Star Wars on Trial – A Feudalistic Fantasia Pushing an Elitist Anti-Democratic Agenda

The Star Wars movie series has been the mainstay of imaginative fiction for children and adults since the mid 70s – many saw it as the gold standard of science fiction. When I was a child I used to collect all sorts of Star Wars paraphernalia – figures of some of the characters, tie & x-wing fighters, and cards that came with bubble gum.  Meeting David Brin at a science fiction conference in Los Angeles in 2012 (see resulting interview), and coming across a book he co-edited Star Wars on Trial rooted in an infamous Salon article made me think twice about some of the messages that the Star Wars franchise has so far conveyed.  I thought it was a good time to ask David Brin his thoughts on the topic – here is the resulting interview.
– foreword by Adam Ford.

Interview with David Brin

Adam Ford: What did Yoda mean when he said “Do or do not. There is no try.”?

David Brin: That was just some faux-eastern-mystical gobbledygook that George Lucas insisted upon, amid the otherwise excellent screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, penned by Leigh Brackett and Laurence Kasden… the one time that George Lucas showed real wisdom and hired experts to do what he clearly cannot.  Write.

In fact though, can you name one thing that evil green oven mitt — Yoda — ever says that is verifiably right and wise and the truth?  A less “wise” character would be hard to find and no character across all of storytelling history wrought as much death as this nasty creature.

“There is no try”?  Bull!  Trying is how human beings learn. You have a stab at something.  You look at the resulting mess.  You send brain signals reinforcing the actions that had good results and gradually repressing those that failed. It is how we improve and become people who are capable of gymnastic gold medals, or astronauting through space, or writing dialogue that actually makes sense.


AF: You mention that George Lucas “has spent the last 20 years relentlessly pissing in modernity’s face, preaching Romantic claptrap about how demigods and mystic warriors are better than democracy.”

DB: JRR Tolkien had a grievance against modernity, but he came by it honestly, at the Battle of the Somme, watching the flower of his generation mowed down by modern implements of death.  He saw what coal dust did to the buildings and lungs of London Town.  The Lord of the Rings rails against modernity — painting it as a tool of Mordor — while extolling the elfish demigods and mystic chosen-one warriors of Numenor.  And it’s great stuff!  We are on opposite sides of this argument.  But Tolkien is very good and makes his case in a gorgeous story.

In contrast, George Lucas was given everything by modernity… health and fun and riches and all the tools he needed for his dream – to direct movies — to come true.  Modernity provides the brilliant artists whom he hires by the bushel-load.  When he rails against modernity – along with democracy and science and the hopeful possibilities of the common woman or man – he is simply being an ingrate.


AF: You mentioned in an article at that the message George Lucas puts across in Star Wars is : “True leaders are born. It’s genetic. The right to rule is inherited. Justified human emotions can turn a good person evil.”

DB: That’s romanticism, in a nutshell. But it went beyond forbearance with the apotheosis of Darth Vader.  The notion that a killer of billions should be forgiven because he saves the life of his own son? Or that Luke was ever in any danger of becoming “evil” just because he got a little angry?  Oh my.

“I never cared for the whole Nietzschian Ubermensch thing: the notion — pervading a great many myths and legends — that a good yarn has to be about demigods who are bigger, badder and better than normal folk by several orders of magnitude…. wherever you witness slanlike superbeings deciding the fate of billions without ever pausing to consider their wishes.”David Brin -



AF: Would George Lucas, or anyone for that matter, be a good benign dictator – (by good I mean successfully benign)?  If so, how do you pick a correct one?
DB: We all daydream about what laws we would command, if we got to be king.  I am no exception.  Moreover I admit there have sometimes been good kings.  Only look at what happened when their sons took charge.  It took a special kind of maturity for George Washington and his band of geniuses to say: “Let us limit our own power. Instead, we’ll ask the people to argue and negotiate with each other.”

The result is noisy, messy, frustrating… and so vastly better and more just and more productive than the preceding 6000 boring years of brutal, nasty feudalism.  We are in a revolution.  It is ongoing.  And science fiction is the one form of literature that says: “look, we can spot mistakes!  We can criticize and maybe cooperate.  Look at how far we’ve come.  Maybe – just maybe – we can go farther.”


AF: You mention “Romanticism is an enemy meme. I think it is deeply contrary to the Enlightenment, and deeply harmful.”  – while I like some of the beautiful portrayals, narratives in some art, Rousseau writes wonderfully  – it’s the implementation that in the real world that bothers me.
DB: Romanticism can be spectacularly beautiful! As I said, it was the core mythic system across most cultures.  But its dark side is promoting endlessly the form of governance that filled those cultures.  Feudalism — kings and the priests who pushed kingliness as the best thing.

We are revolutionaries, no less than Washington and Franklin! We can find a way to have the adventure and fun of fantasy without the relentlessly and tediously repeated lessons: that only annointed ones can rule… and that everything must stay the same.


