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Dave's Diary : June1996
Dave's Diary : August 1996
I read that UK Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg, trailing clouds of glory after his handling of the BSE crisis, has declared the Government's passionate commitment to promoting "field sports." Opponents of the bloodshed are denounced on the grounds that they use "violence" to further their cause. One looks in vain for any hint of self-consciousness or irony. On a brighter note, I see the Golden House Sparrow has alighted on NanoTechnology Magazine as HedWeb's current Site Of The Day. I have learned to trust its independence of mind and incorruptible soundness of judgement. As if by confirmation, I was e-mailed by the journal's editor only yesterday to ask if I could do a 1 000-2000 word article on an HI-type theme. I have resolved not to rant.
HedWeb's first Java applet finally defies the laws of aerodynamics. After much heaving and juddering up and down the runway it decides to take off. I recall, from a distant era in late 1995, lying prostrate with nervous exhaustion after adding my first html tag to text. Patient instruction by a member of the new Javan priesthood on how to specify applet parameters now leaves me feeling equally shattered, or "empowered" as I believe it's known on the street. My mentor is so painfully modest and self-effacing that I'm asked not to mention his name in cyberspace. He declines the offer of a fluffy on-line mascot by way of acknowledgement. He even refuses all payment from the groaning coffers of BLTC Research. It's nice, however, to know that one's fearsome give-no-quarter prose retains its reputation for outspoken integrity. HedWeb's gallery of the grotesque is steadily growing, though certain notable absentees remain. In the afternoon, I am pleased to get a call from tumbledown Pete in Singapore. Pete is possibly the Isle Of Wight's most daringly original native-born poet and a living martyr to the utilitarian pleasure ethic. It seems my recent attempt to act on-line as his tele-systems-engineer led to a hard-disk crash and his going off-line for a week. Oh dear. I think it's always best to treat such hiccups as a valuable learning experience.
A correspondent inquires why I seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time worrying about the suffering of non-humans rather than "our" own kind. Members of other species matter, but surely they don't matter as much. HerbWeb - not an annexe of HedWeb devoted to promoting marijuana use - has indeed grown rather large. The answer to the question, however, and the insidious false antithesis on which its rests, follows from the logic of an ethic of utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill, it will be recalled, championed the notion of "higher" and "lower" pleasures. One's enjoyment of, for example, Pachabel's Canon is somehow worth more, or so it is alleged, than the quantitatively equal but baser pleasures on offer to votaries of nose-bleed techno. Conversely, most people implicitly rely on some notion of "higher" and "lower" pains. So suppose an understanding of the biology of aversive experience were to show that the higher vertebrates suffered with the same raw intensity as many humans. Then it wouldn't shift our intuitive sense that (mature?) human pains, both physical and "psychological", were still (obscurely) worse and thus mattered more. Certainly our increasingly complicated encephalisation of emotion has opened up a vastly greater range of intentional objects on which human unhappiness and despair can be focused and labelled. Potentially, if HI is wrong, then future millennia are going to disclose further multitudes of intentional objects of ever richer nastiness, perhaps viler and subtler in character than anything accessible at present. I trust, however, that I'm not wrong; and the potential nominal focus of such modes of unpleasantness is, and one hopes will perpetually remain, biologically inconceivable. Responsibility for choosing the nature and intensity of suffering in the world is going to be thrust upon policy-makers by the maturation of biotechnology whether they seek it or not. What will start as mere acts of omission and complicity will come to seem more and more like acts of deliberate choice; and eventually outright malevolence. Faith in any notion of moral progress sounds naïve. Yet I happen to believe that suffering will be phased out as it is such an extraordinarily primitive as well as obnoxious mode of consciousness. Moreover one should be as sceptical of the conceptual coherence of higher and lower pains as one should be of higher and lower pleasures. Pachabel's Canon - minus the monoaminergic etc input requisite for its usual affective tone - amounts to just a long-drawn-out noise. Likewise, the most rarefied of philosophical tortures, if stripped of its (mainly limbic) emotional urgency, is just another harmless cognitive tickle. Fetishism of the over-valued intentional object takes many forms beyond its more colourfully sexual guises. In other contexts, I suspect many of us, however inconsistently, would in any case recognise the arbitrary and invidious nature of the "higher versus lower" divide. Tormenting a small child possessed of uncomplex but intense feelings, for instance, isn't morally preferable to the subtler torments one might visit on a sophisticated adult - our intuition here is that it's the intensity of feeling that counts. And this intuition is the one that preserves moral consistency. Anyway, that's the official explanation for my balance of concern in fighting both human and non-human suffering. It's probably nonsense. Or rather, it's true as far as it goes; but most likely it's only a rationalisation of why I behave and feel as I do rather than reflective of my underlying motor of action. For the contrast between the uncritical devotion of an animal companion versus the inconstancy of humans can weigh heavily at times. This is so especially if one's spirit was long ago crushed by the gene-driven fickleness of human sentiment. I recall how I used to keep guinea pigs. The sound of rustling plastic bags would trigger off orgasmic frenzies of squeaking noises. This is because lettuce contains small quantities of opiates. Guinea pigs are abnormally sensitive to their properties. If the human vocal repertoire were different, I could doubtless condition a similar chorus of squeaking from certain friends, though they might expect the route of delivery to be different. Unfortunately, a guinea pig's diversity of behavioural repertoire is a little limited even for my simple-minded tastes. If they could have said "Thank you, David, for feeding me" it would probably have made all the difference. But they don't; they just squeak. On the other hand, the loyalty and devotion of a dog (whose counterparts are tortured daily in our neighbourhood death factories) - is pitched more at my level of emotional maturity. If silicon robot pets were ever to become the norm, I would probably kit out my herbivorous canine sidekick with a mega-large organic pleasure centre. I'd then wire it up to fire vigorously in my presence. Its pain centres, on the other hand, would be silent and functional rather than phenomenological. Sad? Yup.
