Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Bohm on Nilpotency and Quaternions

My interest in physics and its relation to phenomenology, education and sociology stemmed from my meeting Peter Rowlands at Liverpool University. This is unquestionably the most important thing that has happened to me in Liverpool (although I have done a lot of other stuff, including converting a few people to cybernetics!). But really we work and study in a University to mix with people from whom we learn new things and gain new insights which we wouldn't have otherwise gained. 

Peter's work is based on the mathematics which underpins physical law. It addresses fundamental problems which beset quantum mechanics and relativity theory, and addresses the relationship between classical mechanics and quantum mechanics (which is often seen as a radical paradigm shift - something which has done the social sciences no good, as people have jumped on to the "entanglement" bandwaggon). In Peter's arsenal of mathematical devices, two things stand out: the "nilpotent" - the idea of a mathematical entity which when raised to a power equals zero (it's like the square root of minus 1, but with zero). In Peter's universe, everything grows from nothing.

The other element is Hamilton's Quaternions. These are a 3-dimension complex number, which has the property of anti-commutativity: if i and j are elements of the quaternion, then i * j is not the same as j * i. This anti-commutative behaviour introduces powerful and complex symmetries, which when coupled with the nilpotent, arise from nothing. These ideas have changed me (and I noticed that Peirce was also interested in quaternions).

Now, I have been looking much more closely at physics and quantum mechanics more particularly. David Bohm is a fascinating figure because he connects physical theory with a theory of consciousness and communication. A coherent connection to learning and education isn't far behind, although Bohm didn't quite go there - but that's where I'm interested in going!

But Bohm was ahead of the game. In this passage, he seems to prefigure Peter Rowlands work:
We do not regard terms like 'particle', 'charge', 'mass', 'position', 'momentum', etc as having primary relevance in the algebraic language. Rather, at best, they will have to come out as high-level abstractions. [...] the real meaning of quantum algebra will then be that it is a mathematization of the general language, which enriches the latter and makes possible a more precisely articulated discussion of implicate order than is possible in terms of the general language alone. (p 163)
He then discusses some of the properties of the algebra, and hits on two of the key features which are also important in Rowland's work. The first is the nilpotent:
It is important to emphasise that the 'law of the whole' will not just be a transcription of current quantum theory to a new language. Rather, the entire context of physics (classical and quantum) will have to be assimilated in a different structure, in which space, time, matter, and movement are described in new ways. Such assimilation will then lead on to new avenues to be explored, which cannot even be thought about in terms of current theories. 
First, we recall that we begin with an undefinable total algebra and take out sub-algebras that are suitable for the description of certain contexts of physical research. Now, mathematicians have already worked out certain interesting and potentially relevant features of such sub-algebras.
Thus, consider a given sub-algebra A. Among its terms A(i), there may be some A(n) which are nilpotent, i.e., which have the property that some powers of A(n) (say A(n)^6) are zero. Among these, there is a subset of terms A(p) which are properly nilpotent, i.e. which remain nilpotent when multiplied by any term of the algebra A(i) (so that (A(i)A(p))^s = 0) (p. 169)
This is a slightly different take on the nilpotent from Rowlands: Bohm is saying that invariance in structure depends of the absence of what he calls proper nilpotency ("we should have an algebra that has no properly nilpotent terms" (p170)). Rowlands, by contrasts, sees invariance in terms of conservation, and that this is an aspect of the different dimensions associated with mass (a scalar), charge, space (vector), or time (imaginary scalar).

Bohm also addresses the use of quaternions:
It is significant that by mathematizing the general language in terms of an initially undefined and unspecifiable algebra, we arrive naturally at the sort of algebras used in current quantum theory for 'particles with spin', i.e. products of matrices and quaternions. [....] the quaternions imply invariance under a group of transformations similar to rotations in three-dimensional space. (p/170)
Why does this matter to education? It is because Bohm makes the connection between quantum mechanics and consciousness. His "implicate order" is nothing short of what we perceive in our emotional life minute by minute. Bohm's mechanics and his algebra gives us a technical way of thinking about questions of phenomenology as we reach for apprehension of the implicate order from analysing the explicate order. Education itself, and university particularly, deals ostensibly with issues of the explicate order (because they are ostensible), but it sits on an inner logic about which both Bohm and Rowlands have powerful things to say. That their techniques and approach are similar is not, I think, a coincidence. 

