Bob walks home.

3D man near red question mark

Bob, walking home from the train station, saw a slogan in bright red spray paint on the wall of the underpass.

“The way to defeat fascism is to ban it,” the scarlet letters proclaimed.

Damn right, thought Bob, continuing on his way.

Further down the tunnel was another red slogan,

“The way to spread the values of liberalism is to force people to accept them.”

Hmmmm, thought Bob, scratching his head, I guess that’s right. After all, people don’t know what’s good for them do they?

Emerging from the mouth of the underpass, blinking as the bright spring sunshine stung his maladjusted eyes, Bob saw through tears the final slogan in letters black on the white concrete of the wall before him.

“The way to understand irony is to take it literally.”

Oh, thought Bob.

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.

Marguerite (excerpt from Noise)



“Dr. West?” Marguerite West looked up from the leather bound notebook she had been writing in, closing it and putting down her pen as she did so. The creative engine which had been fuelling the transcription of her thoughts receded from her awareness and was replaced by the form of her colleague Dr. James. The short, fit, balding man was standing before her desk rubbing the greying stubble that textured his chin. He had let himself into her office without knocking, an act consistent with the level of respect he and the other members of the all-male faculty of the Philosophy Department had been showing their new colleague in the fortnight since her appointment.

“Yes, Dr. James? Do come in.” She flashed her slightly too large, perfectly white teeth at the intruder in a genuine, if slightly mocking, smile.

“Ah…” Clinton James averted his eyes from the green irises, red lips, pale skin, and dark hair of his junior colleague, allowing them to come to rest momentarily on one of the grotesque expressionist nudes that decorated her office. He frowned and turned back to the desk, failing to maintain eye contact.

“How can I help?” Marguerite’s eyes were still smiling.

“Listen, I’ve just read your abstract, er…” he glanced at the sheet of paper in his hand, “’Integrating the Bayesian Brain with the Many-worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics’…” he paused, “… and, to be honest Dr. West, I’m not sure if it’s not absolute nonsense.”

“I see,” the corners of Marguerite’s mouth began creeping towards her ears again and for a moment James was reminded of the Joker. Why did this insufferable young woman smile so damn much?

“Ah… perhaps it was intended as a joke?

“Not at all.”

“Right. Well, you see, we are not particularly enamoured of the Everettian interpretation of Quantum Mechanics here, Miss….sorry…Dr., West.”

“Oh?” Marguerite ran her tongue over her incisors. It was an entirely unconscious action, but she noticed Dr. James noticing it. The man flinched and she smirked inwardly.

“Please, Dr. West, this is serious,” perhaps not so inwardly, “the Department has a reputation to uphold and this is a major international conference.”


“What’s more, it’s your first public talk as a member of faculty and we were thinking perhaps something closer to your recognised area of expertise…”

“For example?” The terseness of her sentences was at odds with the tone of her voice, which was gentle and good humoured, and the smile that still split her features. This incongruity made James even more uncomfortable.

“Well, perhaps de Beauvoir’s continued relevance…” he ventured before being interrupted by a snort that his young colleague had only half attempted to stifle.

“So…because I’m a woman I should lecture on feminism?” Although her facial expression remained unchanged, West’s voice had acquired a slight edge.

“Ah, no, not necessarily…” Dr. Clinton James, 52 year old tenured lecturer, university squash champion, rock climber, philosophical advisor to politicians and the nation’s economic elite, felt like a 12 year old boy in front of this woman, twenty years his junior. He trailed off and fell silent.

“What exactly is your issue with Everett, Dr. James?”

“Well, we’re none of us physicists, of course, and we haven’t had a genuine philosopher of physics in the Department since Dr. Costlan left…”

“And what was his opinion of Many-worlds?”

“He liked to say that it was ‘not even wrong’, Dr. West, and I’m afraid that judgement has held sway here ever since.”

Marguerite was beaming again, “Well, you should be.”

“Sorry? Should be…?”

“Afraid. Intransigence founded on ignorance is not a good look for a Philosophy Department, Dr. James.” Marguerite settled back comfortably in her chair, reversing the crossing of her legs, her eyes sparkling. James, once again quite unable to meet her gaze, turned, said something to the nearest wall, and exited West’s office as abruptly as he’d entered. Even before the door shut behind him Marguerite had picked up the thread of her thoughts and resumed writing at a feverish pace.