AF: What do you see are the main differences between Fantasy and Scifi? Why are people attracted one more than the other?
DB: Fantasy is the Mother Genre. Until about 1700, nearly all literature and storytelling, in nearly all cultures, contained elements of the fantastic — demigod heroes who confronted monsters or whole armies, for example. Only with Thackery and Defoe and Balzac and so on did we start to get a very recent fixation on the narrow “here and now.” Both fantasy and science fiction break out of the myopic constraint, positing that things might be different than they are, elsewhere and elsewhen… or else right before our eyes.

The difference between these two cousin genres is not – fundamentally – about science and machines versus magic and dragons. Tales like Star Wars seem to revolve around techno wonders like starships and lasers, but the plots and characters and assumptions that weave through that fictional universe are all those of a fantasy tale.

Powerful wizards and kings and chosen-one heroes are the figures who matter. Normal people only get to choose which ubermensch mutant-superman demigod they’ll carry a spear for.

Not once does a single democratic institution actually function, or even do anything much, at all.

The inherent notion underlying fantasy is romanticism. Feudalism is the natural social order. A hero may fight for one prince over another, but there will be wizards and kings and nothing about that will ever change. In this respect, Star Wars is very similar (though much lower in quality) to the romantic fantasies of Tolkien.
The fundamental premise of good science fiction is inherently different. Things may change — even basic things like the kind of government or how children are raised or what gender roles might be like. A hero isn’t someone who puts the nicer prince on the throne, but someone who empowers ten million kids to lift their gaze and say: “this might all be different.”
AF: What are your hopes for the next three episodes?
DB: That JJ Abrams and his peers actually read Star Wars on Trial. Even if you are a defender of Lucas’s saga, you’d surely want to see the final trilogy avoid earlier mistakes, delivering what we got in The Empire Strikes Back — entertainment and thrills that are also thoughtful and thought provoking and that encourage us to feel that we all might be heroes in a civilization that deserves the name.

Star Wars on Trial: The Force Awakens Edition: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Debate the Most Popular Science Fiction Films of All Time

Star Wars on TrialStar Wars on Trial on Amazon!
“Order in the Court!

Star Wars: the most significant, powerful myth of the twenty-first century or morally bankrupt military fantasy?

Six films. Countless books. $20 billion in revenue. No one can question the financial value or cultural impact of the Star Wars film franchise. But has the impact been for the good?

In Star Wars on Trial’s courtroom—Droid Judge presiding—Star Wars stands accused of elitist politics and sexism, religious and ethical lapses, the destruction of literary science fiction and science fiction film, and numerous plot holes and logical gaps.

Supported by a witness list of bestselling science fiction authors, David Brin (for the prosecution) and Matthew Woodring Stover (for the defense) debate these charges and more before delivering their closing statements.

The verdict? That’s up to you.

The release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the perfect time to look back at George Lucas’ crimes, and new forewords by Brin and Stover discuss the newest generation of Star Wars films and what JJ Abrams must do to live up to—or redeem—the franchise.”











Biography of David Brin

Brin at an Association of Computing Machinery conference in 2005

David Brin is a scientist, speaker, technical consultant and world-known author. His novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages.

His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and near-future trends such as the World Wide Web. His 2012 novel Existence extends this type of daring, near future extrapolation by exploring bio-engineering, intelligence and how to maintain an open-creative civilization.

A 1998 movie, directed by Kevin Costner, was loosely based on The Postman.

Brin serves on advisory committees dealing with subjects as diverse as national defense and homeland security, astronomy and space exploration, SETI and nanotechnology, future/prediction and philanthropy. He has served since 2010 on the council of external advisers for NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group (NIAC), which supports the most inventive and potentially ground-breaking new endeavors.

Read more here


Was Friedrich Nietzsche a Transhumanist? A critique by David Pearce

Bioconservatives often quote a line from Nietzsche: “That which does not crush me makes me stronger.” But alas pain often does crush people: physically, emotionally, morally. Chronic, uncontrolled pain tends to make the victim tired, depressed and weaker. True, some people are relatively resistant to physical distress. For example, high testosterone function may make someone “tougher”, more “manly”, more resilient, and more able to deal with physically painful stimuli. But such strength doesn’t necessarily make the subject more empathetic or a better person. Indeed, if I may quote W. Somerset Maugham, “It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”

To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not – that one endures.Friedrich Nietzsche - The Will to Power, p 481
You want, if possible – and there is no more insane “if possible” – to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it – that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible – that makes his destruction desirable. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?Friedrich Nietzsche - Beyond Good and Evil, p 225
“I do not point to the evil and pain of existence with the finger of reproach, but rather entertain the hope that life may one day become more evil and more full of suffering than it has ever been.Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Of course, suffering doesn’t always enfeeble and embitter. By analogy, someone who is emotionally depressed may feel that despair is the only appropriate response to the horrors of the world. But the solution to the horrors of the world is not for us all to become depressed. Rather it’s to tackle the biology of depression. Likewise, the solution to the horrors of physical pain is not to flagellate ourselves in sympathy with the afflicted. Instead it’s to tackle the biological roots of suffering.

