Contingency & Attribution

Liz Truss could have become many things as she grew up. She became Prime Minister of the UK.

The demise of Liz Truss is as much a cruel personal tragedy as it is the death rattle of the Brexit project, as one columnist said. Times journalist Matthew Parris was even more excoriating, her fate being entirely predictable, as in his words ‘she ha[d] never said anything important or interesting or thoughtful.’ Much had been made of her attempts to channel an inner Margaret Thatcher, a leader still venerated in the Conservative Party for some obscure reason, a woman who had genuinely changed the world – along with Ronald Reagan, of course, similarly worshipped in the American GOP. Yet how much can truly be laid at the feet of these so-called great leaders? And how much should Liz Truss be vilified for her perceived errors and misjudgments?

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On Trains and Transcendence

Bruno Latour, 1947-2022

The world, then, has lost one of its lights. Bruno Latour has gone. We don’t exactly know where he has gone, though his ideas remain with us. On my journey this weekend to Asia, I had with me, by chance, his We Have Always Been Modern, along with Steven Nadler’s excellent commentary on Spinoza’s Tractatus, each in its own way considering the ethereal soup within which we find ourselves, churning and spinning and scrambling around to try and make sense of it all. In truth I am only at the beginning of Latour’s work, which I was pleased to begin given he had been still alive and working. Perhaps I could write to him. I couldn’t write to Spinoza, or Deleuze – but maybe Latour would answer my questions. Now I just have to find the answers in his work, like with all the others.

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The Ecology of History: Time, Contingency, and Substance

We think intuitively in linear terms: it limits us.

One of the key questions in philosophy is whether or not we (each of us) have free will. It is often referred to as the problem of determinism: are our actions pre-determined? Alternatively put: do we in the exercise of our will define our lives, and change the world? The knee-jerk reaction for the post-modern reader of this essay will invariably be ‘yes’! So let’s take two examples of me having exercised free will, determining my own future, one big and one small. I chose to go to college, and as a result I got a good job and had a successful career. And for the small example – I just lifted a pen from the desk. Are these choices entirely made by me?

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The Folly of Causation

David Hume’s challenge to the philosophy of science – the problem of induction – has never properly been addressed. In essence, it argues that it is impossible to predict the future, because no matter how many experiments we can do, or examples we can take from history, we can never be sure that something we didn’t know might happen – like the emergence of a black swan, first discovered (or so named) in Australia in 1790, and prior to which – in Europe at least – it was presumed that all mature swans were white. We can deduce that if A = B and B = C then A = C. But just because every car we have ever observed has four wheels it does not mean that the next car will have four wheels. It may have only three. Instead of throwing our arms up and saying that none of modern rationalism can really make sense any more, a combination of pragmatism, wilful ignorance and theology have conspired to sweep the inconvenient position under the carpet.

This has profound consequences for the basis of modern thought and epistemology. In particular, it has particular consequences for history and the philosophy of history, and the philosophy of time. It also has a profound and immediately practical bearing on the criminal justice system, and how we attribute blame.

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The Failing Legitimacy of the British State

It’s been a long time in the coming, but it seems that this current version of the United Kingdom is unlikely to last too much longer.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not as old as some would think. While its history has been better documented than most over the past thousand years or so, its constitution and territory have fluctuated considerably over that time. The current arrangements can substantially be dated to the act of union in 1800, notwithstanding the secession of the Irish Republic in the early twentieth century. A series of threats to the legitimacy of that state are circling, and its breakup appears a very substantial possibility. These threats are not merely the increasing levels of separatist politics in Scotland, Ireland and to a lesser degree Wales, which are symptoms of the fundamental challenges. These are related to some fundamental institutions of the state: Monarchy, Church, Parliament and the Military.

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History and the Young

As long as the world spins around, I’ll take my time.

