Permanent Evolution

A: What is “evolution”?

B: Evolution is descent with modification.

A: “Oh? As simple as that? So……can we go home now?”

B: Slow down – sometimes simple explanations are the hardest to understand – so let me unpack this one a bit.

Evolution is the ubiquitous process through which all that was came to be all that is, and through which all that is will become all that will be. That might seem cryptic or hand-wavy, but it’s just a simple statement. Evolution is prosaic.

Evolution is not “natural selection”. Natural selection is not a “type” of evolution. Natural selection is a particular kind of constraint that shapes the consequences of evolution in biological systems. It is not the only kind of constraint that shapes biological evolution, but it’s an important one. Natural selection is one of the best ideas ever produced by hairless apes, because it explains why some of the results of evolution look the way they do (to us).

Evolution is just descent with modification. The future states of a system depend upon (are descended from) prior states. Systems (ones that are actual) are not static – future states are different from prior states. That is evolution: breathtakingly simple and utterly universal.

There are those that wish to defend the word “evolution” from this interpretation, as though it might be tarnished by it. “Following this argument,” they (might) say, “the weathering of a rock, its transformation from a boulder into sand, would be considered its ‘evolution’.” Indeed. As would the transformation of the sand back into rock, were that the sand’s fate. Evolution is prosaic.

“Change is the only constant.” A truism that happens to be true. Aristotle thought that the default state for all things was for them to be at rest. He thought energy had to enter a system in order for movement to be initiated. He used this logic to construct his “prime mover”, or “unmoved mover”, argument. Aristotle was wrong. Heraclitus (a precursor of Aristotle) was closer when he said “everything is in flux and nothing is at rest”. Modern physics refutes Aristotle’s argument – at the “bottom” all is change, all is movement. In fact, Aristotle had it precisely backwards – “energy” is required to prevent change, not to cause it, and even then it’s just a temporary preservation of some “pattern” or another. “All patterns are ephemeral!”, cries the evolutionist.

A: A bit morbid, these evolutionists…

B: Death and taxes, my friend.

Anyway, change is constant, but not all change is permissible, because future states descend from prior states. Future states are constrained by prior states. Evolution, as manifest in the actual universe, is a process that takes place across time. Yes my dear, time is real! The past constrains the future and the deepest level at which we can observe this is by considering the laws of physics themselves. Since evolution is a process in time, if evolution is ubiquitous time must be fundamental and the laws of physics therefore cannot be “outside time”. Lee Smolin hits the nail on the noggin: the laws of physics evolved. Once evolved, they constrained all future evolution. They are one of the earliest “selection pressures”.

A: Why don’t the laws of physics keep evolving then?

B: Huh? I dunno….maybe they do, but maybe they are heavily constrained by something else. I didn’t claim to know everything…..and I was on a roll, do you have to keep interrupting?

A: Sorry….

B: “That’s OK, it was a good question. Anyway, let me sum this up so we can get on with our lives:

Evolution is like this: change is constant, but every system has a set of degrees of freedom which constrain its possible future states. These are the selection pressures or “principles of selection”, or whatever semantically isomorphic phrase one wishes to coin. Different systems….

A: Semantically what?

B: “Semantically isomorphic” – it just means a different choice of words with the same meaning.

A: Well why didn’t you just say that?

B: I think my facial expression says it all right now. Aaaaaanyway:

Different systems have different principles of selection (and working these out is the hard, explanatory task of the evolutionary sciences). Selection pressures themselves evolve, of course, and the laws of physics are an example. The biological sciences have identified thousands of examples, some of which constitute “natural selection”. Systems of ethics are another example – they evolved and they constrain future evolution.

Got it?

A: Sorry what? I was just checking my Instagram feed…

B: Ah. Fair enough I guess. Have you ever read any Marx?

A: Huh? I thought we were done with all this intellectualising once you got through the evolution schtick?

B: We are, but this is funny – one of Marx’s most famous slogans was “permanent revolution!”; little did he know that reality was in a state of permanent Evolution!

A: “That’s not funny.”

B: “Oh.”



This piece was originally published on my new blog Sympathetic People which is a collaboration with Johanahan Coludar. The Sympathetic People blog is also the home of the Permanent Evolution Podcast – please check it out and follow it!


Free will and dualism

I’ve been planning to write about free will for years but it’s never quite happened. I have, on more than one occasion, planned large scholarly articles….and then failed to write them. The form and content of those potential articles is probably lost forever, oh well. Free will is a huge subject, one of the most written about and argued about subjects in all of philosophy. That’s why every time I start planning to write about it the range of arguments I want to discuss quickly expands, the project becomes bloated, and I slink back to my day job as an evolutionary biologist. Well, maybe it’s because I’m currently between day jobs, but I figure if I don’t start by writing something short and sweet and posting it on my blog (which exists for this very purpose, after all) I might never write anything about it at all. I think that would be a shame (for me, at least), so here goes.

As one of the most popular and controversial subjects in philosophy, and one of those that people have the strongest intuitions about, it’s unsurprising a lot of arguments about free will are somewhat (dare I say it) incoherent. Actually, “incoherent” is a very common word utilised in these arguments themselves, typically directed by proponents of one view towards those of another. I’m going to continue this venerable tradition (mostly because it’s fun)  – there are plenty of incoherent arguments both for and against the existence of free will. If I keep writing about this subject, I might get around to reviewing many of them, but I’m going to start by putting some of my own cards on the table at the outset. I believe that Kant, who probably didn’t believe in free will in the metaphysical sense and who famously considered compatibilism (the claim that free will can exist in a deterministic universe) a “wretched subterfuge”, nonetheless refuted the majority of arguments against the existence of free will. This includes many modern arguments. When a philosopher who died in 1804 can be considered to have refuted arguments still being made in 2016, this is an example of what I like to call “proactive refutation”. How did he accomplish this? Simply by asserting that we “cannot act except under the idea of freedom”. For Kant, all actions (or inactions) result from choosing to act (or not to). This includes making the choice to believe that we have no free will – unless you have been somehow coerced (by another agent) into making this choice, you have made it freely.