See also the article at IEET

i09 article on eliminating suffering

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Automating Science: Panel – Stephen Ames, John Wilkins, Greg Restall, Kevin Korb

A discussion among philosophers, mathematicians and AI experts on whether science can be automated, what it means to automate science, and the implications of automating science – including discussion on the technological singularity.

– implementing science in a computer – Bayesian methods – most promising normative standard for doing inductive inference
– vehicle : causal Bayesian networks – probability distributions over random variables showing causal relationships
– probabilifying relationships – tests whose evidence can raise the probability

05:23 does Bayesianism misrepresent the majority of what people do in science?

07:05 How to automate the generation of new hypotheses?
– Is there a clean dividing line between discovery and justification? (Popper’s view on the difference between the context of discovery and context of justification) Sure we discuss the difference between the concepts – but what is the difference between the implementation?

08:42 Automation of Science from beginning to end: concept formation, discovery of hypotheses, developing experiments, testing hypotheses, making inferences … hypotheses testing has been done – through concept formation is an interestingly difficult problem

Panel---Automating-Science-and-Artificial-Intelligence---Kevin-Korb,-Greg-Restall,-John-Wilkins,-Stephen-Ames-1920x10839:38 – does everyone on the panel agree that automation of science is possible? Stephen Ames: not yet, but the goal is imminent, until it’s done it’s an open question – Kevin/John: logically possible, question is will we do it – Greg Restall: Don’t know, can there be one formal system that can generate anything classed as science? A degree of open-endedness may be required, the system will need to represent itself etc (Godel!=mysticism, automation!=representing something in a formal deductive theory)

13:04 There is a Godel theorem that applies to a formal representation for automating science – that means that the formal representation can’t do everything – therefore what’s the scope of a formal system that can automate science? What will the formal representation and automated science implementation look like?

14:20 Going beyond formal representations to automate science (John Searle objects to AI on the basis of formal representations not being universal problem solvers)

15:45 Abductive inference (inference to the best explanation) – & Popper’s pessimism about a logic of discovery has no foundation – where does it come from? Calling it logic (if logic means deduction) is misleading perhaps – abduction is not deductive, but it can be formalised.

17:10 Some classified systems fall out of neural networks or clustering programs – Google’s concept of a cat is not deductive (IFAIK)

19:29 Map & territory – Turing Test – ‘if you can’t tell the difference between the model and the real system – then in practice there is no difference’ – the behavioural test is probably a pretty good one for intelligence

22:03 Discussion on IBM Watson on Jeopardy – a lot of natural language processing but not natural language generation

24:09 Bayesianism – in mathematics and in humans reasoning probabilistically – it introduced the concept of not seeing everything in black and white. People get statistical problems wrong often when they are asked to answer intuitively. Is the technology likely to have a broad impact?

26:26 Human thinking, subjective statistical reasoning – and the mismatch between the public communicative act often sounding like Boolean logic – a mismatch between our internal representation and the tools we have for externally representing likelihoods
29:08 Low hanging fruit in human communication probabilistic reasoning – Bayesian nets and argument maps (Bayesian nets strengths between premises and conclusions)

29:41 Human inquiry, wondering and asking questions – how do we automate asking questions (as distinct from making statements)? Scientific abduction is connected to asking questions – there is no reason why asking questions can’t be automated – there is contrasted explanations and conceptual space theory where you can characterise a question – causal explanation using causal Bayesian networks (and when proposing an explanation it must be supported some explanatory context)

32:29 Automating Philosophy – if you can automate science you can automate philosophy –

34:02 Stanford Computational Metaphysics project (colleagues with Greg Restall) – Stanford Computational Metaphysics project – formalization of representations of relationships between concepts – going back to Leibniz – complex notions can be boiled down to simpler primitive notions and grinding out these primitive notions computationally – they are making genuine discoveries
Weak Reading: can some philosophy be automated – yes
Strong Reading of q: can All of philosophy be automated? – there seem to be some things that count as philosophy that don’t look like they will be automated in the next 10 years

35:41 If what we’re is interested in is to represent and automate the production of reasoning formally (not only to evaluate), as long as the domain is such that we are making claims and we are interested in the inferential connections between the claims, then a lot of the properties of reasoning are subject matter agnostic.