I finally got Covid. It’s been a miserable few days, though as I begin to recover, one saving grace is the annihilation of all other distractions; those few words ‘I’ve got Covid’ are enough to get one out of the most insistent commitment. And so after a hiatus of some months, I can read important things again! Two pieces yesterday caught my attention, Nathan Gardels’ The New Nomos of the Planet in Noema Magazine, and Stephen Buranyi’s Do We Need a New Theory of Evolution? in The Guardian. Summarizing Carl Schmitt’s later work The Nomos of the Earth (originally 1950), Gardels argues that of the available options, a multi-polar global geopolitics is emerging with multiple powers, who one the one hand are seeking to become internally self-sufficient, but on the other must collaborate in the face of planetary challenges – like climate change and pandemic (and, I would add, trade and migration).

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The Ontological Layers of AI

Can we model reality as a universal standard? Or are we just fooling ourselves in an expedient corporate rush?

The Berinmo people of Papua New Guinea are a small tribe of people with a curious flourish in their language. Specifically, they do not distinguish between green and blue, and they have two separate words for types of yellow. This has deep implications for those who argue for a consistent and objective real (universalists), and the ultimate possibility of artificial intelligence. We’ll come back to the Berinmo, and color linguistics later. While strategies for the avoidance of bias in AI focus on the injury of minority oppression and design failings in creator preference, a deeper semantic analysis of some of the fundamentals of AI reveal several foundational assumptions that give cause for concern. Simply put, the fundamental task of an AI is to construct an image of the world within the parameters of its design (from narrowly defined chatbot engines to Artificial General Intelligence or AGI), which in turn establishes the context for automatic machine decisions to be made. In order to arrive at that image of the world – the simulated real – there are several intermediate layers that each introduces a risk of misinterpretation. This article will walk through each, and understand where some of those challenges might lie. But first, Heidegger.

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The Legitimacy of Bitcoin

David McWilliams: 'Ireland is three decisions away from being a perfect  country'
David Williams: No, just no!

David McWilliams piece in this weekend’s Irish Times – Cryptocurrency is Patently Not Real Money – is quite possibly the strongest argument I have seen for the legitimacy of bitcoin. Normally I really like his provocative and creative thinking, but not today. Let’s look at some of his arguments.

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On memory, forgetting and time.

Remembering and forgetting are functions that hold a balance in our present minds, forging an identity.

One of those things that I do during the end of year break is to tidy things up. Tidy up the garage, the office, and the various computers and storage devices in the house. Digital historical artefacts have become a thing now – photos and home movies especially – and making sure that they are backed up, either on physical hardware or in a reliable cloud somewhere is not straightforward. It led me to consider why we collect these things.

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Theology and Technology in Review

Demerzel, the literally faithful android in David Groyer and Josh Friedman’s interpretation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation

Extending from the last missive on Computational Theology, I want to dive into the question of what it means to have a theology of machines, a machine theology, or a theology generating machine. Each of those three descriptions is different – a theology of machines is about believing in machines as otherworldly things. It’s a little challenging to think about how we might worship a toaster, but perhaps less fantastic to think about how we might worship a machine that no one had ever seen before, and that landed on earth from outer space. A machine theology asks what do machines believe? To assign belief to a machine, to assert that machines demonstrate a teleological sensibility, may be a stretch; but let’s see, shall we? When we consider ‘machine ethics’, we are opening up Langdon Winner’s question of whether artifacts can have politics; I go further than he does. Winner suggests that a machine can’t have its own politics, but that it can embody political biases. I would argue – in considering the distinction between lived and transcendent theologies that I wrote about in my last post, and the further distinction of strong lived theologies that trend towards the transcendent – that advanced machines machines can possess a strong lived theology. A theology generating machine is a more future looking device that predicts likely futures based on a Laplace’s Demon kind of model, becoming through its predictions a time machine of sorts. It has parallels in the Oracle at Delphi, Psychohistory in Asimov’s Foundation series, and is grounded in the biblical divinity of prophesy (the prophets, those who tell the future, are closer to God), and ancient practices of divination.

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