I am reading "Climbing Mount Improbable" by Richard Dawkins. It's a dangerously enjoyable book. The intellectual elegance of population biology, game theory and the neo-Darwinian synthesis can easily blind one to the ghastly nature of what is going on. Moreover if one entertains a basically first-person rather than third-person conception of the stuff of the world, albeit an ontology expressed by the IMO topic-neutral formalism of QM, then in practice such words as "predation" will trigger more dreadfully empathetic imagery than the doubly objective stance of mainstream materialism will normally allow. Unnervingly, there is literally no form of experience or behaviour too horrible to get selected for if it differentially enhances the reproductive fitness of genetic vehicles. Such jargon denatures the phenomenon it supposedly describes. Sugar-coated, pop-expositions of sociobiology sometimes lead one to think altruism and self-interest can be natural allies; whereas theory suggests that ostensible "altruism" is only a temporary and dispensable expedient. Many people, I think, would be less keen to dismiss HI-like proposals, and the loss of personal freedom supposedly entailed, if they recognised how their "freely-chosen" ideas and prejudices were gene-driven adaptations. In a traditional context, they can certainly enhance reproductive fitness. Even one's "own" selfish genes are pitilessly indifferent to personal well-being. They code one's built-in obsolescence and decay. Nature works on principles about as nasty as one can get. Why selfishness, albeit technically defined, should be regarded as a more desirable basis for a civilisation than universal love and happiness is rarely explained with any coherence. Perhaps this reflects a reluctance to make heavy weather of the stupefyingly obvious. Less ethically important, but still interesting to my mind, are two further revolutionary implications of a true genes'-eye view of the world. They are not well-advertised. This is so in spite of the glut of Darwinian tracts on the market. First, the fact that (what appears pre-reflectively as) the whole universe manifestly centres on a central body-image, and follows this body-image around, is one of the best indications each of us can have that direct realism about (ill-named) perception is false. The real-time generation of an egocentric parody of the world is a crucial and phylogenetically primitive adaptation. Such warped simulations are differentially favoured by strong selective pressures. When a mouse dies it takes a unique murine mini-universe with it. Many of the tens of thousands of genes expressed only in the "brain" are actually coding for properties of our different virtual worlds. These toy-town animations serve as key components of individual genetic vehicles that blindly compete and (selfishly) co-operate with each other. It will be a difficult task to work out how DNA codes for, and predisposes to, the phenotypes of sorts of virtual world organic VR genes express. For the notion of "the extended phenotype" has far wider application than even Dawkins suggests. Second, the impact of another Darwinian research program in the millennia to come is still harder to gauge. Our modes of consciousness, including the primary "perceptual" modalities which make up each egocentric microcosm, have themselves been selected over millions of years by evolution. They are just as specialised, improbable and as statistically unnatural as, say, the eye. A Darwinian account of the evolution of consciousness would map out the whole gigantic state-space of modes of being from which our tiny archipelagos of present-day awareness have been selected. Most of these inexpressibly exotic forms of existence are hidden from us. The practicalities of discovering their properties defy the imagination. There is simply no God's-Mind point of view by which incommensurable modes of awareness can be simultaneously entertained and taxonomised. A far-off, far-out, Meta-Copernican revolution that reduced one's whole waking world to one little specialised tickle on an astronomically-sized psychedelic menu can presently only be gestured at. I don't, as may be gathered, think the over-hyped formula of a mathematically complete Theory of Everything will herald the End of Science. For the whole enterprise of knowledge has barely started.
I'm dipping and flipping through The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett. It's gripping but grim. I must go back and read the rest - one day. I guess I'm one of the few constitutionally depressive pessimists who believes we're destined to live happily ever after. This is very much a minority view among secularists.
I read another QM text, Where Does The Weirdness Go? by David Lindley. Hmmmm. Its gist is that quantum theory is odd, but not very odd. One is supposed to call such a work "popular". This dismissively suggests one would be happier cuddling up with a book on the mathematics of superstring theory and a cup of warm cocoa. Everett, unfortunately, is described by Lindley as "cumbersome", the one thing the RSI isn't. Very frustrating.
A brief stopover at the [now defunct] Cybar somehow turns into an ultra-intense, ultra-violent game of networked Duke Nuke 'Em. Alas killing anything that moves is far more fun than rescuing fluffy creatures and agonising about the moral implications of one's actions. Worryingly, the knowledge that the digital warriors one engages in combat are avatars for flesh-and-blood people really does add spice to the battle. More worrying still, I fear that if some wimpish herbie had interrupted the gameplay to challenge me on the ethics of simulated depravity, I'd have wanted to take him out too. Sick but fun.
HedWeb's graphic design guru and decadent Epicurean informs me that a radical re-design of the site is now vital. The psychic scars of the last one have barely healed, so I don't feel like bursting out into a rendering of the hallellujah chorus. Moderate but controllable stress is allegedly good for one's health. A digital demolition-job on one's home has a distinct tendency to feel immoderate and uncontrolled. Why permanent revolution should be an object of fear and loathing in politics, but celebrated as a lifestyle suitable for virtual domesticity in cyberspace, escapes me. Couldn't hallowed tradition, a rich history, and the on-line equivalent of period furniture come to be appreciated on the Net too? I am not a bower bird, I tell myself. I do not need to attract prospective mates to the nesting-ground with digital finery. I do not care about my hit-count. I can be happy living in the virtual counterpart of a cheap-and-cheerful, suburban semi-detached. Sadly, cognitive therapy doesn't work. In the digital wilderness of mirrors, credibility is all. How many surfers will go slumming for rough diamonds when they can take their pick amongst a galaxy of animated pearls? It occurs to me that I could improve my financial fortunes by running creative writing courses.
