The Reality Report

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Episode 128

Reality on trial!

In September 2018, The Reality Report spoke with feminist philosopher Jane Clare Jones about the current ideological battles around ideas of sex and gender. This proved to be by far the most widely viewed — and controversial — episode of the 127 thus far produced.

Three weeks ago, she returned for a follow-up conversation which covered relevant events of the past year, focussing on the recent tribunal concerning the termination of Maya Forstater's employment for asserting the reality of biological sex (in which the prosecution lawyer described this belief as a "conspiracy theory"!)

Also covered are corporate "rainbow-washing", the emergence of transracialism, transageism and transablism, the newly formed LGB Alliance breaking away from LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall, troubling occurrences in women's prisons and sports, the appearance of the Detransitioners Advocacy Network, the Jonathan Yaniv affair, Alice Roberts' (Professor of the Public Engagement in Science) invocation of clownfish to deny human sexual dimorphism, attacks on women's rights activist Julie Bindel and the Women's Place UK meeting in Brighton and reality-denying changes to NHS guidelines.

As well as a deep discussion of the current youth cultural flight from materiality to virtuality, we consider the world's first penguin chick "not to be assigned a gender at birth".

* * *

Pre-empting possible criticism: yes, in the flow of our conversation we "misgender" a handful of male activists (and "deadname" a particularly violent one), but if you're going to physically assault women and/or make demands like this, this or this, then you've forfeited any meaningful claim to womanhood or right to complain about pronouns.

[links to articles are not necessarily endorsements of everything written in them]

Monday, 10 December 2018

Episode 127

A rather unusual extended Reality Report with peripatetic/shamanic rock musician Conrad Singh, recorded in the early hours of a Thursday morning after he played with his band Cloudshoes in Canterbury. He was quizzing me on some of what he'd read in my book The Mystery of the Prime Numbers (2010). We begin with me explaining the origins of the number e and its role in estimating amounts of prime numbers that can be found in various stretches of the number line. We get into (in a very breezy, conversational way) spirals, logarithms explained graphically in terms of spirals, the Riemann zeta function, imaginary numbers, quaternions and octonions. We consider the theological controversy around the use of infinity in calculus in the early 1700s, the ancient Greek headspace that led to both higher mathematics and the current "quantocentric" global civilisation and the extent to which number is "hard-wired" in human brains. The conversation then starts to drift more in the direction of looking at how number (quantity-based thinking) has taken over the world, leading me to explain my motivation in writing the Secrets of Creation trilogy. Conrad waxes philosophical on number, mind, the current global techno-civilisation and where it might be leading, and before we know if we're talking about lost Amazonian civilisations, the rainforest as a vast computer, the eternal nature of all forms and the endless human quest for...what? We can't remember. Time to get some sleep...

Friday, 14 September 2018

Episode 126

The first long-form episode of The Reality Report: a three-hour conversation with post-structuralist feminist philosopher Jane Clare Jones about sex, gender and the social/cultural/political influence of "superstar academic" Judith Butler's more extreme claims regarding these subjects (e.g., "biological sex is a social construct").

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Episode 125

The tenth and final episode in a series discussing free will with Mark Taylor. Mark brings up Yuval Noah Harari's book Homo Deus in connection with the evolution of artificial intelligence, and how potential AI treatment of humans ties in with the ethics around human treatment of animals. We then get back to Peter Godfrey-Smith's writings on the octopus mind, arguably the closest thing to an "alien" consciousness we can encounter on this planet. I bring in Terence McKenna's ideas about octopus communication and psychedelics before we wrap things up by contemplating whether octopuses (not octopi!) have free will. This episode has an extended Moment of Ecological Wonderment featuring commentary from McKenna himself.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Episode 124

The ninth episode in a series discussing free will with Mark Taylor. I recall hearing a Buddhist monk discussing the possibility of conscious machines, and our ethical responsibilities towards these. From this we discuss the ethics of destroying sentient life, veganism, Jainism, and "where you draw the line" as regards the sanctity of the tiniest of creatures. This brings us back to questions of free will and how they relate to questions of the rights of animals and other types of conscious entities. We discuss the rapid evolution of robotics, then get into AI ethics and consider how it has been left to the arts to confront these issues (there being a severe lack of funding for "serious" research into AI safety and ethics).

