Mayuki is Fine

Certain People have complained about the lack of Mayuki content in recent blogs. My apologies for that; I’ve been very busy for the last couple of weeks, and I haven’t had time to write things up properly. Things we’ve been busy with include Mayuki’s Kuizome (ritual first meal) and first Christmas, so I have plenty to write about. Just no time to do it. However, I should be on holiday for the New Year very soon, so I’ll write about everything then.

In the meantime, Mayuki is fine, growing all the time, and a very smiley and happy baby.

The Third Chimpanzee

The Third Chimpanzee was Jared Diamond’s first book. It’s all about the human animal, and the likely evolutionary background to some of our behaviour, and the likely consequences of some of the rest of it. It’s well written, entertaining, and as far as I can tell would have been accurate when it was written, so it isn’t too badly wrong even now.

Diamond has a good attitude to evolutionary explanations of human behaviour. If a certain kind of behaviour is found in all societies, or very close to all, and particularly if it is not found in the other two species of chimpanzee, then it almost certainly evolved during the development of humans as humans. Thus our long lifespans and penises were probably part of the changes that made us human. The long lifespan has a plausible explanation available; the continued existence of old people, who remembered how everyone survived the last disaster seventy years ago, meant that the whole group could survive the next disaster. In effect, it provided insurance against disasters that were likely to occur only a couple of times in a human lifetime. There is, apparently, still no good explanation for why human penises are so big, however. (We have smaller testicles than chimpanzees, though, and there is an explanation for that. Go on, read the book.)

He also does a good job of tracing animal precursors to human behaviour. Genocide is found in other mammals, but on a much smaller scale, because they do not have the resources we have. Thus, genocide looks like the manifestation, in large, organised states, of the standard hostility to members of other groups found in small groups of people and groups of animals. Ecological destruction is also found in both the human past, and in other species.

Diamond does mention the native people who lived in harmony with their environment. However, there is a strong implication that they did that after trashing it when they first did that. We know that the Polynesians wiped out many species on the islands they found, before, in many cases, learning to live within their ecological means. The first Native Americans seem to have wiped out the large mammals (this is controversial, but I’m inclined to agree with Diamond; it looks like a bit too much of a coincidence), before learning to live in balance. In some cases, they didn’t. The inhabitants of Easter Island trashed the place completely, and the Anasazi of North America deforested themselves into oblivion.

It’s not just humans who do this, either. Rats introduced to islands tend to drive species to extinction by eating them. Sometimes those rats have stowed away on human ships, but even then it’s the rats, not the humans, who do the wiping out.

The general conclusion is that animals that can prey on more than one species, if introduced to a new region or provided with new capabilities, tend to drive other species to extinction, before either reaching a new equilibrium or going extinct themselves. Thus, if humans continue to behave in a natural way, like any other species would, we are likely to completely trash the planet. Personally, I think that humans as a species will survive, pretty much whatever we do. Civilisation could go down, though, and the deaths of billions from war, plague, and famine could easily be part of the process. So I think that avoiding environmental destruction is a good idea.

The unique thing about humans, of course, is that we can look at the past and try to avoid making those mistakes. We are actually doing that, right now. It’s not clear whether we are doing enough to avoid disaster, but at least we are thinking about it. This book won’t tell you how to save the planet, but it will give you a much clearer idea of why people might consistently make the sorts of decisions that would destroy it.

A Place for Consciousness

This is the book about consciousness that I noted a little while ago, and I’ve just got around to reading it. It’s very good.

In the first section, Rosenberg raises most of the problems about consciousness that had occurred to me. In short, no matter how good a physical description you have, there is nothing in there about where consciousness comes from, so something has to be added to physical theories to say “and this gives rise to conscious experiences”. It seems very likely that that is the way to go, since even if global waves of electrical activity across the brain are the physical correlates of consciousness, current theory does not say that they would be conscious, so something must be missing. However, if we add consciousness properties to electrons and the like, it is deeply obscure how they could give rise to the unified conscious experience that we have.

