The world beyond our five senses

Over at Normblog, Norm has a typically open-minded discussion about religion and its possible attractions for its adherents:

Both Howard [Jakobson] and Tim [Crane], then, neither of them speaking as a believer, sees religion as making the world, so to say, fuller for its adherents – with more of interest, of meaning, of things, even, beyond our grasp. This reminds me of the occasion I asked a religious friend about the basis of his belief and he cut the conversation short by saying simply that his life would be poorer without it.
All I can say is that this account of religion doesn’t work for me – I mean, to shift me – and for two reasons. The first is that the world seems like an intensely interesting place already, without any extra population of meanings and mysteries. Just look, read. There’s no end of it, never mind a fullness. The second is that I don’t feel free to add a further layer of things to those for which some evidence can be supplied, and if I did, I wouldn’t know where to stop. Why just those mysteries?

I think Norm, and the accounts he cites, miss something that is often important both to religious believers and to practitioners of religious activities (two overlapping but not identical groups, as I have explained before).    What is missing is that for many people in these two groups, their interest in religious ideas and practices arises from a contact they have had, or which they perceive they have had, with entities from a non-material realm. This contact usually involves none of their so-called five senses, but is experienced deeply nonetheless.  One can know something from merely being in the presence of somebody, as may happen, for example, when we experience the strong love of another person.
Of course, it may be that people who have had such spiritual experiences are deluded in thinking they had them, or even, that they delude themselves.  Experiments exciting certain parts of the brain with small electric currents can apparently induce very similar perceptions of religious experiences in people.   Even so, such experiments do not demonstrate, or even make likely, the absence of non-material entities; in precisely the same way, patients with tinnitus do not demonstrate that all sound is generated inside our own heads and we all live in a silent universe.
So it is perfectly possible that people who perceive they have had direct contact with non-material realms may indeed have had such contact.  This possibility exists even though Richard Dawkins and many another famous person seem not to have had such experiences.  Moreover, the lack of spiritual experiences for some people also tells us nothing about the existence or non-existence of spiritual realms and beings.   Not all of us are born able to hear, for example, but the fact that some people are born deaf is also not usually taken as a sign that the universe itself is silent.  It may thus, indeed, be those who believe that they have not had contacts with a non-material realm who are deluded, or who are deluding themselves.  In a situation of such widespread ignorance, with neither replicable evidence for the existence of spiritual entities nor any evidence against their existence, it behooves no one to be arrogant about his or her position.  (For the record, I do not count Norm in this combined category of arrogant atheists and arrogant religious believers.)
And to Norm’s larger point:   If a person has had such an experience, what does she find?  First, she finds that the experience is entirely discounted by science, since it cannot be replicated via experiment.  This arrogant disdain for phenomena that it cannot yet explain has sadly been a feature of western science since its inception.   Second, she finds that she cannot talk openly about this experience, at least not in a modern western office or university.    In the supremely rationalist environment of our business and education worlds, talking about spiritual experiences among colleagues is one sure way nowadays to receive laughter, scorn and derision.   That is very different from, say, the situation in the West in the middle of the 19th century, or the situation still today in Africa or in Australian Aboriginal society, societies where spiritual experiences are widely respected.   Having lived in both the West and in Africa, I know this difference very well.   Third, she would find no explanation or meaning for her experience in any academic discipline, apart from theology and poetry, and perhaps the arts and music.    She would, however, likely find great sympathy from pure mathematicians, who grapple daily with entities which seem to have existence and properties independent of the material realm, entities which are entirely imaginary, outside the world of our five senses, and yet which seem to exist in some fashion, often sublimely connected with one another.  (The square root of minus 1, for example, is entirely imaginary, yet its properties are not random, to be invented as we might wish from whole cloth, but are decidedly what they are.)
For Norm, the material world is rich and interesting enough as it is, and needs no further explanation.   If you have ever experienced something beyond the material, then I suggest that finding an explanation or interpretation of that experience which makes some sense of it for you is not nothing, and is a quest not to be ridiculed or derided, however quixotic that quest might prove.  Personally, I cannot understand how anyone who has encountered the Euler Equation  – which links an imaginary number with two important transcendental numbers, along with the respective identities for addition and multiplication – could possibly believe that the material world is all there is.