36:46 (Rohan McLeod) Regarding Creationism is it better to think of it as a poor hypothesis or non-science? – not an exclusive disjunct, can start as a poor hypothesis and later become not-science or science – it depends on the stage at the time – science rules things out of contention – and at some point creationism had not been ruled out

38:16 (Rohan McLeod) Is economics a science or does it have the potential to be (or is it intrinsically not possible for it to be a science) and why?
Are there value judgements in science? And if there are how do you falsify a hypothesis that conveys a value judgement? physicists make value judgements on hypothesis “h1 is good, h2 is bad” – economics may have reducible normative components but physics doesn’t (electrons aren’t the kinds of things that economies are) – Michael ??? paper on value judgements – “there is no such thing as a factual judgement that does not involve value” – while there are normative components to economics, it is studied from at least one remove – problem is economists try to make normative judgements like “a good economy/market/corporation will do X”

42:22 Problems with economics – incredibly complex, it’s hard to model, without a model exists a vacuum that gets filled with ideology – (are ideologies normative?)

42:56 One of the problems with economics is it gets treated like a natural system (in physics or chemistry) which hides all the values which are getting smuggled in – commitments and values which are operative and contribute to the configuration of the system – a contention is whether economics should be a science (Kevin: Yes, Stephen: No) – perhaps economics could be called a nascent science (in the process of being born)

44:28 (James Fodor) Well known scientists have thought that their theories were implicit in nature before they found them – what’s the role of intuition in automating science & philosophy? – need intuitions to drive things forward – intuition in the abduction area – to drive inspiration for generating hypothesis – though a lot of what get’s called intuition is really the unconscious processing of a trained mind (an experienced driver doesn’t have to process how to drive a car) – Louis Pasteur’s prepared mind – trained prior probabilities

46:55 The Singularity – disagreement? John Wilkins suspects it’s not physically possible – Where does Moore’s Law (or its equivalents in other hardware paradigms) peter out? The software problem could be solved near or far. Kevin agrees with I.J. Good – recursively improving abilities without (obvious) end (within thermodynamic limits). Kevin Korb explains the intelligence explosion.

50:31 Stephen Ames discusses his view of the singularity – but disagrees with uploading on the grounds of needing to commit to philosophical naturalism

51:52 Greg Restall mistrusts IT corporations to get uploading right – Kevin expresses concerns about using star-trek transporters – the lack of physical continuity. Greg discusses theories of intelligence – planes fly as do birds, but planes are not birds – they are differing

54:07 John Wilkins – way too much emphasis is put on propositional knowledge and communication in describing intelligence – each human has roughly the same amount of processing power – too much rests on academic pretense and conceit.

54:57 The Harvard Rule – under conditions of consistent lighting, feeding etc – the organism will do as it damn well pleases. But biology will defeat simple models.. Also Hulls rule – no matter what the law in biology is there is an exception (inc Hull’s law) – so simulated biology may be difficult. We won’t simulate an entire organism – we can’t simulate a cell. Kevin objects

58:30 Greg R. says simulations and models do give us useful information – even if we isolate certain properties in simulation that are not isolated in the real world – John Wilkins suggests that there will be a point where it works until it doesn’t

1:00:08 One of the biggest differences between humans and mice is 40 million years of evolution in both directions – the problem is in evo biol is your inductive projectability – we’ve observed it in these cases, therefore we expect it in this – it fades out relatively rapidly in direct disproportion to the degree of relatedness

1:01:35 Colin Kline – PSYCHE – and other AI programs making discoveries – David Chalmers have proposed the Hard Problem of Consciousness – pZombies – but we are all pZombies, so we will develop systems that are conscious because there is to such thing as consciousness. Kevin is with Dennet – info processing functioning is what consciousness supervenes upon
Greg – concept formation in systems like PSYCHE – but this milestone might be very early in the development of what we think of as agency – if the machine is worried about being turned off or complains about getting board, then we are onto something

Utopias in Fiction and Future – Cory Doctorow

Interview with Cory Doctorow on Utopias by Adam Ford
00:11 Kim Stanley Robinson is absolutely my favorite utopian because he depicts in his utopias not worlds where all problems have been solved, but worlds in which the collective and action problem – of how we get along while we solve problems – has been in large part solved. He writes worlds in not where there has been no disaster, but in which disaster has been attended by kindness, conscientiousness and a sense of shared human destiny as opposed to greed and fear and a sense of individual destiny – that kind of Mad Max future where the only way to survive is at the expense of everyone else. And that to me is the genuinely optimistic prediction – because we live in a dynamic universe right? Whatever works today will no longer work tomorrow because something will have changed by tomorrow – and so the important thing isn’t whether all the circumstances are good – the important thing is what happens when the circumstances are poor – it’s not how well the system works, it’s what happens when it fails that distinguishes a utopia from a dystopia.

Cory Doctorow - Utopias in Fiction and Future01:21 So you take Stan Robinson and a book like 2312 – that’s a book that has futures that are every bit as grim as ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy – but the reason that Stan’s book is a utopia and McCarthy’s book is a dystopia is that McCarthy visits upon the human race the slander that when the lights go out people go over to their neighbours house and kill them and eat them – literally in the case of McCarthy – and Robinson aspires to a future that when the lights go out people go over to their neighbours housea and see how they can help – you know – that when the power fails people open their freezers and barbecue everything inside them – because it’s going to thore out anyways – and share it with their neighbours.