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

David Bohm on Music

I'm finding my current obsession with David Bohm quite mind-changing. His insights are profound. I have not been this affected by academic work since I discovered Alfred Schutz a few years ago.  The common denominator is that both Bohm and Schutz say some penetrating things about music. This is Bohm on music in Wholeness and the Implicate Order, pp198-200:
Consider what takes place when one is listening to music. At a given moment a certain note is being played but a number of the previous notes are still 'reverberating' in consciousness. Close attention will show that it is the simultaneous presence and activity  of all these reverberations that is responsible for the direct and immediately felt sense of movement, flow and continuity. To hear a set of notes so far apart in time that there is no such reverberation will destroy altogether the sense of a whole unbroken, living movement that gives meaning and force to what is heard. 
It is clear from the above that one does not experience the actuality of this whole movement by 'holding on' to the past, with the aid of a memory of the sequence of notes, and comparing this past with the present. Rather, as one can discover by further attention, the 'reverberations' that make such an experience possible are not memories but are rather active transformations of what came earlier, in which are to be found not only a generally diffused sense of the original sounds, with an intensity that falls off, according to the time elapsed since they were picked up by the ear, but also various emotional responses, bodily sensations, incipient muscular movements, and the evocation of a wide range of yet further meanings, often of great subtlety. One can thus obtain a direct sense of how a sequence of notes is enfolding into many levels of consciousness, and of how at any given moment, the transformations flowing out of many such enfolded notes interpenetrate and intermingle to give rise to an immediate and primary feeling of movement. 
This activity in consciousness evidently constitutes a striking parallel to the activity that we have proposed for the implicate order in general. Thus [...] we have given a model of an electron in which, at any instant, there is a co-present set of differently transformed ensembles which inter-penetrate and intermingle in their various degrees of enfoldment. In such enfoldment, there is a radical change, not only of form but also of structure, in the entire set of ensembles[...]. and yet, a certain totality of order in the ensembles remains invariant, in the sense that in all these changes a subtle but fundamental similarity of order is preserved. 
In the music, there is, as we have seen, a basically similar transformation (of notes) in which a certain order can also be seen to be preserved., The key difference in these two cases is that for our model of the electron an enfolded order is grasped in thought, as the presence together of many different but interrelated degrees of transformations of ensembles, while for the music, it is sensed immediately as the presence together of many different but inter-related degrees of transformations of tones and sounds. In the latter, there is a feeling of both tension and harmony between the various co-present transformations, and this feeling is indeed what is primary in the apprehension of the music in its undivided state of flowing movement. 
In listening to music, one is therefore directly perceiving an implicate order. Evidently, this order is active in the sense that it continually flows into emotional, physical and other responses, that are inseparable from the transformations out of which it is essentially constituted. 

Friday, 8 December 2017

The Dynamics of University Corruption

From reading the press today, one would be forgiven for thinking that all universities are corrupt fiefdoms, exploiting the young who are not of an age to know the full implications of the financial commitments they enter into, or the risk of getting very little in return for it. The focus on VC salary is important - some of these people have displayed an astonishing arrogance of superiority. But it's very important to look deeper.

The most penetrating critic of the present situation in Universities lived over 100 years ago, and saw in the American education system a manifestation of atavistic madness. Thorstein Veblen was right, but we have made no progress in untangling the mess created by what he called the "leisure class" and the capitalist system it lived in in assuaging its own ontological insecurity.

Ontological insecurity characterises the mindset of most of the university system today. Nobody - students, teachers, Vice-Chancellors - is comfortable to "be". Academics will often boast of how much more they could earn in industry: they have adopted "industrial" mentality - always thrusting, getting the next grant, recruiting the next bunch of gullible students.  When push comes to shove (and we've seen a lot of shoving!), University managers will hold a cosh over teachers saying "do what I say or you'll never work again": this effectively was the message given by a particular Vice-Chancellor during a stunt with staff involving the pro-Vice Chancellor counting out £10 notes in an attempt to demonstrate the financial woes of the institution. He was, of course, projecting his own fears.

University has been distorted. Vice Chancellors will still cite the lofty ideas of Newman, staking a claim to a more illustrious and thoughtful heritage. But it's either a manipulative lie as they parade their gold (or silver!) TEF rating, or a desperate attempt to quell the existential anxiety of marketised education with some mystical past glory. What they want to say is "Come and buy your certificates here!" (and keep me in the manner to which I've become accustomed).