Crowd-sourcing for scientific research

Computers are much better than most humans at some tasks (eg, remembering large amounts of information, tedious and routine processing of large amounts of data), but worse than many humans at others (eg, generating new ideas, spatial pattern matching, strategic thinking). Progress may come from combining both types of machine (humans, computers) in ways which make use of their specific skills.  The journal Nature yesterday carried a report of a good example of this:  video-game players are able to assist computer programs tasked with predicting protein structures.  The abstract:

People exert large amounts of problem-solving effort playing computer games. Simple image- and text-recognition tasks have been successfully ‘crowd-sourced’ through games, but it is not clear if more complex scientific problems can be solved with human-directed computing. Protein structure prediction is one such problem: locating the biologically relevant native conformation of a protein is a formidable computational challenge given the very large size of the search space. Here we describe Foldit, a multiplayer online game that engages non-scientists in solving hard prediction problems. Foldit players interact with protein structures using direct manipulation tools and user-friendly versions of algorithms from the Rosetta structure prediction methodology, while they compete and collaborate to optimize the computed energy. We show that top-ranked Foldit players excel at solving challenging structure refinement problems in which substantial backbone rearrangements are necessary to achieve the burial of hydrophobic residues. Players working collaboratively develop a rich assortment of new strategies and algorithms; unlike computational approaches, they explore not only the conformational space but also the space of possible search strategies. The integration of human visual problem-solving and strategy development capabilities with traditional computational algorithms through interactive multiplayer games is a powerful new approach to solving computationally-limited scientific problems.”

Seth Cooper et al. [2010]: Predicting protein structures with a multiplayer online gameNature, 466:  756–760.  Published:  2010-08-05.
Eric Hand [2010]:  Citizen science:  people powerNature 466, 685-687. Published 2010-08-04.
The Foldit game is here.

Doing a PhD

These are some notes on deciding to do a PhD, notes I wrote some years ago after completing my own PhD.
Choosing a PhD program is one of the hardest decisions we can make. For a start, most of us only make this decision once in our lives, and so we have no prior personal experience to go on.
Second, the success or otherwise of a PhD depends a great deal on factors about which we have little advanced knowledge or control, including, for example:
Continue reading ‘Doing a PhD’

Research funding myopia

The British Government, through its higher education funding council, is currently considering the use of socio-economic impact factors when deciding the relative rankings of university departments in terms of their research quality, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), held about every five years.   These impact factors are intended to measure the social or economic impact of research activities in the period of the RAE (ie, within 5 years). Since the RAE is used to allocate funds for research infrastructure to British universities these impact factors, if implemented, will thus indirectly decide which research groups and which research will be funded.    Some academic reactions to these proposals are here and here.
From the perspective of the national economy and technological progress, these proposals are extremely misguided, and should be opposed by us all.    They demonstrate a profound ignorance of where important ideas come from, of when and where and how they are applied, and of where they end up.  In particular, they demonstrate great ignorance of the multi-disciplinary nature of most socio-economically-impactful research.
One example will demonstrate this vividly.  As more human activities move online, more tasks can be automated or semi-automated.    To enable this, autonomous computers and other machines need to be able to communicate with one using shared languages and protocols, and thus much research effort in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence these last three decades has focused on designing languages and protocols for computer-to-computer communications.  These protocols are used in various computer systems already and are likely to be used in future-generation mobile communications and e-commerce systems.
Despite its deep technological nature, research in this area draws fundamentally on past research and ideas from the Humanities, including:

  • Speech Act Theory in the Philosophy of Language (ideas due originally to Adolf Reinach 1913, John Austin 1955, John Searle 1969 and Jurgen Habermas 1981, among others)
  • Formal Logic (George Boole 1854, Clarence Lewis 1910, Ludwig Wittgenstein 1922, Alfred Tarski 1933, Saul Kripke 1959, Jaakko Hintikka 1962, etc), and
  • Argumentation Theory (Aristotle c. 350 BC, Stephen Toulmin 1958, Charles Hamblin 1970, etc).