There is, of course, a sizeable literature devoted to this claim of Kant’s, and there have been many attempts to refute it, but I think that most of them fail. This is going to be a short piece and I want to get to why I think denying the existence of free will is fundamentally dualistic, but before I do I better try to explain what (I think) Kant is on about. There are complicated arguments about coercion etc – e.g. when one is forced to do something is one free to do otherwise, and if not can one be said to be “acting” in the Kantian sense – but let’s leave those aside for now. I think the most important thing about what Kant is saying is that “freedom” and “autonomy of the will” are part of what Wilfrid Sellars calls “the manifest image”. This means that these concepts are part of the level of reality on which humans have evolved to act and on which (in one of Sellars’ examples) we perceive and interact with objects like tables rather than clouds of loosely interacting subatomic particles with a whole lot of empty space between them. Daniel Dennett has developed this line of argument in considerable detail, but the punch line is that arguments from physics (e.g. arguments about determinism) are irrelevant to discussions regarding the existence of free will. Now, most of the arguments from physics against the existence of free will are incoherent (told you!) anyway and wouldn’t demonstrate the non-existence of free will even if they were relevant, but they aren’t. They also aren’t really even arguments from physics, more like arguments from pseudophysics, but that line of argument can wait.

So, a striking majority of arguments against free will are refuted simply by a recognition of the fact that there are many “levels of description” when it comes to reality and that free will is relevant to (and exists on) only some of them. This simple argument takes care of a lot of modern arguments from neuroscience as well as those from physics, but I want to dwell on the former a little longer. To me it seems quite ironic that many people who deny the existence of free will on the basis of evidence from neuroscience accuse those who persist in believing in it of being closet dualists. For me quite the opposite is true  – not that those who deny free will based on neuroscience have a considered belief in dualism that they are hiding, but that their intuitions are guided by (vestigial) dualist notions.

Dan Dennett has caricatured these arguments as “my brain made me do it” and lamented the naïve (in his view) attempts at philosophy perpetrated by certain scientists who have advocated this position. I don’t always agree with Dennett (I’m sure he’ll be devastated to hear this), but I do wish that those who consistently lampoon his positions (“Dan doesn’t believe in consciousness!”) would actually take the time to understand them first. Another way of caricaturing the argument from neuroscience is as “the self is an illusion, therefore free will doesn’t exist”. This is incoherent (am I over doing it yet?). Sure, the self isn’t what it might naïvely appear to be (which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, or that it is acausal, but I won’t get into that) but acknowledging that simple fact and then using it to justify doing away with free will is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

If you are a monist, you are committed to the idea that everything is, at some deep level, made of the same stuff. This stuff might be vibrations, subatomic particles, atoms, whatever you want. To me, that’s all physicalism. It’s not “materialism”, because matter is not fundamental, but no matter (ha!) how far “down” you go it’s still physicalism (vibrations in fields are physical). Anyway, unless you are absurdly reductionist, you agree that there are entities at some range of levels above your chosen fundamental level. If you have any respect for biology, you acknowledge that at some number of levels above the fundamental you find entities like proteins, cells, and ultimately organisms. Which level is the “causal level”? The position people take on free will often hinges on their answer to this question. A very influential position of the past (famously illustrated by Laplace’s Demon, an intuition pump so potent it is still guiding people’s thoughts today) is that, since the only really real stuff is atoms moving in a void, the atom is the important level for causal analysis. Many neuroscientists seem to think that the cell (specifically the neuron, or perhaps the neuronal network) is the relevant level. The problem isn’t the preferred answer though, it’s the question. It’s meaningless (incoherent?). There is no level of causal primacy. There is no prime mover. This is taking the worst of theological thinking and the worst of reductionist thinking and mashing them together to create a Frankenstein’s Monster of an intuition pump that refuses to die. Forget that question forever if you want to be able to think clearly about the evolution of the universe, including the organisms present within it, all the way “up” to the level of the consciousness that at least some of those organisms possess.

If you don’t believe in free will, you are not just committed to a hard form of epiphenomenalism (the incoherent notion that consciousness is entirely acausal), you are also a (vestigial) dualist. Why? Because you are suggesting that the “you” which is your “self” is causally disconnected from the “you” that is your neurons (and all the rest of your physiology). What would that mean? If you are a physical monist, you must believe that the experience you are having, your sentience, awareness, meta-consciousness and self, is realised due to activity in your brain. You also can’t be an idealist (in the Berkeleyan sense) – you must believe there is an actual reality out there that your brain evolved to allow you to interact with. So, you believe that signals are coming in via your sense organs and ultimately are “transduced” into your awareness. All this is happening in your brain. Consciousness is just an (integrated) form of awareness (actually it’s an affordance-seeking predictive engine of awareness, but anyway). The “self” is something you are (or can be) aware of. So, do signals come in, get integrated and go into your awareness, but then find the neuronal blind alley in which meta-consciousness hides? Can signals go in to this blind alley but not come out? Is the neuronal substrate of your consciousness somehow causally isolated from the rest of your brain? Hmmmm, sounds a lot like vestigial dualism to me  – it’s a recasting of the “problem of interaction” that has long been used as an argument against dualism (how does the soul/consciousness “stuff” interact with the physical stuff?).