02:06 And you know, books like ‘Paradise Made in Hell’ by Rebecca Solnit document systematically how in times of disaster we have a narrative – especially those of us at a distance – that is both racialized and tinged with class anxiety about poor people acting in a barbaric way and visiting upon the rich, you know, a kind of vengeance for inequality – but that when you actually look upon the ground, that apart from elites who are gripped in a panic of their own making about this coming vengeance – this sense, I guess, of a kind of retributive guilt, you know, they having lived so high off the hog for so many years in the midst of people with nothing, that surely vengeance must be soon. But actual normal people just kind of help each other out – and that where you see horrific violence, it is almost always the fault of an anticipatory pre-emptive violence against everyday people on the grounds that they must be on the verge of breaking loose into barbarism – the pre-emptive shooting of looters, that sort of thing.

03:26 Looting in times of existential disaster is really just liberating of supplies. And literally in the case of Hurricane Katrina CNN aired footage of white people breaking into chemist shops and taking medicine, water and food – and describing it as ‘commandeering’ – and black people doing the same things and describing it as ‘looting’. So that elite panic is one of the most horrific narratives we have, and is itself a source of unimaginable suffering in times of crisis. And so utopianism is not just important as a way of thinking about the human race but as countervailing force to that narrative as a way of keeping people from assuming that their neighbours are going to come over and eat them so going over and preemptively shooting their neighbours before it happens.

It’s not how well the system works, it’s what happens when it fails that distinguishes a Utopia from a DystopiaCory Doctorow

– Thanks to Andrew Dun who helped film
Cory Doctorow wrote an interesting review that is very relevant to this interview: ‘Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312: a novel that hints at what we might someday have (and lose)


Cory Efram Doctorow is a Canadian-British blogger, journalist, and science fiction author who serves as co-editor of the weblog Boing Boing. He is an activist in favour of liberalising copyright laws and a proponent of the Creative Commons organization, using some of their licenses for his books. Some common themes of his work include digital rights management, file sharing, and post-scarcity economics.

Doctorow began selling fiction when he was 17 years old and sold several stories followed by publication of his story “Craphound” in 1998.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Doctorow’s first novel, was published in January 2003, and was the first novel released under one of the Creative Commons licences, allowing readers to circulate the electronic edition as long as they neither made money from it nor used it to create derived works. The electronic edition was released simultaneously with the print edition. In March 2003, it was re-released with a different Creative Commons licence that allowed derivative works such as fan fiction, but still prohibited commercial usage. It was nominated for a Nebula Award, and won the Locus Award for Best First Novel in 2004. A semi-sequel short story named Truncat was published on in August 2003.

Doctorow’s other novels have been released with Creative Commons licences that allow derived works and prohibit commercial usage, and he has used the model of making digital versions available, without charge, at the same time that print versions are published.

His Sunburst Award-winning short story collection A Place So Foreign and Eight More was also published in 2004: “0wnz0red” from this collection was nominated for the 2004 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.

Doctorow released the bestselling novel Little Brother in 2008 with a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike licence. It was nominated for a 2009 Hugo Award, and won the 2009 Prometheus Award, Sunburst Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

His novel Makers was released in October 2009, and was serialized for free on the Tor Books website.

Doctorow released another young adult novel, For The Win, in May 2010. The novel is available free on the author’s website as a Creative Commons download, and is also published in traditional paper format by Tor Books. The book concerns massively multiplayer online role-playing games.

Doctorow’s short story collection “With a Little Help” was released in printed format on May 3, 2011. It is a project to demonstrate the profitability of Doctorow’s method of releasing his books in print and subsequently for free under Creative Commons.

In September 2012, Doctorow released The Rapture of the Nerds, a novel written in collaboration with Charles Stross. In February 2013, Doctorow released Homeland, the sequel to his novel Little Brother.

Doctorow’s young adult novel, Pirate Cinema, was released in October 2012, and won the 2013 Prometheus Award.

Science, Technology & the Future

Science vs Pseudoscience – Kevin Korb

Science vs PseuodoscienceScience has a certain common core, especially a reliance on empirical methods of assessing hypotheses. Pseudosciences have little in common but their negation: they are not science.
They reject meaningful empirical assessment in some way or another. Popper proposed a clear demarcation criterion for Science v Rubbish: Falsifiability. However, his criterion has not stood the test of time. There are no definitive arguments against any pseudoscience, any more than against extreme skepticism in general, but there are clear indicators of phoniness.


Science v Non-science – What’s the point? Possible goals for distinguishing btw them: Rhetorical, Political, Social Methodological: aiming at identifying methodolgical virtues and vices; improving practice How to proceed? Traditional: propose and test necessary and sufficient conditions for being science Less ambitious: collect prominent characteristics that support a “family resemblance”

What is Science?