Assessment of the impacts of research over five years is laughable when Aristotle’s work on rhetoric has taken 2300 years to find technological application.   Even Boole’s algebra took 84 years from its creation to its application in the design of electronic circuits (by Claude Shannon in 1938).  None of the humanities scholars responsible were doing their research to promote technologies for computer interaction or to support e-commerce, and most would not have even understood what these terms mean.  Of the people I have listed, only John Searle (who contributed to the theory of AI), and Charles Hamblin (who created one of the first computer languages, GEORGE, and who made major contributions to the architecture of early computers, including invention of the memory stack), had any direct connection to computing.   Only Hamblin was afforded an obituary by a computer journal (Allen 1985).
None of the applications of these ideas to computer science were predicted, or even predictable.  If we do not fund pure research across all academic disciplines without regard to its potential socio-economic impacts, we risk destroying the very source of the ideas upon which our modern society and our technological progress depend.
M. W. Allen [1985]: “Charles Hamblin (1922-1985)”. The Australian Computer Journal, 17(4): 194-195.

Can the obese now expect an apology from the medical profession?

Western medicine has a long history of blaming the victims of illness for their illness, attributing moral and character defects to the ill – eg, those suffering from cholera (before the mid 19th century), from physical addictions (until the mid 20th century), and from stomach ulcers (until the discovery of Helicobacter Pylori in 1982).   The most recent morality campaign waged by the medical profession has been against the obese, who are assumed by many medical practitioners to be lazy, weak-willed, or worse.  The medical professions urge the over-weight to diet and to exercise, and they even restrict treatment in some cases to people who are not obese.  Never mind that the scientific evidence for the relationship between regular exercise and appetite is weak, and suggests in any case that the former increases the latter: so that, if anything, more exercise is likely to lead to increased weight, not to reduce it.  
Now, science tells us that appetite – and hence obesity – may also be a function of one’s genes, as this article in tomorrow’s SMH reports

SOME of the children were so fat they had been listed on the British social services ”at risk” register because it was assumed their parents were abusing them with deliberate overfeeding.
”In one case, one of the children had been taken into care,” said Stephen O’Rahilly, a world expert on the genetics of obesity at the University of Cambridge.
But then his research team discovered the problem. The obese children had a section of DNA missing in their genetic code – a fault that produced a very strong drive to eat.
Continue reading ‘Can the obese now expect an apology from the medical profession?’

The websearch-industrial complex

I think it is now well-known that the creation of Internet was sponsored by the US Government, through its military research funding agencies, ARPA (later DARPA).   It is perhaps less well-known that Google arose from a $4.5 million research project sponsored also by the US Government, through the National Science Foundation.   Let no one say that the USA has an economic system involving “free” enterprise.

In the primordial ooze of Internet content several hundred million seconds ago (1993), fewer than 100 Web sites inhabited the planet. Early clans of information seekers hunted for data among the far larger populations of text-only Gopher sites and FTP file-sharing servers. This was the world in the years before Google.
Continue reading ‘The websearch-industrial complex’


Terry Eagleton has been a strong defender of religious belief, religious practice, and theology against the attacks of the neo-classical atheists, as in this interview here.  I have a great deal of sympathy with Eagleton’s aims, but he seems confused about performative acts, actions which may or may not imply propositions, and, when they do, certainly rarely imply propositions reasonable people can agree on.   Normblog, here first and then here,  attacks Eagleton’s account of religious practice.  In his second post, Norm is responding to a post by Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling, a post which defends Eagleton by discussing tacit knowledge and coming-to-know-something-through-experiencing-it.
Continue reading ‘Know-all’