Okay, I’m going to stop there. I know I haven’t addressed a lot of arguments that people use to try and refute free will (e.g. some of those glossed over above, as well as arguments from phenomenology and more), but this is enough for now. Ultimately, a lot of the arguing about free will is arguing about the definition of the term itself. There are plenty of people, who I have a great deal of respect for, who are basically compatibilists but who nonetheless claim that there is no such thing as “free will”. I prefer to concentrate on the common ground in such cases, in so far as the real goal of discussion and debate is inching slightly closer to whatever truth of the matter might be accessible. However, arguing semantics can sometimes be very productive too, as long as all parties involved in the debate understand the level on which the debate is taking place. I myself am essentially a fallibilist and this means that I’m not all that attached to any particular way of saying things because ultimately they are all wrong. I’m not a relativist though, which means that some ways of saying things are more right than others, so now that I’ve made a start in my writings about free will you can expect to hear more from me on this subject in the future.

P.S. That’s Kant at the top. He’s on my side, really he is.

Simulated universes?


The following post is an off the cuff response to a recent article (link below) and to an idea that is floating around a lot these days, (perhaps largely due to its popularisation by Elon Musk via Nick Bostrom), but has a much longer history:

This is a fun article, but there are numerous things “wrong” with the simulated universe thought experiment (it most certainly isn’t a “theory”), not least of which is the fact that you can’t (at least in science, theology is another matter) base a generally applicable statistical argument on premises for which there is no evidence, i.e. the premise that it is possible to generate such a simulation (even if {and this is already an if} it’s possible in principle, this doesn’t make it possible in practice).

Note that claiming functionalism is “our best theory” (I happen to agree that it is, but many do not) is vastly different from claiming that we could generate an experience with the complexity and coherence of that generated by the universe/multiverse in which we find ourselves. This is a bit of a bait-and-switch.

It also makes assumptions about the nature of time and the generation of complexity that are not even close to being “accepted facts”.

It also suffers from vulnerability to infinite regress, as stated in the article. As a cosmological argument (i.e. a way of explaining why we find ourselves in a universe like the one in which we find ourselves), the simulated universe is essentially theological. As well as infinite regress in the form mentioned in the article, it also suffers from infinite regress with regard to the “problem of fine-tuning” (which is not really relevant to this particular article, I know).

Anyway, it’s a great thought experiment and some fantastic short stories (not least of which by Stanislaw Lem, long before Bostrom wrote about it) have explored it. But it remains great science fiction, which I love but find slightly irksome when presented as plausible science fact.

When in doubt, try gospel: the virtues of interpretation


I am a big fan of Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation,” and I’ve written pieces espousing similar positions in the past (e.g. On the other hand, I’m also a big fan of interpretation – contradiction is the spice of life (What? That isn’t how that saying goes? Whatever, smarty pants.).

I’m a scientist, an atheist and a lover of gospel music (amongst other things). The constant bickering between “science” and “religion” (as if either of those things is a single entity) that pollutes so many information streams today (Ack! Memetic warfare!) is often boring at best. “Religion” has indeed been associated with its share of atrocities (not quite as many as “humans”) throughout cultural history, but it has also been associated with much of lasting value. If you can’t see the “good” in something because you’re blinded by the “bad”, here’s an easy 4-step process:

  1. Read the Wiki entry on the “nirvana fallacy” –
  2. Have an icy cold shower.
  3. Read Alan Watts’ The Book.
  4. Have a piping hot shower.

Will that help? No idea, but it probably won’t do you any harm (be sure to get warm before you start step 3).

Anyway, I dig gospel. Gospel and the blues are very closely related, so closely related that the song I’m about to discuss can be found on compilations of music from either genre. Whether you’re religious or an atheist, unless you’re an idiot (no offence, idiots!), then you’ll probably agree that the “African American” originators of these musics were having a seriously rough time, and perhaps that the music was a “coping mechanism” – a way to focus on something other than how incomprehensibly awful the way one group of humans treats another can be.

I know what you’re thinking (I can see the future, too) – “how does this relate to you, atheist middle class white boy of 2016!?” Well, hush for a second and I’ll tell you. On the surface, gospel songs might appear to be about God, but really (like most songs), they’re about the “human experience”. Check out these lyrics:

“I said no, don’t worry,

no, please don’t worry,

no, don’t worry,

see what the Lord has done.

Just keep your lamp all trimmed and burning,

keep your lamp trimmed and burning,

keep your lamp all trimmed and burning,

see what the Lord has done.”

What on Earth was Blind Willie Johnson (in my chosen version of the song) on about? Well, you’d have to ask him (good luck), but for me “keep your lamp trimmed and burning” means “pay attention”. A lamp is like a torch (, it’s a piece of technology designed to augment our senses, to help us see in the dark. He’s saying keep your eyes open, keep your senses sharp (trim that lamp, in case it burns itself out) and keep your awareness projecting outward. The “dark” could be the confusion we all experience sometimes in everyday life, in which our attention is constantly attracted by the “wrong” things; the “lamp” is your awareness, or a thinking tool that augments it, something that can help you see through the BS and focus on how absolutely glorious the world really is (“see what the Lord* has done”), despite everything.

OK, so maybe you think my middle class white boy interpretation is facile. That’s fine. It’s always up to us to choose which things to pay attention to and which things to ignore (and what a “superpower” that truly is). Regardless, it’s nothing more or less than my interpretation, anyway. For the good stuff, proceed directly to the source:


* “see what evolution has done” had too many syllables, I guess.


Hominids and ursids (aka “Not so fast!”)

I’m a bit obsessed with music. Anyone who knows me knows this. Strangely though (at least it’s strange to me), a lot of people seem to think I’m primarily obsessed with just one kind of music. People say things like “I know you’re mostly a classical guy, but…”; “You’re a jazz snob, but…”; “It’s not prog, like what you usually listen to, but…”; “You really only like virtuoso musicians…”; “You just have a prejudice against electronic music…”. Actually, I like all these things (including electronic music) and much else besides. Or, more accurately, there’s a “me” that likes each of them. Like everybody, I experience myriad different states of consciousness – some types of music “match” some of them, other types match others.