Science is something like the organized (social, intersubjective) attempt to acquire knowledge about the world through interacting with the world. In the Western tradition, this began with the pre-Socratic philosophers and is especially associated with Aristotle.

science-pseudoscienceNature of Science Science contrasts to: Learning: individuals learn about the world. Their brains are wired for that. Mathematics/deduction: a handmaid to science, but powerless to teach us about the world on its own. Dogma, ideology, faith: These may be crucial to driving even scientific projects forward (as are good meals, sleep, etc.), but as they are by definition not tested by evidence, they are not themselves science.

A Potted History of the Philosophy of Science

Wissenschaftsphilosophie – The Vienna Circle Early 20th Century Scientific Major Success Stories: Charles Darwin (evolutionary biology) Gottlob Frege (formal logic) Albert Einstein (physics) The sciences were showing themselves as the most successful human project ever undertaken. In Vienna a group of great philosophers asked themselves: Why? How did this happen? With the Vienna Circle philosophy of science became a discipline, attempting to answer these questions.

The Vienna Circle & Logical Positivism : The beginning was the appointment of Ernst Mach as Professor of the Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences at the University of Vienna, 1895. Thereafter, Mortiz Schlick founded the Vienna Circle (and Logical Positivism) in 1922. Through the helpful activities of Adolf Hitler, the leading philosophers of science introduced the Vienna Circles ideas throughout the English speaking world.
Vienna Circle Ernst Mach Moritz Schlick Rudolf Carnap Hans Reichenbach Karl Popper Paul Feyerabend Noretta Koertge Positivismus Falsifikationismus Anarchismus
The Vienna Circle Basic Principles: Philosophy as logical analysis The logical foundation of science lies in observation & experiment e.g., Rudolf Carnap’s 1928 title: The Logical Construction of the World!! Key: Verifiability Criterion of Meaning What cannot be proven empirically, is meaningless. E.g., metaphysics, religion, superstition. {h, b e1, . . . en; e1, . . . en} verifies h
Karl Popper Objects Many scientific hypotheses are universal: E.g., light always bends near large masses. But {h, b e1, . . . e∞; e1, . . . e∞} is not even a possible state of affairs Aside from that, metaphysics is an ineliminable part of science; all science has fundamental presuppositions.
Karl Popper Falsificationism Key: Demarcation criterion for science What cannot be falsified empirically, is unscientific. E.g., Marxism, religion, psychoanalysis. {h, b e, ¬e} falsifies h Theses: We can make scientific (or social) progress alternating between Bold Conjectures and Refutations. The ideal test (severe test) is guaranteed to falsify one of two (or more) alternative conjectures. Progress: refuting more and more theories; not accumulating more and more knowledge.
Imre Lakatos Sophisticated Falsificationism {h, b e, ¬e} falsifies (h&b) Hypotheses stand or fall in networks, networked to each other and to theories of measurement, etc. = research programmes If a research programme makes novel predictions that come up true, it is progressive If a programme lies in a sea of anomalies and is dominated by ad hoc saving maneuvers, it is degenerating Unfortunately, there’s no definite point at which a degenerating research programme rationally needs to be abandoned.
Thomas Kuhn Scientific Revolutions In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) he introduced the idea that science moves (not: progresses) from “normal science” through a sea of anomalies to “revolutionary science” to a new “normal science” – from “paradigm” to “paradigm”. According to Kuhn, the process is not rational, but explained in terms of psychology, social processes and power relationships.
Paul Feyerabend Epistemic Anarchy In 1958 Feyerabend went to Berkeley, where he turned against Popper, promoting “Epistemological Anarchism” instead (Against Method, 1974). He embraced the inability to reject research programmes, promoting methodological pluralism instead. Denunciations of witchcraft, pseudosciences, etc. are mere expressions of prejudice.
Ludwig Wittgenstein Open Concepts Natural language concepts have an “open structure”, based on family resemblance, not definition.
Ludwig Wittgenstein Open Concepts One of Wittgenstein’s examples: Define “game”, in terms of the necessary and sufficient conditions. Now let’s play a game involving changing those conditions. . . Socrates’ game of taking some sophist’s definition for “love”, “knowledge”, “good” and poking holes in it could be played forever. Hence, Socrates’ phony humility in claiming that he knew nothing. The reality is that our understanding and use of language doesn’t depend on definitions.
1“Science” is an Open Concept Instead of assembling inadequate necessary and sufficient conditions, let’s collect examples of science and non-science and see what the former share in family resemblances. Leave problematic cases for later. Physics Mathematics Epidemiology Medicine Paleontology Religion Climatology Mining Evolution Theory Creationism Economics Politics Political Science Fox News
“Science” is an Open Concept I’d like to suggest the key family resemblances are: Empiricism: insistance on an empirical base versus ideological dominance Abstraction (generalization) and mathematization (when possible) versus anecdotal evidence Social processes encouraging objectivity, intersubjectivity, peer review, Popperian critical rationality versus authoritarianism
Some Pseudoscientific Arguments AGW/ecology/genetic regulatory/etc models are highly abstract, lose track of detailed reality and so are not scientific. George Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Any computer model will misrepresent continuity, but does it matter? The question is whether the property of the model of interest (mapping to reality) is preserved under model dynamics, not whether irrelevant details are carried along. The demand for “proof” in science is a good indicator of dishonesty.
Some Pseudoscientific Arguments Similarly: the model predicts overall process ok, but omits some really tiny details and therefore is wrong. Here’s an example I gave a data mining class; 120 years of data on business profits. Looks like three different trends concatenated. Let’s just regress just the points from 80-120.
Some Pseudoscientific Arguments Not bad. But some ornery shareholder says, let’s just try years 109-120 instead.
Some Pseudoscientific Arguments As we can all see profits are hardly moving; let’s turf out the board!!
Some Pseudoscientific Arguments NB: profit = global surface temperature; competitiveness = solar energy.
Some References on Scientific Method F Bacon (1620) Novum Organum Scientiarum. JS Mill (1843) System of Logic. M Gardner (1957) Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Dover. T Kuhn (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. K Popper (1963) Conjectures and Refutations. R Carnap (1966) An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. C Hitchcock (2004) Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Science.

