Simplicity helps parsimony, but can complexity exist without purpose?

November 8, 2022

Why complexity?

We admire simplicity but are awed by complexity which achieves some particular purpose. In our universe we are surrounded by complexity. However, for any required level of complexity, we give great value to being as simple as possible. When two hydrogen atoms refuse to remain simply single, but pair to give a hydrogen molecule we have complexity. The apparent purpose is stability – a balance. Helium atoms, of course, are confirmed, stable bachelors. Complexity – it seems – always has purpose. Without a purpose complexity is pointless. Could it be that purpose is necessary for complexity? Can there be purpose without consciousness? Do the laws of nature have purpose? Whose purpose then?

Does the universe even care?

It is not a law of nature but the principle of parsimony (also called Ockham’s or Occam’s Razor) holds that of many possible explanations, the simplest, least energy-intensive explanation having the fewest assumptions, is most likely the correct one. William of Ockham (c.  1287–1347) advocated that when presented with competing hypotheses about the same prediction, one should select the solution with the fewest assumptions. The term razor refers to distinguishing between two hypotheses by successively “shaving away” unnecessary assumptions. Isaac Newton wrote, “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances”. But the parsimony principle had been expressed even in antiquity. Long before Newton, Ptolemy (c. AD 90 – c. 168) stated, “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible.” In short, parsimony is about only what is necessary and no more than is sufficient.

Parsimony and simplicity and an absence of superfluity is given much value in many fields. Parsimony lies at the heart of minimalism in all fields. I associate parsimony with simplicity and simplicity with elegance. In language, I perceive elegance to lie in using as few words as are necessary and sufficient to convey a precise meaning. In philosophy and science, elegance lies in having as few assumptions as possible. Elegance in engineering constructs lies in using as few components as possible, consuming as little energy as possible, and in expending as little effort as feasible, to achieve a given function. As an engineering student, I learned to appreciate simplicity in complexity. My maths professor instilled in me the elegance associated with simplicity. With the study of machines and constructions I was fascinated by how creativity and purpose converted simple things to complex things. Elegance in engineering arose from having the greatest simplicity for any required complexity. It is not surprising therefore that I tend to see simplicity not only as a ground state of existence but also as the source of elegance.

(A word about entropy. From my thermodynamics professor I was introduced to entropy as the measure of that enthalpy that could not usefully produce work – the 2nd Law – and came to understand it as a quantification of the distance from equilibrium of an isolated system. The closer to equilibrium the less the work that can be extracted and the greater the entropy. Higher temperatures are thus further removed from equilibrium than lower temperatures. The heat death of the universe as an isolated system then represents that final equilibrium when nothing more can change and entropy will be at the highest level possible for our universe. I always felt it would have been easier to teach entropy from the end-state of final equilibrium as having the lowest negentropy. Any increase in complexity moves any system further away from the final equilibrium and is generally an indicator of lower, local entropy. However, my logic seems to become circular when attempting to relate simplicity and complexity in terms of entropy and I leave that for some later post).

Complexity is the attribute of a whole thing made up of interacting parts. The parts must be interacting for an assembly of parts to gain complexity. Any part of a whole, by definition, is a simpler thing than the whole thing, but may itself be complex and exhibit complexity in its own right. Whereas simple has many meanings (innocent, modest, humble, stupid, naive, fundamental, uncomplicated, ..), simplicity, in this context as opposed to complexity, is the quality of things having as few interacting parts as are necessary and sufficient. The simplest things of all have no component parts and are indivisible. In the material world, the ancients considered the simplest, fundamental elements, making up all matter, to be indivisible (earth, fire, water, air, aether). The Greeks developed this into the notion of fundamental atoms of matter. Nowadays we have the Standard Model where all matter is composed of 17 elementary particles. But most of these elementary particles cannot exist in isolation. Many, it is thought, only existed in the first few seconds after the Big Bang. For some reason or other (let us call it purpose) they assemble and interact in complex ways to create the matter and energy we more readily perceive.

The Conversation

There are two types of fundamental particles: matter particles, some of which combine to produce the world about us, and force particles – one of which, the photon, is responsible for electromagnetic radiation. These are classified in the standard model of particle physics, which theorises how the basic building blocks of matter interact, governed by fundamental forces. Matter particles are fermions while force particles are bosons.

Matter particles are split into two groups: quarks and leptons – there are six of these, each with a corresponding partner. Leptons are divided into three pairs. Each pair has an elementary particle with a charge and one with no charge – one that is much lighter and extremely difficult to detect. The lightest of these pairs is the electron and electron-neutrino. The other two neutrino pairs (called muon and muon neutrino, tau and tau neutrino) appear to be just heavier versions of the electron. The six quarks are also split into three pairs with whimsical names: “up” with “down”, “charm” with “strange”, and “top” with “bottom” (previously called “truth” and “beauty” though regrettably changed). The up and down quarks stick together to form the protons and neutrons which lie at the heart of every atom. Again only the lightest pair of quarks are found in normal matter, the charm/strange and top/bottom pairs seem to play no role in the universe as it now exists, but, like the heavier leptons, played a role in the early moments of the universe and helped to create one that is amenable to our existence. .. There are six force particles in the standard model, which create the interactions between matter particles. …. The Higgs boson is the final particle which completes the roll call of particles in what is referred as the standard model of particle physics so far described.

We look for the simplest possible explanations even though the physical universe around us is far from simple. But why does the universe create complexity from simple things? Physics tells us that we cannot find smaller, more elementary particles than those in the Standard Model. (I have some reservations about how elementary particles which have no independent existence can be taken as being elementary – but that is another story). But physics also tells us that most of these elementary particles only exist together with other particles, where the coming together always resolves some apparent imbalance in force or energy or charge. If the fundamental particles were truly fundamental, it should surely be simpler for them to remain as fundamental particles rather than combine in complex ways to create matter. Why do atoms combine to produce elemental molecules if not forced to? Why would simple molecules choose to create complex molecules? If nothing else, seeking a balance of some kind appears to be the purpose. But why should the universe abhor imbalance and have the achieving of balance as a purpose? What were the imbalances which led to the complexity exhibited by organic molecules? And why would complex, inanimate molecules get together in just the right, but highly unlikely, configurations to create life? And what was the purpose for simple life to increase in complexity when it would have been so much easier to remain simple?

We observe complexity not only in the world of matter and energy, but also in the immaterial, abstract world. Simple thoughts become complex thoughts and simple emotions become complex ones. Simple ideas accumulate and interact with others creating vastly complex ideas. But here, we have no practical, quantitative way of distinguishing the complex from the simple and resort to language to express qualitative differences. (We cannot say, for example, that an atom of anger and two of jealousy give a molecule of rage). Our reason tells us that complex things are built up from simple things. Always. Our reason does not allow us to consider that complexity is created first and is then followed by the breakdown into simpler parts.