One kind of music I really like is “folky singer songwriter stuff”. This isn’t really a genre (what’s a genre?), but in my mind it includes artists like Bert Jansch, Roy Harper, Karen Dalton, Nick Drake, Bill Fay, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, Jack Carty (check him out! and many others. The other day, someone gave me the Boy & Bear album “Harlequin Dream”. Just now, I listened to the track “A Moment’s Grace”. Wow. It blew me away and made me happy to be alive in a world full of so much beauty. Why am I telling you this? Because it’s not the first time I’ve heard Boy & Bear. They’re pretty famous here in Australia. I don’t really keep up with current music (I’m generally too busy exploring the art form’s history), but even I’ve been exposed to them before. The thing is, last time their music didn’t do anything for me. The “me” who heard it then wasn’t the “me” who listened to it today.

I don’t trust my initial reaction to a piece of art unless it’s positive. An artwork is an experience catalyst and any one piece of art has the potential to catalyse a wide range of experiences – different ones in different people, but also different ones in the same person at different moments. All of these experiences have a legitimacy that is absolute, but that doesn’t extend beyond the experience itself. I don’t mean to get all philosophical on you, but what I mean is that if you have a good experience listening to/looking at/reading a piece of art, nothing anyone else says about that piece of art can change the fact that it catalysed a good experience for you. If somebody makes fun of you for liking a piece of music, that just means they haven’t had the same experience as you (or they think they’ve “grown out of it”) and that they think their experience trumps yours. They’re wrong. The legitimacy of your experience is unassailable. Its legitimacy is limited to itself, however. What that means is that if a piece of art fails to catalyse a good experience for you, or catalyses a bad one, this doesn’t necessarily mean anything intrinsic about the artwork itself. It doesn’t mean the art isn’t “good”, it just means it didn’t work for you this time. Try it again at some other time (or don’t, just don’t imagine that you’ve “understood” the work and found it wanting).

The principle of the unassailable, but bounded, legitimacy of experience applies to all of our experiences, not just the art-related ones. Fundamentally, our experiences can’t tell us directly about anything except themselves. This is a disconcerting fact and I’m going to avoid wading off into the philosophical deep end by getting back to the point…

Not so fast! Don’t be so quick to judge – what bores you today might enthral you tomorrow. The incredible diversity of possible experiences available to us is what makes our lives potentially so rich. Don’t be so hasty to give it up.



Does the fact of evolution threaten your beliefs?

In a previous post, I pointed out that evolution is an observable fact, similar to the observable fact (for example) that there are rocks and a dog in my garden (if you don’t trust the photo, come over and I’ll show you). I also differentiated between the fact of biological evolution and modern science’s best explanation of its mechanism – the Theory of Natural Selection.

Towards the end of the (very brief) post, I stated that the fact of evolution and the ability of the Theory of Natural Selection to explain it do not disprove the existence of a creator. I also stated that evolution does not only occur in biological systems and listed a few “other” systems in which it occurs. I misspoke in one of these assertions – it’s certainly true that evolution occurs in non-biological systems, but the examples I gave (language, culture and anthropogenic technologies) were all biological systems….my bad.

Regardless, it seems some critics of the piece didn’t read all the way to the end, because a number of responses on social media (and one here) suggest that people felt that claiming evolution as a fact threatened their beliefs. Does it?

Evolution is (again) “descent with modification”. It occurs in non-biological systems, such as (a better example!) the universe (or multiverse, megaverse, or whatever your preferred flavour of “….verse”). One of the products of this cosmological evolution is biology, but the evolution of the universe as a whole is not a biological process. In this context, what “evolution” means is that the future states of the universe are dependent upon (because descended from) past states. Every time the universe changes, it doesn’t blink out of existence and get rebuilt from scratch in a nanosecond – new states are always “built from” old states. This is the same in biological evolution of course and is one of the reasons there is so much evidence of past evolution present in the world today in the form of shared DNA. This is the evidence that allows Richard Dawkins to say “…when you eat fish and chips you are eating distant cousin fish and even more distant cousin potato.”

Some might say that calling the history of the universe its “evolution” dilutes the meaning of the word beyond recognition, but there are actually some deep similarities between cosmological and biological evolution, including the creation of order from chance variation (there are plenty of great authors to read on this topic, e.g., David Christian, Paul Davies, Lawrence Krauss and Seth Lloyd). In this way both the evolution of the universe and the evolution of biological systems are fundamentally different from the weathering of rocks in my garden, which it might be a stretch to refer to as their “evolution” from rocks into sand (although we might have an interesting discussion about that sometime – you bring the beer).

In the range of biological systems currently present in our little corner of the universe, a number of forms of evolution are in operation, including but not limited to natural selection. Evolution can proceed according to the selection of a designer or designers, as is the case for the evolution of tools and technologies such as the computer on which you’re reading this, and the evolution of artificially selected “cultivars” such as Australian Shepherd dogs (like Keneally in my garden). It can proceed without the need for a designer, as in standard natural selection. It can proceed through a combined process of designer-driven and designer-less selection, as in the evolution of a language, in which two forms of designer-less selection occur – natural selection (on us, the organisms that use the words) and memetic selection (on the words themselves) – along with the directed selection of words and conventions for their use by designers (e.g., the Académie française). Evolution can even occur in the absence of any selection pressure at all, as in genetic drift.