Brighton's Infinity Foods are celebrating their 25th birthday. Free organic food and fruit juice is on offer. I tuck in with polite gusto. I am not keen on blending my own chemical regimen with someone else's pesticide cocktail; so this narrows my options when eating out even in right-on Brighton. Reputable sellers of organic food are at a disadvantage, too, since less scrupulous retailers can undercut them by unfair means. Plausibly shrunken and semi-mouldy vegetables of great antiquity can be passed off as "organic"; and carry a premium price and profit margin to match. Another trouble with running a natural health food store is that one's customers expect the staff to be conspicuous advertisements for world-class super-health and fitness. Sad to say, certain life-loving members of the Infinity co-op are enthusiastic Saturday-night clubbers. Their wraith-like Monday-morning return to duty in the guise of half-successful attempts to reanimate the dead can provoke irreverent comment. Even so, the shop's food is very good. I'm prone to lecture anyone who will listen on how a decent diet promotes mental as well as physical health. Infinity Foods tends nonetheless to attract some of the flakiest misfits, wierdos and bohemians in Brighton; and that's just from my flat. Moreover, for so long as some of one's nearest and dearest are essentially composed of a residue of junk food, itself scavenged from the nutritional equivalent of a municipal skip, one's dietary evangelism has to be kept in check.
A slightly surreal day in British politics. A junior Government minister has resigned on a point of principle. Eurosceptic (i.e. Little Englander dogmatist) Heathcote-Amory thinks the Government should nail its colours to the proverbial mast and declare itself against a common European currency. The issue of European monetary integration, however, is not best calculated to set the popular imagination aflame. Few of us down here in Brighton are keen to die in the last ditch to defend the pound in our pockets. I am not easily bought, but I confess I'd cheerfully swap the graphic delights of the Queen's head for a currency denominated in Deutschmarks if offered, say, a decent PC monitor [Gatey is ailing with some form of phosphorous poisoning]. Not quite the bulldog breed, perhaps. I still find the notion of any sense of self-identity built around the national currency quite bizarre. One might have greater respect for the "sleepless nights" [I jest not] spent by one Eurorebel wrestling [the mind boggles] with his conscience [a beast whose ontological credentials surely vie with HedWeb's golden house sparrow] if the Tory party hadn't spend the past week energetically promoting a measure designed to leave asylum-seeking torture victims totally destitute. These free-loading foreigners are apparently flocking here in huge numbers - lured to our shores by the legendary generosity of Britain's welfare benefits. Inexplicably, news of such governmental largesse has yet to filter down to the homeless on the streets; and this isn't an administration renowned for doing good deeds by stealth. Late in the afternoon, I go for a picnic in the park with a motley bunch of HedWebbers. We are celebrating Ben's birthday. The effect of the phenylethylamine in the chocolate-coated birthday cake is enhanced by my essentially complete MAO-b inhibition; so I take great pleasure in honouring the happy day by eating as many slices as possible. I am left with a warm after-glow which I'd prefer on balance to believe was an awakening of the holy spirit rather than a bout of mesolimbic excitement. Opting to give it a chemical label sounds more scientific. I wouldn't claim it's notably more illuminating.
Dispatching the riddle of existence can be avoided no longer. I undergo a brief spasm of philosophising and upload the answer to why anything exists. As had been unkindly remarked, the promised key to the Universe has been "Coming Soon" on HedWeb for ages (at least in terms of cyberspace's wildly accelerated chronology). Haven't one's critics heard of the concept of a difficult birth? In practice, I simply convert a rather stale and (very) late-Joycean stream of consciousness from note-like form into a convoluted imitation of the Queen's English. Then I call it a day. I recall how in my namesake's joyless adolescence, rarely a week would go by without a dread-ridden DP brooding over Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing at great length. More recently, I have literally declaimed the phrase "Why Does Anything Exist?" repeatedly as a mantra to induce a "naturally" altered state of consciousness. I am not sure whether this culturally deviant habit suggests a streak of New Age mysticism or a personality disorder. On a more practical level, I'm not exactly agog at the prospect of exposing a work-in-progress-style article to the Net. In common with the HedWeb file announcing "Hard-Core Hedonism", its title may give the impression of promising more than it practically delivers. On the one hand, I regard HI as right but intellectually trite, however desperately important I think the abolitionist program happens to be (enhanced dopamine function does have an unfortunate tendency to induce unwonted arrogance). "Much ado about Nothing", on the other hand, is not trite, but is almost certainly wrong; or at least radically incomplete. I'd originally pondered the idea of putting up a modest "under construction" sign. Pundits if not surfers tend to be rude about such fixtures and fittings these days; so I thought better of it. A super-heavyweight graphic might discourage idle scrutiny; yet lots of people just tend just to switch them off. A pay-per-view system would certainly deter (should one expect wisdom to come cheap!?) but I'd still be left handing out too many disgruntled refunds. Possibly its conversion into a well-illustrated "Melissa's Guide to..." would be a pleasing way to divert attention from holes in the argument - but this format would also invite more attention than DP philosophising can normally arouse. One might trust that calling it "Much ado about Nothing" should at least lead to its reflex relegation to the realm of boring literary criticism. This does rather suppose that the average surfer is more clued-up on the Shakespearean canon than may nowadays be the case. These minor caveats notwithstanding, I go ahead anyway and lodge the piece amid HedWeb's digital sprawl. I resolve in future to make no more on-line promises that go beyond the onerous responsibility of advising the Golden House Sparrow of the merits of future Sites of the Day. "What's New..." also gets a revamp. Ye Olde Home Page (fl. Jan-April 1996) is finally buried in one of HedWeb's unmarked graves. I can't quite bring myself to delete it from the Pavilion server altogether. That would seem somehow impious, even to a barnacle-encrusted relic from a bygone era.