I observe that in all things, complexity is always more effort-intensive than simplicity. Complexity always requires more energy, or more thought, or more planning, or more coordination, or more creativity, or more skill. Take any collection of simple things and complexity does not, in my experience, spontaneously emerge. It requires the input of some external driver such as energy or thought or planning or whatever. It takes further effort to maintain a state of complexity. Complex things often break down into simpler things because some motive agent which sustains the complexity disappears. I cannot conclude for certain that purpose is always resident in the external impulse which drives from the simple to the complex, but wherever humans create complex things from simple things, purpose is always evident. For us, complexity takes effort and to expend effort needs purpose.

The universe around us is not parsimonious. In fact, that the universe exists at all is not the simplest state that can be imagined for all that the universe contains.

  • Simplicity gives elegance
  • Simplicity is more parsimonious than complexity.
  • Biochemistry is more complex than chemistry.
  • Nothing is always more parsimonious than something.
  • Complexity needs purpose
  • But whose purpose?

The ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything is, of course, …

October 11, 2022

I remember listening to the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy back in 1978 and buying the book a year later. “Forty two” (42, binary 101010) was the label invented by Douglas Adams as the answer to life, the universe and everything. The Hitchhiker’s Guide achieved cult status and since 1978 a large body of writing has tried to interpret the “42” joke in a multitude of ways. Mathematicians linked it to the 3 cubes problem and  wondered if 42 satisfied the Diophantine Equation x3+y3+z3=k. There was at that time no known solution for k = 42. After much effort a team led by Andrew Sutherland of MIT and Andrew Booker of Bristol University found a solution:

42 = (-80538738812075974)^3 + 80435758145817515^3 + 12602123297335631^3

Others searched and found occurrences of 42 in religious authorities (the Bible, the Koran, the Rig Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita among many others). Numerologists and astrologers found mysterious references to 42 everywhere, some quite sinister. I like best the many connections to 42 which have been found in the works of Lewis Carroll. In Alice in Wonderland for example, the King of Hearts’ Rule Forty-two is that “All persons more than a mile high to leave the court”. In his Hunting of the Snark, Carroll writes “he had 42 boxes, already packed,”

The Question which leads to the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything has been simmering in my subconscious ever since I first read The Hitchhiker’s Guide. Over the last few years I find that many of my posts keep returning to these questions. Probably a consequence of an idle mind in an ageing person. Not a futile exercise in my judgement, but not always consistently reasoned and often with my thoughts wandering down cul-de-sacs, making many U-turns and moving in many unexpected directions. But that is not too surprising since these are the great, unanswered, philosophical questions known since antiquity and which still remain:

  • why time must be?
  • why existence must be?
  • why causality must be?
  • why life must be?
  • why thought and consciousness are?

Thought and thinking are ubiquitous concepts among humans but not easily defined. They are labels referring to cognitive activity and are the prerogative of brains. Where we cannot recognise a brain, we do not allow thought or thinking. The “laws of physics”, as we have discerned them to be, do not explain life or thought. I suspect that all the physical and material “laws of nature” that we discover will never be able to. Clearly there is a distinction between living and thinking. Whether the two are inseparable is an open question. We can imagine a brain that is not living and even construct artificial brains. All our computers can surely compute, but mere computation does not rise to the level of what we label as thinking. While we cannot yet imagine how an artificial brain could become sapient, it well may be that such a thing is not impossible.

Thinking alone, with just emotions but without any language, is mind-bogglingly stupendous enough. Many animals do think, even if the boundary of where thinking starts is not clear. Cats and dogs and elephants certainly do. I am pretty sure that pesky flies do. I am inclined to think that, in their own fashion, bees and spiders and ants also do. I am less inclined to grant grass and trees that ability, and we would need to have a very broad definition of thinking indeed to say that a single cell thinks. Language is not as prevalent among living things as thinking is. The language club is quite exclusive. Only humans have well developed language and the range of species which could be said to have some rudimentary language is very limited. Language cannot then be a necessary requirement for thinking or thought. It seems obvious to me that thought must precede language.

But bring thinking and language together and an explosive feedback loop is established which allows us to spiral upwards to ever higher planes. It is not that language makes thinking possible but it must certainly be that thought is required to create language, which then, in turn, enhances thought, which in turn, again, enriches language. Whether language began with the imitation of sounds, or as emotional exclamations expressed as grunts and interjections, all languages quickly came to be centred around the naming of things. The naming of physical things to begin with, led to the naming of abstract things, and that, in due course, reached the dizzy heights of inventing names for unreal and imaginary things.  There is an enormous advantage in naming visible, nearby, physical things (me, you, a rock or a tree), to allow referring to them later even when they are distant, unseen things. There must, however be a step change in cognition to be able to name an abstract, but real, thing (hunger or anger or fear). To go on to invent names to communicate non-existent things (yesterday, tomorrow, fairies, heaven or multiverses) takes an even greater cognitive leap.

Language cannot be blamed for politics. Many social animals having little language (lion prides, baboon troops, … ) indulge in politics. With language though, humans have achieved unprecedented levels of cooperation within their societies. Language brought us questioning and learning. On the one hand, that gave us religion and lies and bigotry. Fortunately, that was more than offset by the development of learning, and art, and the process of science, and eventually, even philosophy. Philosophy is about asking unanswerable questions. No thinking, no language. No language, no questions. No questions, no philosophy. Once a question has been answered though, the subject exits the field of philosophy. Thinking about thinking is a popular philosophical pastime – even if it seems somewhat incestuous. Incestuous philosophy consists of circular arguments with the most infamous one being René Descartes’s “Cogito, ergo sum”. His “I think, therefore I am” is actually meaningless since the thinking “I” must first “be”, for the being “I” to think that it “is”. Other infamous cases of incestuous philosophy are that “truth consists of facts where facts are known truths” or that “knowledge is justified true belief where a belief is a proposition which may be true or may be false”. These still count as philosophy, of course, since the originating questions remain unanswered.

I am utterly convinced that the driving force for anything, and for everything, is always an imbalance in something else.

The imbalance at the core of time, the universe and everything

Without imbalance there is no change.

When all forces and energies are in equilibrium, nothing happens. Nothing can happen. At equilibrium there can be no motion, no waves no vibrations, no change. If the origin of our universe (or The Universe) was in the Big Bang, then that must have been in response to some great, prevailing non-equilibrium, the Great Imbalance which caused the Big Bang. (It always seems to me a little unsatisfactory that a Big Bang can be postulated without also having to postulate why a Big Bang would need to occur). All change is always in the direction of eliminating the imbalance which caused the change. If the universe is expanding then it must be in response to an imbalance and the expansion must work towards eliminating that imbalance. The physical world is driven by imbalances. Fluid flows and heat flows and electricity flows are achieved by creating imbalances which force the flow. Human and animal behaviour is driven by imbalances. In fact all life is driven by imbalance.

“Forty two” is just a label for the Great Imbalance which started it all and came long before the Big Bang and the bangism that followed. But we have not invented the term infinite regression for nothing. The Great Imbalance that led to the Big Bang must have started with something else.

When the tree falls in the forest, the sound is only due to language

But what of all that we cannot observe, directly or indirectly, by our limited senses and our finite brains? Is it so that if something cannot be observed, cannot be perceived, cannot be inferred to exist by any interaction it has with anything else in this universe, then it does not exist? Or is it merely that we are ignorant of its existence? Philosophy is, of course, about asking unanswerable questions. Once a question can be answered it leaves the field of philosophy.

Take bongism for example. We cannot observe it, perceive it, infer it or deduce it. It has no known interactions with anything else in this universe. But it is the imbalance in bongism which caused all existence in the first place. It is the answer to the question “Why do things exist at all?”.

Does bongism exist?

It must do, since I have a word for it.

Not the Big Bang and bangism, not even the preceding Great Imbalance, but the Great Bong and bongism provide the answer to life, the universe and everything. It may be an uncomfortable truth, but the Great Bong (of course) created itself. Viewed from an oblique angle, through the correctly coloured spectacles, certain types of minds could well see the Great Bong as a 42.

On the nature and purpose of law ..

October 6, 2022

In Sweden there is a tendency to accord Authority and Institutions unwarranted respect. I was listening to a Member of Parliament trying to explain (defend?) the importance of what he did. His glorified and rather narcissistic view of his own importance in the universe as a “lawmaker” was not unexpected.  But I find the idea that current parliamentarians are involved in holy work goes too far. I thought his overly reverential treatment of law as something sacrosanct was especially facile and unsupportable. I find deferential references to the majesty or sanctity or divinity or piety or morality of law artificial and unconvincing.

So, in this note to myself I try to think my way through the nature and purpose of law from “first principles”. 

  1. The freedom of behaviour
  2. The laws of nature
  3. The nature of laws
  4. The purpose of law
  5. What law is not
  6. Conclusions

The freedom of behaviour

Behaviour (noun): the range, or the manner, in which, things (animate or inanimate) act

  1. Even inanimate things exhibit behaviour. They do not initiate actions but are acted upon and, in turn, may react, all according to the “laws of nature”. The behaviour of an inanimate thing is the only behaviour possible and is not a choice among possible behaviours.
  2. Living things exhibit the freedom to act of their own volition. (This freedom is exhibited and a feature of empirical reality. It needs no proclamations).
  3. What any creature actually does, lies within the envelope of what its physiology allows, subject to its own individual capabilities and as constrained by any external forces being applied.
  4. What is physiologically possible is of necessity compliant with the “laws of nature”.
  5. Living things having some brain (humans among others) can imagine or desire carrying out actions prior to action. They may desire to perform actions which they cannot actually accomplish. They may act, when compelled by external forces, even against their own desired action or inaction.
  6. For a living creature to have desires, some level of cognition and a sense of self is necessary. The greater the cognitive level the greater the range of what can be imagined. The greater the level of cognition, the greater the gap between imagined behaviour and what can actually be done. Desires can encompass both actions not physiologically possible and even those contravening the laws of nature.
  7. Without being diverted by the philosophical meaning of freedom, I take it that all creatures having volition are free to choose how to act (or not). What any living creature actually does is usually only one of several available actions it is free to perform.

This freedom to act as may be physiologically possible is a brute fact of reality and, like the laws of nature, does not need any articulation or declaration or proclamation. In fact, the freedom to act followed by the choice of action, always within the envelope of possible actions, is a distinguishing feature of cognitive, living things. (The conversion of a thought into action lies at the heart of the mind-body problem which is relevant but outside the scope of this note to myself). With increasing cognition, observations create a world view and a view of self in that world. Repetition of actions gives skill and observing consequences of actions gives rise to learning. Not all that is desired leads to actual behaviour but all behaviour has consequences. A living, cognitive creature may choose to restrict itself and moderate its own actions as it learns and according to its skill. The behaviour of the creature may also be constrained, or may be induced, by externally applied forces. The fundamental, behavioural freedom that all cognitive creatures have is to select and implement what they actually do, from all that they could do. Human behaviour is a choice constrained by capability and external forces.

All humans have the freedom to choose what they actually do, or not do, from all that they could do.

The laws of nature

The laws of nature, I have no doubt, exist. They both describe and determine how all things (material or energetic) have behaved and how they will behave. They all require/assume time to be passing and become undefined/meaningless otherwise. They apply over the entire universe (as far as we can tell). There is no Authority (known) which formulates and proclaims these laws, but they still command complete, unconditional compliance. They apply even if they are not discerned. The process of science is our attempt to discern what these laws of nature actually are. Even a solitary case of non-compliance is sufficient proof that any purported law of nature is not, in fact, a law. To be a law of nature requires that full compliance is inherent. The question of coercion does not even arise, firstly because non-compliance is just not possible, and secondly because there is no authority available which can either proclaim the law or could levy sanctions for non-compliance. The laws of nature are by definition “natural” and a brute reality of our existence. No sense of morality attaches, or can be attached, to them. “Goodness” or “justice” or “justness” are not attributes that are applicable. The laws of nature are discovered in the world around us. For all practical purposes they exist everywhere and in perpetuity (and what happens within black holes need not be considered here).

The laws of nature are a condition of our existence and there is nothing in known existence which can contravene these laws.

The nature of laws

Rule (noun): a description of a principle governing conduct; a sequential specification of events within a particular area of activity; control or dominion over a territory or living things (usually people) 

Only the first meaning of rule as a description of a principle governing conduct is relevant here. We generally apply the word conduct to the behaviour of living things (individually or as a collective). To be a rule, it must be general and it must lie within the realm of possible behaviour. It must be either a description of an empirically observed pattern of real behaviour (e.g. as a rule dogs bark, lions roar) or of desired, but not impossible, behaviour (dogs shall fly is meaningless as a rule). A rule of behaviour describes – by inclusion or exclusion – the behaviour desired or not-desired.

I take a society to be any association of interacting humans. It could be a family or a club or a religious order or the members of a social media group or a country. It could even be a temporary association of the people on, say, a trek or present in a restaurant at a particular time. If all the members of a society behaved only as that society collectively desired, then that society would have no need for any rules of behaviour. The need for such rules of behaviour arise in every society because the individual members of that society are capable of behaviour, or non-behaviour, which lies within their capability, but which may not be desired by the “collective mind” for the functioning of that society.

Human laws are not like the laws of nature. They do not flow naturally from the laws of nature. They are all rules of behaviour invented by humans but full compliance is never inherent. They are always made within some societal context and their existence is subordinated to the collective mind of the societies they exist within. Laws are societal rules of behaviour which need to be proclaimed and formally enacted by that society. They are not fleeting but they do not exist in perpetuity either. They can be created, removed or changed as and when a society desires. Even the most important laws in a society (its constitution or other founding laws) are subject to change, albeit with some considerable barriers to change. If a society ceases or breaks down, its laws cease to exist. Laws, in any society, are rules of behaviour for that society and the enacting of laws is the prerogative of the prevailing power in that society. They are formulated and proclaimed within societies by a designated, competent Authority representing the “collective mind”.  Competence in this context means not only the legitimacy of the Authority, but also the skill and ability of the Authority to formulate and proclaim rules of behaviour. The establishment and the legitimacy of that “collective mind” in a society can be highly contentious but, generally, the “collective mind” represents the view of the power centre of that society (which is not always, or necessarily, the majority view). Enactment of laws may be accompanied by much ritual and pomp but this is about giving legitimacy to the Authority and does not contribute to the substance of the rule. Without a legitimate Authority, or lacking the competence for proper formulation and proclamation, and unlike the laws of nature, there can be no law. Human laws (rules of desired behaviour), apply over the region or the people (jurisdiction) subject to that Authority, and are always intended either to curtail some freedom of behaviour or to coerce some desired behaviour. Even where penalties or other coercive sanctions are not identified, the intention of any law remains coercive. Rules made by “Authorities” not having control over the jurisdiction or not having the competence to enforce the rule, lack substance and cannot be considered rules or accorded the dignity of the label “law”.

While there is some discussion in jurisprudence and even philosophy about whether “coercion is a conceptually necessary feature of law” there is no doubt that the intention of any human law is always to curtail a behavioural freedom or to coerce some desired behaviour.

The level of compliance or non-compliance with a law speaks to the “goodness” or effectiveness of that law. Human laws are societal constructs, tools for the effective functioning of society. The bottom line is that they are needed because the behaviour of some individuals or sub-groups within the society can come into conflict with the desires of those in power (which may be the many). The detection of non-compliance is a major part of legal systems. The non-compliance actually detected is nearly always only a fraction of all the non-compliance that has occurred. Some of the detections are unsound. Penalties can be imposed only on the fraction convicted. Note that application of laws to only some law-breakers and not to all law-breakers, is inevitably “unfair” to those caught. Penalties and punishment for non-compliance with a law can never undo the non-compliance but may be able to influence the future compliance by others. Legal penalties always involve doing harm. It may be the lesser harm but it nevertheless is about doing harm to those who are non-compliant and are detected. Paradoxically, a law that is never complied with is a useless law and one that is always complied with is an unnecessary law.

All human laws seek to either curtail some existing but unwanted freedom of behaviour, or to coerce some desired behaviour. A law is a tool, a social construct, for the exercise of behavioural control. 

Penalties for non-compliance with law are always about doing harm to some for the greater good. 

The purpose of law

All human laws are thus tools which are used to try and control human behaviour. As with any other tool, the “goodness” of the tool speaks only to its fitness for purpose. The purpose is not inherent within the tool. Purpose then can only lie with those who use the tool; those who seek to control human behaviour. Controlling human behaviour is a necessary part of all successful human societies. That control is exercised is, in itself, neither moral nor immoral. Rules of behaviour are as necessary in a troop of baboons, a bridge club or a cloister as in a nation state. In any functional system composed of many components, each component needs to subordinate its own capabilities and actions to the function and goals of the system. Assuming, of course, that the system (society) has a proper function and a proper purpose. It is the intention of the lawmakers and of those who enforce laws which imbues purpose into the equation. Morality is often implied and attached to laws but the morality of law is not inherent and only derives from the intentions of the makers and the enforcers. It is to be expected that the prevailing power in any society, having the ability to make and enforce laws, ascribes the high moral ground to itself. Immorality is then attached to people according to the level of their non-compliance with the desired behaviour. Whether a law is “good” (effective) is a function of the level of compliance achieved. A badly formulated law may achieve high levels of compliance and be considered “good”. A most beautifully written law may be completely ineffective and would be “bad” law. Whether a law is “just” or promotes “justice” is unconnected to whether a law exists or not. That judgement rests with the observer. Laws, like guns, are merely tools. They may be well made or poorly made and – quite separately – may be skillfully used or incompetently misused. They may be effective or they may not. Purpose, however, lies, not within the law, but with the user.

Laws may be seen as humanitarian or draconian, as fair or unfair, as oppressive or protective, as just or unjust and even as clever or stupid. Law may be an ass. They usually have the successful functioning of the society as a purpose but may also have the preservation of the Authority as an objective. It is almost trivial, but those in power inevitably have a more benign view of the laws they make or enforce than those whose behaviour is being coerced.

A law is a tool for behavioural control. The dignity or majesty or sanctity or divinity sometimes claimed for laws are not inherent in laws or legal systems. They are always imaginary, invented and provide the packaging, the sugar-coating, judged necessary by a society to infuse legitimacy to – or sometimes to just camouflage – the control of human behaviour. The robes and ritual and elaborate ceremony often adopted for the making and application of laws have little to do with the content of laws but have everything to do with legitimising either the makers or the enforcers. A judge’s robes give no weight to the law but attempt to give weight to the judge.

Laws are often categorised according to the societies in which they are used. Divine Laws or the Laws of God are all human-made formulations and proclamations made by religious societies and purporting to be laws. Similarly, Natural Law (not be confused with the Laws of Nature) is claimed by some humanist philosophers to override all other law. It is based on an invented theory of overriding standards of universal morality which apply because they derive from the Nature of the World and the Nature of Human Beings. As with Divine Laws, the claim is that Natural Law should take precedence over any other human-made law. “Nature” is then an invented concept which is accorded divinity. God, the Divine and Nature are all taken to be Supreme Authorities. But they are invented by humans, and the purported laws are all authored by humans who effectively claim to be representatives of the Supreme Authority. They all seek, for good or ill, to control human behaviour. International Law tries to regulate the behaviour of participating nation states who in turn sign on to controlling the behaviour of their citizens. The laws are merely tools for behaviour control. The purpose lies elsewhere.

Human laws can never contravene the laws of nature (though some incompetent Authorities do try, from time to time, to make laws which contravene the laws of nature). They always remain rules of desired behaviour. It is usually the members of a society who grant some societal body (the Authority) the authority to formulate and declare rules of behaviour. However, establishing an Authority is an exercise of power and the members of the society may merely acquiesce. Laws as behavioural rules are organic and dynamic and their purpose is the functioning of the society they are embedded in. They are different from one society to the next. Within a society they can be created, discarded, modified, or replaced from one time to another. The grant of authority to a body to create laws is no guarantee of that body’s competence to create laws. Also the authority and the competence of a body to create laws is no guarantee of the body’s capability to enforce (usually by coercion but sometimes by incentive) such laws. That is a separate competence which may require additional bodies to come into play.

The purpose of law is not inherent. It lies first with the intentions of the Authority enacting the law and then with those tasked by the Authority with enforcing the law.

What law is not

  1. Morality and justice and ethics are not inherent in laws. These are attributes of purpose and lie in the use of law.
  2. Being merely tools, laws do not, in themselves, contain any dignity or majesty or divinity or sanctity.
  3. The existence or application of a law can never undo behaviour. It may be able to prevent future, unwanted behaviour or induce desired behaviour.
  4. The application of law requires discrimination between the compliant and the non-compliant.
  5. The purpose of any legal penalty is to do harm.
  6. Whether the application of law is just or not depends upon the eye of the observer.
  7. The rule of law is a tautology (the rule of rules).


All humans have the freedom to choose what they actually do, or not do, from all that they could do.

The laws of nature are a condition of our existence and there is nothing in known existence which can contravene these laws. 

All human laws seek to either curtail some existing but unwanted freedom of behaviour, or to coerce some desired behaviour. A law is a tool, a social construct, for the exercise of behavioural control.  

Penalties for non-compliance with law are always about doing harm to some for the greater good. 

The purpose of law is not inherent. It lies first with the intentions of the Authority enacting the law and then with those tasked by the Authority with enforcing the law.

The “brotherhood of man” myth

September 20, 2022

(This post was triggered by my ire over some sanctimonious media blather about the brotherhood of man).

All the words we use for describing relationships (father, mother, brother, sister uncle, aunt, ….) are as much about including specific people within the relationship as about excluding others. The unavoidable reality of a “brother” or a “sister” is that the terms distinguish between, a brother and a non-brother, and a sister and a non-sister. Brotherhood and sisterhood are as much about creating and describing bonds between those included as about excluding all others. The word brother has no meaning if there is no distinction from a non-brother. If everybody is a brother, the “brotherhood” of man” is trivial at best, and at worst, meaningless.

The need to distinguish between, and have terms for, we and them is deep rooted in human behaviour. The need goes back to the beginnings of social interactions, and the words were invented from the need to protect, and extend protections to, family and tribe. The need for we/them or us/them is primal. These words are intertwined with our own fundamental, individual assessments of good and bad. We are always good and they are usually bad. We shall prevail over them. It is just as much about aligning with someone as with creating distance from others. We cannot exist without excluding them. Relationship descriptors are nearly always we and them words. It is a primal thing for humans and probably for most living things. We look different to them. We wear red, they wear blue. We are predators, they are prey. We go to heaven, they go to hell. Of course, these words describe a relationship but the critical point is to distinguish by the description. A “brother” or a “father” or a “mother” is no doubt descriptive, but by description distinguishes them from all others.

The entire concept of brotherhood builds on the primal drive to protect family. It is built upon the not always true assumption that brothers (siblings) behave more favourably to each other than to non-siblings. Unfortunately it has become an empty, sanctimonious term and is used very loosely and is, nearly always, meaningless. All 7.3 billion humans may be related but that argument extends to all life. “Universal brotherhood” among humans does not – and cannot – exist. The “Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of all humans” is very popular in religious and half-religious circles, but is merely pious and sickly. The “Muslim brotherhood” excludes all non-Muslims and even many Muslims. “Christian brotherhood” is primarily about exclusion not inclusion. The “brotherhood of nations” is a nonsense term much admired in the General Assembly. It should be noted that all fraternal organisations claim brotherhood among their members which of course only works if one excludes all non-members. “In a spirit of brotherhood” is another often used but entirely empty phrase.

Let us not forget that when the spirit moved him, it was Cain who killed his brother Abel.

Vigil – QE II

September 15, 2022

I don’t consider myself a raging monarchist but neither am I a fanatical republican. Human development has depended upon individuals stepping up to be leaders (rather than the followers we mainly see today) and many of them have been monarchs.

I watched the BBC live stream of the ceremonial procession yesterday taking the Queen’s coffin from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey to lie in state. Considering the short time available for preparation and rehearsal, the event was remarkably well done. The solemnity of the actors was matched by the restraint of a disciplined audience on the streets. The actors – many well over 70 – were on stage for almost 2 hours and performed remarkably well. I found – to my own surprise – the procession to be extraordinarily moving. Queen Elizabeth was born in the same year as my mother (1926). Most of my life has been in Elizabethan times. The ending of the procession with 10 (or maybe 12?) guards taking up Vigil around her coffin was particularly well done.

This morning I sat down at my computer at 0600 CET (5 am in the UK) and turned on the live stream just as the guards on vigil were changing. In silence and with no accompanying bugles or drums or cannons or bands. The mourners, who had been passing in a steady stream all through the night, were waiting quietly while the guard changed.  At the front of those waiting was a lady in a wheel-chair who had probably been queueing for over 12 hours. (I understand that each pass for the vigil guards lasts 6 hours but am not sure if this can be right. Standing for 6 hours in the Vigil position is not that easy).

Pomp and Circumstance indeed but very impressive and quite moving.

There is a place for ceremony and tradition in our lives.

The Vigil – Guard changing at 0600 CET 15th September 202

As Sweden votes, sanctimony is being tested

September 10, 2022

Sweden goes to the polls tomorrow and the failure of sanctimonious multiculturalism has taken centre stage. Even with Elizabeth II and Charles III overwhelmingly dominating the British press, the BBC has place for this article.


But why is anybody surprised?

I wrote this post 8 years ago:

A “society” – to be a society – can be multi-ethnic but not multicultural

A “culture” is both the glue that binds any society of humans and lubricates the interactions within that society. It applies as well to a family or an association or a sports club or a company or a geographic area (say a country). The culture of any sub-society – a sub-culture – must be subordinated to that of the larger society it is  – or wants to be – part of.

Of course one can have – if one wishes – many different cultures within different sub-societies in a single geographic area. But if these sub-cultures are not subordinated to a larger culture then the sub-societies cannot – because it becomes a fatal contradiction – make up any larger society. Multiculturalism dooms that geographical area to inevitably be a splintered and fractured “greater” society – if at all.

The politically correct “multiculturalism” followed in Europe in recent times has effectively preserved and maintained each ethnic group in its own cultural silo and – inanely – made a virtue out of preventing the evolution of any overriding, common culture. This has been the fundamental, “do-gooding” blunder of the socialist/liberal “democrats” all through Europe. Creating a society of the future with a common culture as the glue has been sacrificed in a quest for some imagined God of Many Cultures. For an immigrant – anywhere – how could it be more important to keep the language of his past rather than to learn the language of his future? The “do-gooders” have prioritised living in the past to creating and living in a new future.

Hence Rotherham and Bradford or Kreuzberg or Rosengård or Les Bosquets,

Multi-ethnic communities particularly need both a glue and a lubricating medium. And that has to be an overriding common – new – culture and not some mish-mash, immiscible collection of sub-cultures – each within its own silo, insulated and held separate from all others.

  1. Multi-ethnic societies are inevitable around the world.
  2. A single society has a single culture.
  3. To have many cultures in one area – which are not subordinated to a larger culture (values) – is to exclude a single society.
  4. Promoting multiculturalism is to promote the fracturing of that area into many immiscible (inevitably ethnic) societies.

Multi-ethnicity – especially – requires a mono-culture to be a society at all.

Multi-ethnic and multi-cultural is separatism and serves to ensure that a single society will never be established.

and again 6 years ago ..

“Multiculturalism” always gives fractured and segregated societies

It seems obvious. Multi-ethnic societies, even with well -developed sub-cultures, work very well under an over-riding common culture. In fact the over-riding common culture is dynamic and takes on parts of the various sub-cultures. But societies with parallel cultures with no over-riding common culture can only give a fractured society. It  prevents any common culture developing and inevitably gives ethnic segregation. For over 5 decades, these parallel cultures have been promoted by the liberal, social-democratic, do-gooding, misguided elite of Europe.

It is not at all surprising that the cities of Europe now have segregated and have no-go ghettos which consider themselves outside of the main society and not subject to the rules and behaviour expected in that society.

But I don’t expect any great improvements after the elections tomorrow. The “liberal” sanctimony will continue, the ghettos and no-go areas in the big cities will continue, Sweden will accommodate Turkey and its quirks for the sake of NATO, the Social Democrats will continue to propose new taxes as solutions to all problems, the Moderates will continue to propose tax cuts to solve all problems, and the minority parties will continue to oppress the majority.

And nothing will change.


History we don’t know does not matter …

September 7, 2022

history (n.)
late 14c., “relation of incidents” (true or false), from Old French estoire, estorie “story; chronicle, history” (12c., Modern French histoire), from Latin historia “narrative of past events, account, tale, story,” from Greek historia “a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one’s inquiries; knowledge, account, historical account, record, narrative,” from historein “be witness or expert; give testimony, recount; find out, search, inquire,” and histōr “knowing, expert; witness,” both ultimately from PIE *wid-tor-, from root *weid- “to see,” hence “to know.” It is thus related to Greek idein “to see,” and to eidenai “to know.” 

What we say about the past is utterly irrelevant to the past, but what we say determines completely what we think was the past. Histories are constantly being rewritten. Sometimes because research and scholarship gives rise to new “facts” and sometimes to satisfy some political agenda in the present. (I would argue that even the most dispassionate research has an agenda since it can never avoid the biases and prejudices of the historian). Whenever a historian is described as “left-wing” or “right-wing” or “socialist” or any other thing, it is a warning that the veracity of the past being narrated has been subordinated to the historian’s agenda. In any event, writing and rewriting histories does not change the past. Which begs the question as to whether history is knowing what truly happened in the past or just the current story about what happened in the past. I have been reading histories for most of my life. But I have now reached the conclusion that history is much more about the story than it is about the knowing.

What happened in the past gives us our present but knowing what actually happened does not matter to the present. The current story (true or false) of what actually happened matters a little bit in the now, but is soon superseded by new stories. The perceived accuracy of the current story is only of relevance as contributing to the credibility of the current story.

On the paradox of purpose and veracity in histories

I find that all our histories have one of only two purposes. The first is to satisfy the intellectual need to know and the second is the desire to influence future behaviour. The first is part of epistemic curiosity and the second is just politics. ….. Of these two purposes, one is a search for knowledge (truths) and is an end in itself. The other, the civic, political purpose, is as a tool for some other agenda. The curious thing is that whereas the veracity demanded by curiosity is absolute (since truths are needed to be considered knowledge) the use of history as a tool to influence future behaviour requires only perceived veracity. …… Thus, actual veracity is irrelevant in a history to be used for social purposes. Only the perceived veracity matters. Actual veracity – the truth – is relevant only in satisfying epistemic curiosity.

When the purpose has no impact the truth is sought assiduously. Where the purpose is to have an impact, the actual truth is irrelevant and only perceived truth matters. Perhaps it is just my cynicism but I find this somewhat of a paradox.

The past is unchangeable. (Observe that the past “is” while the events of the past “were”). Most of the past is unknowable. Since knowledge and knowability require a mind, most of the past is, and also was, unknown to any mind. In fact, most of what occurs in the now is unknown to most of us. Most of all that has occurred is – and will always be – unknown to human knowledge.

The stories we tell about the “recent” past are continually changing to suit our current agenda. “Recent” in this context means since records are available. When we get to ancient times even the “facts” are uncertain. As an intellectual exercise the study of history and origins is fascinating. The stories we tell about the past are important (may be vitally so) for our psyches and our insecurities in the present. We use the stories of the past to justify present and future actions. The stories are tools in the hands of the politicians of the day. Every academic who studies history has an agenda – even if it is as mundane as conning the public purse to provide a living wage. But the intellectual curiosity which drives the study of history is real. We wan’t to know where we came from. We wan’t to know why people in the past behaved as they did. We wan’t to explain how we come to be where we are and to fantasise about what could have been. The stories we tell need to be credible and compliant with the “known facts” but can speculate as much as required to fill in the gaps between the “known facts”. The further back in time we go, the greater the gaps and the more fictional the story we tell.

All of recorded human history goes back – at a stretch – 10,000 years. Humanity goes back – at a stretch – some 300,000 years. Our histories tell stories, not just from 4.5 billion years ago when the earth appeared, but even from 13.8 billion years ago when we say the universe started. Clearly the stories we tell about the past do matter in the present. These stories matter because we use them to guide and justify our present actions. What actually happened in the past is mainly unknown. The stories matter and the credibility of the stories matter but the knowledge of what truly happened is irrelevant. What we don’t know does not matter at all and even what we do know matters only in supporting the credibility of the stories we tell.

Every day we forget more history than we record. What we do record has a lifespan and all that we do record will all eventually come to be forgotten and leave the realm of knowledge. History we don’t know does not matter (and what we do know does not matter very much either). But whether we know or not, we will tell stories for ever.

Words, words, words – How many do we need?

September 2, 2022

There are only four possibilities for the direct, primary use of words. You can think them, say them, write them or read them. (Note that in sign language, signing is a proxy for saying). The purpose, implicit or explicit, is communication. Indirectly, of course, you can learn them, or forget them or use them for some other esoteric purposes, but their manifestation is limited to thinking, saying (signing), writing or reading. There is even a case for writing to be considered secondary to thinking and reading secondary to writing. Words are invented but no word can exist as an arbitrary decision of an individual. Just making a particular sound, or scribbling some particular juxtaposition of letters or symbols, does not make a word. Every word must have an associated meaning but nothing is a word until the meaning and that association is shared with, at least, one other. Repetition of the word must invoke the same meaning. A word without an associated meaning – such as a word in another language – is just a sound or a squiggle but not a word.

But how is a word created in the first place?

The need to communicate in a social setting came first. The sharing of the association of a particular sound with a specific meaning must have come next. Note that in the absence of language, the invention of words must precede the invention of a particular language. Given a language, new words can be invented within it. To be a word in a written language today requires three components. A sound, a meaning and a particular combination of letters or symbols to represent the sound or the meaning. It would seem that symbols to represent meanings came long before phonetic alphabets came to represent sounds. Whereas symbols to represent meanings are restricted to shared meanings, an alphabet can represent – in writing – any sound. It provides the ability to write and then speak sounds which have no associated meanings and are not words at all. Hieroglyphs represented meanings and Chinese and kanji symbols still do. However, letters in most languages nowadays are phonetic. Combinations of letters represent sounds, some of which are representations of word-sounds. (Surprisingly Ethnologue informs me that of the currently listed 7,139 living languages, as many as 3,074 have no developed writing system. It is also estimated that there are around 150 distinct sign languages being used today).

