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“But sir, what hypothesis does your experiment disprove?”

But I will mention one severe but useful private test – a touchstone of strong inference – that removes the necessity for third-person criticism, because it is a test that anyone can learn to carry with him for use as needed. It is our old friend the Baconian “exclusion,” but I call it “The Question.” Obviously it should be applied as much to one’s own thinking as to others’. It consists of asking in your own mind, on hearing any scientific explanation or theory put forward, “But sir, what experiment could disprove your hypothesis?” ; or, on hearing a scientific experiment described, “But sir, what hypothesis does your experiment disprove?”

Platt, J. R. (1964). Strong inference. Science, 146(3642), 347-353.

in Ancient Day, Waylaid

The lit mosaic of the wood
Stayed me at the turn of the road
To stare
At Autumn standing there
In Joseph’s coat; a tree
Golden, and bright, and free
For head; his feet
In the rich earth were set.
The wind
Was tugging blind
At the fierce rainbow rags, the tattered turban,
Under a fitful sun.
Ambushed by beauty,
I a new creature, stand in Ancient Day,
At the turn of the road
By trees that bleed
And fill my eyes with plunder!
Is there no climax then? No ripe-as-thunder
Sudden, and strong?
Nought to be done
But only stand and stare and travel on.

‘Autumn’, by Mervyn Peake, written (c. autumn 1937), in Collected Poems (2008),

Popper on scientific objectivity

…science and scientific objectivity do not (and cannot) result from the attempts of an individual scientist to be ‘objective’, but from the friendly-hostile co-operation of many scientists. Scientific objectivity can be described as the inter-subjectivity of scientific method…

Two aspects of the method of the natural sciences are of importance in this connection. Together they constitute what I may term the ‘public character of scientific method’. First, there is something approaching free criticism. A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and competitors; rather it challenges them : they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities. Secondly, scientists try to avoid talking at cross-purposes…In the natural sciences this is achieved by recognizing experience as the impartial arbiter of their controversies. When speaking of ‘experience’ I have in mind experience of a ‘public’ character, like observations, and experiments, as opposed to experience in the sense of more ‘private’ aesthetic or religious experience; and an experience is ‘public’ if everybody who takes the trouble can repeat it…

This is what constitutes scientific objectivity. Everyone who has learned the technique of understanding and testing scientific theories can repeat the experiment and judge for himself.

Karl Popper, The Open Science and Its Enemies, Chapter 23 (p217-218, Vol. II)

making universal singularities into transcendent entities

In these terms the isomorphism between models and what they can model can be explained as a coactualisation of the same diagram, or of different but overlapping diagrams. In that chapter we went on to argue that the main danger of this account is making universal singularities into transcendent entities, entities existing entirely entirely independently of the material world. But this potential pitfall can be avoided by always treating diagrams as immanent to matter, energy and information: while the objective existence of diagrams may not depend on any particular material, energetic, or informational mechanism, it does depend on the actual existence of some mechanism or another. If this account turns out to be correct then it will point to an intimate link between ontology and epistemology. And the existence of such a link, in turn, will constitute a powerful argument for breaking with the ontology we inherited from the classic Greek philosophers, an ontology based on the general and the particular, and an incentive to develop a new one based on the individual singular and the universal singular.

Manual DeLanda (2011) ‘Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason’, final paragraph

Quote #307: from Mughshin to Bai

Later Musallim and al Auf argued how far it was from Mughshin to Bai, where Tamtaim and the others were to wait for us. I asked al Auf if he had ever ridden from the Wadi al Amairi to Bai, He answered, ‘Yes, six years ago.’

‘How many days did it take?’

‘I will tell you. We watered at al Ghaba in the Amairi. There were four of us, myself, Salim, Janazil of the Awamir, and Alaiwi of the Afar; it was in the middle of summer. We had been to Ibri to settle the feud between the Rashid and the Mahamid, started by the killing of Fahad’s son.’

Musallim interrupted, ‘That must have been before the Riqaishi was Governor of Ibri. I had been there myself the year before. Sahail was with me and we went there from…’

But al Auf went on, ‘I was riding the three-year-old I had bought from bin Duailan.’

‘The one the Manahil raided from the Yam?’ Bin Kabina asked.

‘Yes. I exchanged it later for the yellow six-year-old I got from bin Ham. Janazil rode a Batina camel. Do you remember her? She was the daughter of the famous grey which belonged to Harahaish of the Wahiba.’