While these problems are not accepted by everyone, they are fairly generally known. However, the fact that Rosenberg was promising to address the problems I see head-on was very promising. The meat of the book, then, is his solution to the problems.

The basic outline of the solution is very simple. He creates a new theory of causation, in which there are both effective and receptive properties, which combine to make individuals. Effective properties are conscious experiences, and a receptive property is a field of conscious experience. These receptive properties exist at different levels, so there is no reason why there cannot be a single receptive property for human minds, which would explain why we have a single unified experience.

Obviously, I’ve cut all the arguments and details from the above. However, it’s a very clever move. There are definitely problems in the theory of causation, and this theory does answer some of them. His argument that Humean theories have no way to define the universe was particularly interesting; I suspect that he may be right. Humean theories say that there are just individual events, with no links between them, and causation is simply the patterns that occur. However, in strict Humeanism you construct space, time, and causation from the events, which means that you can’t define the universe as “causally linked events” or “events in the same space” or “events in the same time”. You need the set of events first. That means that Humeans need a reason to exclude Tolkien’s Middle Earth from the universe. “It’s made up” isn’t enough, because they have no obvious way to pick out the set of “real events”, other than arbitrary stipulation. And the fact that Middle Earth does not exist is not an arbitrary stipulation; it reflects a deep truth about the universe.

So, back to the main argument of the book. The claim that metaphysics needs “real” causation is quite convincing, and Rosenberg’s split between symmetric and asymmetric constraints has the potential to do a lot of useful work. Similarly, the argument that the relational properties of physics (negative charge is just different from positive charge, there is nothing inherent about them) need some sort of categorical basis is prima facie convincing. Using conscious experiences to fill the role is, frankly, a brilliant idea. They are categorical properties that we know exist, and so it is metaphysically parsimonious to do things this way.

This is by far the best attempt to grapple with the hard problem of consciousness that I’ve ever seen, and I’d say it’s essential reading for anyone interested in the issue.

I’m not, however, fully convinced. One problem is that I’m not quite sure how the causal theory will work out in detail. This is simply due to the fact that I haven’t gone through it with a fine tooth comb yet; it’s possible that, when I do so, everything will be fine, or that there will be small changes that solve the problems. (The theory is unlikely to be perfect at this point, even if it is fundamentally right.)

I do have a more philosophical worry, however. The experiential basis of a particular physical property could be anything. There might be good reasons for all the visual experiences being based on the same sort of thing, but none were canvassed in the book. The unity of the physical process is not, by itself, enough; that does not feed down to the level of the experiences. Thus, there doesn’t seem to be a reason why red isn’t a sound rather than a colour.

More fundamentally, it seems entirely possible that pleasure could feel like pain, and vice versa. That is, something could be exactly the experience that pain is, and not be aversive. It is, on this theory, pure good luck that we have evolved to seek out things that feel good. We were bound to evolve to seek out things that feel, since an experiential basis was needed for those causal properties, but the experiential basis could have been agony. If it had, we would seek out agony, say we liked it, and call it “pleasure”, but it would still feel horrible.

I’m not entirely sure that this is even coherent as a thought experiment, but since failure of imagination is a poor philosophical argument I’ll let that pass. The other problem is that it means that the theory means that there is no possible investigation that can tell us anything about conscious experiences. We might be able to determine whether something has them or not, but even that is a bit tricky. We certainly wouldn’t be able to determine what they were like. (Parsimony would let us say that other people had similar ones to ours.) Now, this might be the way the world is; there is no reason why everything should be accessible to investigation. However, given that we are only just starting to investigate consciousness, I think I’d like to try a more optimistic approach first.

Of course, that means coming up with an alternative theory of consciousness, and given how thin on the ground they are, that’s far from a trivial proposition.

So, this book is great. But I think I hope it’s completely wrong.

Peter Lipton, 1954-2007

This morning I received an email from one of my friends from my Master’s course at Cambridge, informing me that Peter Lipton, my Ph.D. supervisor, had died. This was a great shock; he was only in his fifties. There are good general obituaries in the Guardian and on the Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science website, but I want to write a bit about his impact on me, because it was substantial.

