Thoughts driving home from meeting Richard Dawkins in Christchurch

Attended Richard Dawkins event in Christchurch, and had a short conversation with him at the meet and greet afterwards

These are transcriptions from 3 recordings made driving home Saturday morning, while driving home, listening to a lecture on the development of greek philsophical thought.

If you simply criticise something, like from a perspective (whatever that perspective happens to be, whatever that tradition happens to be, whatever that logical schema happens to be), if you don’t suspend for some time, your prior judgements and prior patterns, and actually take on and try out, the schema under discussion, then you really cannot understand the schema from within the schema itself.

So there is a great deal to be said for trying out many different things, always being alert for things that are in fact dangerous.
Its like – you really need a fairly good virus scanner, before you try programs randomly downloaded from the internet.
Its the same thing taking on different cultural constructs.

There can be worms and viruses that once instantiated in your system can fundamentally destabilise or capture some of what it is to be a human being, that cannot easily be dislodged.
You need to be conscious of such things, to evaluate such risks to the best of your abilities, and then make a call as to whether or not you are going to try out any specific system. And it really is very difficult to criticise a system effectively if you haven’t actually tried it out for yourself.

One of the things to become very clear from being with Richard last night; I really enjoyed most of Richard’s presentation. He showed a degree of compassion and understanding, he was genuinely skeptical, but when I was in the meet and greet afterwards and I mentioned Jordan Peterson, the change in demeanor was significant, he was not at all happy.
He was quite explicit that he hasn’t seriously explored Jordan’s thesis. I requested that he do so, and publish his results. And that I would be very interested in reading them.

So Yeah – That’s where I am there.
That thought was actually generated by considerations of Cicero, and his place in the evolution of thought, on the nature of philosophy, the nature of understanding.

I had a though on how to encapsulate that in book form.

How to get us through this next decade or so?

How do we question the nature of knowledge?
How we move people from “Truth” as something hard, to truth as some sort of approximation to something. [To eternally have some shadow of doubt.]

And it has always had both meanings. The extremists take it as something hard, the more liberal give it a probabilistic form.
Got to spend a bit more time on ontology and epistemology.


I stepped back from economics, looking at what it is that defines modern economics.

It is defined by value in exchange, which is always some function of desire or need (which is effectively a branch of the same thing) multiplied by scarcity. And looking at what happens when the scarcity disappears, when technology enables full abundance.
So, looking at that aspect, which is the fundamental logical presuppositions of the nature of value that is measured in a market. That is one aspect.

The other aspect is the nature of being human that is presupposed in economic models. So – looking at the various sorts of natures that human beings have, and the contexts that trigger the expressions of those natures, and the strategic relationships of various levels of those natures, and why, if one is looking to create a low risk environment one needs to be very conscious that any level of competency (so this involves an exploration of the nature of hierarchies, that hierarchies are fundamentally about competence, and that can be competence in any domain, and that within particular contexts particular hierarchies dominate). Someone may have no knowledge at all about the intellectual content of a debate happening, but if one is a competent martial artist in that debate, and you see one of the debaters as a risk to your existence, then one can destroy that debater, even if that debater is the most competent debater in the context. Even if that debater would have won the argument had they not been taken out by the actions of the martial artist.

You cannot ignore any particular domain just because you think the context doesn’t apply.

The context can shift very, very quickly.

Just a matter of a few inches difference and safety becomes threat.

Real safety can only exist in distributed trust networks, and distributed cooperation, where every individual is conscious of the benefits that they get by behaving cooperatively in that context, and the risks that are present if they fail to operate from a fundamentally cooperative context.

And that needs to be recursively true at every level.

There is no way out of that.

The price of liberty is in fact – Eternal vigilance.

What does liberty look like?

It is secondary to life.
The primary value is life itself.

That demands responsible action from all individuals to protect the lives of all.

It is only when that is done that liberty can see its greatest expression.

Any attempt to give liberty fuller expression prior to the guarantee of life for all is a fail of principle, a failure of morality, and a very very high risk strategy.