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Episode 123

The eighth episode in a series discussing free will with Mark Taylor. Mark brings up Peter Godfrey-Smith's recent book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. He explains the author's hypothesis that sentience has its origins in the need for the cells in early multicellular organism to coordinate their activities (this began as direct cell-to-cell chemical messages, but was supplanted by the evolution of the nervous system). I briefly bring up the controversial writer Bruce Lipton and his idea (I think) that the brain represents the nervous system's "authoritarian takeover" of all of the other cells. Mark talks about freedom and consciousness as existing on a spectrum from the simplest organisms to the most complex and concedes that our ethical approach to the treatment of other lifeforms depends on this view. I ask about the "next level" of free will - whether transhumanist moves towards life-extension, experience being extended by virtual reality, etc. might bring up important new questions for the topic. This leads to a discussion about how a future transhuman entity, much further along the spectrum, might regard us as we would regard an insect (of no consciousness, non ethically problematic to squash). We then veer off into talking about the ethics of virtual reality, and wondering whether algorithmically controlled soldiers killed in computer war-themed games also have some kind of rudimentary sentience (which would mean an unacknowledged worldwide "digital genocide"). I then remember something I heard a Buddhist monk on TV in the 90s say about artificial intelligence...

Friday, 13 July 2018

Episode 122

The seventh episode in a series discussing free will with Mark Taylor. We continue to compare the mysteries of consciousness and free will and review the various positions. Daniel Dennett's perspective gets a bit more airtime before I bring up the religious concept of the soul and René Descartes' suggestion that it interfaces with the nervous system via the pineal gland, asking how that would affect the idea of free will. Mark brings things back to the "causes versus reasons" approach to free will and identifies as central the existence of sufficiently sophisticated biological architecture to support reasons for behaviour. In response, I bring up the matter of hypnotees and experimental subjects with no corpus callosum joining their brain hemispheres, where spurious reasons are unconsciously retrofitted to behaviours. Mark points out that the human world (urban environments, etc.) does look very much like it has underlying reasons behind its form, which leads me to bring up ants' nests...

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Episode 121

The sixth episode in a series discussing free will with Mark Taylor. Mark addresses my suggestion (borrowed from various philosophers) that the question of free will may be a "pseudoproblem". Mark relates this to the "compatibilist" position. This then leads on to a discussion of a kind of freedom-beyond-freedom, that is, the freedom to decide what it is that we desire (as opposed to our freedom to fulfill our desires). Things start to get quite complicated. Mark brings up the classical tale of Odysseus tying himself to the mast of the ship and instructing the crew to ignore his requests to be taken down (which he knew would result from the irresistible song of the Sirens). This is about the freedom to constrain ourselves, to override some of our own freedoms. We compare adults with toddlers and with non-human animals in this regard. Mark ends up making a subtle analogy between the question of free will and (as discussed in an earlier series) the hard problem of consciousness, positing similar "yeah, but..." lines of attack that can be made against the paired positions of thinkers like Daniel Dennett and himself who maintain that (a) consciousness results from deterministic physical processes; and (b) free will can be likewise explained in terms of these processes.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Episode 120

The fifth episode in a series discussing free will with Mark Taylor. We talk a little bit more about John Conway's "Game of Life" cellular automata, and the extent to which we can think of (fully deterministic) autonomous structures which emerge from it as having some sort of existence beyond mere blinking pixels. I talk about projection, based on "organismic bias", which leads Mark to then consider the difference between inanimate objects and living creatures. He suggests that we require a belief in our own free will in order to interact with the world around us. Sam Harris (incompatibilist) and Daniel Dennett (compatibilist) are invoked, particularly in relation to how ideas about free will should influence ethical and penal systems. The idea of treating everyone as "just a load of chemicals" brings us back to Life, where huge, intricate, self-regulating, emergent structures could be seen as "just a load of pixels", which appears to be missing the point. I then ask Mark about certain philosophers' suggestions that the issue of free will might be a "pseudoproblem".

Monday, 18 June 2018

Episode 119

The fourth episode in a series discussing free will with Mark Taylor. At this point we've temporarily moved on from free will to more general issues of consciousness. Mark concludes his explanation as to why Dennett rejects the "Cartesian Theatre" model of consciousness, leading me to bring up physicist Max Tegmark's description of consciousness as "the mind creating a model of itself". Mark relates this back to Douglas Hofstadter's idea of consciousness as a kind of feedback loop, while I suddenly remember something I'd seen wherein someone has managed to show how Conway's Game of Life (a type of cellular automaton) is able to model itself - some quite remarkable footage of this is included. This then leads to the question "Could an algorithm be conscious?", which I take to be an absurd notion but Mark is less keen to rule out...