Evil intentions

A commentator on Andrew Sullivan’s blog asks:  Where is the Darwinian theory of evil?   Because  modern biologists this last century or so have been very concerned to avoid teleological arguments, modern biology has still only an impoverished theory of intentionality.  Living organisms are focused, in the standard evolutionary account, on surviving themselves in the here-and-now, apparently going through these daily motions unwittingly to ensure  those diaphonous creatures, genes, can achieve THEIR memetic goals.  Without a rich and subtle theory of intentionality, I don’t believe one can explain complex, abstract human phenomena such as evil or altruism or art or religion very compellingly.
Asking for a theory of intentions and intentionality does not a creationist one make, despite the vitriol often deployed by supporters of evolution.  One non-creationist evolutionary biologist who has long been a critic of this absence of a subtle theory of intentionality in biology is J. Scott Turner, whose theories are derived from homeostasis he has observed in natural ecologies.   I previously discussed some of his ideas here.
Alfred Gell [1998]:  Art and Agency:  An Anthropological Theory.  Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
J. Scott Turner [2007]: The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself. Cambridge, MA, USA:  Harvard University Press.

Thinkers of renown

The recent death of mathematician Jim Wiegold (1934-2009), whom I once knew, has led me to ponder the nature of intellectual influence.  Written matter – initially, hand-copied books, then printed books, and now the Web – has been the main conduit of influence.   For those of us with a formal education, lectures and tutorials are another means of influence, more direct than written materials.   Yet despite these broadcast methods, we still seek out individual contact with others.  Speaking for myself, it is almost never the knowledge or facts of others, per se, that I have sought or seek in making personal contact, but rather their various different ways of looking at the world.   In mathematical terminology, the ideas that have influenced me have not been the solutions that certain people have for particular problems, but rather the methods and perspectives they use for approaching and tackling problems, even when these methods are not always successful.

To express my gratitude, I thought I would list some of the people whose ideas have influenced me, either directly through their lectures, or indirectly through their books and other writings.   In the second category, I have not included those whose ideas have come to me mediated through the books or lectures of others, which therefore excludes many mathematicians whose work has influenced me (in particular:  Newton, Leibniz, Cauchy, Weierstrauss, Cantor, Frege, Poincare, Pieri, Hilbert, Lebesque, Kolmogorov, and Godel).  I have also not included the many writers of poetry, fiction, history and biography whose work has had great impact on me.  These two categories also exclude people whose intellectual influence has been manifest in non-verbal forms, such as through visual arts or music, or via working together, since those categories need posts of their own.

Teachers & lecturers I have had who have influenced my thinking includeLeo Birsen (1902-1992), Sr. Claver Butler RSM (ca. 1930-2009), Burgess Cameron (1922-2020), Sr. Clare Castle RSM (ca. 1920- ca. 2000), John Coates (1945-2022), Dot Crowe, James Cutt, Bro. Clive Davis FMS, Tom Donaldson (1945-2006), Aleksandr Doronin, Gary Dunbier, Sol Encel (1925-2010), Felix Fabryczny de Leiris, Claudio Forcada, Richard Gill (1941-2018), Myrtle Hanley (1909-1984), Sr. Jennifer Hartley RSM, Chip Heathcote (1931-2016),  Hope Hewitt (1915-2011), Alec Hope (1907-2000),  John Hutchinson, Marg Keetles, Joe Lynch, Robert Marks, John McBurney (1932-1998), David Midgley, Lindsay Morley, Leopoldo Mugnai, Terry O’Neill, Jim Penberthy* (1917-1999), Malcolm Rennie (1940-1980), John Roberts, Gisela Soares, Brian Stacey (1946-1996), James Taylor, Frank Torpie (1934-1989),  Neil Trudinger, David Urquhart-Jones, Frederick Wedd (1890-1972), Gary Whale (1943-2019), Ted Wheelwright (1921-2007), John Woods and Alkiviadis Zalavras.