I first met Peter (and it was “Peter” from very early on) in November 1992. Six weeks into the final year of my Physics undergraduate degree, I had suddenly come to the realisation that I didn’t want to study physics, and certainly didn’t want to spend my life doing it. I thought about changing to HPS for graduate work, but looking at the past exam papers made me think that I’d really rather be doing that subject now. So, I asked about changing subjects. Fortunately, at Cambridge Physics and HPS are, administratively, the same subject, both being part of the Natural Sciences Tripos, so the change was not impossible. My tutor dispatched me to talk to Trinity’s Director of Studies in HPS, Peter Lipton.

As I remember the meeting, Peter listened, told me that it would be difficult but possible, and then walked down to the corridor with me to the much bigger office of the then-Head of Department, Professor Redhead, to make sure that it would be permissible for me to transfer.

It is entirely characteristic of Peter that, when Professor Redhead retired, he did not move to the bigger office, instead converting it for use by graduate students as a computer room, and as an office for junior members of the Department; I had a desk in there for a few months while working on Starry Messenger.

As both obituaries note, Peter was a brilliant teacher. My late transfer deprived me of the pleasure of attending many of his lectures as an undergraduate, but when I later became a supervisor I had a good excuse to attend the courses my students were taking. His lectures were always clear, amusing, and memorable. Indeed, they were so memorable that the “transcribed Lipton lecture” was a persistent problem among submitted essays. In many years, the students produced a spoof exam paper, and for several years one of the questions was “Produce a transcription of your favourite Peter Lipton lecture. Remember to include stage directions for all visual jokes”. I have never attended any other undergraduate lectures of that quality, and, despite taking them as a model, my own efforts fell far, far short.

However, his teaching was not limited to his lectures. He also founded and ran the Epistemology Reading Group, a seminar that focused on a single text over the course of a term, whether a book or a collection of papers. At those seminars, and at others he chaired, he was skilled at drawing people into the discussion, and at giving people at all levels the opportunity to make the initial presentation. One of my contemporaries remarked that he also had a talent for “clarifying” student questions in a way that made them vastly more intelligent than the initial questioner had managed, all the while giving all the credit to the student. That group appears to have inspired many other similar groups; the HPS seminar page lists over half a dozen groups, with others on hiatus this term. The only group I know it inspired is the Medieval Science and Philosophy Reading Group that I organised, but the other groups all followed it in time while being contiguous in space, and thus a good Humean would conclude that Peter’s example caused them to come into existence.

And then there are his talents as a Ph.D. supervisor. My thesis was immeasurably better as a result of his comments and the discussions we had. Quite a common situation was for us to spend twenty minutes or so discussing a single sentence, leading me inexorably to the conclusion that, perhaps, I needed to devote a little more space to unpacking that idea. He would never start by saying that an idea was poor, but would, instead, raise objections to it, and let you work out for yourself that it was a non-starter.

Of course, if you could overcome the objections, so much the better. A chapter of my dissertation was devoted to his book, Inference to the Best Explanation. More specifically, it was devoted to why it was fundamentally wrong. Despite that, he supported me in my attempts to make the arguments as strong as possible. In 1994, during my M.Phil studies, Peter gave me a copy of the book, with the inscription “To David, Who may come up with a better explanation”. That encapsulates his attitude to his students; the desire to see them do well, rather than to preserve some sort of intellectual superiority.

As well as this attitude, he mastered all the basic skills needed in a good supervisor, but so often lacking. He read all the drafts I gave him, no matter how many, making comments all over. Appointments could be made for a couple of days later, just long enough to give him time to read, and during the meetings he would always give me his full attention. I thought at the time, and still think now, that I could not have had a better supervisor.

As if this were not enough, Peter also gave me my first opportunity to teach, recruiting me to supervise the final year undergraduate course during my MPhil year. This was provoked by an established supervisor getting a job and suddenly vanishing, and it took me a little while to get into the swing of supervising. I know that I tried to model much of my teaching on Peter, and that, in many respects, I fell short.