That is entirely achievable.
It does not require uniform distributions and it does require a high basic level for everybody. And I mean – SERIOUSLY High, several kilowatts per person.

I am cruising along in a little vehicle at present, at 100km/hour. If the vehicle was totally optimised the vehicle could do this on a couple of kilowatts. I don’t need to be so moving on a continuous basis. We probably need 10 KW per person continuous. That is a lot of slaves at 200W per slave 10KW is 50 slaves. That is pretty good going. Reasonably straight forward to produce. 250 m2 of solar cells.
Back to Cicero.


The idea of Lucifer as being the opposite to god, in terms of consciousness – the thing that rebelled. It seems very likely Lucifer means the light that fell from heaven. So if you have a meteor come down, and it hits an area it turns that area to stone. It melts it. it obliterates it. It causes suffering, it causes heat, it destroys crops, the suffering goes on for ages.
Something that could be very real, and very physical, could be seen by later ages to point to something unreal, because they had no knowledge of the reality, no way to imagine such a reality.

So they could only think about it in mythic terms.

That transition, from something very physical, something very real, something immediate, to something mythic, across generations, particularly with low population levels, for where there are lots of follow on disasters, such that there isn’t a great ability for reliable transmission of that information, there is a very low resolution transmission over time; and then an attempt to reconstruct, reconstructs the mythic rather than the physical.

So it seems very probable to me that Lucifer (gods fallen angel) was a meteor, quite a large one, did quite a bit of damage, caused a lot of angst. Took a lot of people with it to the underground. Quite literally. Melted a city or two.
That sort of thing happens.
Like 1908 Tunguska – though that happened where there wasn’t any people.
The rock that came through 2 weeks ago, and passed between the moon and the earth. We only spotted it a day out, one day before it went past. There was no response time. Had that thing actually been headed for the earth, it could have taken out half of California and everyone in it. And done trillions of dollars worth of damage to the economic infrastructure of the planet, if one is measuring things in terms of dollars.
Tens of millions of lives lost, of information, of thought, of relationships, of networks, of infrastructure. All that it is that make modern humanity what modern humanity is.

The networks, the contacts, the information flows, the novelty generation, the systemic resolution of that novelty. All of that layer upon layers upon layers of complex adaptive systems.

There is such a phenomenally complex reality.
It is such a low resolution model of reality that our subconscious brains create and present to us, but it works.
Here I am in a car at 100km/hr.
Driving along on a wet road in the rain, from the reliability of this machinery. It gets me there.
Or at least it has done today.
This little machine has done 161,000 kilometers.
And it is still powering away.
It is almost magical in its reliability, compared to Henry Ford’s creations it is so reliable, but it is so, so much more complex. In the infrastructure that supports it. Componentry from all over the planet, brought together invisibly by networks or organisation that are both (well – they have technological aspects, they have physical aspects, they have information aspects, they have strategic aspects, they have political aspects, they have motivational aspects, emotional aspects; the whole system of systems of complexity that actually achieves these outcomes). And here I am, driving along in the rain.
Cars coming towards me, any one of which could cross the center line and destroy me, but none of which do.
Just passing the dead trees of Hawkeswood, passing Homestead gulley.

It is such !!!
The difference between being it, and conceiving of some low resolution approximation to the complexity of it. It is just so vast.

It is like we are so, so, so, so complex that it is really, really, really hard – if you look at all the complexity that reality is, the magic of existence. If you open yourself to experience it as something more that the simple model that our neural networks conditioned by experience present to us, as our experiential reality, then the idea that Richard Dawkins and Trick Slattery bring – that we have no free will, is just wrong.

It is wrong on so many dimensions.
Certainly, we are not absolutely free. [To that extent both are necessarily correct.]
To be absolutely free is to be the cosmic background radiation. It is just randomness. That is what freedom means. An absence of structure.

We are highly structured entities.
The form that we have demands structure, demands boundary.

Thought demands level, upon level, upon level, of complex systems. Every system requiring boundary constraints.

Those boundaries are not hard. They are not crystaline.
They are flexible and context sensitive and open to influence by the states of the systems surrounding them, within them, within which they are embedded.