The principal belief system threatened by acknowledgement of the fact of evolution is Essentialism, which is essentially (hah!) the doctrine that things have an immutable essence from which they cannot change significantly and to which they always return. The most influential proponent of Essentialism in the history of Western Thought was Plato. Needless (hopefully) to say – Plato was not a Christian. Platonic Essentialism was very influential on Christian theology, but Christians are certainly not committed to it. Multiple Popes have acknowledged the fact of evolution ( In 2014, Pope Francis (though he wasn’t the first to say something of the sort) said “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.” – even the faith can evolve.

Those who acknowledge the fact of evolution and believe in a creator and those who acknowledge the fact of evolution and see no need for a creator differ in that the latter apply (or apply correctly) a simple logical principle – Occam’s Razor. Those who do not acknowledge the fact of evolution are wrong (sorry!). The principle of Occam’s Razor is often misunderstood as “the simplest explanation is always the best”. This misunderstanding often leads to “arguments” of the “God did it. Boom!” variety. This is silly because an omnipotent and omniscient creator is hardly simple. Regardless, Occam’s Razor is actually the maxim “entities are not to be multiplied without necessity”. In modern scientific terms, this might be translated as “do not postulate additional causes when sufficient causes have already been identified”. Colloquially, this translates as “don’t make stuff up”. Occam’s Razor is a very useful principle but there is no external agent (like a God, for example) that says you must apply it. You can choose not to – you can acknowledge the fact of evolution (and the presence of rocks in my garden) and leave your belief in a creator untouched….if you really want to.

New article published on The Conversation


Here’s an article of mine that’s just been published by The Conversation, a great webzine devoted to connecting researchers in all fields of academia with the public. Mine is the first in a projected series of “Why I Love: X” articles in a similar format:

Comments on Nietzsche’s “Man Alone With Himself”, part 1.


If you’ve read my About page, you know that the quasi-namesake of this blog is a collection of aphorisms by Friedrich Nietzsche. I didn’t name the blog after Nietzsche’s collection as such, the phrase just came to me when I was thinking of appropriate titles and it only occurred to me after the fact that it might be construed as a Nietzsche reference. In one of those amusing little twists of circumstance, it has now quite clearly become a retrospective Nietzsche reference, as I’m at this precise moment writing the preamble of an article discussing first the title itself (mine or Nietzsche’s?), and then an aphorism from Friedrich’s collection. Before I begin, I should probably make it clear that I make no claims to being a Nietzsche scholar, or indeed a Nietzsche fanatic. He’s just one among the many philosophers in whose works I find ideas worth thinking about and discussing. My interpretations are my own (as far as can be said of such things) and are, of course, entirely open to disagreement and refutation.

Anyway, what exactly does “man alone with himself” refer to? For me, there are at least two ways of interpreting it. One, perhaps the more obvious of the two, refers to the fact that writing is something one does “alone with oneself”. Basically, right now I’m having a “conversation” in my head and transcribing it1. Seeing that (as far as I know), “I” am the only inhabitant of my head, I must be having this conversation alone with myself. Hopefully, dear reader, you exist and are at this very moment (well, not this moment, which is mine, but that moment, which for you is “this very moment”) taking in the results of this soliloquy. The truth is though, that I don’t write for you. I write to help myself structure the otherwise chaotic stream of ideas careening around in my “teetering bulb of dread and dream”2. I contend that all writing and all creation is like this – composing music, making films and painting pictures are no different. We may hope that others will understand and value our creations, but they can only be interfaced with (read, watched, listened to) after we have created them. Fundamentally, the act of creation is something we do alone with ourselves3.

Another, perhaps more profound, way of thinking about the phrase “man alone with himself” is to think of “man” as “mankind”, which in these more enlightened times we might translate as “humankind”. As a symbolic species investigating the causes and attributes of the reality in which we find ourselves, we humans are profoundly alone. Some of the present gaps in our understanding are undoubtedly the result of the perspective bias that results from our particular size, speed, location, fragility, etc. Of course we use many fancy instruments to extend our perspective way out into the vastness of the cosmos or way down to the level of the ultra-itty-bitty-small, but our perspective bias continues to constrain what we can perceive and how we can think about it. Understandably, we find it especially difficult to be objective about ourselves. We have difficulty treating the elements of our experience as scientific objects. Consciousness, free will and death are notoriously difficult concepts to consider impartially. Perhaps if some other scientific species existed that could investigate us in the way we in turn investigate other species, they’d be able to convince us that there’s nothing mysterious about us being here or about us perceiving the world in the way we do; that we’re just another evolved species struggling to survive and understand, aided by the symbols we have invented…..OK probably not, but it might help.

Anyway, more on both those interpretations in later posts. In this “series” of articles I’m going to select an aphorism or three (or as many as I feel like selecting, OK?) from Nietzsche’s (henceforth FN) Man Alone With Himself (henceforth MAWH) and discuss it. It’s really a wonderful bunch of thoughts on a variety of subjects, and I recommend it to anyone who likes to read and think. MAWH is part of a larger collection called Human, All Too Human, and all the aphorisms are numbered in relation to the larger work. Today’s aphorism (number 635) is one of the longer ones in MAWH, so I’m going to break it up into small groups of sentences and intersperse them with my reactions (FN in italics, me, well, not). The translation of FN’s text is by Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann.


All in all, scientific methods are at least as important as any other result of inquiry; for the scientific spirit is based on the insight into methods, and were those methods to be lost, all the results of science could not prevent a renewed triumph of superstition and nonsense. (emphasis added)

Firstly, it seems peculiar to me that the translators chose “result” in the first statement, because here FN is specifically (and crucially) differentiating between the results and the methods of science. I’ve written on this previously (here). It is as critically important today as it was in 1878 (when MAWH was first published) to understand that what differentiates scientific investigation from other modes of inquiry is not the results, not the answers (or indeed the questions), but the methods through which the results are achieved and the answers discovered.

