As a child I reached a point of familiarity with every known subatomic particle said to exist at the time along with their lifetimes, charges, masses, spins, interactions, decay products and the like. Therefore I concluded in my childish naiveté that since I knew all there was to know about the building blocks of the Cosmos, that I “knew everything”. However, as I mentioned before, I used to spend a lot of time watching things swimming about in the river, one of which was the so-called freshwater shrimp. It occurred to me that I knew virtually nothing about such a common and prosaic animal, and therefore that I basically still knew nothing about anything because of the sheer complexity and variety of the amount of stuff in the world. This is a particularly stark example of Dunning-Kruger, and as it applies to everyone, it must also have been true of Professor Hawking.

Clearly he said a lot in his life and it makes little sense to reduce him to a few quotes. It should also be borne in mind that Albert Einstein, on whose birthday Hawking died by the way (and yes, it was also Pi Day), is a particular victim of misattributed quotations, and we should all be a bit wary of the same happening again. Nonetheless, several of his expressed opinions come to mind about him, two of which I disagree with and two of which seem correct to me. Now you may ask who I am to offer an opinion on the pronouncements of a genius and a giant of science who was at the absolute centre of his field. In response, I will of course refer you to Dunning-Kruger, with the proviso that it may not be clear where his field of expertise ends.

The first quote refers to contact with aliens:

I think it would be a disaster. The extraterrestrials would probably be far in advance of us. The history of advanced races meeting more primitive people on this planet is not very happy, and they were the same species. I think we should keep our heads low.

I have to say I find this quote rather unfortunate. The reasoning behind it is that when indigenous people have come in contact with European civilization, as it has been wont to label itself, they’ve tended to come off pretty badly. It is an understandable opinion. In fact, one of the explanations offered as to why we haven’t found any aliens is that they’re all hiding from an enormously powerful hostile intelligence and that we are being most unwise doing things like sending signals out as messages and sticking plaques on the sides of starships. The problem I have with this reasoning, though, is that it extrapolates a single example on this one planet which is typical of one imperialistic and expansionist culture but doesn’t even apply generally to our own species as we know it. Although there have been many wars between nations and tribes, they haven’t always resulted in the establishment of empires, and when they have the issue has often been two-dimensional territory containing resources of one kind or another. As Iain M Banks astutely observed, the fact that space is vast and has three or more dimensions is a game changer, since it encourages self-sufficiency rather than reliance on hierarchies and is much harder to surround. It’s interesting to contemplate what a 3-D version of the board game Go would be like, or for that matter Risk. Would it involve the same factors as their plane-based equivalents?

Humanity as it stands right now is a house divided against itself. It wastes energy in internal squabblings and as such we may have doomed ourselves. Other intelligent species with the kind of technology which would enable us to encounter them are unlikely to be warlike for that reason. Sadly though, this may be exactly why we haven’t come across them: sooner or later they do something like elect Donald Trump and wipe themselves out. In this respect, then, I think Hawking is wrong.

I feel rather more ambivalent about the next quote:

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. We cannot quite know what will happen if a machine exceeds our own intelligence, so we can’t know if we’ll be infinitely helped by it, or ignored by it and sidelined, or conceivably destroyed by it.

The excellent film Ex Machina does a great job of illustrating issues with AI, which however I can’t discuss without spoilers. When we come across something like us, perhaps in physical terms of maybe a disembodied but human-sounding voice, we often project human thoughts and feelings onto it. Philip K Dick did a fantastic job of portraying the paranoia we might also feel that this may very much not be the case. Replicants to PKD are akin to solitary predators such as spiders and scorpions, camouflaged dangerously as humans, although the question also arises in his mind of how much the rest of us are also like that, perhaps partaking of that nature exactly because we choose to make and use machines in our own image.

This is the pop culture version of that perceived threat. The real risk is harder to quantify. What we choose to program artificial intelligence to do is only the first step in their creation, and assumptions and bugs in coding may multiply many times beyond the initial tiny mistake or misconception. Furthermore, our own motives may be questionable in any case. Intelligent machines which behave like termites or squid would be a possible threat simply because they’re not like us. Paranoia leads us to imagine them deciding to convert the whole human race into a giant centipede in order to solve world hunger and forge intimate connections between us all. In fact this is unlikely because we have four limbs compared to the centipedes’ two per segment. Such inhuman thinking is what we fear.

My discomfort with this reasoning though is that, rather like the alien concern, it feels like it’s based on prejudice. Humans have a history of being sexist, racist and, notably, ableist, among many other things whose failure to be mentioned here doubtless reflects my own complicity in those particular varieties of prejudice. Faced with machine or extraterrestrial sentience and treating it with suspicion just seems to be a variety of those other forms of prejudice. After all, we already know what a world where robots haven’t taken over is like, and it seems to be largely characterized by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Would artificial intelligence really do a worse job? With all due respect to the man, and I mean that sincerely, I honestly believe that, sadly, this pair of opinions originates from the same line of thought as racism and sexism as well as ableism. Even so, I think we are all guilty of that way of thinking and it would be unfair to single him out in that respect. In fact it might even be a form of ableism to paint him as so perfect. He was like the rest of us in so many ways.

On a more positive note, there are two further opinions of Hawking’s on which I’m far keener. Here is the first:

I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I’m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars.

I am wholeheartedly in agreement with this opinion, so much so that in fact I think it might even transcend politics. Whereas it would be very sad if it turned out that neoliberalism is the only system under which large numbers of humans could take up permanent residence beyond this planet, it irks me to say this, but this would just have to be how it happens. I don’t in fact believe that is the only viable option and in fact I think it could well be incompatible with long-term survival for the reasons I mentioned above, but as far as I can tell, we may have just got lucky as a species to have gotten this far. Countless steps on the way to becoming a planet-spanning technological species could have gone another way. There have been six mass extinctions so far. The planet nearly completely froze over about a billion years ago. Further back, microörganisms released a gas which poisoned almost all life on this planet. Asteroids and comets hit us on a regular basis. Gamma ray bursts could happen at any time which would make it rain concentrated nitric acid. A global pandemic could kill us all. Besides that, we are our own worst enemies, with our WMDs, climate change and risks posed by the complexity of the infrastructure. We desperately need to reduce our perilous dependence on a single, precious precarious biosphere, and to do that people need to leave the planet and ultimately also the solar system. I have zero argument with Hawking on this.

His fourth opinion is the one for which he is justly famous: Hawking Radiation. As it’s easy to find explanations of this elsewhere, even on this very blog, I won’t bother to repeat it, but this is clearly not subject to Dunning-Kruger, unlike the others, even the one I agree with! It’s also notably the theory which people might expect him to have won a Nobel Prize for. The reason he didn’t is that it’s very hard or impossible to test by observation. If black holes do evaporate, any sizeable example such as Cygnus X-1 or the central black hole of the Milky Way would reduce in mass far too slowly for any change to be detected. That said, the idea is beautifully elegant and aesthetically very appealing.

It’s two-all then with respect to these four thoughts. As to whether I have the right to aspire to opine is another matter. However, one thing is clear: Hawking’s field thrives on rigorous thought and testable hypotheses and all scientific opinions are provisional. Hence what I’ve just done is completely in the spirit of his chosen and beloved field.