Good news for world peace and cosmic happiness. I am asked if I would be willing to upload HI to the library of the Compuserve MIND forum with a view to its discussion. Naturally I am pleased. My familiarity with Compuserve is limited, but this might be a useful chance to proselytise for universal fluffiness. Actually, ideas quite often need to be rescued from the quirks and foibles of the people who have them. My hope is that sooner or later some intellectual 800lb gorilla will write a monster scholarly tome which does the option of purging the molecular substrates of evil the real justice it deserves. A dilettantish "manifesto", personal vanity aside, isn't equal to the task. I am, however, delighted that the request comes from someone who shares, if nothing else, my sense of the extreme moral urgency of the issues at stake. The wish-fulfillment angle of HI is useful and far more enjoyable to contemplate; but IMO it's an ethical red-herring. It has admittedly been put to me elsewhere that what I construe as a highly toned-down account in HI of the frightfulness of much of the world is overdrawn. Things just aren't that bad. Crudely, I exaggerate. This is a wonderfully appealing notion. I just can't believe it. The horror of what lies behind the daily news, let alone the unchronicled and unsanitised modes of ill-being undergone by so many of the world's creatures, leads me instead to fear that the HI is blandly under-argued. The horrors of the present need to be laid on thicker. I feel my normal stylistic tone of wry detachment is as deceitful in its practical effects as the most flagrant Big Lie. At any rate, more or less by chance, I have found, for the first time that I can recall, a sense of purpose in my life. It isn't even a purpose which needs to be scare-quoted, ironised or subject to the normal role-distancing process that we ill-styled "post-moderns" have come to expect. HI was originally written for analytic philosophers. It now needs rewriting in pithy, all-action sentences. Ideally, I'd like to eliminate all trace of jargon and its wordy lumpen-academese. If a visiting foreign student ever asks me where to learn good contemporary English, I commend, not reference to some stilted literary "classic", but the study of a Sun editorial. (Less provocatively, one may suggest reading the upper-middle-brow weekly, The Economist. It's apt motto is: "simplify; then exaggerate"). My rather off-beat choice of model derives not from its trashy right-wing populism of content; but from the sheer vigour and punchiness of its prose. I will just have to make sure HedWeb doesn't go downmarket in other ways too...
Steve North gives me the latest and uncensored version of his monthly Argus "Hyper" rant. In the Argus it always gets "edited" on grounds of decency, taste and libel. It's actually mild by the standards of much of the Net. Yet it enables HedWeb to pose as a crusading on-line apostle of freedom of expression. Personally, I scarcely swear at all. My chaste-tongued delicacy of speech doesn't stem from any deep ideological conviction. I am just too incorrigibly literal-minded. I can't stop myself imagining whatever practices nominally lie behind each day's volley of casually-discharged expletives. This involuntary translation-work can get quite distracting.
Melissa shows me a newly-published book with her photo inside. It is by her agent Simone. Simone runs a top-drawer modelling agency whose portfolio of clients has included, I believe, Jerry Hall. It describes modelling as a career in contemporary society. Advice is given to potential hopefuls who are considering entering the profession. I have decided against it myself. A dip into the slim volume's deathless prose is enough to convince me it deserves a HedWeb review. Lavish illustration will naturally be in order so that it may also serve as a study aid for non-native English surfers. Apparently Melissa's one-shot debut in the book is due to Simone's wish not to see her girls over-exposed. I'm not sure if she's entirely au fait with the nature of the Web. Sections of our audience evidently feel HedWeb's most widely studied poet is under-exposed in any case. They will have to remain disappointed. I am glad to say we are not that sort of site. Later, Melissa and I spend an afternoon in the sweltering summer heat on a live-action photoshoot. The promised Melissa's Guide to Brighton has proved too ambitious for our finite resources of energy: perhaps comprehensiveness is best left to the estimable Virtual Brighton. Instead we focus on the town's famous Pavilion. I shoot the Regent's idiocy from every available angle. Standing in the foreground, Melissa looks at once soulful and coquettish. What a splendid backdrop to the intellectual rigours of our Thought of the Week. I wonder what it must be like to be able to say "..and this is my pad" to a prospective mistress. Enough to turn a girl's head, I shouldn't wonder. We adjourn for refreshments and then upload Misty Rights 3. Melissa's poetry, I think, is a valuable corrective to all the sex and drugs elsewhere on...er,... the Internet.
A whiz-kid techie from Brighton's Cybar is staying before moving into his new sea-front flat. What a shame for HedWeb's smooth operation that the going rate for his kind of expertise exceeds our budgeted maximum of 50 pence an hour. In the meantime, he does at least get installed in the guest room for a week. Here he'll get to see where Gatey is nursed in sickness and in health from the modest surroundings of my Lower Rock Gardens apartment. It sits beyond the Palace Pier. The spare room has a large complement of fluffy animal photos on the walls. What could be a more soothing sight for a guy after a hard day's work at the Cybar teaching visiting sophisticates how to use a mouse etc? Part of me would actually much prefer techies to wear anoraks, lack girlfriends and know nothing about the world beyond computers. It would defuse one's gnawing sense of ignorance and functional senility. Tom has the amiable features, demeanour and sleep schedule of a South American three-toed sloth. He seems quite alert and even animated when awake. I gather he learned programming in C etc at a tender age; and hasn't ever looked back. When faced with reams of new techno-info, he's more like a hyper-intelligent sponge - whereas I suppose I'd count more as a malfunctioning shock-absorber. Why can't stressed-out people ring me instead at 4.00 a.m., pathetically grateful for any snippets of philosophical wisdom which I might deign to offload? The cultural capital of the past is just getting written off as worthless. Its human vectors aren't faring much better. Oh woe....
A personal sadness has dulled my appetite for life somewhat. Few people are so boring in conversation that an intimated reluctance to tell you something doesn't briefly stir one's interest in what they might say. My views on privacy, however, together with a weak-minded desire to be liked, usually ensure I err on the side of tedium and discretion. So - let's say I'm just feeling a bit sad. Had a self-customised drug regimen not turned me into my current alien confection, I fear the cruelty of fate (before, I hope, the triumph of HI!) would have sent me spiralling into a rapid emotional tail-spin. For DP's have never conquered adversity; they've merely been crushed by it. As it is, I carry on as before but with an awareness that part of the fire inside has dimmed. The terrible beauty of the world's equations is just too sad for words; but at present I experience only a tinge of melancholy. The nice thing about VR - and I suppose a hidden redeeming feature of the underlying laws themselves - is that they can be virtually rewritten. And then bad things can just stop happening.
I come across an intriguing NYT report via the excellent Nando news service [Its URL appears to have migrated. Can anyone steer me to its URL so I can hotlink it again? Thanks. DP 26/07/96]. It deserves to be widely read and its implications more fully explored. Intriguingly, the very same variant dopamine D4 allele that the cited researchers link to a genetic tendency to a high "set-point" of happiness has also been described as the "novelty-seeking" gene. If the connection really is so intimate, then it's possible that the coupling of genetically enhanced well-being and (genetic predisposition to) a responsiveness to the rewarding properties of a greater range of stimuli - leading presumably to "more living, understanding, evolving and growing systems" sought by the amazing Anders - will prove tighter than one might have dared to hope for. One of the anxieties of otherwise well-adjusted and happy people about an HI scenario seems to be the worry that it will lead to post-humanity getting stuck in some locally good but globally sub-optimal state. [I wonder what percentage of this group have the relevant D4 allele? It is possible they are prone to a kind of encephalisation of emotion predisposing to personal life-experience in which the notions of stasis and simplicity will come to seem intrinsically boring or aversive rather than just contingently associated?]. Even if they may be keen to see the immensity and intensity of the world's suffering diminish, they are loathe to allow unpleasant experience to disappear altogether like the smallpox virus. Pleasure-gradients, it will be said, are not enough. In fact, I think, the functional necessity of any particular phenomenology remains to be proved. For ill-understood reasons, phenomenal unpleasantness may be necessary for primordial carbon-based life to bootstrap itself into intelligence. Yet even early on in the evolution of life, subjective nastiness can nonetheless exist or disappear independently of its notional functional role. This is borne out by its cruel and futile presence in certain cancers or its normal absence in the far-fetched Bruce Creature). If the politics of psychiatric diagnostics were to shift, and the absence of the relevant D4 allele came to define a "monogenetic" metabolic disorder (currently over 4000 have been identified), then the use of widespread single-gene therapy could not just rapidly increase our species well-being, but widen the range of future global options likely to be explored. Of course, as the nicer parts of neural state-space get accessed, it's possible that, eventually, change and complexity may become less highly valued; in some contexts, they may even be abhorred. I see them as morally neutral in themselves and of merely instrumental worth. They are useful only for significantly sub-optimal systems such as late twentieth century Homo sapiens who could evolve and redesign themselves into something better. Grant for a moment that any finite system will have (by various criteria) an Ideal cognitive/emotional etc state, the best it can possibly occupy. Any single here-and-now frame can have a very limited number of ingredients and temporal depth. So any change from such an Ideal state would detract from its excellence. Once one has found absolute perfection, one might then wish to sustain it indefinitely. Perhaps the cold QM-coherent minds of quantum super-beings in the distant future are doing just that. To us, for sure, a never-changing specious present sounds boring. Yet such a condition might embody a perpetual awe-struck wonderment at the miracle of existence.
I receive a delightful e-mail of encouragement from the unassumingly named Hope Bean. This makes a change from the staple drizzle of hate-mail from hunting enthusiasts and testosterone-charged carnivores. Occasionally they attempt a half-hearted defence of human blood-lust. More typically, the desire to shock and offend proves too great. So I get treated to lascivious descriptions of their practices more reminiscent of the archetypal sociopath. A disproportionate number of human serial killers did in fact serve their apprenticeship torturing animals in childhood. Opponents of animal rights/welfare/liberation etc often like to suggest that a fondness for animals masks a hatred of (or at best an indifference to) people. Wisely, they are less keen to suggest that a love of animal cruelty masks a fondness for humans. One of the Net's more warped sickos kindly provides a "useful list of addresses" of pro-hunting, -factory-farming, -vivisecting organisations. Either he is a stooge for more benign forces altogether; or one of his allies might wish to have a quiet word.