Clever people may learn the results of science as much as they like, one still sees from their conversation, especially their hypotheses in conversation, that they lack the scientific spirit. They do not have that instinctive mistrust of the wrong ways of thinking, a mistrust which, as a consequence of long practice, has put its roots deep into the soul of every scientific man. (emphasis in original)

Depressingly, science is still taught in schools by rewarding the rote learning of facts rather than by encouraging students to develop an understanding of concepts. This may be why so many people seem not to understand what science actually is. It is not a body of knowledge or a collection of facts to be memorised.

Interestingly the “mistrust” goes both ways – mistrust of scientific ideas is as common today as mistrust of unscientific ideas. To me, both forms of mistrust stem from a lack of understanding of the way in which science operates. When Nietzsche says “mistrust” in this context, he means a healthy scepticism and the development of critical thinking faculties. On the other hand, I think “mistrust”, taken literally, might come closer to the contemporary meaning of “cynicism”, which is something like “intrinsic mistrust” – not trusting information on principle, without investigating its qualities any further. This cynicism is evident in both the anti-scientific conspiracy theorists who think anything “mainstream science” has to say is false (because corrupt) by default, and the apologists of science (including some scientists) who think anything outside the mainstream is false (because “woo”) by default. Perhaps if scientific education was a little more rigorous both of these groups could have their membership decreased. Scepticism is good; cynicism is not only not good, it is actually antithetical to science.

For them it is enough to find any one hypothesis about a matter; then they get fired up about it and think that puts an end to it. For them, to have an opinion means to get fanatical about it and cherish it in their hearts henceforth as a conviction. If a matter is unexplained, they become excited at the first notion resembling an explanation that enters their brain; this always has the worst consequences, especially in the realm of politics.

I think this speaks for itself – it’s common to crave certainty, to desire final answers. We want to know the answers to questions so we can put them in little boxes marked “solved” and get on with other things. Part of today’s mistrust of science stems from the mistaken notion that science promises certainty and then consistently fails to deliver on that promise by undermining itself with yet more answers to the same questions – “If that was certain, why do we need this?” When there is conflict in science, for example biologists debating the fine points of evolutionary theory, some people see the disagreements and think, “If even the scientists can’t agree, the whole thing must be wrong!”

Science really isn’t in the business of finalising solutions; it’s in the business of constantly refining them. Religion on the other hand…..

Therefore everyone should have come to know at least one science in its essentials; then he knows what method is, and how necessary is the most extreme circumspection. (emphasis in original)

Absolutely, Friedrich. But actually it seems to me that what we need is better education in philosophy of science – especially for our science educators! If you’re not going to work in a scientific field, you don’t need in depth knowledge about any particular scientific field, but everyone (perhaps especially politicians!) in today’s world needs to understand how science operates in general. It also seems to me that understanding the specifics of any particular field of science doesn’t necessarily mean understanding the epistemological methods/goals/limits of science. This is actually what’s important. So, what we really need is for people have a solid grounding in epistemology (i.e. to learn what knowledge is and how we can gain it).

OK, I’m only halfway through 635, but I think I’ll leave it there for now (the next bit is extremely misogynistic, anyway).


1 When Nietzsche was writing the original Man Alone With Himself, he was doing the same.

2 This charming phrase comes from a poem by Russell Edson, but I pinched it from Douglas Hofstadter’s wonderful book I Am A Strange Loop.

3 Of course in the not entirely unlikely event that no one ever reads this article it will forever remain solely a conversation I had with myself.

Can I just dig it, please?


Recently, a friend of a friend contacted me with an interesting question. She had been entirely baffled when my friend told her that I not only considered the painter Lucian Freud “culturally significant” (her words), but that I actually liked his art. In order to try and understand why an (apparently) otherwise normal human being would enjoy gazing at such things, my friend’s friend asked that I justify my predilections by explaining to her what “ideas” I found in the paintings that attracted me to them. My (slightly edited) reply to her forms the content of this post:

Before I get into my brief (Ha! – ed.) discussion of ideas in Lucian Freud, I’d like to say a few things about the way I view art in general. Our mutual friend will no doubt be happy to confirm that I tend not to answer certain questions directly, because I think they admit of no direct answers. These are the best kinds of questions in my opinion – questions that require thought, questions that require context. In thinking of a way to answer your question, I have specifically resisted looking at the interpretations of Lucian Freud that are no doubt abundantly available – those published by art critics or by the artist himself. It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that the opinions of those people (including that of the artist) are just as arbitrary as mine when it comes to a discussion of the appreciation of the art “on its own terms”.

For me, the most important property art (any art) possesses is its “aesthetic quality”. This can be taken at face value – if I like the look/sound/way it makes me feel, I like it. I have very strong reactions to art of all kinds at a level “below” the intellect. However, just because this reaction takes place on such a potentially diaphanous level, somewhere in my mysterious “aesthetic sense”, doesn’t mean that it can’t be analysed in considerable detail. Such analysis is certainly of interest to me, but it needs to be clear that it’s as much analysis of me (the appreciator), as it is analysis of the art (the appreciated). The best art, in my opinion, is (in the New Age jargon) “holistic”; it has properties that are (in the scientific jargon) “emergent” – more than the sum of their parts. This means that, even though these properties are produced by the form and content of the artwork, they cannot be reduced to that level, cannot be understood by separate analysis of form and content. That is because the form and the content are not separate properties – the form is the content, the content the form.