Sensory Deprivation

This is a dark short story about the origins of consciousness during the development of the brain. It’s probably not suitable for children….


We wanted to investigate consciousness. How it’s formed. How the sense of self develops in response to environmental stimuli. It was science. The purest kind. Blue sky. A quest for knowledge, pure and simple. Was our research unethical? Many seem to think so. I’ll let you be the judge.

The first thing you need to know is that these babies were not going to be born otherwise. Their parents didn’t want them. We had an arrangement with several major abortion clinics. We met with the mothers, explained our research. Offered them good money. We never pressured anyone. Is it unethical to put a newborn baby into a sensory deprivation tank? I don’t know….well, maybe I know now but I didn’t know then. Anyway, I still don’t know if it’s more unethical than preventing them from being born at all. I mean…any life is better than no life right? That’s what the beefeaters say; I’m a vegetarian. Anyway, that’s not why I’m here you know? No one really cares about those babies. It’s the clones…

What? Fair enough. I’ll explain.

People want to know where it comes from. Consciousness. The self. Does the brain create it, or just “download” it? Is it something that forms in response to complex environmental and social cues or is it “out there”, waiting for a brain that can support it? A lot of people believe that. Like it’s the soul, immortal. The Eternal Oneness, or whatever.

So how do you test that? Well, one way is to keep brains isolated as they develop and see what happens. Simple. The best kind of science. But not so simple really….you need treatment groups, controls. Need to test the effect of genetics, different environments. You need a lot of brains, a lot of treatment groups. So…we got a lot of babies. It wasn’t hard. Nobody wants kids any more. Too expensive. Too restricting. Too much responsibility. Not that they want to stop making them of course. You tell me who’s unethical….

Well, sure, maybe they just haven’t worked out how it happens. Wouldn’t surprise me. It’s not as if they teach biology in schools any more….

Yeah, you’re right, I wouldn’t want to bring a child into this world either. Not after we’ve screwed it up so much. Damn it’s hot…you’d think they’d have air-conditioning in these cells…

Yeah, right. So we got a lot of bubs. All sorts of racial combinations, different social backgrounds. We divided them into treatment groups….

Well, you can’t have just one brain in each treatment group. Don’t you know anything about statistics? You need multiples. Replicates. So yeah, that’s where the clones came in. That’s why I’m here talking to you in a room with no windows…I guess that’s appropriate somehow. Sensory deprivation. Only my room reeks of piss and shit. My own, thank God. I don’t know how you

It’s an expression.

“Playing God,” they said. Whatever, we gave those clones an opportunity. We gave all our babies a shot at life.

Yeah, so some of them got no sensory input. Seven years floating in total silence, absolute darkness. Pitch black. Some of them had a little light, a little sound. All the way up to ones with full-blown family lives. AI families of course – they all had to be in the same tanks. Controlled environments. But for some of them we simulated touch, human contact, the whole shebang. There was a whole range of sensory treatment groups from nothing all the way up. A smooth range of variables. 30 points on the treatment curve, 12 different genetic and socioeconomic combinations at each point, one natural kid and two clones for each combo. 1080 kids. It was beautiful. The greatest experiment ever conducted on the origins of consciousness in the developing brain….

The results? How the fuck should I know!? Seven years mate. Seven. Years. We were just opening the first tanks when the boys in blue kicked down the doors. Farkin’ heroes. I don’t even know what they’ve done with my children. My babies…

Destroyed? And I’m the one in prison…

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.


Billy and the daemons.

Later that “day” in hyper-dimensional space, Billy bumped into Laplace’s Daemon, who was looking dejected.

“Hey, LD, what’s up?” Billy asked, cheerfully.

“Oh, hi Billy,” the daemon rumbled. His voice, almost subsonic, sounded hollow. “I’m feeling a bit low, to tell the truth.”

“Cheer up LD, what’s wrong?”

“I feel pretty useless, Billy.”

“Oh come on.”

“I’m not good at anything…”

“That’s nonsense LD! You know the position and velocity of every particle in the universe! That’s pretty awesome!”