Slides can be found here:


Kevin KorbMy research is in: machine learning, artificial intelligence, philosophy of science, scientific method, Bayesian inference and reasoning, Bayesian networks, artificial life, computer simulation, epistemology, evaluation theory.

See The page is out of date, but accurate as far as it goes.

Email kbkorb [at] gmail {dot} com twitter: @kbkorb

Can Spiritual Experience be Scientifically Validated?

At a Melbourne skeptic’s meeting in Australia, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss was asked whether spiritual experiences could ever be scientifically validated.

Lawrence Krauss – Can Spiritual Experience be Scientifically Validated _“The spiritual things — the exotic phenomena people experience — in general violate the things we know to be correct on the basis of experiment, so they’re highly likely to be wrong,” Krauss answered.

“I can’t say to someone who’s heard God in their ears that they’re not hearing God,” he continued. “But I can say that it’s much more likely that they’re hallucinating, based on what we know.”

As for the existence of extraterrestrial life, he said that accounts of alien encounters are “much more likely to be due to the irrationality of humans than the rationality of aliens.”

“When you think about the likelihood that a space-craft would come here,” Krauss said, “almost anything you can think about is more likely. And what science deals with is not ‘true’ and ‘false,’ it’s ‘likely’ and ‘less likely.’ And some things are so unlikely, you just chop them off.”

“So I can’t tell someone that what they’ve heard, or what they’ve seen, or [have had] some mystical experience — I can only say that it’s likely a coincidence,” he concluded.

“But none of us like to believe that things that happen to us are coincidences. We’re all hard-wired to believe that things that happen to us are significant.”

This video was recorded by Adam Ford. The full video of Lawrence Krauss’s presentation is available here soon.  Please subscribe to the YouTube Channel for further updates.

Note this article has been adapted from an article ‘Physicist Lawrence Krauss: God is a byproduct of your hard-wired narcissism‘ that appeared on Raw Story.

When you think about the likelihood that a space-craft would come here,” Krauss said, “almost anything you can think about is more likely. And what science deals with is not ‘true’ and ‘false,’ it’s ‘likely’ and ‘less likely.’ And some things are so unlikely, you just chop them off. Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence KraussLawrence Maxwell Krauss (born May 27, 1954) is an American theoretical physicist and cosmologist who is Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University and director of its Origins Project. He is known as an advocate of the public understanding of science, of public policy based on sound empirical data, of scientific skepticism and of science education and works to reduce the impact of superstition and religious dogma in pop culture. He is also the author of several bestselling books, including The Physics of Star Trek and A Universe from Nothing.

Initially, Krauss was skeptical of the Higgs mechanism. However, after the existence of the Higgs boson was confirmed by CERN, he has been researching the implications of the Higgs field on the nature of dark energy.

Krauss mostly works in theoretical physics and has published research on a great variety of topics within that field. His primary contribution is to cosmology as one of the first physicists to suggest that most of the mass and energy of the universe resides in empty space, an idea now widely known as “dark energy”. Furthermore, Krauss has formulated a model in which the universe could have potentially come from “nothing,” as outlined in his 2012 book A Universe from Nothing. He explains that certain arrangements of relativistic quantum fields might explain the existence of the universe as we know it while disclaiming that he “has no idea if the notion [of taking quantum mechanics for granted] can be usefully dispensed with”. As his model appears to agree with experimental observations of the universe (such as of its shape and energy density), it is referred to as a “plausible hypothesis”.

What is Technoprogressivism?

Rejecting the two extremes of bioconservatism and libertarian transhumanism, Hughes argues for a third way, “democratic transhumanism,” a radical form of techno-progressivism which asserts that the best possible “posthuman future” is achievable only by ensuring that human enhancement technologies are safe, made available to everyone, and respect the right of individuals to control their own bodies.