Quotes are fun:

“It may seem deconstructed, but that’s the structure.” – David Lynch

What exactly are “ideas” in art? I’m not trying to be difficult or evasive, this is a serious question. At what level of analysis do these ideas emerge? Let’s imagine for a moment we’re talking about music. One might ask what ideas I find in the performance of Hath-Arob that opens this concert by John Zorn’s Acoustic Masada ( I might say something like “it’s just so full of ideas, man!”, and that would certainly be true. Or maybe I could describe some of the ideas in technical terms – changes of tempo, rhythmic groupings, modes employed during solos etc. I could start talking nonsense about extra-musical ideas, saying something like “the violence in this music is the expression of souls in existential torment…”, but then I’d definitely be talking about my reaction and not about the art (“…music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all” – Igor Stravinsky). At which “idea level” does the art itself actually exist? Sartre says that art exists in the imagination – that our imagination literally brings into being the “aesthetic object”, which does not exist out there in the world of ideas (be they technical, metaphorical or whatever). So according to him any discussion of the ideas I find in a work of art would be a discussion of the ideas I find in my imagination and connect with the object (the piece of art) in front of me. I’d really be talking about myself, not about the artwork at all. Maybe our reactions really are the only thing we can talk about with any legitimacy when we talk about why we like a piece of art?

Sure, I could provide a list of ideas I find “worthwhile” in that performance of Hath-Arob…but that would really be an a posteriori attempt to explain to you (or to myself) the basic fact that I just dig it. Or rather, a certain “I” (a certain “me”), a certain virtual machine that runs on my wetware CPU (my brain), digs it. Yes, I have to be “in the mood”, for this sort of thing. But when I am, I am, when I am I love it, and no amount of explaining why I love it can do justice to the experiencing of it. In fact, this “why” wouldn’t even be a “why” in any meaningful sense. To attribute a “why” is to attribute a causal antecedent. Trying to describe why one enjoys a piece of art in terms of ideas fails to achieve this goal. Rather than establishing a causal antecedent, such a description is merely the act of smearing an interpretive gloss on an experience after the fact.

Anyway, you get the idea. Let’s talk about Lucian Freud. I’m still not quite ready to answer the question directly, but almost. Firstly, a little bit more about how I (unconsciously – as usual the analysis occurs after the fact) think about art. In my head, as I imagine is the case for almost everyone, artists group together automatically – I associate certain artists with one another. This makes it easier for us to both think about art and (crucially) to communicate about art. This is why we have “genres” and “movements” (whether they are defined by critics or by the artists themselves). “Isms”, like “Expressionism”, and the adjectives derived from them (as in “expressionist painters”), which morph back into nouns (as in “Expressionists”), are useful points of reference for discussing art. As long as we understand their role and its limitations, they are not dangerous. Genres are like criticism is like language in general – words are not things, they are symbols linked to concepts. Symbols are useful, we need them, but they must be decoded.

Incidentally, it’s our reliance on symbols for communication that gets us into to trouble when we’re discussing art. We assume art requires interpretation, like the symbols we’re using to discuss it. On the contrary, however, I contend that part of the immense value of art comes from the fact that it transcends interpretation. What a wonderful respite it is from interpretation to simply stand in front of a painting, to simply listen to a piece of music, and be awed by its holistic, irreducible, non-semantic qualities! Susan Sontag had a particularly eloquent way of putting this – “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

What I’m trying to be clear about is that when I say what I’m about to say: that I think of Freud as an artist amongst artists, as in a “group” with the “Expressionists” Kokoschka and Schiele, this is a harmless statement describing the automatic grouping process that goes on in my head when I think about Lucian Freud. Freud may not have considered himself an Expressionist as such (I think he liked “expressive realist”), but that doesn’t matter. So, some pictures:

Kokoschka, self-portrait.


Schiele, self-portrait.


Freud, self-portraits.



Not only do I think of these three as somehow “similar”, they are three of my favourite portrait painters. What “ideas” do they express? I’m not as militantly anti-interpretation as some (e.g., Lynch and Sontag), actually I do, like you, find it interesting (a bit like gazing at my navel), to interpret certain works of art……I just wanted to make sure it was clear that I don’t consider interpretation critical to appreciation.

It is almost certainly central to my grouping of these three artists together that their paintings express similar things to me. It’s no coincidence that they all painted many self-portraits, because what their portraiture expresses above all (to me) is vulnerability. Freud is clearly more literally representational than the other two, but there is an element of “hyper-realism” in all these paintings. No attempt is made by these painters to flatter. These are not like the over-exposed (or airbrushed) portraits we are constantly exposed to by the dominant portrait artists of today (professional photographers). Rather than smooth out the flaws of their subjects, these painters accentuate them. What do the paintings say? Perhaps they say something like “I am a human, a flesh monster, I am flawed and fragile, I eat and shit and I think about sex and death and decay and so do you.” The paintings are nothing if not honest. Maybe that’s why they are hard to like for some people. For me they are real, visceral, and enthralling.

Phew, that was tiring. Maybe instead of writing all that I should have just answered your question with a question of my own – “Can I just dig it, please?”

In praise of doing.


In art, as in life, the doing is everything. Well maybe not everything, but why sacrifice the strength of an aphorism for mere accuracy? Besides, without the doing there is nothing to hear, watch, look at or read, and certainly nothing to criticise.

Before the doing comes the dreaming. Dreaming is vitally important – it’s hard to imagine an artist that doesn’t dream and fantasise about making art! Dreams are not only important; they are real. Crucially, however, they are only real to the dreamer. In the jargon of metaphysics, dreams only have “first person ontology”. Now, as anyone who’s ever tried it knows, making one’s dreams real for other people, giving them a third person ontology, can be really hard work. Sometimes it’s impossible. Giving artistic fantasies third person ontology requires not only technical skill; it requires willpower. Willpower is actually far more important than technical skill. The world is full of talented people with incredible artistic fantasies and the world is full of people with great technical skill. What distinguishes the “real” artists from all the rest is willpower – the willpower to take something that begins as a dream, as a mere idea, through the stages of conceptualisation, planning and execution required to give it a life in the big wide third person world.