Salaries are important in the sense that they enslave individuals to capitalism. The VC with the big salary will have a big mortgage, kids at private school, status in society, invitations to high-level political gatherings and a sense of self-importance. That's a lot to give up. When we explore the corruption of Universities, we have to explore the psychoanalysis of loss.

It doesn't just apply to the VC. It applies to the whole management team, and to many academics. The boast that "I could earn more in industry" is usually not true. In fact, it is usually not true that "I could earn more in a different University". So, in fact, it's "This job or we sell the house and the kids leave their schools" - unless such an individual has access to private means (which creates additional problems).

Now, in the senior management team, the degree of ontological insecurity is greater. Many of these people have risen to their position through naked ambition and a desire to please the boss, rather than through acting with integrity and honesty. Many of them will have done dirty work for the boss at some time in the past. Some will know dirty secrets and the boss wants to keep them close. Talent for the job is not a criterion for career advancement! What this all means is that they are committed to the success and happiness of the leader.

The astonishment that remuneration committees have approved eye-watering salaries becomes much more understandable when the collective and inter-dependent ontological insecurities of senior staff are taken into account. "I'll approve your £800k and I continue to get senior approval to stay in my job".

The other dimension to this is the network of ontological insecurity in the local community outside the university. The University has prestige coveted by local business people, leaders of the local council, the local football club, the leading law firms, etc. In each of these institutional structures, similar dynamics will play out, and for each of the people at the top of these structures, association with the University can similarly ameliorate the existential angst of modernity, whilst reinforcing their own positions. The Vice Chancellor has a powerful card up his or her sleeve: the "honorary degree". We should look to those recipients of this de-facto honours system (as if the proper one wasn't bad enough!). Those among them will be on advisory committees for the University, or advising on the latest corporate wheeze as the University uses student income to build some new facility (which will not benefit those who paid for it).

The scale of the problem and the nature of its dynamics are very complex. It is not down to a few rogue University Vice Chancellors (although they exist and thrive). It is not even down to governance: whatever new models of governance are invented, they will be corrupted in the same way. The problems are existential and organisational. Truth and Reconciliation is required - put the students shafted by the system in front of the Vice Chancellors who bought yachts with their money! But then we need to rethink how science and knowledge is preserved and developed in our society to save it from the disaster that Universities have become. 

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Intersubjective Foundation of Economic Confidence: Why Bitcoin will crash...

Simmel understood that money was a codification of inter-human relations - it codified expectation. Marx had a similar view. How the codification actually happens can vary. Money might be linked to the actual value of the precious and scarce metal in a coin. Equally, it might be linked to a promise made by an institution on a piece of paper issued by that institution (fiat money).

Codifying expectations is a way of establishing trust between humans, and that essentially means that communications can be made with some security that conversations can be managed by both parties, that irrational acts are unlikely, and that space exists for negotiation and manoeuvre if something goes wrong. The bank's promise acts in a similar way to the universal recognition of the value and scarcity of a diamond. One is a speech act (what Searle calls a "status function"), the other involves many other levels of description (aesthetics, etc) in addition to speech acts.

The context within which expectations are established is critical to the whole thing working. Technology is changing the context within which we deal with money, and the shared expectations it brings. First of all, the model of "flexible pricing", used by airlines, holiday booking sites, Uber and so forth, looks set to become more widespread. What this means is that the bank may promise to pay the bearer the sum of £5, but the exchange value of that £5 might depend on the time of day, the insurance group of the owner, and the extent to which the owner really wants to buy a particular thing. What might this do to codified expectations? Nobody knows yet.

At the same time, technology has been used to change the rules of fiat money. Bitcoin is fiat money with a difference: the promise to pay the bearer is not made by an institution, but the requisite trust for the currency is established through the way the algorithm works. In this shifting of parameters around fiat currency, some variables are overlooked which might render Bitcoin worthless. For example, banks are subject to political forces where Bitcoin isn't. Some see this as a strength of Bitcoin. I'm not so sure. Political forces themselves result from individuals grouping together for a common cause: in the face of catastrophic uncertainty, they look to each other for support, and organise themselves to change their environment. The best way of managing catastrophic uncertainty is to look into the eyes of another human being facing the same thing. This is the essence of trust, not a shared ledger.