Microsoft Explorer or Netscape Navigator? A cruel dilemma for anyone. Can't proprietary html extensions be boycotted? Well, no, I'm not a purist either. To economise on effort, however, one does like picking the winning side. This is so irrespective of any conception of the intrinsic merits of the protagonists. Lately I've been wondering if I ought to jump ship. I suspect Microsoft can leverage its mastery of ("leverage its mastery of" - what fertile ground for idiomatic American memes my young mind is - I've been reading too many computer mags) the desktop into dominance here too. And Big Bill will have outwitted his legion of critics again. Will a dawning sense of the ridiculous preclude the accolade of a Golden House Sparrow award to the Microsoft site? Probably not.
I am feeling tidy-minded (mild serotonergic dysfunction?). So Gatey gets an overdue spring-clean. The chaos of an ill-organised hard-disk can get a bit demoralising after a while. My solution probably lacks a certain elegance; but pragmatically it does the job. I neatly put all the files, folders and miscellaneous debris in a single new folder, called "oldstuff". I then ignore it and start all over again. These inspirational moments have happened several times to date. Presumably they help lay down the strata for a digital archaeology of one's life. Perhaps I should submit the technique to a PC mag "readers tips" section.
A bad day for HedWeb. Our mission to promote motherhood, apple pie and universal happiness is sabotaged by a cruel twist of fate. After a six-week delay, my favourite search engine, Alta Vista, has updated its entries. The several hundred files previously listed at this site have mysteriously disappeared. Some half a dozen entries oddly remain. The possibility of a global Judaeo-Masonic conspiracy involving MI5, the CIA and the meat-industry mafia needs to be considered: yes, it all fits. On reflection, I decide this scenario is unlikely. Far darker forces may be at work. Yet since the server obviously wasn't down on the spider's visit, and seems unlikely to have been overloaded, I'm at a loss to know how the dirty deed was done. The day doesn't get much better. I receive a job-hunting e-mail which begins, promisingly enough, by addressing me as "Dear Professor Pearce" (a courtesy title no doubt) and goes on to salute my distinguished scholarship, legendary status in my field and so forth (modesty forbids... etc.) Unfortunately, any gathering sense of pride on my part is soon dimmed when it turns out that the intended recipient is more plausibly my academic namesake in Environmental Science. Moreover if my normal postbag is anything to go by, I fear any similar mix up involving his letter-box would involve unkinder epithets. Geeky as it sounds (oh I wish), it's a pity we're not christened at birth with a unique URL. Such a scheme, or more probably its nominal equivalent, might save all manner of mix-ups and embarrassments. As it is, it must be mortifying to a god-fearing citizen such as oneself when some namesake and impostor in organic reality commits an infamous crime. For this can serve only to sully the wholesome associations one's name inspires in popular esteem. On a different note, I learn this is National Self-Deception Week.
I am reading Time's Arrow and Archimedes' Point by Huw Price. As expected, it's good stuff. Alas the arguments presented against no collapse interpretations of QM are unconvincing. I'm left still waiting and hoping. [see 16 April] Thank god one of the few sure-fire lessons of history is that one is almost certainly wrong...
News breaks that Oxford University intends to double its number of professors at a stroke. The creeping dry-rot of credentialism seems to be spreading to the head of the academic tree. The dons, one gathers, have been brooding for some time now over a monstrous injustice. In recent years, their less senior members have increasingly been forced to play second-fiddle in the reputational marketplace and international conference-circuit. This is because of the swelling tide of newly-created redbrick colleagues of (allegedly) inferior pedigree and ill-earned professorial title. Now at one fell swoop, the problem can supposedly be solved. Well, perhaps. Somehow one doubts whether this will do the trick. Oxford professors of more ancient vintage are bound to feel the formerly exclusive eminence of their status has been cheapened by inflation. Possibly some new and more lofty honorific could be devised to soothe their damaged pride. I recall once shocking an academic friend by arguing in all seriousness that students and professors should be paid the same. It's hard to believe the world would be a worse place in consequence. In the UK, calculated government policy has reduced many students to penury. Sub-clinical malnutrition, sub-optimal intellectual performance, and, more worryingly, the widespread problems of emotional health rife among among students derive in part, I suspect, simply because many of them can't afford to eat properly. Of course, this most desirable flattening of hierarchies is not going to happen soon. The egalitarianism of the Net is certainly starting to erode irrelevancies of title to the enterprise of knowledge. Yet it isn't going to eradicate overnight the power structures, unaccountable resource-allocating agencies, and the definitions of reality that they support. The pantomimic quality of academic bauble-hunting may amuse outsiders. But it illustrates, I think, a weakness endemic to environmentalist utopias. "It's not enough to succeed. Others must fail." So long as personal well-being is tied to the quest for reputation and prestige, whether in jobs, "positional" goods etc., large numbers of people are going to feel aggrieved. This is true even under social formations that are (superficially) radically different from our own. Among American Indian tribes socially based around the potlatch, for instance, men would compete for status by giving away as many goods as possible. And analogously, even in our society, there's no reason why the innate egotism of the young child shouldn't be channelled so they enjoy and gain status from being as generous as possible. This competitive generosity is indeed preferable to greed-is-good acquisitive materialism. Yet it ultimately still amounts to something close to a zero-sum game. The reproductive advantages that social dominance etc has brought genetic vehicles in the past have left us biologically predisposed to seek status, however derived. The proximate physiological substrates of the sense of self-importance that high social status brings are unclear. They may not be very different from the catecholamine dysregulation of euphoric mania - though a depressive with extreme guilt can combine nihilistic delusions with grandly imagining himself the wickedest person in the world. I look forward to the era when each of us is natively endowed with a greater sense of self-worth and importance than anyone alive today. In history, for sure, laying claim to god-like status was usually treated as blasphemous. Yet I reckon the numinous parts of neural weight-space may be worth checking out and celebrating, some day, with fellow divinities. One recalls how Balfour (an early 20C UK Conservative Prime Minister, nephew of the Earl of Salisbury, and author of a treatise on Scepticism) once observed that nothing matters very much and very little matters at all. (He was an appalling cynic. When told he was so stony-hearted he wouldn't mind if all his friend dropped down dead, he said that he would - but only if they all did so at the same time). In future, on the other hand, everything will matter a lot. A sense of all-pervasive significance will deepen. If one wants, it can be magnified indefinitely. Meaning-deficiency disorder will be chemically relieved and then genetically cured. Of still cosmic but more contemporary importance, HedWeb is soon due to get clickable buttons. Thanks heavens for Java.