No word originated as a jumble of letters or symbols. Sounds come first, associated meanings come next and letters or symbols then follow. In non-alphabetic writing systems, meanings are conveyed but there is no information about the sound. Phonetic alphabets convey sounds but meanings have to be inferred or provided by memory and teaching and learning. The letters put together to represent a word-sound follow the rules of spelling extant at the time.  During the lifetime of a word, its sound, its meaning or symbolic representation (spelling), all can and do evolve. Sometimes a word describes the meaning of a sound where the word-sound approximates or suggests the sound-meaning itself (bang, boom, sizzle, … ). Sometimes the word-sound has the meaning of that which creates the sound suggested by the word-sound (choo-choo train, tick-tock clock). Just as language enables conveying the abstract (including lying), the alphabet enables nonsense words and sounds. Dylan Thomas or Edward Lear would have had different lives without their command of the alphabet.

Wikipedia: Onomatopoeia is the process of creating a word that phonetically imitates, resembles, or suggests the sound that it describes. Such a word itself is also called an onomatopoeia. Common onomatopoeias include animal noises such as oink, meow, roar, and chirp. Onomatopoeia can differ between languages: it conforms to some extent to the broader linguistic system; hence the sound of a clock may be expressed as tick tock in English, tic tac in Spanish and Italian, dī dā in Mandarin, kachi kachi in Japanese, or tik-tik in Hindi.

Human brains have cognitive limits and exhibit individual vocabularies ranging from beginners having about 2,000 words and Wordsmiths with over 50,000.

Most people know around 20,000 – 35,000 words (in any language). Extremely gifted people – very rarely – may approach a vocabulary of 60,000 words. Even multi-lingual people seem to have a total vocabulary not exceeding the limits of mono-lingual people. …….. But why does each of us know so few words of all the words that are available?

My hypothesis is that there is a stable level – the Wordsmith Number – which the brain establishes. It is a cognitive limit to the size of the active vocabulary that a person can maintain. It is established by the manner in which the brain learns, stores and retrieves active and passive words. It is a dynamic level and varies as our activities change (reading, writing, speaking, diversity of social relationships ..). Words that are not active are shunted out of active memory. In very rare circumstances is a Wordsmith Number of greater than about 30,000 established.

There is probably no healthy grown adult who has a vocabulary of less than about 2,000 words in some language. In a language typically having about 200,000 active words, there would be about 200 (0.1%) which were absolutely necessary and without which no concept could be conveyed. A fluent speaker would need to know only about 15% of the total and even the most proficient wordsmith would only know about 25-30%. With just about 1% of all the available words (2,000 words) more than 95% of communications in that language could be understood. Knowing just 1% of the available words in a language is sufficient for an individual to be fully functional in a society.

Children learn to recognise sounds and associate meanings well before they can reproduce them. By the age of 12 months they can probably recognise 50 -100 word-sounds. By the age of 2 years they can produce over 100 word-sounds and start combining words to convey meanings. By 4 or 5 their vocabulary is numbered in thousands.

When a 15% vocabulary gives fluency and 25% gives the highest proficiency, I cannot avoid the conclusion that language is vastly under-utilised. But what would our societies be like if being a wordsmith was the norm and not an outlier? I suspect that language is a tool that is, as yet, too advanced for the species and is waiting for evolution to catch up.

There are no non-believers

August 26, 2022

Every belief is assumed knowledge and all knowledge assumed is a belief. Why do we find it necessary to have beliefs at all?

Our behaviour and our actions are all about the future. Consciously or unconsciously we project our actions into the future. Knowledge provides a basis for such extrapolations. But where we do not know, we need to find some basis for behaviour. And so we turn to “assumed knowledge”, to beliefs. I don’t actually know that the sun will rise today. I wake up because I believe it will. Every human action is based on the belief that life will continue. It is not possible for any human mind to know everything and so it is impossible for any human mind to be devoid of belief. This is an inevitable consequence of our finite minds having a very limited capacity for “knowing”. Human minds, singly or collectively, are also finite and incapable of encompassing the incomprehensibly large amount of what is knowable. (Observe that knowledge is whatever a brain can comprehend and that incomprehensibly large is usually given the label infinite but inventing a label does not increase comprehension).

All beliefs are necessarily subjective but any belief may be shared by many minds. A Belief (B) can apply to any proposition (P) which is taken to be true but which cannot be proved. All the fundamental assumptions in science and philosophy and logic are propositions taken to be true and are beliefs. Of course, contrary to popular delusion, there are no objective truths. What is True is always subjective. Every definition of Truth is circular (truth = in accordance with fact, where fact = what is true). Circularity in definitions is a sure indicator of having reached a cognitive boundary – a limit to comprehension. Any human brain contains only a tiny fraction of what can be called accumulated human knowledge and an even tinier part of what is knowable. For that brain, all external knowledge assumed to be true is just belief. Not believing (denying or negating) a Belief about a Proposition, is a subjective negation of the Belief but not of the Proposition. A denial of a belief in a proposition is silent about the truth of the proposition itself. There is no case where the statement “I don’t believe in Belief P” is not itself a Belief Y where Y is now just the proposition that P is not true.

~B(P) is about the B and not about the (P)

~B(P) = B(Y) where Y = ~P

“I don’t believe in X” is just another belief statement saying ” I believe that X is not”.

The human mind creates (invents) and makes up plausible assumptions so that it does not get stuck and can move on. Beliefs allow us to avoid the paralysis of thought that not knowing can lead to. Science assumes causal determinism and the Laws of Nature so that all phenomena can then be deemed explainable. Of course, this assumption means that science is restricted to the knowable and cannot address the unknowable or the incomprehensible (since what is incomprehensible is not permitted to be knowledge). A label – random – is invented for that which incomprehensibly has no cause but random is just a label. The determinism assumed by science is merely a belief. Philosophy, logic – and even metaphysics – all need their assumptions. There is some debate as to what these fundamental assumptions are but only to the extent as to which assumptions are fundamental and which emerge from others. It is just an assumption of human cognition that something cannot be both true and false. Or so we believe. It is an assumption (a belief) that logic and reason must prevail. It is an assumption (a belief) that for logic and reason to prevail, contradictions in arguments are absurd and not permitted. All our fundamental assumptions are also boundary conditions.

Physics and religion both make fundamental assumptions which are always beliefs. Physics assumes causality according to assumed discoverable laws of nature in all of the universe (even though our brains and senses are finite and limited). Religions assume various versions of gods and deities with a variety of attributes regarding existence, creation and omniscience.

