Cold Turkey – an update after 100 days

March 17, 2023

There are other stories regarding the origins of the term “cold turkey” but I prefer this one.

Scholars of 19th-century British periodicals have pointed to the UK satirical magazine Judy as the true catalyst of “cold turkey”‘s evolution in meaning. The journal’s issue of January 3, 1877, featured the fictional diary of one John Humes, Esquire. The diary’s transcript on the day in question details Mr Humes’ exploits over his Christmas holiday. Throughout, Humes demonstrates a humbug attitude, complaining to every shopkeeper and acquaintance about the irony of the words “merry” and “jolly” being attached to the season. Most significantly, Hume is invited to stay at his cousin Clara’s as a part of her household’s celebrations. Hume, the miser to the core, is shocked that Clara serves him slices of (literal) cold turkey with his pudding and other side dishes on the evening of his arrival. A poor substitute for the roasted and dressed kind of turkey is the continually played-up implication in the comedy piece. The dissatisfied barrister stays several days nonetheless, and with each passing day, he is more and more shocked that the cold turkey finds its way onto his plate again. Finally, Hume arrives home, utterly disgusted at having been treated so badly. He calls for his estate lawyer and chops Clara completely out of his will and testament.

100 days have gone since I quit smoking cold turkey and I am now into week 15. There has been no gnashing of teeth or pulling of hair. Withdrawal effects have been subtle rather than obvious. When I quit smoking on 7th December last year I had 2 cartons of cigarettes and 3 lighters in my study. Many suggested that I should remove all traces of cigarette smoking from my presence but this seemed wrong to me. They are all still all there in full view.

Does the urge to smoke return?

Of course it does.

Every, single day.

But what is clear to me is that it is not a physical craving but something connected to habitual behaviour and entirely in the mind. The urge is triggerred by some action (or inaction) which my brain associates with lighting up. I find I need just a short physical/mental diversion to get rid of the urge. Initially I used conventional chewing gum (not the nicotine kind but sugar free) but now find even that unnecessary. Just thinking about something else or doing something else usually suffices. I am pretty sure that the sight of my cigarette cartons and lighters does not trigger the urge to smoke. There are some physical effects which persist. I “feel” colder than I used to. I feel a little more light-headed more often than I used to. I get the shivers and goose bumps from time to time and I attribute these to quitting smoking rather than to the blood-thinners I now take.

I am sure I am gaining the benefits of quitting smoking but they are gradual and not spectacular. I think I cough less and my breathing is easier. I seem to generate much less phlegm than I used to. I am pretty sure my lungs are in a much better state than they were. Of course, I am sure I am also spending less money but, again, this is not a spectacular benefit. It is difficult to notice the smells – on me, my clothes or in the house – that are no longer there, but I certainly notice the smells of others smoking when I come across them. These smells when noticed, are becoming, gradually but more often, disgusting rather than alluring.

So far so good.

I am not sure when I will be qualified to join the ranks of “non-smokers”. Perhaps in another 200 days.

On quitting smoking – cold turkey and silver linings

December 31, 2022

Giving up smoking suddenly, with no outside help or support, is known as going ‘cold turkey’.

More by accident rather than by design, I am quitting smoking by going “cold turkey”. I had an infarct episode just over 3 weeks ago which led to hospitalisation and the insertion of 2 stents. During my 3.5 days in hospital I had no desire to – and did not – smoke. If I had any withdrawal symptoms at that time I was not aware of them. Presumably, I had other more pressing concerns. Now I am home again and still have not smoked. Withdrawal symptoms are present in force and the urge to light up can be extremely strong – though only for short periods. I am extremely irritable and find I cannot focus for long periods. I have, so far, declined offers of nicotine plasters, nicotine replacement, some other drugs and counselling.  Of course, three weeks without a cigarette proves very little. I did though wonder why nicotine replacement was being promoted so heavily and – mainly by neglect – going cold turkey was being discouraged.

Heavy googling with multiple search terms reveals a sharp divide between those promoting going “cold turkey” and those opposed to it. But then it becomes apparent that all those opposed to going cold turkey are – not unsurprisingly – those who are promoting an alternative. They include promoters of  Nicotine Replacement Therapies (NRT), or some particular drugs, or some particular kind of counselling.

Harvard Health:  A recent study randomly assigned about 700 participants to either gradually cut back on smoking over two weeks or quit abruptly on a set quit date. Both groups were offered counseling support as well as nicotine patches and other forms of short-acting nicotine replacement. The group assigned to cold turkey was significantly more successful at quitting smoking, both at the 4-week follow-up (49% vs. 39%) and the 6-month follow-up (22% vs. 15%).

The promoters of nicotine replacement would have it that my decision to go “cold turkey” has little chance of success.

TruthinitiativeRelying on willpower alone, however, is not likely to be successful. Research over the past 25 years has shown that, out of 100 people trying to quit smoking cold turkey, only about three to five of them will succeed for longer than six months, according to Hays. In other words, while some people can quit this way, at least 95 percent of people can’t. Quitting cold turkey has such a low success rate due to the nature of addiction. Addiction undermines willpower, or the ability to control impulses through decision-making.

My googling is hardly research, but I have come to the conclusion that while quitting cold turkey does not work for all smokers, most smokers finally quit smoking this way  The simple reality seems to be that successfully going cold turkey is likely to be most successful in avoiding a return to smoking. I find I resent the claims of the promoters of NRT – though they may well be correct. “Quitting cold turkey has such a low success rate due to the nature of addiction”. I think I have to take the challenge. My rational mind tells me that if my body has done without a cigarette for 3 weeks then there can be no desperate physical need for nicotine. There is no doubt that the most insidious part of the craving is when the mind imagines the previously experienced pleasures at certain trigger points (cup of coffee, cold beer, particular meal ……). I can never, now, claim the identity of being a non-smoker, but an identity as an ex-smoker will do for me. But I think I shall need to wait for a year before I can claim to be an ex-smoker.

Going cold turkey is perhaps the silver lining to my infarct cloud.

(Note that the purpose of this post is not to give advice to anyone but to create an additional pressure on myself to help resist the urge to return to smoking).

Please don’t diss my elephant

December 21, 2022

My blog posts here are fed on to Linked In and to Twitter though I never use either of them. So my apologies for not replying to those who have responded to my previous post and sent greetings and good wishes and comments on those channels. (I stopped using Facebook over a year ago and my blog posts no longer feed in there).

Many comments have been along the lines of keeping my elephant at bay and – by lifestyle changes – denying him entrance. But this misunderstands my intended meaning. There is no need to diss the elephant. My elephant is a friendly guy. He has impeccable timing and is scrupulously fair. He is not – for me – an object of fear or resentment at all. Rather he is the familiar, friendly, Solid (with a capital S), pachyderm who can accompany me on mysterious journeys to unknown places – whenever they may occur. He is a comfort not a fear.

My elephant does not lead me to morbid thoughts but he does keep me anchored in reality. He may nor be back for a day or a month or for 25 years. (I take 25 years as a practical upper limit since I would then be older than any male relative I know of). Modern medicine does wonders for heart conditions. So my heart attack two weeks ago and the insertion of 2 stents is quite unremarkable in terms of what medical practitioners can do these days. I am struck by wonder at the skill and ingenuity involved in these procedures. However a friend of mine brought me down to earth when he described the 12 stents he has in addition to his pacemaker. My experience was not remarkable as such things go, but it was a remarkable and unforgettable experience for me. The pain was real and the fear was real and the elephant imagery I saw was real. I could see him clearly – sitting right there. I can rationalise now and speculate that I was so scared that I conjured up my friendly elephant to cope with the fear. Clearly, in my mind, an elephant is a reassuring, comforting image.

It has been two weeks and I am recovering steadily. But, most remarkably, I have not smoked in 2 weeks.

So, don’t diss my elephant. He’s a good guy. He helps me handle my fears.

My elephant came calling ….

My elephant came calling ….

December 18, 2022

“Gosh”, I said “You’re heavy”!

I thought I had eaten too much. Heartburn I thought. It had started as just a rumble, just discomfiting enough to make me squirm. I stood up, I sat down, I breathed deep, I breathed fast, I breathed slow but the pressure kept growing. From discomfiture it became severe discomfort and then the crushing pressure reached ginormous proportions. “Hello Mr. Elephant”, I said. “Why are you sitting on my chest?” I do like elephants so I did not want to be rude and scream. I did not like to mention that he was crushing the life out of me. He didn’t look like he was trying to hurt me. In fact he looked quite friendly – even avuncular.

“Gosh”, I said again. “You’re really very, very heavy”! “Am I?” he asked and seemed to float above my chest. “I just came to introduce myself,” he said. “I am your elephant after all”. And then, just like that, the pressure eased. He was no longer on my chest but inside my chest and started pushing out. “Steady on,” I said “I could easily burst. A choice between bursting or being crushed was not very nice” I said. “No, no” said my impossible elephant, “I wouldn’t do that – yet” and he eased himself out of my chest and rested – lightly – outside it again. “You do not seem so heavy now” I murmured. “Of course not” he whispered in my ear. “It isn’t quite time yet. The important thing is that we have been introduced. Now you will recognise me when I come calling”. 

“I am not in any particular hurry” he said, “but remember that I am your very own elephant. And I will be back”.

And then the ambulance came.

We, they and the roots of violence

December 4, 2022

The application of physical force is the motive force for all material events in our universe. The use of physical force as a tool – whether for survival or anything else – is enabled by the genes of every living thing. The ability of any living thing to exert physical force is enabled and constrained by its physiology.

violence: (n) the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy; extreme physical force; vehemence, intense, turbulent, destructive

Any use of physical force by any living creature is not always considered a violent act. If the physical force applied is insufficient to cause damage it does not qualify as violence. Usually the intention to injure, damage or destroy is needed to convert the mere act of using damaging, physical force to being a violent act. In language the word is often used even if no such intention exists. For example hammering a nail can be described as violent. An incoherent idiot may be excused his behaviour because of his violent thoughts. When a volcano erupts or when the growing roots of a tree destroy a house – say – they are often referred to as violent though it would be difficult to ascribe any destructive intentions.

Violence (like any force) is a vector. It has an object acted upon, a magnitude and a direction. Without the concepts of we and they there would be no human violence.

We and They (Rudyard Kipling)

Father and Mother, and Me,
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But-would you believe it? –They look upon We
As only a sort of They!

We eat pork and beef
With cow-horn-handled knives.
They who gobble Their rice off a leaf,
Are horrified out of Their lives;
While they who live up a tree,
And feast on grubs and clay,
(Isn’t it scandalous? ) look upon We
As a simply disgusting They!

We shoot birds with a gun.
They stick lions with spears.
Their full-dress is un-.
We dress up to Our ears.
They like Their friends for tea.
We like Our friends to stay;
And, after all that, They look upon We
As an utterly ignorant They!

We eat kitcheny food.
We have doors that latch.
They drink milk or blood,
Under an open thatch.
We have Doctors to fee.
They have Wizards to pay.
And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
As a quite impossible They!

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!

It seems to me that the use of physical force between humans is converted to violence only when

  1. we and they exist,
  2. the magnitude of the force applied is sufficient to injure, damage or destroy, and
  3. the intention to do harm exists.

Human violence thus needs an object, magnitude and intention. A pat on the back is not violence. The same magnitude of force used to murderously swat a fly is violence. Intention requires a mind. For things with minds a we and a they exist. In fact, it is the concept of a we and a they which is necessary for intention to emerge. Predators are we and prey are them. Weeds are them. I am, of course, a part of we. When a lion kills the offspring of its predecessor, the we obliterate the them. We are invariably good. They are not always bad but we are never bad.

War, genocide, torture, the Holocaust, the atrocities in Rwanda or Myanmar, violent conflict in Ukraine, are not examples of abnormal human behaviour. They are an integral part of human behaviour and though we often call such behaviour “inhuman”, it is just a label. Caligula and Genghis Khan and Hitler and Pol Pot were all human. Potential Hitlers are being born every day. All past atrocities are just examples of how humans could – under appropriate circumstances – behave even today.

“There, but for the grace of God go I” – John Bradford

Atrocity is a part of that primal human behaviour which is rooted in We and They. Whatever it is that makes humans a social animal (presumably our genes) creates our concept and our need for We and They. From families and tribes to gangs and nations, it is being able to conceptualise a we which has enabled survival and led to development. It is the concept of we which underlies cooperation and which has given us language and development. And it is being this social animal with a sense of we which has distinguished humans from all other species in the level of cooperation that has been achieved. Much of our cooperation is manifested as the joint and coordinated application of physical force. That is true whether in building the Taj Mahal, going to the moon or implementing Hitler’s final solution. When survival – or perceived survival – is at stake We may always resort to atrocity against Them. Our evolutionary success is rooted in We and They and in our ability to apply physical force.

Along with We comes They and then violence becomes a word.

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:

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

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