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Episode 118

The third episode in a series discussing free will with Mark Taylor. Mark continues to talk about storytelling and narrative as ways of retrospectively making sense of events. We then go on to discuss Benjamin Libet's neuroscience experiments on voluntary muscle movement and their implications for the free will debate. Mark argues that even if the brain is capable of initiating actions before we consciously "decide" to do them, the notion of free will is not altogether lost. He invokes the ideas of philosophers Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, starting to explain some fascinating experiments involving the human field of vision, blindspots, etc. which undermine the idea of a "Cartesian theatre" from which a centre of consciousness operates.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Episode 117

The second episode in a series discussing free will with Mark Taylor. Mark suggests that ideas from physics like "quantum indeterminism" aren't the way to "save" free will. I pick up on the word "save" and how (just about) everyone wants there to be free will, which could lead to biases and wishful thinking in any arguments made in its favour. Mark then puts forward the idea of automata/robots of ever greater sensitivity to their environments and refinement of responsiveness, how eventually you end up with something indistinguishable from free will. This then leads me to raise the questions of: (1) predictability (which is here complicated by the fact that feedback systems involving an automaton in an evolving environment could render the automaton's behaviour effectively unpredictable); and (2) consciousness, in that we wouldn't generally attribute free will to a zombie-like entity with no self-awareness. Mark then brings up Kant's ideas about freedom depending on reason, and then the difference between reasons and causes for behaviour.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Episode 116

The first episode in a new series discussing the matter of free will with Mark Taylor. We begin with Mark outlining the key issues of (in)determinism and (in)compatibilism, i.e., whether the idea of free will is or is not compatible with the Universe obeying fixed physical laws. Mark explains his own position as a determinist and compatibilist, which leads me to question how the kind of "free will" this would allow could relate to the familiar, everyday sense of the term. I also raise the issue of how developments in modern physics (quantum indeterminism and statistical mechanics) have affected these philosopical questions of free will, which Mark begins to address.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Episode 115

The sixth and final episode in a series featuring religious studies scholar Angela Voss, exploring the history and nature of astrology. We continue to discuss misunderstandings surrounding the ancient Greek notion of eros, leading on to Angela talking about the true function of astrology as a consciousness-raising (rather than predictive) phenomenon. She provides a practical example of how she would apply it in her life, explaining certain astrological concepts in the process. Aristole's "Four Causes" get a mention, in particular the way in which modern scientific culture focuses entirely on two (material, efficient) and rejects the second two (formal, final).

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Episode 114

The fifth episode in a series featuring religious studies scholar Angela Voss, exploring the history and nature of astrology. There's not much astrology in this episode, as we continue our discussion of the evolution of academia, and the emergence of the "third classroom" (Jeffrey Kripal's idea) as typified by the MA course in Myth, Cosmology and the Sacred run by Angela at Canterbury Christchurch University. She talks about the challenges involved in operating against the grain of mainstream academia, and touches on Rupert Sheldrake's observations about the differences between his skeptical colleague "on" and "off" the record when discussing certain unexplained phenomena. We end up talking about the dangers of trying to reduce the symbolic level of understanding to purely rational terms in order to satisfy skeptical critics. The almost universally experienced phenomenon of falling in love serves as a helpful example of something undeniably real that cannot be reduced in such terms, and this leads us to talk about medieval troubadours, the differences between the Greek concepts of eros and philia, etc.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Episode 113

The fourth episode in a series featuring religious studies scholar Angela Voss, exploring the history and nature of astrology. Angela talks about 15th century astrologer/philosopher/composer Marsilio Ficino's interpretations of Plotinus' and Iamblichus' writings before we begin to discuss the transformation of academia which occured with the Enlightenment and saw the marginalising of astrology, etc. I compare the "Quadrivium"-based curriculum in medieval university settings (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) with the STEM/finance-centred vocational training centres we see universities morphing into now. This leads Angela to bring up Jeffrey Kripal's concept of the "third classroom". Physicist/philosopher Bernardo Kastrup, a harsh critic of scientific materialism, is also mentioned in this context.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Episode 112

The third episode in a series featuring religious studies scholar Angela Voss, exploring the history and nature of astrology. I continue to question her about the nature of the supposed "correlation" between earthly and heavenly affairs if, as she has argued, astrology is not intended to have "predictive power". This leads into an expansive conversation exploring prediction, prophecy, fate, destiny and randomness, touching on failures of the New Age, a recent Papal Edict, the writings of Ptolemy, Plotinus, Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, natural v. judicial astrology, and Grayson Perry(!)

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Episode 111

The second episode in a series featuring religious studies scholar Angela Voss, exploring the history and nature of astrology. We continue discussing Iain McGilchrist's writings on the brain hemispheres, Angela reminding me that he concludes his The Master and His Emissary (2009) with the assertion that humanity's only hope is to rediscover the power of metaphor, a necessary bridge between the two hemispheric worldviews (one of which has become dangerously dominant). Citing various scientific experiments which have supposedly shown astrology's lack of predictive power, I probe further as to what it means to say that it "works" in any sense. Angela argues that such experiments are missing the point, confusing two levels of reality, and sets out her own neo-platonic understanding of the situation. Plotinus' treatise "Are the stars causes?" gets a mention, leading on to a discussion of something like a "universal mind field" and the anima mundi (world soul).