Everyone’s a critic. There’s a truism for you, and it is true. We all love to criticise. It’s common to hear people say “I could have done that” when considering a piece of art (be it visual, musical etc.). Of course the full sentence should be “I could have done that if I’d been willing to put in the time and effort required.”….but no one bothers with the second half. It’s a mistake to compare our first person fantasies with someone else’s completed artworks. It’s apples and oranges.

Criticism is the act of drawing comparison, of comparing one work to another. Art is not a competition (the truisms are flying thick and fast now); so do we really need criticism? Ideally, each piece of art we encounter should be considered in isolation; judged on its own terms. In practice, however, this can be tricky. Works of art are always in competition for our time – why listen to this, when I could be listening to that? Unfortunately the industrialisation of art has created an additional kind of competition – for our money. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the music industry, but it’s the same for books and films and also visual art to a lesser extent. There are even entire art forms that seem to have lost out in the competition for our dollars – for example it’s almost impossible to make a living these days as a poet.

In some senses criticism is a misguided process from the get go, but it might be a necessary evil. In a world in which we are constantly bombarded by art, criticism plays a role in giving us an idea about where to spend our limited amounts of time and money. This is important, but it is a tool that must be used appropriately. The role of a critic should not be to tell us what to like, rather it should be to tell us where to look for things we might like. We can make up our own minds about the rest.

If we concede that critics are necessary, who should be one and how should they operate? Firstly, as already noted, everyone is a critic. This is not entirely illegitimate because the first thing to note is that criticism is just a matter of opinion. It’s a form of “word of mouth”; so “everyone is entitled to an opinion” (truism number three). It’s obvious (if slightly controversial), however, that not all opinions are created equal. There are any number of variables that can affect the value of a critic’s opinion to us, including the knowledge base of the critic about the art form in question and the critic’s level of awareness of our own tastes (our friends probably know more about what we might like than some professional critic who doesn’t know us from Adam). Perhaps the single most important criterion for effective criticism is receptivity. This is to do with how the would-be critic approaches the artwork in question. This is where things get really tricky, because to be truly receptive one has to banish all thoughts of criticism from one’s mind. “Honest” art is created for “ideal audiences” (I just made that truism up on the spot). Ideal audiences give a work their full attention and consider it on its own merits. Contextualisation can occur after the fact, but if you’re composing your critical analysis in your head during your initial exposure to an artwork then you’re not being receptive. Obviously this is tough. It’s a “big ask”. It’s not easy to be an ideal audience member. It’s not easy to “really” listen, watch or contemplate. You have to make yourself open, vulnerable – it’s a form of meditation. This may seem harsh, but if you haven’t tried to be an ideal audience member then your opinion isn’t going to be worth much as a critic.


(Igor Stravinsky on the subject of listening – “To hear has no merit. A duck hears also.”)

One might imagine that artists, “doers” themselves, would make the best critics. In practice this often seems not to be the case. Artists often (subconsciously perhaps) make the cardinal error of seeing other artists as competitors and this severely compromises their ability to be an ideal audience member. Stravinsky apparently didn’t take his own advice about listening (admittedly he never said to listen impartially, but I’m not sure there’s any other kind of listening) and a book could be filled with the silly things he said about other composers. It’s telling that he rescinded many of these statements in his later years, often after the other composers had died (cf. statements about Arnold Schoenberg and Bela Bartok) and there was no longer any question of “competition”. Great artists have a unique insight into the artistic process of course, and so their opinions do have a certain validity. If an artist you respect praises the work of another artist then it’s probably worth checking it out. Just because an artist you respect denigrates the work of another artist, however, doesn’t mean you should expect it to be devoid of value.

Is it possible to be an ideal audience member all the time? Probably not. At any rate it’s exceedingly difficult. What this means is that we shouldn’t be in such a rush to form an opinion about a work of art. Sometimes we need to give it time to sink in. We need to be sure we are making the requisite effort to appreciate the work on its own terms and we need to be ready to fault our own appreciation before faulting the work. All this may seem like a waste of time and effort. With so much art available, many of us demand art that doesn’t make us work to understand it. We often seem to want art that grabs us immediately and forces us to appreciate it, not art that makes counter-demands of its audience. This is our prerogative. In my own experience, however, the rewards of learning to appreciate demanding artworks often dramatically outweigh the effort required in doing so.

The truth is that everyone is qualified to be a critic but no one is really qualified to be a critic. The point of this article is that we should generally criticise less and celebrate more. Sure, we have our opinions, we like some things and we don’t like others, but before we make decisions and shout our verdicts from the rooftops we should always pause to first celebrate the achievement that giving a dream third person ontology represents. We should have respect for that act of will. We should try to see the work for what it is; there will be plenty of time for contextualisation after-the-fact. I myself am a naturally critical person, but my first impressions have been wrong so many times in the past; often because I failed to live up to my “responsibilities” as an audience member. These days I’m trying to be less critical and more celebratory and I believe we can all benefit from taking that approach.

I think it would be appropriate to finish this article by celebrating a couple of doers:

The first is my wife, Genevieve – the untitled painting in the article above is by her and (perhaps – the interpretation is mine) depicts the struggle of giving a dream a third person existence…..a process a little bit like dissecting one’s own soul. Gen is a serious artist and a real inspiration to me; she has an exhibition of her paintings (“lighter” works like the one that features in my header) in a gallery in Brisbane, Australia next month.

The second is a friend of mine – Jack Carty. Jack is a singer-songwriter and has just released his third album, Esk. It is a collection of wonderful songs and it’s not at all “demanding” – it’s just damn good. Jack is an independent artist and works without the backing of a label, so the amount of willpower he exhibits in churning out album after album of quality music is truly inspiring. Here’s a link to his website so you can check him out: