Two kinds of tales, one true and one false

More on truth and lies:

‘There are two kinds of tales, one true and one false,’ Socrates claims in Plato’s Republic (trans A.D. Lindsay, 1935, London: Dent, p. 376).

‘The depth of consciousness created by the exercise of the arts of deception is the first arena for the practice of that dissimulation proper to the life of human intelligence. The same spirit permeates other expositions, for instance that of Karl Popper, who equates the capacity to lie with the capacity to imagine: the power to imagine other things, to negate, and thereby to create fiction, even hypothesis – and thence to create science’. (John Forrester 1997 Truth Games: Lies, Money, and Psychoanalysis, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 9)

What, according to Nietszche, the Greeks admired in Odysseus;

‘his capacity for lying, and for cunning, his ability to be, when need be, whatever he chose’ (Frederich Nietzsche 1974 The Gay Science, trans Walter Kaufman, New York: Random House, p. 156).

These quotations are to be found in :

Linda Neil (2009) Beautiful lies my father told me. TEXT Special Issue No 5 The Art of the Real April

Now read: Truth and Lies


The Ethics of Autonomous robots

Further to a recent post about the ethics of autonomous robots, it seems military robots are not the only kind that can kill, allbeit by ‘mistake’. In Japan there are already robots that feed the elderly and baby-sitting robots in shopping centres. So who exactly should be held responsible when they go wrong? It’s an issue that has concerned Noel Sharkey of Sheffield University for a while (he and Ronald Arkin were interviewed for the radio recently), and now the Royal Academy of Engineering has weighed in with a discussion report.

Autonomous Systems: Social, Legal & Ethical Issues, commissioned by the Academy’s Engineering Ethics Working Group, is online at

It’s an interesting read, but it doesn’t begin to ask the kind of questions grid-group cultural theory might…. Continue reading “The Ethics of Autonomous robots”

How do we know what we think we know? (part 2)

How do we know the tide won’t wash the beach away?

A couple of years ago a local newspaper reported a certain beach-front resident claiming  “It’s ridiculous to think this beach would ever get washed away by a king tide. I’ve lived here four months and it’s just never happened.” This is an example of an heuristic in operation. The particular heuristic the resident used was this: anything that hasn’t happened within the last four months will never happen. Clearly, it’s a deficient way of thinking (parts of the beach have in fact been washed away), but might there be heuristics that, though not infallible, are useful?

This post follows on from one a while back about how we know what we think we know about ‘how things really are.’ I’m seeking to develop a way of characterising grid-group cultural theory as a set of four ecologically efficient social learning heuristics.

Given that we don’t actually know how stable the beach is, or indeed anything much about how things really are:

We use heuristics… Continue reading “How do we know what we think we know? (part 2)”

Nipping and Biting: Characterising the Conflict between Science and Religion

Much of the supposed conflict between science and religion may well be imaginary, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any conflict.

How then should this conflict be characterised?

Gregory Bateson once noted the distinction in playful animals between the nip (playful) and the bite (serious). It’s clear that animals, including ourselves, can tell the difference, but how? How do they (we) make the transition between ‘this is play’ and ‘is this play?’?
Bateson famously summed up his observation of monkeys at the San Francisco zoo as follows:

“the playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite” (p.180).

This has a great deal to tell us about the science and religion debate. Continue reading “Nipping and Biting: Characterising the Conflict between Science and Religion”

East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet…

Fourcultures has previously expressed frustration over the ubiquity of the fiction of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ thought worlds. One antidote on offer is to read the excellent book The Shape of Ancient Thought. To get a little more up to date, another suggestion would be:

Kapil Raj. Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

This book disputes the idea that modern western knowledge originated in the West then was transmitted elsewhere (contra Basalla 1967, for instance). Instead, the author shows, fields such as botany, cartography, terrestrial surveying, linguistics, scientific education and colonial administration, all depended for their development on a good deal of intellectual coming and going between ‘East’ (with a focus here on South Asia) and ‘West’ , between colonial centres and their colonies.

Read also: How to combine Eastern and Western Philosophy

Reference: George Basalla, The Spread of Western Science.  Science 5 May 1967: Vol. 156. no. 3775, pp. 611 – 622

Models, reality and the limits to growth

Fourcultures recently pointed out the contentious relationship between computer-driven models and the reality they claim to be modelling.

More analysis of The Limits to Growth modelling  is now published in American Scientist journal.

Charles A.S. Hall and John W. Day, Jr. 2009 Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil American Scientist Vol 97 (May-June): 230-237.

Hall and Day claim ‘We are not aware of any model made by economists that is as accurate over such a long time span’ (p.235).

You can download the full article and a good summary and discussion is at the Oil Drum.

This complements a recent report from Australian government (CSIRO) scientist Dr Graham Turner, who revisited the business as usual projections of The Limits to Growth from 1972 and found that actual observation matched the projections pretty well. Continue reading “Models, reality and the limits to growth”

A Month of Resilience

This month Four Cultures is going to be considering Resilience and its connection with Grid-group Cultural Theory.

By Resilience I mean the cross-disciplinary scientific approach inspired by the work of Canadian ecologist Buzz Holling, and promoted in a number of places, especially through the Resilience Alliance and through the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

There’s a video of him from his award of the Volvo Environment Prize in November 2008.

Chaos theory and fourcultures

More on Chaos theory, evolution and fourcultures.

Meika recently posted a piece about brain research, bias and chaos theory.

And DK asked:

How does chaos complicate or enrich evolutionary theory in biology? How does the nonlinearity that chaos features interact with mutation/drift/natural selection? Is there a canonical text (or at least something authoritative & comprehensive) on this?

I think one of the key texts on this subject is going to be Continue reading “Chaos theory and fourcultures”

How do we know what we think we know? What the Density Classification Problem tells us

How can we know what the world is really like?

We often hear fairly frank opinions about how things ‘really’ are. We probably make these kinds of claims ourselves from time to time: ‘the fact is…’, ‘that’s just the way it is…’;  ‘you know what it’s like…’

But how do we know what we think we know? And what makes us so sure that our assumptions are right?

Continue reading “How do we know what we think we know? What the Density Classification Problem tells us”

The Four Cultures of Science Fiction

As a genre, sci-fi is par excellence concerned with culture. What would it be like to visit an alien world? How would its inhabitants operate, and how would they differ from us?

In a way it’s a kind of theoretical anthropology. Think of Ursula Le Guin’s inquiry into a culture of hermaphrodites in The Left Hand of Darkness, or of Iain M. Banks’s series of novels in which he explores the political permutations of a culture that has abolished scarcity – a culture provocatively named ‘the Culture’. Continue reading “The Four Cultures of Science Fiction”