Human trust is an intersubjective phenomenon. It may be mediated by objects: a coin, or a shared ledger are objects. But objects themselves merely illuminate the humans  who deal with them. It is through human engagement with objects that humans understand each other better. We may think that we trust the ledger, or the bitcoin, or even the £5 note. But this is to miss the point that it is each other that we really get to know better, and through this illuminated "getting to know" we establish trust.

The problem with hype - whether around Bitcoin, or around University (which is another bubble about to burst) - is that the codification of expectation it manufactures is only indirectly the result of a particular object. Like the Emperor's new clothes, trust finds a way of establishing itself with the removal of the object too.

Bitcoin has got no clothes on. The illumination it brings to our understanding of each other can be equally well-established by its absence, and as circumstances become more and more intense, the search for new ways of establishing human trust and the codification of expectation also intensifies. Indeed, if trust and intersubjectivity is what it's all about in the end, we may ultimately have little need for "shared objects" like money at all...


Monday, 4 December 2017

The Computer Programmer's Superego and Mental Illness

The second book of Ehrenzweig's Hidden Order of Art makes reference to imagery in Frazer's Golden Bough and relates it to Freudian interpretation. It's a move of some brilliance because it presents the primeval mythological forces that all art draws on and relates them to an understanding of therapy and conscious life. He begins chapter 13 by making a bold statement about the role of the superego over the ego:
The exact role of the superego's aggression in creative work will probably be fully understood only when we have found out more about its role in causing mental illness. In many ways creativity and mental illness are opposite sides of the same coin. The blocking of creativity through ego rigidity is apt to unleash the self-destructive fury of the superego, which is otherwise absorbed and neutralized by the periodic decomposition of the ego during creativity. An increased measure of the superego's oral and anal aggression against the ego is utilized for deepening the normally shallow oscillation of the ego as it swings down to less differentiated levels. 
When Ehrenzweig uses Freudian terminology like "oral" and "anal" aggression, he is referring to processes of attenuation and assertion of distinctions. Sometimes the superego breaks down the distinctions of the ego and drives them into the unconscious: Ehrenzweig calls this "anal scattering", after the anal stage of development where the child doesn't control their bowel movements. Alternatively, the superego can cause rigidity in the ego by becoming authoritarian in the distinctions that are made: Ehrenzweig calls this "containment". Deeper delving into the unconscious "undifferentiated levels" (the primary process) occurs through a process of generating and enforcing new distinctions: scattering melts things down, containment gathers things up. New distinctions drill deeper into the undifferentiated levels, drawing up new material for the conscious mind to work on. He continues:
The superego's anal scattering attacks drive the ego inexorably towards an extreme oceanic depth until the process of dedifferentiation even suspends the distinction between ego and superego. Then the ego can shake itself free from the superego's aggression. 

This is the creative struggle which all artists and scientists must deal with. Insanity, Ehrenzweig argues, "may be creativity gone wrong" (Ch.15, p257).

Since I've been doing a lot of computer programming recently, I'm asking myself where computer programming sits in this creative process. Is it creative in the same way that Picasso was creative? Does it probe the oceanic depths of consciousness and bring forth new distinctions? In much recent writing about creativity, the consensus seems to be that creativity in software is the same as creativity in art; the designs of Apple Corp are creative in the same way that Jackson Pollock was. Coupled with this question is a question about why I personally have found it so difficult to compose music using technology (which I will write about in a later post, inspired by Marion Milner's "On being unable to Paint").

The deep question in this stuff is "where do distinctions come from?". In forms of activity like computer programming, distinctions are normatively defined: the syntax of a langauge, the right way of doing something, the threats of doing it wrong, and so on. Are the normative distinctions of code the same as the affordances of paint, or the properties of sound?

I don't think they are. The difference, I believe, has to do with singularity and multiplicity of distinction. A sound comprises many distinctions (many frequencies, for example); paint has many properties including viscosity, colour, luminosity, and so on. In the logic of code, syntax is syntax - formally defined in the rulebook of the language: there is not multiplicity at a deep level, and there is not flexibility for redefining it. All great painting redefines paint at some level or other. In Ehrenzweig's language, the material is scattered, dedifferentiated, and then contained and reconstructed.

It is possible to code like this, but it is not what most people would take to be computer programming. It is the difference between the sculptor working with metal girders to create some new edifice, and the architect working with girders to create a bridge which won't fall down.