Physics theories are remarkably similar to God theories

The human brain is finite. Human cognition has increased as we have evolved but is limited by the size of our brains and of the senses (including extended senses) that the brain has access to. Human comprehension is circumscribed and cognition resorts to circularity when the boundaries of comprehension are reached. Reality is whatever the brain can perceive as reality. Knowledge is whatever the brain can comprehend as knowledge. Curiosity about the surrounding world is an innate part of the human cognitive state and drives the process of inquiry we call the scientific process.

We invented gods long before religions came along and hijacked the beliefs to exercise political power.

God or no-God? That is the wrong question

The fundamental reason for inventing any god was to be able to answer or explain the inexplicable. Every God ever invented was, at its core, a Theory of Explanation.

The most common form of atheism lies in denying – often with much logic and reason as justification – the beliefs of others in gods or deities, but what is usually forgotten is that this denial is merely a criticism of the beliefs of those others, but is actually silent about the propositions themselves. Famous atheists (Russell, Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, among many others) revel in ridiculing, with reason and logic and a heavy dose of sanctimony, the beliefs of others in gods and deities. But it is worth noting that when anyone denounces a belief in a God, the God must first be defined to be able to claim the non-belief. Which claim is itself a belief.

I tried to clarify my thinking a few years ago

The proposition that “God Exists” is logically meaningless until “God” is defined. This is the wrong proposition to be addressing. Most religions do not logically come to the conclusion that “God Exists”. They start with that as an assumption which – as with all such assumptions – is taken as self-evident but which cannot be proved. To ridicule this assumption is not difficult. Religions avoid the more fundamental questions by invoking their gods. But this is a method used also by physics and cosmology. The universe is assumed to be homogeneous. The four laws of nature operating in this homogeneous universe are invoked by physicists to avoid the question of why the laws exist in the first place. The Big Bang and Dark Matter and Dark Energy are invoked by cosmologists to avoid the question of why time exists and what time is and what the universe is.

Every atheist can assert a non-belief in any version of any god  – which is itself a belief.

But no atheist is a non-believer.

On the way to homo superior?

August 21, 2022

A recent after-dinner discussion led to us speculating as to how humans and our world would change in, say, 100, 1,000 or 10,000 years. One approach was to look back 100, 1,000 and 10,000 years and forecast changes in the future to be at the same rate as in the past. But this is easier said than done. Extrapolation along a specified path of change is only a matter of elapsed time but when the direction itself changes, extrapolation does not work. Furthermore, any extrapolation is hampered by the fact that the rate of change is itself changing. However, there are some aspects of human physiology and behaviour which – apparently and to the best of our knowledge – have not changed at all in 10,000 years. And that led the discussion into whether the species homo sapiens sapiens is evolving, or will evolve, into homo sapiens superior, perhaps along the way through homo superior eventually to a homo scientia.

And how long could that take?

The term homo superior was coined in 1935 by Olof Stapledon in his science fiction novel Odd John which I read in my teens some fifty years ago.

Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest is a 1935 science fiction novel by the British author Olaf Stapledon. The novel explores the theme of the Übermensch (superman) in the character of John Wainwright, whose supernormal human mentality inevitably leads to conflict with normal human society and to the destruction of the utopian colony founded by John and other superhumans. …  It is also responsible for coining the term “homo superior”

10,000 years is about 500 human generations and is not really long enough for humans to have developed into a new species (though it has recently been observed in finches that just 2 generations – with stringent isolation – is sufficient to create a new “species”). Defining a species is not so simple, but the practical – and pragmatic – definition of a species is one where individuals (of the appropriate gender) can interbreed and produce viable offspring. Changes to the species homo sufficient to give breeding incompatibility needs significantly longer time scales. It is just a guesstimate but one reason for putting the start of modern humans at 200,000 – 300,000 years ago is that individuals from that distant past would probably be sufficiently different from modern humans to disallow successful breeding.

We do not know for sure how fast humans are evolving. Views in the scientific community are divided and range from faster than ever before, to slower than ever before, to stopped completely.

One view is that human development has neutralised the forces which have driven evolution. Certainly human development has now produced the capability for, and the practice of, manipulating our immediate surroundings. We create bubbles of habitability around us. We carry the bubbles around us not only on earth but also to escape the confines of the earth’s surface. We now have the potential to move under the oceans or even to other planets. The vagaries of weather and climate have virtually been eliminated as an evolutionary force. Having diversity is of value only when an organism has to face change. In an unchanging environment, unused diversity merely withers away. In the past it has been the uncontrollable changes to our surrounding environment which has given rise to “natural selection” and the evolution of us. In that sense, human development de-emphasises the value of genetic diversity since we maintain an unchanging environment within our habitable bubbles. Outlying genetic traits such as abilities to withstand cold or extreme heat or low oxygen pressure have lost relevance since they are not needed. There can be no “selection” for such traits when they provide no survival or reproductive advantage. 

Similarly medical advances have led to the neutralisation of “de-selection” forces. Genetic propensities for disease or weaknesses are no longer “naturally de-selected” since medical advances allow and enable such affected individuals to survive, reproduce and sustain these genetic weaknesses. Physiological weaknesses which would once have been weeded out by de-selection are now no longer “weaknesses” and are preserved.

Geographic isolation of whole groups has almost disappeared. Whereas propagation remains predominantly between individuals from nearby geographical locations the occurrence of offspring from parents from distant origins is sharply increasing. 

So what actually is being selected for? The short answer is that we do not know.

The three main drivers required for evolution to occur – diversity, de-selection of the non-viable and geographic isolation – have all been neutralised to varying degrees. It may not be a high probability but it is not inconceivable that the species will stagnate and individuals will regress to some mean. We could just become more and more alike. But it is much more likely that the human evolutionary drivers have just become more subtle and will only show up over longer periods. Our food habits are changing (generally softer foods) and we don’t need the same set of teeth and the same jaws that our ancestors did. Our need for long legs to hunt down prey is an anachronism. Our body size is increasing (partly nutrition, partly genetic) and this may check – and even reverse – the trend to smaller brains that has taken place over the last 500,000 years. Independent of brain size, the effectiveness of brain processes may be slowly increasing. (A smaller wrinkly brain can be much more effective than a large smooth one). The evolution of tool-making hands may be subtly changing to suit other things (bigger, more dextrous thumbs perhaps?). The disparity in the design life of our various organs was of no consequence before but are sharply in focus as we live ever longer. There is an element of artificial selection due to medical developments which was of no significance before, but is now becoming increasingly important. We are not far from the situation where the results of medical interventions in one generation could be passed on to the next. Resistance to particular diseases, for example, could potentially be induced in one generation and be passed on. Genetic engineering, if practised, could well pass on some “desired” traits to the next generation, but will also pass on many hidden, unknown traits.

Our own experience usually covers 5 generations in our c. 100 year lifetimes (grandparents to grandchildren). In evolutionary terms this is almost invisible but is certainly not insignificant. But we do not know if homo superior is on the way. There is little doubt that there will be – some 300,000 years in the future – a homo future species which will not be able to interbreed with us. But there is as good a chance that homo future turns out to be a homo inferieur, rather than a homo superior.

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