It is a nice sunny day. Large flocks of young foreign tourists are wandering all over the place. Brighton was in fact burned to the ground by the French in 1513, but to hear some locals speak, one might imagine it had happened yesterday afternoon. Oddly enough, the foreign hordes seem less than overawed by the fact that Brighton is multimedia capital of Europe. Many exhibit a quaint desire to lounge on the beach, admiring the sea when they could be learning the joys of animated gifs. My great discovery of the day [which you didn't bookmark DP. Damn] is that there is apparently a negative correlation between complexity of sentence structure and a tendency to Alzheimer's disease in later life. If word breaks out, this is potentially disastrous news for lovers of English prose. I am not unduly alarmed for my long-term health on a purely personal level. I'd dearly love to write in epigrammatic one-liners rather than lazy sentences groaning under the weight of their own subordinate clauses. Yet if easy-to-read simplicity of prose is taken to foretell pre-senile dementia, then the incentives to cultivate it are going become blunted.
I have started to revise my bookmarks. The Great Purge begins. I can't believe it takes so long. At the end of the day, I give up. Extrapolating their current rate of growth, within a few centuries they will be expanding faster than my notational resources to count them. If pushed, one could doubtless turn the never-ending structural crisis into some topical-yet-timeless emblem of the human predicament, weave it into an allegorical fable with multiple layers of meaning, and draw laboured analogies with the myth of Sisyphus etc. I am not James Joyce and one should not complain of information-overload whilst simultaneously adding to it.
I am re-reading Brave New World. It's a brilliant, corrupting book by a decent if intellectually snobbish genius. The bland joylessness of the society it depicts can easily chill the spirit. It's nonetheless still frequently described as a Utopia rather than its insidious dystopian negation. Why does Huxley paradoxically succeed where governments and anti-drug agencies so manifestly fail in persuading (most of) his audience of his message? I'm not sure. The simple invocation of the title, I've noticed, is often enough to asphyxiate further thought on the astronomical range of different types of paradise from which genetically-enriched post-humanity can choose. Moreover, I worry that buried memories of Brave New World lead us to mix up the overall goal of eradicating suffering with one particular and makeshift druggy means of achieving it - and then only for a single species of the planet's often agonisingly sentient organisms. An anticipatory rush of delight at Life's long-term prospects would be apt; a metaphorical shudder is more common. Generating the intellectual energy to escape our current squalid rut isn't going to be easy. I plan to review Huxley's work shortly. [BNW critique finally added added September 1998] To add any such promise to HedWeb's cobwebby Coming Soon section, however, would only be tempting Providence; a singularly ill-named notion in any case, I think. Why do I lack any capacity to acquire decent time-management skills? And why is my declared intention to do anything a virtual kiss of death to its prompt completion? Almost certainly, I learn, because I don't own the latest-and-greatest billion-and-one-function electronic scheduler "which will organise your life...". Presumably it in some manner enables all those powerful movers-and-shakers to tell unexpected arrivals that they're not "scheduled" and so should buzz off. I am not a mover-and-shaker. Later in the day, I spend a (scheduled, happily!) meeting with Niklas from London. Prompted by Frank Tipler's The Physics of Immortality, we discuss the ultimate fate of the Universe and play crazy golf. Niklas is no less at ease in contemplating the next few millennia as in pursuing the mundane trivia of the immediate present. Several of my more impetuous friends, on the other hand, are quite capable of blowing their entire salary/wage/giro in a few days - and they struggle with the tenuous metaphysical concept of next week. As Aristotle once said, it takes all sorts to make a world.
A visit from my parents. Everything goes well. The sea is extremely rough and we spend a lot of time gazing at the waves. I have an intrusive and not very socially responsible fantasy that a great tidal storm surge might wash away the thin strip of commercial development between me and the beach. This rather shapes my attitude to the Greenhouse Effect. One aspires in principle to see things sub specie aeternitatis. In practice, one's approach to the world can be appalling self-referential. Coding for total physical and affective egocentricity is one of the nastiest bits of cunning which selfish genes get up to; but it's clear what selective advantage such a mean type of virtual worldism confers on its perpetrators. My mother innocently asks if I know Java yet? This probably reflects her tendency to flick through the print edition of the Guardian On-Line section rather than the advent of a new breed of TechnoGran; but it does give me an insight into how wars start. And my pages are not boringly static.("Forget boring, static Web pages. Try..") Each sentence is throbbing with raw animal vitality; or at least lolloping along gamely under the weight of its own adjectival excess. Perhaps if my stars were made to twinkle, HedWeb could be transformed into a Total MultiMedia Learning Experience.