Both obituaries mention Peter’s sense of humour, which was good and never cruel. Students and colleagues could always laugh at his jokes, because they were never the butt. Characteristic was his response when I sent him the (Japanese) invitation to my wedding: “Thank you for the invitation, which is very pretty if entirely lacking in accessible semantic content”. It is an in-joke, but one that we could share.

The last time I was in Cambridge, with my (then) wife-to-be, we almost literally bumped into him in the HPS Department, and he immediately invited us for coffee. I was very pleased that we’d had the chance then, but I never imagined that it would be the last time I would see him, or the only time that my wife would. Even though my life has moved a long way from Cambridge, I feel a profound sense of loss that he is no longer there, explaining to undergraduates why it is difficult to demonstrate that it is a better idea to leave the third-floor lecture room by the door than the window. He was always part of Cambridge HPS for me, and I had naturally assumed that he always would be.

The Department has established a Peter Lipton Memorial Fund, to support undergraduate, post-graduate, and post-doctoral research. I cannot think of a more fitting way to remember the best teacher and nurturer of new researchers it has been my privilege to know.

Evolutionary Psychology

These last few days, Mayuki has started smiling and laughing as soon as I appear in front of her. She looks really pleased to see me. Hypotheses:

1) My face is weird, and makes her laugh.

2) While mothers can be sure that a baby is theirs, men have the option of doubt. However, the care of both parents is a distinct advantage for the baby. Hence, babies have evolved to use more hyper-cuteness on their fathers than their mothers, to tie them more closely into the family.

3) She really loves her Daddy.

They are in order of plausibility. Ascending or descending, I leave to the reader to decide.

On a completely different topic, one thing from this week’s Guardian Weekly that amused me.

From an article about Donald Trump’s attempt to create a golf course in Scotland. I will quote the entire paragraph, with merely the comment that, if the quote given there is not verbatim, a journalist is going to be in a lot of trouble.

Sorial rebuffed accusations that the Trump team had been arrogant and patronising. “It may be incomprehensible to smaller minds, but we have always set high standards. We presented them with a plan and hoped they could open their minds, but it was too much for them.”

Looking at Flats

Today, all three of us went to look at a flat. Yuriko and Mayuki went yesterday, but I was feeling very tired, so I stayed at home. I’m feeling much better today (probably because I took yesterday easy), so I went back with them; Yuriko wanted to look again.

The flats are a new block on top of a hill very close to where we live now. One of the flats (the biggest and most expensive) is on the fourth floor (UK), and has an even bigger roof balcony than our current place. It also has a Japanese-style room that looks out over the trees of one of the local temples. Right now, the trees are all turning, so the view was really, really nice. Actually, the whole flat was very nice, with space for a room for Mayuki as well as an office for me, and then we could still use the Japanese room for guests.

The only problem was that we’re at least 30,000,000 yen short of being able to afford it. So I guess we’re going to have to save up for a while. We will need to move in a few years, because this flat isn’t big enough to have a room for Mayuki, and as she grows up, she is going to want one.

Talking of Mayuki growing up, she is continuing to do so. She’s now over five kilograms, and about 58cm long. She can’t stand up yet (obviously…), so “tall” isn’t really appropriate. However, she is practising her standing, with lots of support from me (I hold her up, and she pushes her feet on the ground), and she is making determined efforts to sit up. She can’t quite manage it yet, but she can definitely support her head in most positions now. When I put her down on her stomach, she pushes up with her hands, and gets her head all the way up to look forwards. She then tries to roll over onto her back, but she can’t quite manage that yet, either. Still, that should come quite soon.

I feel that she’s becoming more vocal as time goes on, although she does seem to enjoy just smiling at us, as well as talking. Sometimes she replies to us when we talk to her, but not always. For example, she is usually quiet in the bath, although she smiles at me a lot, but as soon as I take her out and start drying her, she starts talking to me. I think, perhaps, she is more communicative when lying on her back, or something close to that position (she chats in the bouncer), and less so in other positions. Maybe she feels she needs to think about her body more at those times, and doesn’t have any brainpower left for chatting.