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Episode 110

The first episode in a series featuring religious studies scholar Angela Voss, exploring the history and nature of astrology. We begin with a quick historical sketch, with Angela highlighting an important transition that occurred in ancient Greece where astrology moved from a divinatory art to a mechanistic/predictive tool based on notions of causation. The Renaissance astrologer, philosopher and composer Marsilio Ficino gets a special mention before we go on to look at the fundamental misunderstanding he attempted to clarify. Kant's notion of "positive knowledge" and Carl Jung's "active imagination" are touched upon before we move on to the current wave of vigorous skepticism (led by Dawkins, et al.). Once again, Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary is discussed in this context.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Episode 109

Part nine, the final episode of another mind-map ramble with Miriam. We wind up our discussion of the so-called "Freeman" movement and then reassess the original list of six topics we randomly selected at the beginning of the conversation. We consider the breadth of application of the word "magick" (in ritual and religion, the origins of science, technology, language and law,...) and then the "re-enchantment" of the world, the fate of the "little people" and their possible return via technological interfaces. Miriam suddenly remembers the word "Fortean" (which she'd been trying to all evening) and we talk about Fortean phenomena, and one of Charles Fort's favourite stories, the "mad fishmonger", who was used to explain otherwise inexplicable layers of shellfish found deposited on roofs and streets one morning in Worcester. Finally, we consider the "Mandela effect" and a possible (rather dubious!) explanation involving branching parallel universes.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Episode 108

Part eight of another mind-map ramble with Miriam. We continue to discuss the "magickal" nature of law, in particular in connection with the so-called "Freeman" movement. Based on some talks I'd seen years ago by the movement's best known advocate, John Harris, I outline the connections between common, contractual and statute (Parliamentary law) and the extended legal notion of "corporations" (which supposedly includes individuals, unbeknownst to most of them). This leads to a memory of Rob Christopher (a.k.a. "Free Rob Cannabis", "Free Love Cannabis"), his attempts to challenge the Queen legally over "Her" government's cannabis prohibition law and how that went down in court.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Episode 107

Part seven of another mind-map ramble with Miriam. I continue speculating about homeopathy, placebos and the role of belief in medicine. This leads to the question of how far (if there's anything in it) this could go, in terms of a collective "willing" of reality into certain shapes. The idea of a tech-free route to utopia, along the lines of the Transcendental Meditation movement's attempts to lower crime rates, etc. through mass meditation, is discussed. Wondering what a "techno-utopian cosmology" would look like, I'm reminded of James Garndner's "biocosm" hypothesis, the idea of "computronium", etc. This brings us back to AI safety, but we soon change tack and end up looking into modern druidry in Britain, Winston Churchill's involvement in this and a supposedly druidic symbol with links to both the Monarchy and the surveying of the land. Returning to our list of topics, we begin to tackle the "freeman" movement, starting by noting the magick-like nature of legal practice.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Episode 106

Part six of another mind-map ramble with Miriam. After some vague talk about occasional "glitches" in reality, Miriam brings up the 19th century "Bedford Level Experiment" which appeared, initially, to show the Earth to be flat. Skirting around the "observer" effect in quantum mechanics, we get on to talking about the magic of naming things, the cognitive "chunking" of reality, and the way the mind economises by sometimes operating with old maps (possibly explaining why we sometimes can't see what's right in front of us). Miriam then describes a childhood imaginal encounter with Santa before we're reminded of the South Park "Imaginationland" trilogy. This then leads to a discussion of homeopathy, placebo effects and the role of belief in medicine.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Episode 105

Part five of another mind-map ramble with Miriam. We continue talking about "techno-utopias" and "friendly AI", leading on to robotic automation, mass unemployment and schemes for a universal citizen's income. We then pursue a tangent regarding Joseph Weizenbaum's "ELIZA" (1960s proto-chatbot algorithmic psychiatrist), which gets related to themes in recent mainstream entertainment (Her, Bladerunner 2049). It then all gets quite speculative and far-out when I start to suggest that if some element of randomness is involved in the algorithmic behaviour of computer-driven "pseudo-people", this could potentially provide an "interface" for disembodied entities ("spirits"? "ancestors"?) to reconnect with the world of the living. Ouija boards, various types of scrying and divination are examined as "interfaces" of this sort, the cultural significance of the 16th century Abolition of Chantries Acts is touched upon, as is the Tupac Shakur "hologram" which appeared at Coachella Festival in 2012. I end up suggesting that deceased legendary musicians such as Jimi Hendrix may one day be "resurrected" for performance purposes in some sense with a combination of AI and holograms. But how would we know it was the real Jimi and not an impostor? Could this lead to religious factions? ("The Church of the True Hendrix"!)