The superego of the computer programmer is the compiler + the expectation of the customer. Both of these are containing forces, and their pressure causes a rigidity of the ego. I find myself, when I am subject to these forces and writing code, that my creative spirit dries up. It's interesting to reflect that much of education - even creative education - has this same dessicating effect. The result is mental anxiety and stress which we've learnt to put down to modern life, but which is really a symptom of ego dissociation and madness.

Could we escape this? Could our manipulation of symbols be a scattering as well as a containing? I'm beginning to see this as a very important question regard the human relationship with technology. 

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Psychoanalysis of Institutional Madness

So, Glynis Breakwell has gone (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-42152743). The arrogance of superiority finally got her. How many others now, I wonder? I suspect other VCs, including my favourite - George Holmes at the University of Bolton - will be glad that the axe has fallen, blood has been spilled, and hopefully the whole "What the fuck are you paid?" thing dissipates. It won't. The reason is because it's not about money, or even about corruption: it's about hierarchy. Inflated salaries and corruption (of which there are both) are symptoms of hierarchy and the pathology whereby hierarchies are seeking to reinforce themselves in an environment which is ever-more ruled by uncertainty and ambiguity.

I've become more interested in this on a psychoanalytic level. Freudian language gave us the idea of "anal retention", and basically, this is what we see from all those at the top of institutions. They are so bound by "rules" and "prescriptions" - what Freud calls the domination of the superego over the ego, that they are afraid of expressing themselves freely - just as the child who is chided for shitting inconveniently will seek to withhold their bowel movements. This has another effect too - the anal retentive will find other, more sinister ways of expressing their libidinous instinct. Harvey Weinstein was the top of a hierarchy, he was anally retentive and his sexual predation was driven by a need to descend to the unconscious and dark level to expel all the shit that had been building up. I'm wondering if this isn't going on in all hierarchies.

Hierarchy is a fossil of human organisation. It was an established social structure which could deal with the uncertainties of life. It was formed against a context of communication which was largely restricted: before print (and what a difference print made!) hierarchy served as a route for society to manage its uncertainty through institutions like the church, government and the universities. Alongside it went deference, the law, torture, and military power.

Technology has given us untrammelled growth in uncertainty. Hierarchies are tied to a pathological positive feedback mechanism: they use technologies to help to manage uncertainty, but in doing so feed the uncertainty which they attempt to deal with.

Stafford Beer, in Platform for Change, has some fascinating diagrams. They are all tripartite: there is an institution, or a thing-with-identity, there is uncertainty arising from that thing-with-identity, and there is a function which seeks to manage the uncertainty. It looks like this (these are my versions). So religion might look like:
 But then I was thinking how similar this looks to the relation between the Ego, the Id and the Superego in Freud:
Where does Beer go with this? Well, he says that the metasystem is pathological: the superego eats the ego (as Freud says), and the Catechism rules the religion. How do we solve this? We need a new metalanguage. 

For a psychotherapy, I was wondering what the metasystem might be. I have come up with something like this:
I might add "Metalanguage of global consciousness and creativity."... Ehrenzweig's "Hidden order of art" is taking on a new significance for me.



Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Empirical Phenomenology

How much time do we spend staring at oblongs? As I'm writing this, I am staring at an oblong - a black border with lights in the middle. When I look at my phone, its the same thing - and in fact, the extent to which the oblong fills my field of view is roughly the same, since I hold the phone closer to me. Do we know what prolonged oblong exposure does to people?

I asked my 17 year old daughter. She said, "but you look at windows, you don't worry about that.." I said, "I never look at windows. I look through them. It's different".

We have amazing technologies for exploring the phenomenology of perception in a way which can be far more precise than anything that was available to phenomenological theorists of the early 20th century. We should be using these technologies. I'm interested in how the synchronic and diachronic aspects of visual perception can be studied using spectographic analysis of visual perception, audio perception and haptics.
Plotting the entropies of the dimensions of experience reveals patterns in their inter-relationships: the graph above looks like a kind of counterpoint to me. This is part of an analysis of one of Vi Hart's videos (this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahXIMUkSXX0). Perception is contrapuntal, and I think the counterpoint is quite explicit in Vi Hart's work. But watching her video is still staring at an oblong...

So if we spend all our time staring at oblongs then we're doing something to the counterpoint of perception. It would be like having a kind of drone going on in the background. Something fixed and insistent upon which any other 'dancing' takes place. If it was a real drone, I think eventually we would get tired of it and want it to change. But we can't seem to escape our oblongs!