Mabkhaut said, ‘Yes, I saw her last year when he was in Salala, a tall animal; she was old when I saw her, past her prime but even then a real beauty.’

Al Auf went on, ‘We spent the night with Rai of the Afar.’

Bin Kabina chimed in, ‘I met him last year when he came to Habarut; he carried a rifle, “a father of ten shots”, which he had taken from the Mahra he had killed in the Ghudun. Bin Mautlauq offered him the grey yearling, the daughter of Farha, and fifty riyals for this rifle, but he refused.’

Al Auf continued, ‘Rai killed a goat for our dinner and told us …’, but I interrupted: ‘Yes, but how many days did it take you to get to Bai?’ He looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Am I not telling you?’

From “Arabian Sands“, by Wilfred Thesiger

how psychology has progressed

Several decades ago, an eminent psychologist defined the field of psychology as ‘a bunch of men standing on piles of their own crap, waving their hands and yelling “Look at me, look at me!” ’ Fortunately, things have changed quite a bit over the years, and the field is no longer composed entirely of men.

Daniel Gilbert, referencing George Miller, in Gilbert, D. (2002). Are psychology’s tribes ready to form a nation?. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6(1), 3.

we know that we are not only these things

At the opening of his 1986 work The Blind Watchmaker Richard Dawkins wrote: “This book is written in the conviction that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it.” This passage highlights the gulf that now exists between the accepted secular-atheist worldview of our culture and the reality of how people live and experience their lives. Because although Dawkins may feel that he has solved our mystery — and although science has indeed solved part of it — the fact is that we do not feel solved. We do not live our lives and experience our lives as solved beings. In the same way, no intelligent person could reject what we know to be our kinship with the animal kingdom. Yet few people would rejoice in being referred to as a mere animal. Being described as “mammalian” may shock and even stimulate for a bit, but to live as though we were animals would be — we know — to degrade ourselves. Whether we are right or wrong in this, we do feel that we are more than this. In the same way, we know we are more than mere consumers. We rebel when we are talked of as mere cogs in some economic wheel, and some people will even vote Green as a result. We rebel not because we are not these things, but because we know that we are not only these things. We know we are something else, even if we do not know what that else is.

Douglas Murray, 2015, in Standpoint magazine: ‘Is The West’s Loss Of Faith Terminal?

Quote #301

We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing

David Cain, in Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed

Quote #300: Graeber on the popular appeal of the right

One of the perennial complaints of the progressive left is that so many working-class Americans vote against their own economic interests—actively supporting Republican candidates who promise to slash programs that provide their families with heating oil, who savage their schools and privatize their Medicare. To some degree the reason is simply that the scraps the Democratic Party is now willing to throw its “base” at this point are so paltry it’s hard not to see their offers as an insult: especially when it comes down to the Bill Clinton– or Barack Obama–style argument “we’re not really going to fight for you, but then, why should we? It’s not really in our self-interest when we know you have no choice but to vote for us anyway.” Still, while this may be a compelling reason to avoid voting altogether—and, indeed, most working Americans have long since given up on the electoral process—it doesn’t explain voting for the other side.

The only way to explain this is not that they are somehow confused about their self-interest, but that they are indignant at the very idea that self-interest is all that politics could ever be about. The rhetoric of austerity, of “shared sacrifice” to save one’s children from the terrible consequences of government debt, might be a cynical lie, just a way of distributing even more wealth to the 1 percent, but such rhetoric at least gives ordinary people a certain credit for nobility. At a time when, for most Americans, there really isn’t anything around them worth calling a “community,” at least this is something they can do for everybody else.

The moment we realize that most Americans are not cynics, the appeal of right-wing populism becomes much easier to understand. It comes, often enough, surrounded by the most vile sorts of racism, sexism, homophobia. But what lies behind it is a genuine indignation at being cut off from the means for doing good.