“I thought so too, but now I don’t know…”

“What happened?”

“I failed to predict the outcome of the US presidential election…”

“Oh, bummer…but you’ve predicted a lot of other stuff correctly, right?”

“Well, not as such, no…”

“But…I thought prediction was your whole thing LD?”

“So did I…but I’ve never actually tried to predict anything before now.”

“Wow – isn’t that what you were created for?”

“I guess not. I guess I was created as an intuition pump like some smart arse philosophers have claimed…oh man, this sucks – I was so determined to try,” the daemon let out an almighty sigh. “Ha! ‘Determined’!” he suddenly shouted, slapping his daemonic thigh ironically.

“What’s an intuition pump LD?” chirped Billy, his ears ringing. He’d missed the joke but was always excited to learn new things.

“It means I was created just to convince people that prediction was possible in principle. You know, to show people how obvious and logical determinism is and how incoherent the idea that puny creatures like them could have ‘Free Will’ is,” the daemon made little bunny ears with his daemonic fingers as he pronounced the words “Free Will”, “…but I never really thought to test my powers.” He paused, shaking his daemonic head, “I mean, it was so obvious!”

Suddenly, Tegmark’s Daemon appeared in a puff of mathematics.

“Hi TD!” chirped Billy, whose irrepressible chirping was starting to get on the daemonic nerves of Laplace’s Daemon.

“Hi Billy! Hi LD – I hear you’ve had a spot of bother bit of predicting the future old chap,” said the newcomer.

“Bloody hell,” growled the older daemon, “everybody knows… I’ll be a laughing stock at the next meeting of the Council of Daemons.”

“Cheer up mate,” replied TD, trying to console his friend, “it’s not your fault. You just don’t know anything about quantum indeterminacy, that’s all.”

“What’s that?” asked LD, without enthusiasm.

“Would you like me to show you?”

“Not really…”

“Yes!” exclaimed Billy, who knew it was rude to interrupt when daemons were talking to each other but was unable to contain his excitement.

“Excellent!” said Tegmark’s Daemon, ruffling Billy’s hair affectionately before opening his daemonic mouth and spewing forth a huge jumble of equations. While he explained them to his eager young student, Laplace’s Daemon picked his daemonic teeth disinterestedly with his daemonic claws.

Some “time” later, when Tegmark’s Daemon had finished his daemonic explanation, he turned to his fellow daemon and said, “So now you know, LD – it’s a bit harder to predict the future than you thought, because you have to analyse all possible universes and work out which one you’re in! You couldn’t possibly have known…”

“Whatever,” grunted the downcast daemon, brusquely interrupting his younger colleague.

Tegmark’s Daemon shrugged his daemonic shoulders, “OK chaps, I’m off then,” he said, and promptly disappeared in another puff of mathematics.

“Fucking precocious upstart,” muttered Laplace’s Daemon, alone with Billy once more.

“I feel bad for you LD,” said Billy, “but you have to admit, that was pretty cool!” The boy was beaming in the afterglow of the brief encounter with his favourite daemon – Tegmark’s.

“Piss off, kid.”

“Aw, don’t be sore LD. What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know…probably start a psychic hotline.”




Art: William Blake’s “The Number of the Beast is 666”

A metaphor.

We are all in a dark room.

We all have torches.

Torches are tools for seeing.


All our torches are fundamentally the same, but they have different batteries.

Batteries are tools for thinking.

Our choice of batteries affects the brightness of our torches.


The beams of our torches can be focussed or diffuse.

The more we focus our beam the brighter it becomes.

The brighter the beam, the more clearly we see what we are looking at.

The more clearly we see what we looking at, the less we see everything else.

The more diffuse our beam, the more we see.

The more we see, the less clearly we see it.


The room is crowded.

We can’t see beyond the width of our torch beam.

We can’t see anyone else’s torch beam.

We often bump into each other.

Bumping into each other is an unfortunate accident.


The room’s darkness is not absolute.

If we switch our torches off our eyes can adjust.

If we let our eyes adjust we can see everything, dimly.


Get the best batteries you can.

Vary the width of your beam constantly.

Switch off your torch for a while every single day.




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.

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.