That seems to be the nature of this reality within which we find ourselves.

Quantum mechanics gives us very accurate predictions about populations. It says nothing about anything in particular. If you try and tie anything down to a hard place and a hard time using quantum mechanics it “fuzzes” out. If you localise position then you lose its momentum.
If you really tie down where it is now, then you have no idea where it is going to be next.
What quantum mechanics does, in terms of understanding, is tell us that reality defies hard prediction.

But when you sum those probabilities over reasonable populations, you get things that are very, very reliable.
You may not be able to tell where within a particular sphere an electron is going to be, but once you look at 50 billion instance of that electron, then the shape of that sphere is very well populated. With 50 billion instances, there is a regularity present. If you throw 50 billion heads or tails [coin tosses], then you get a distribution that looks like it is exactly even. But if you look at it very closely, it is highly unlikely to be exactly even, there is likely to be variation most of the time. If you look at the distribution of the digit 3 in the first million characters of Pi there is actually a sequence of 179 3s in a row. So if you only looked at that sequence, then you could say that Pi is made up of a string of threes. But, if you look at the distribution of all digits across that entire population, then it is very closely even (to one part in a thousand) – the same number of instances of each digit.

So it very much depends how you look at things.
If you look at things only in aggregates, then things seem to be very dependable and predictable and they are, and that is a great thing, because that allows complexity such as ourselves to exist.

But if you try and push that idea that things are dependable and causal, and you push it down to the level of the individual, it fails.

It fails consistently at every level.

At every level there is uncertainty at the boundaries.
And that uncertainty at the boundaries is important.

And when you start to understand evolution as the survival of things that can replicate, over deep time.
And you start to understand that competitive environments always drive complex systems to some local minima of complexity, and keep it there, and that cooperative systems allow for the exploration of new strategic territory, then it is very clear, that to be human is vastly more about being cooperative than it is about being competitive.

If being human was just about competition, then we would be bacteria, we would not be human.

It is that our ancestral line, repeatedly, recursively, explored the possibilities present in cooperative strategies, with all the necessities for secondary strategies to prevent invasion and destruction by cheating strategies. It is that recursive level of cooperation, that defines the levels of complexity, that enabled the level of complexity that is us.

We could never have gotten here by competition alone.

It is only through cooperation that we could have gotten to this level of complexity.

And our survival as a species, as thinking entities capable of degrees of self determination, is fundamentally predicated upon our ability to cooperate, at every level.

But it is also fundamentally predicated upon our ability to detect and remove cheating strategies on that cooperative.

It is now beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that most of the economic and political structures currently in place fit very closely the definition of cheating strategies.

NOW – to be VERY, VERY CLEAR – that is not to say that we need to eliminate any politician, or any economist or any bank manager.
But it is to say that all of those individuals need to be made aware of their fundamental self interest in adopting a cooperative strategy, and the fundamental errors of the strategies they have been operating, and the ethical need (the ethical demands) that are present, that predicate the survival of humanity.

And one needs to see evolution in the context of a balance between order and chaos (and that is not using chaos in the strict mathematical sense of something deterministic, but using it in the more general common speech sense of something that is not predictable, something that is outside the boundaries of the known and the predictable – and may in fact be fundamentally unpredictable).

So – evolving systems are always seeking an optimal balance between order and chaos. If there is too much order, if things become too constrained and too regular, then there is not sufficient variation in the population to survive when the external conditions change, as external conditions always do periodically.

So, society cannot become too ordered at any level – biochemical, physical, emotional, economic, political, conceptual, ethical. There has to be variation, every level, every system.

On the other side, there cannot be so much variation, that the necessary boundaries to maintain necessary structure, are broken, and the ability to support complex structure is lost.

So there is always this balance between the requirements of exploring chaos for novel strategies to survive novel conditions, novel threat, and maintaining sufficient order to maintain the structures, the subsystems, that support the complexity that we are.
And that boundary is constantly shifting.