People whose writings have influenced my thinking includeJohn Baez, Ole Barndorff-Nielsen (1935-2022), Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011), Johan van Bentham, Mark Evan Bonds, John Cage (1912-1992), Albert Camus (1913-1960), Nikolai Chentsov (1930-1992), John Miller Chernoff, Stewart Copeland, Sam Eilenberg (1913-1998), Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994), George Fowler (1929-2000), Kyle Gann, Alfred Gell (1945-1997), Herb Gintis, Jurgen Habermas, Charles Hamblin (1922-1985), Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), Jaakko Hintikka (1929-2015), Eric von Hippel, Wilfrid Hodges, Christmas Humphreys (1901-1983), Jon Kabat-Zinn, Herman Kahn (1922-1983), John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), Andrey Kolmogorov (1903-1987), Paul Krugman, Imre Lakatos (1922-1974), Trevor Leggett (1914-2000), George Leonard (1923-2010), Brad de Long, Donald MacKenzie,  Saunders Mac Lane (1909-2005), Karl Marx (1818-1883), Grant McCracken, Henry Mintzberg, Philip Mirowski, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Michael Porter, Charles Reich (1928-2019), Jean-Francois Revel (1924-2006), Daniel Rose, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), Pierre Ryckmans (aka Simon Leys) (1935-2014), Oliver Sacks (1933-2015), Gunther Schuller (1925-2015), George Shackle (1903-1992), Cosma Shalizi, Rupert Sheldrake, Raymond Smullyan (1919-2017), Rory Stewart, Anne Sweeney (d. 2007), Nassim Taleb, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009), Scott Turner, Roy Weintraub, Geoffrey Vickers VC (1894-1982), and Richard Wilson.

* Which makes me a grand-pupil of Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979).
** Of course, this being the World-Wide-Web, I need to explicitly say that nothing in what I have written here should be taken to mean that I agree with anything in particular which any of the people mentioned here have said or written.
A more complete list of teachers is here.

Newton and scientific publication

While on the subject of Isaac Newton, here are several statements by historian Scott Mandelbrote on Newton’s attitude to the public dissemination of his work.  The more we know of Newton, the less we should consider him a scientist in the modern meaning of the word.

His [theological investigation] was a voyage of personal discovery; even the Principia required Halley’s exertions as a midwife to bring them to light.  Newton might share his religious opinions with other members of the remnant, as he did in his letters to Locke, but he worried about the consequences of their wider dissemination:  ‘I was of opinion my papers had lain still & am sorry to heare there is news about them.  Let me entreat you to stop their translation & impression so soon as  you can for I designe to suppress them.’  Newton’s concern may have reflected fear of being discovered to hold unorthodox  opinions, but it was also the product of religious motives.  Not everyone could be expected to comprehend ‘strong meat’, which was  intended for personal consumption, and which might be wasted on others.” (p.299)

His [Newton’s] theology pervaded his alchemy, in his analysis of the Emerald Tablets of Hermes Trismegistus, and in turn  his alchemy suggested to him how matter might be understood physically.  A true understanding of the uses of language enabled  Newton to introduce astronomical calculation into his chronological writings, and to complete his mathematical arguments with theological references:
. . . .
Mathematics was God’s language; the language of the prophets communicated God’s purposes and ‘times’ to men.  Newton felt it was his duty to understand and to reconcile the two, to decipher the hieroglyphs which corrupted religion and learning had obscured.   The problems of mathematics ended in the solutions of divine majesty, and mathematical language solved the theological problem of describing Newton’s Arian interpretation of the relations within the Trinity:
. . .
Newton’s natural philosophical and theological discoveries removed the obscurities from divine language, in the books of nature and of scripture.  In the life of the true believer, the two could not be separated.  But most had to be content with the milk for babes, because Newton’s own language was beyond them.” (pp. 300-301).

Scott Mandelbrote [1993]:  ‘A dute of the greatest moment’: Isaac Newton and the writing of biblical criticism. British Journal of the History of Science, 26:  281-302.