I was able to spend quite a bit of time playing with her today; I’m looking forward to her growing up a bit, so that we can play more actively.

A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic

The title of this book is slightly less self-explanatory than you might think; its range is the North American Arctic, and thus primarily the Canadian Arctic. There’s nothing about Greenland or Scandinavia, nor about Arctic Russia.

The primary target audience is people who are going to the Arctic and want to know what they are looking at. I do not fall within that group, at least not immediately. Granted, I have always wanted to go to see northern Scandinavia or Iceland, but that’s not likely to happen in the immediate future, nor is it why I bought the book. This was research material. I’m writing something with an Arctic-style setting (it’s set in a fictional world), and I wanted to know a bit more about the kinds of animals, plants, and terrain that should be around.

For those purposes, the book is almost ideal. It does discuss all the aspects (although I would have liked a bit more on sea fish, which are barely mentioned), and it provides enough information about behaviour and appearance for me to include plants and animals in a work of fiction. I also learned quite a lot; I hadn’t realised that ravens lived in the Arctic all year round, for example. That has to be one of the most striking examples of anti-camouflage going. Another striking realisation was the level of life in the Arctic. Yes, it’s a harsh environment, but there are still large mammals living there, as well as lots of small ones, and birds, and quite a range of plantlife. The environment in piece I’m writing will be rather more lively than I had previously planned, which is all to the good.

As well as suiting my purposes, it looks like the book would also suit the purposes for which it was intended. It is illustrated with drawings rather than photographs, which tends to make identification easier, and focuses on what you are likely to be able to see. There are a number of genera of plants that are treated all together because there is no way that a visitor to the Arctic would be able to tell the species apart, for example. While I was reading it, I did think that it might be nice to visit the Arctic, and actually see some of these creatures. While there still is and Arctic to visit.

The Pure

This is a book for White Wolf’s Werewolf: the Forsaken line, detailing the “bad werewolves” of the setting. Naturally, with it being a horror game, the “good werewolves” are not exactly models of virtue and restraint, but they are supposed to be much more sympathetic than the Pure. The Pure are driven by an unwavering belief in their own virtue, and a genocidal hatred of the Forsaken, the “good werewolves”. They are the religious fanatics, the “master race”, and the merciless hunters of the setting.

The book struck me as a solid, workmanlike performance that covered all the necessary bases. But it didn’t inspire me. This could be just me, of course. There’s a lot of material in it, and plenty of things that could be used in a game to showcase the ways in which the Pure differ from default werewolves, so anyone who found the Pure inspiring, whether as villains or as flawed protagonists, in the core rules would probably find a lot of good stuff here. I never did, and that may well be the problem.

On the up side, there is plenty of material here that I could use if I decided to include the Pure in a game, and it would certainly save me a lot of work; there are sample characters, Rites, Gifts, and fetishes, and discussions of the sorts of things that the Pure get up to. But that extra spark is missing. In the terms I used when marking essays, it’s a solid II:i, but it’s missing that something special needed to make it a first.

First Words

When seen through the eyes of a doting father, naturally.

Today, during dinner, I was talking to Mayuki while I ate. Her eyes are clearly getting better, as she was watching me from some distance away as she sat in the bouncer, and reacted to my words. She reacted by saying “Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh”, which is a new noise. She’s making new noises every day at the moment, with a wider range of vowels and even a few consonants.

But the really good bit was yesterday. I was talking to her between lessons, and I said,

“Aren’t you a really clever girl, Mayuki? You can talk really well, can’t you?”


The sound she made was very close to “yes”. It’s something I say to her quite a lot — “This is fun, yes it is. Aren’t you sweet, yes you are”, and similar parental drivel — so she may in fact have been imitating the word, and just hit on a very appropriate moment at which to do it.

Still, like the early “maybe that’s a smile” expressions, it won’t be long before we can say that the noises are definitely supposed to be responses to what we have said; the smiles are certainly real now, after all.