That is where I love Jordan Peterson’s conceptualisation of that as the snake. That which winds through time and space as the boundary between order and chaos. It is not a constant thing. It is not something that you can find and eternally hang on to. That is the ordered version of balance, that is not the balance. The Tao that can be named is not the Tao.

It is something that must be experienced, embodied, created, searched for, ongoingly.

And that balance will be different for every individual.
And the diversity that results must be accepted by every individual.

No individual has the right to impose a level of order that is any greater than the base order required for survival.
Now that becomes a very, very complex question.

That’s what we are seeing here in Kaikoura with the reconstruction of the road and rail corridor.

What are the levels of risk?
When you have one group that quite happily accepts the risks to life of surfing in wave conditions on a rocky boulder surf break, that has a reasonable probability of dying. Surfers die. They crash off waves, their heads smack into rocks, they get trapped by a big wave and can’t get up to breath. Surfers die surfing.

Now – if one was taking the idea that one must protect people from the risk of their own choices, then one would prevent surfing.
But that can never be a viable option.
One needs to highlight the risks.
As long as people adopt the risk, that is their choice.
No existence is devoid of risk.

We can make reasonable efforts to minimise risk in shared spaces, and we need to do that.

And the balance of what is reasonable will always depend on the context, will always be in part depending on the conditions and the technology present.

So having a roading authority which refuses to allow people to adopt a level of risk that is reasonable for them is not reasonable.

Whereas we can certainly move towards absolutely minimising the risk of using roads. So that we not impose risk, we do not force people to take risks, but there is a world of difference between forcing someone to take a risk as a condition of employment for example, or falsely representing the level of risk present in a particular situation, such as driving a particular piece of road, and allowing people to adopt a level of risk that they feel comfortable with and are willing to accept.

And we haven’t got that balance in our current systems.

One of the things that was a very big problem after the Kaikoura earthquake was that the roading authorities just flatly refused to give locals access to areas. They said it was too dangerous.

Well yes it was dangerous. And some of us live in such dangerous conditions, more dangerous conditions, continuously. And provided the authority makes clear the nature of the danger (makes it really clear – yes this is dangerous) then, to me, it is entirely reasonable that there should have been bidirectional access, made available, every day – twice a day, morning and evening access, so that people could have got through in the early morning, and got through in the late afternoon. One convoy each way. And it would have been entirely reasonable to make that 4WD only, and perhaps even locals only, or in convoy with local that you know. Because there are complex competing needs about safety and the need to do dangerous things in the reconstruction process. So that the work crews need to be able to do the stuff that is dangerous that minimises the danger to everyone. So having incompetent people traveling through doing incompetent things is not good for anyone. But the current very low resolution models of just saying no – no access, comes with a very high cost. And presents a great many dangers.
We need to get beyond those models.

People need to be able to adopt the risk.

The risk might be such that, if you go into this area you have no insurance cover. If your vehicle sustains damage, then you are responsible for the full cost of repair or replacement.
You are not going to get insured.

When I go up Skipper’s that is the case. I do not have insurance cover in Skipper’s. I probably don’t have it when I go into Clarence reserve. And I’m happy with that. It is why I bought an old 4WD. It doesn’t matter to me. It does matter, and it is a risk I am happy to accept. Going to those places is that important to me.

I can certainly accept that there are many people who would not have done what I did post quake. Who would not have climbed on their mountain bikes, and cycled through rail tunnels and carried their bikes over boulder fields in active fall zones while listening very carefully for any indication of further rock fall, and constantly reassessing the escape paths as to where I could go if I had to abandon bike and get out of the way of a big rock. But you are constantly doing that sort of thing when you are mountain climbing, and people die mountain climbing.
I lost a very good friend here in Kaikoura who died doing what he loved doing, climbing mountains. His choice, his life. While his wife and his family miss him dearly, I don’t think any of them would have tried to constrain Pete from doing what he loved to do. He wouldn’t have been Pete if he wasn’t doing that.

So – complexity and freedom and randomness are all tightly linked. They are ideas that have uncertain boundaries.
When one explores any infinity, however much one has explored of it, what remains to be explored, makes what has been explored, look like a close approximation to nothing.
And that is actually a really difficult idea to get you head around successfully.
You have really got to spend a bit of time going back over that one, thinking about it.