Take two of the most familiar rallying cries of the populist right: hatred of the “cultural elite” and constant calls to “support our troops.” On the surface, it seems these would have nothing to do with each other. In fact, they are profoundly linked. It might seem strange that so many working-class Americans would resent that fraction of the 1 percent who work in the culture industry more than they do oil tycoons and HMO executives, but it actually represents a fairly realistic assessment of their situation: an air conditioner repairman from Nebraska is aware that while it is exceedingly unlikely that his child would ever become CEO of a large corporation, it could possibly happen; but it’s utterly unimaginable that she will ever become an international human rights lawyer or drama critic for The New York Times. Most obviously, if you wish to pursue a career that isn’t simply for the money—a career in the arts, in politics, social welfare, journalism, that is, a life dedicated to pursuing some value other than money, whether that be the pursuit of truth, beauty, charity—for the first year or two, your employers will simply refuse to pay you. As I myself discovered on graduating college, an impenetrable bastion of unpaid internships places any such careers permanently outside the reach of anyone who can’t fund several years’ free residence in a city like New York or San Francisco—which, most obviously, immediately eliminates any child of the working class. What this means in practice is that not only do the children of this (increasingly in-marrying, exclusive) class of sophisticates see most working-class Americans as so many knuckle-dragging cavemen, which is infuriating enough, but that they have developed a clever system to monopolize, for their own children, all lines of work where one can both earn a decent living and also pursue something selfless or noble. If an air conditioner repairman’s daughter does aspire to a career where she can serve some calling higher than herself, she really only has two realistic options: she can work for her local church, or she can join the army.

This was, I am convinced, the secret of the peculiar popular appeal of George W. Bush, a man born to one of the richest families in America: he talked, and acted, like a man that felt more comfortable around soldiers than professors. The militant anti-intellectualism of the populist right is more than merely a rejection of the authority of the professional-managerial class (who, for most working-class Americans, are more likely to have immediate power over their lives than CEOs), it’s also a protest against a class that they see as trying to monopolize for itself the means to live a life dedicated to anything other than material self-interest. Watching liberals express bewilderment that they thus seem to be acting against their own self-interest—by not accepting a few material scraps they are offered by Democratic candidates—presumably only makes matters worse.

David Graeber (2013), The Democracy Project: A History. A Crisis. A Movement., p123-125

Reason is no mere slave

“Human beings are not the perfectly rational creatures they would be if they strove for truth and consistency at all times. Nevertheless, if we can be motivated by a desire to eliminate inconsistency in our beliefs and actions, reason is no mere slave. We may use reason to enable us to satisfy our needs, but reason then develops its own motivating force”

Peter Singer (1981). The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, p. 143

On the epistemic costs of implicit bias

“…if you live in a society structured by racial categories that you disavow, either you must pay the epistemic cost of failing to encode certain sorts of base-rate or background information about cultural categories, or you must expend epistemic energy regulating the inevitable associations to which that information – encoded in ways to guarantee availability – gives rise”

Gendler, T. S. (2011). On the epistemic costs of implicit bias. Philosophical studies, 156(1), 33-63.

ur-quote on addiction and freewill

The craving for a drink in real dipsomaniacs, or for opium or chloral in those subjugated, is of a strength of which normal persons can form no conception. ‘Were a keg of rum in one corner of a room and were a cannon constantly discharging balls between me and it, I could not refrain from passing before that cannon in order to get the rum’; ‘If a bottle of brandy stood at one hand and the pit of hell yawned at the other, and I were convinced that I should be pushed in as sure as I took one glass, I could not refrain’: such statements abound in dipsomaniacs’ mouths.

William James, Principles of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1890), p. 543. Via Laurence. Thanks Laurence!

the extended self in interface design

As users become more familiar with an environment they situate themselves more profoundly. We believe that insights concerning the way agents become closely coupled with their environments have yet to be fully exploited in interface design

Hollan, J., Hutchins, E., & Kirsh, D. (2000). Distributed cognition: toward a new foundation for human-computer interaction research. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 7(2), 174-196.

Debt: The first 5,000 years

David Graeber traces a line from Roman property law, through Cartesian dualism and Hobbes’ state of nature, to the foundational myth of the free market:

At this point we can finally see what’s really at stake in our peculiar habit of defining ourselves simultaneously as master and slave, reduplicating the most brutal aspects of the ancient household in our very concept of ourselves, as masters of our freedoms, or as owners of our very selves. It is the only way that we can imagine ourselves as completely isolated beings. There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty – not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others, but as the kind of absolute power of “use and abuse” over the conquered chattel who make up the bulk of a wealthy Roman man’s household – to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith, about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, then have to decide whether to kill each other or begin to swap beaver pelts.

David Graeber (2011) ‘Debt: The First 5000 years’, p209-210.