I learn from Stephen Harnad (THS; 7 June 1996) that "everyone understands matter". One's jaw drops a little. Fortunately, the Internet allows proponents of such astonishing notions to promulgate their views free from a cliquish academic power-elite enforcing its norms of quality-control. Harnad is actually a respectable academic who edits a well-regarded academic journal. I suspect my own notions of scholarly skywriting would strike him as mere graffiti-artistry amid the celestial smog of the Internet's Great Unwashed (a diary indeed; and not even reputably peer-reviewed). Still, it often takes some quite casual, perhaps even throwaway, remark to illustrate the gulf in underlying presuppositions dividing notional subscribers to the same consensus reality. This one remark in particular gives me some insight into why he thinks humans are privileged in the symbol grounding problem. It also illustrates, I think, why orthodox materialists are floundering in such a hopeless quagmire when explaining the so-called "hard problem" of consciousness. Scientifically-minded perceptual direct realists have to explain how a cheesy, dull-looking lump of porridge, or its individual squidgy, salt-watery cells, can give rise to the manifold textures of consciousness while retaining the closed and complete nature of physical law. Their tenacity of materialist faith reflects not a Tertullian-like love of paradox ("credo quia absurdum"), but simply a sense that all the other options are incoherent or impossible. Their contemporary responses tend to slither from epiphenomenalism (yet how could causally inert qualia inspire books on their own existence?) to quasi-functionalist identity theories (which generally contrive to turn identity into a causal relationship by holding that brains somehow cause conscious states while simultaneously being identical with them). And then there is Daniel Dennett... At least more imaginatively daring proposals are now getting an airing; but the most noted (e.g. Penrose) involve some sort of modification of the preposterously successful formalism for which there simply isn't any evidence (John Baez: "Get CLUEd up" i.e. there's only the continuous linear unitary evolution of the Universal Wave Function). One radical solution that I play with involves strict acceptance of the QM field-theoretic etc -formalism but with a topic-neutral reconstruction. A radical decoupling of the theoretical formalism from the excess baggage of its historical ontology has happened before in science. It may be needed again. (One thinks of the fate of classical physics. Indeed incrementalist accounts of scientific progress score over Kuhn-inspired paradigm-relativism only by focusing on the ever-more encompassing formalism rather than historical conceptions of its ontology). If we're not "presented" with the material world on a direct realist plate, and if our sole handle on the mind-independent world derives ultimately from theoretical physics, then casting off materialist prejudice involves no substantive loss. This is because the pivotal concepts (e.g. field) are defined purely mathematically. Dubbing them "physical" just adds idle flotsam and jetsam. Not enough people take Hawking seriously enough when he says that physics offers us "no idea of what breathes fire into the equations and makes there a world for us to describe". That's because, in practice, we associate in our mind's eye the equations with all kinds of unavowed conceptual bric-a-brac. On this analysis, rather than there being three disparate ontological super-kingdoms - maths, physics and qualia - perhaps properly understood they are coextensive. Mathematical physics exhaustively describes the interrelationships of different field-theoretic values of subjectivity: naturalistic panpsychism. Given this single unifying super-principle, then over millions of years, (substrate-neutral) Darwinian selection pressures can get to work after the playing out of (substrate-neutral) non-equilibrium thermodynamics has spawned simple self-replicating information-bearers. These self-propagating micro-patterns give rise to throwaway vehicles hosting minds/egocentric virtual worlds. Their (substrate-neutral?) computations in turn promote the inclusive fitness of the genes which spawned them. The solutions to the QM equations yield the numerically encoded values of each minimal micro-texture of subjectivity. The micro-textures of a composite experiential manifold amount to what each of us indexically calls the world. Self-evident really. Time for some more pills...
I log on and find myself downloading an abnormally large number of messages questioning my sanity. Rather oddly, there seems to be a correlation between diagnostic acumen in tele-psychiatry and freedom from the stifling orthodoxies of conventional spelling and syntax. Most of the specialists in on-line tele-diagnosis are bloodthirsty American hunters. They recount their practices with the restrained subtlety, taste and delicacy one associates with devotees of snuff movies. In a sense, my solicitous correspondents are perfectly right - most of the time one is mad as a hatter. The contents of a typical here-and-now are so shrunken and yet all-enveloping in their triviality that one might as well be a happy pig for all the depth of insight they bring. Sometimes, of course, our critical faculties are more sharply engaged. One of the enviable joys of being a direct realist about perception must be that you can compare what the world is like with your own conception of it. I gather that they tend to correspond with a remarkably high degree of fidelity.
I receive an invitation to go and play elephant polo in the Himalayas. Managing my web-site with a laptop via a portable fax-modem on top of an elephant in India isn't quite the fulfillment of a lifetime's ambition, but it's an image which does exert a certain charm. Sadly, I have to decline; perhaps next year. At god-knows-how-many megabytes, HerbWeb plays host to perhaps the world's largest digital elephant sanctuary. Several of the larger jumbos weigh in at a rather anti-social 270k; I suppose at least that means we're not guilty of the Net's deplorable tendency to hit-count-boosting populism. I am rather puzzled, however, why some 2000 visitors last week chose to admire HerbWeb's favourite elephants. People can be so bafflingly unpredictable.
1 July 1996
I am reading Ray Monk's admirable new biography of Russell. I'm by nature a hero-worshipper, albeit one who knows that his idols will have feet of clay. Russell's critics would claim the rot spread a good deal further; yet he was a truly extraordinary man. His life was dominated, in his own words, by "the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind." I'd say the range of one's sympathies ought to be broader; but the quote strikes a very deep chord.
DP Interview Dec. 2003
DP Drug Regimen August 2005
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