The notion that we could have high confidence about any open system is a nonsense.

And we are an open, complex, adaptive system.

We seem to be a system that contains some 20 levels of sets of complex systems, many of which are open, recursive, complex adaptive systems; potentially exploring infinities that have no upper boundary.

Many of the classical ideas, like the classical idea that the stars were fixed and immortal and constant, eternal unchanging.
They are incredibly violent atomic reactions. They are almost unimaginably far away. That light, travelling at 300,000 km per second takes hundreds of years to get to us, to give us these little points of light in the sky. They can be moving at speeds, they are these violent balls of gas that if we got anywhere near we would incinerate. They are just so changing, so violent, and yet their extreme distance from us, and the shortness of our lives compared to their lives, makes them appear immortal and unchanging. But they are not. They are so very, very far from it.

That old idea of immortal and unchanging is just nonsense.
But, it was a useful heuristic in its context, an approximation to something.
It was an approximation to the idea that there are vast variations in both complexity and reliability, and some things can be reliable over very long times.

The stars are a very long way away, and they appear very reliable. But like with most things, the closer you get to them the more uncertain they become, and often the more dangerous they get. It is not a good idea to go snuggling up too close to a sun. It is not a good idea to take anything as being fixed and unchanging.

One needs to explore the probability distributions of risk and how they change with context and time; and how one can instantiate effective risk mitigation factors.
It is a very, very complex world.
We over simplify it at our peril.

And here is Kaikoura. Coming down the hill towards Oaro. A shower across the ocean just off South Bay. My house on the peninsula in rain. But it is dry here in Oaro. Looks like it hasn’t rained at all here today. Looks like it has skipped around and gone out to sea. Raining heavily in Christchurch. Raining on the Peninsula. Dry in Oaro. That is the nature of complexity, can never quite guarantee what it is going to do.


And a day later:

The idea that mythology is a mix of real stories from the deep past, and mythic interpretations that have crossed domains, and have survived in doing so (been subject to evolution in the mimetic sense).
Given the ancient idea that the heavens embodied perfection.

And given the idea that we have probably as a species been telling stories for well over a million years, and there would have been thousands of meteor impacts in that time that were big enough to destroy large villages, and create regional chaos – then it is not surprising that this mythology comes from many different traditions.

Add in the idea that such destruction is evidence of the capriciousness of the Gods.

And you have sufficient heuristic utility to support survival.

In the context of the evolution of cooperation, for hundreds of millions of years, our mammalian ancestors lived under ground and were subject to predator pressures from the dominant dinosaur species. That was a very strong external threat. Great conditions for developing very strong cooperative systems.
The Chixilub extinction event (a very big rock hitting the earth and creating conditions sufficiently hostile that every single large carnivorous dinosaur on the planet was destroyed, all species), seems to have given the mammals a chance to flourish in a new environment, but the 65 million years that have past since that event couldn’t undo all of the 200 million years of cooperative evasion of dinosaurs that preceded it; and set us up for the possibility of living cooperatively as naked apes in cold climates.
The deep evolution in the nature of our brains that supported social cooperation over that period, seems to have left enough of a mark that we are able to exist as we do. And that alone isn’t enough. Necessary, and not sufficient, for our continued survival.

We need to take cooperation to the next level, or competition will very probably destroy us. Our technology is that powerful.

I love Richard Dawkins’ writing.
It is so clear, and so true in a sense and so clearly incomplete in a deeper sense.
His writing makes that incompleteness so clear, at least to me, at the same time as it really does make the degrees of truth present clear also.

I love both Richard Dawkins and Jordan Peterson, for the clarity of the ideas they present, and I have genuinely learned ideas of great interest to me from both of them.
And both still seem to me to contain serious errors of omission.
Yet I hate criticising either, because the primary ideas that both express are so essential to understanding what we are, and there are failures at other levels that are important.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see
This entry was posted in Ideas, Nature, Our Future, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comment and critique welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s