Graeber uses an anthropologist’s view of history to argue that markets are brought into existence by the state, and particularly by an expansionist military state which wishes to force all social actors to be intermediaries in the war machine. By obliging everyone to accept state currency a state-coinage-slavery complex is created. This dynamic drives the creation of slaves, which are, by definition, people ripped from all social context. The collision of market economies with social economies (which are about interaction as much as obtaining goods) creates a moral dilemma which we can trace written in the texts of all the ancient religions (you’ll have to read the book for details). The dominant modes of human relation in historical time have been three: exchange, hierarchy and communism (not in the Marxist sense). The dominion of the exchange mode, and its perversion into being primarily market exchange, reduces the primacy of the other modes in the models of liberal/market thinkers, and so our conception of our selves (individually and politically) is contaminated by contradictory notions of debt and ownership (again, you’ll have to read the book). Ultimately this finds expression in a vision of ourselves as separate from our own bodies, and in the foundational myth of economics in which we markets come into being de novo among an asocial but equal status collection of isolates who can begin to trade to satisfy their wants.

It’s an extremely rich book, which is also very disorganised in its arguments. I’m still digesting what I’ve read so this is a poor summary. Most importantly for me, and separate from the specifics of the argument, the anthropological and historical material does the job of expanding our conception of what we and our society could be.

Pro-tip: on the final pages (p384-387) Graeber offers his own summary of the thesis of the book.

I hear new news every day

I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, &c., daily musters and preparations, and such like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights, peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances, are daily brought to our ears. New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion, &c. Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villanies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of Princes, new discoveries, expeditions; now comical then tragical matters. To-day we hear of new Lords and officers created, to-morrow of some great men deposed, and then again of fresh honours conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh: he thrives, his neighbour turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps &c. Thus I daily hear, and such like, both private and publick news. Amdist the gallantry and misery of the world: jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villany; subtlety, knavery, candour and integrity, mutually mixed and offering themselves, I rub on in a strictly private life.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (p.19)

By the same impure urgency

I have no explanation for my own vile ambitions. Confronted with your pus, I could not stop to examine my direction, whether or not I was aimed at a star. As I limped down the street every window broadcast a command: Change! Purify! Experiment! Cauterize! Reverse! Burn! Preserve! Teach! Believe me, Edith, I had to act, and act fast. That was my nature. Call me Dr. Frankenstein with a deadline. I seemed to wake up in the middle of a car accident, limbs strewn everywhere, detached voices screaming for comfort, severed fingers pointing homeward, all the debris withering like sliced cheese out of Cellophane – and all I had in the wrecked world was a needle and thread, so I got down on my knees, I pulled pieces out of the mess and I started to stitch them together. I had an idea of what a man should look like, but it kept changing. I couldn’t devote a lifetime to discovering the ideal physique. All I heard was pain, all I saw was mutilation. My needle going so madly, sometimes I found I’d run the thread right through my own flesh and I was joined to one of my own grotesque creations – I’d rip us apart – and then I heard my own voice howling with the others, and I knew that I was also truly part of the disaster. But I also realized that I was not the only one on my knees sewing frantically. There were others like me, making the same monstrous mistakes, driven by the same impure urgency, stitching themselves into the ruined heap, painfully extracting themselves

F., in Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers (1966), p.175

Psychology’s missing link

Affordance links perception to action, as it links a creature to its environment. It links both to cognition, because it relates to meaning. Mean­ing is in the world, as much as in the mind, because meaning involves the appropriateness of an organism’s actions to its surroundings

Eleanor Gibson, in Gibson, E. J. (1988). Exploratory behavior in the development of perceiving, acting, and the acquiring of knowledge. Annual review of psychology, 39(1), 1–42.

a site of struggle for control of the conditions of knowledge production

Whether in schools or in other public spheres, public intellectuals must struggle to create the conditions that enable students and others to become cultural producers who can rewrite their own experiences and perceptions by engaging with various texts, ideological positions, and theories. They must construct pedagogical relations in which students learn from each other, learn to theorize rather than simply ingest theories, and begin to address how to decenter the authoritarian power of the classroom. Students must also be given the opportunity to challenge disciplinary borders, create pluralized spaces from which hybridised identities might emerge, take up critically the relationship between language and experience, and appropriate knowledge as part of a broader effort at self-definition and ethical responsibility. What I am suggesting here is that public intellectuals move away from the rigid, ideological parameters of the debate about the curriculum or canon. What is needed is a new language for discussing knowledge and authority and the possibility of giving the students a role in deciding what is taught and how it is taught under specific circumstances. The question is not merely, who speaks and under what conditions? It is also about how to see universities (and public schools) as important sites of struggle over what is taught and for control of the conditions of knowledge production itself.

Giroux, H. A. (1997). Pedagogy and the politics of hope: Theory, culture, and schooling: a critical reader. WestviewPress (Boulder, Colo.), p263.