James-Hughes---raysAppearing several times in Hughes’ work, the term “radical” (from Latin rādīx, rādīc-, root) is used as an adjective meaning of or pertaining to the root or going to the root. His central thesis is that emerging technologies and radical democracy can help citizens overcome some of the root causes of inequalities of power.

The following video interview defines and describes the technoprogressive stance in biopolitics. It addresses the questions: What is Technoprogressivism? b) What is the history of the idea? c) What does the word mean when broken down into it’s parts ‘Techno’ & ‘Progressive’? c) How does it relate to Transhumanism? d) What are the benefits (emancipatory uses etc)? e) Who should we trust to regulate? f) What accounts for progress according to Technoprogressives? g) What are some contrasting ideological stances (i.e. Bioconcervatism & Libertarian Transhumanism) h)

A Definition of Technoprogressivism

James Hughes

  • Technoprogressivism is an ideological stance with roots in Enlightenment thought which focuses on how human flourishing is advanced by the convergence of technological progress and democratic social change. Technoprogressives argue that technological innovations can be profoundly empowering and emancipatory when they are democratically and transparently regulated for safety and efficacy, and then made universally and equitably available.
  • Technoprogressives maintain that accounts of “progress” should focus on ethical and social as well as scientific and technical dimensions. For most technoprogressives, then, the growth of scientific knowledge or the accumulation of technological powers will not represent the achievement of proper progress unless and until it is accompanied by a just distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of these new knowledges and capacities. At the same time, for most technoprogressives the achievement of better democracy, greater fairness, less violence, and a wider rights culture are all desirable, but inadequate in themselves to confront the quandaries of contemporary technological societies unless and until they are accompanied by progress in science and technology to support and implement these values.
  • Technoprogressives support the rights of persons to either maintain or modify his or her own mind and body, on his or her own terms, through informed, consensual recourse to, or refusal of, available therapeutic or enabling biomedical technology. Technoprogressivism extends beyond cognitive liberty and morphological rights to views on safe, accountable and liberatory uses of emerging technologies such as genomic choice in reproduction, GMOs, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, surveillance and geoengineering.


Another Interview with James Hughes – Director if IEET

In this video interview, James discusses biopolitics with focus on Technoprogressivism, how we came to this political stance (among other things).

James J. Hughes Ph.D. is a sociologist and bioethicist teaching health policy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut in the United States. holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of Chicago, where he served as the assistant director of research for the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics. Before graduate school he was temporarily ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1984 while working as a volunteer in Sri Lanka for the development organization Sarvodaya from 1983 to 1985.
Hughes served as the executive director of the World Transhumanist Association (which has since changed its name to Humanity+) from 2004 to 2006, and currently serves as the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which he founded with Nick Bostrom. He also produces the syndicated weekly public affairs radio talk show program Changesurfer Radio and contributed to the Cyborg Democracy blog. Hughes’ book Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future was published by Westview Press in November 2004.

The emergence of biotechnological controversies, however, is giving rise to a new axis, not entirely orthogonal to the previous dimensions but certainly distinct and independent of them. I call this new axis biopolitics, and the ends of its spectrum are transhumanists (the progressives) and, at the other end, the bio-Luddites or bio-fundamentalists. Transhumanists welcome the new biotechnologies, and the choices and challenges they offer, believing the benefits can outweigh the costs. In particular, they believe that human beings can and should take control of their own biological destiny, individually and collectively enhancing our abilities and expanding the diversity of intelligent life. Bio-fundamentalists, however, reject genetic choice technologies and “designer babies,” “unnatural” extensions of the life span, genetically modified animals and food, and other forms of hubristic violations of the natural order. While transhumanists assert that all intelligent “persons” are deserving of rights, whether they are human or not, the biofundamentalists insist that only “humanness,” the possession of human DNA and a beating heart, is a marker of citizenship and rights.James Hughes, Democratic Transhumanism 2.0, 2002

Other Resources

An Overview of Biopolitics (inc Libertarian Transhumanists, Technoprogressives & Left-wing Bioconservatives):

james hughes - what is technoprogressivism smallWikipedia Entry: “Techno-progressivism, technoprogressivism, tech-progressivism or techprogressivism (a portmanteau combining “technoscience-focused” and “progressivism”) is a stance of active support for the convergence of technological change and social change. Techno-progressives argue that technological developments can be profoundly empowering and emancipatory when they are regulated by legitimate democratic and accountable authorities to ensure that their costs, risks and benefits are all fairly shared by the actual stakeholders to those developments”

Article on ‘What is Technoprogressive?’ by Mike Treder (march 2009):
Treader says – A slightly different way to look at the word is to regard it as a portmanteau of “technology aware” and “politically progressive.” Consider these definitions:

  • Technology Aware—Follows trends in emerging technologies; often eager to acquire and master newest gadgets; knows history of technology development and cultural integration; recognizes necessity for caution and responsibility.
  • Politically Progressive—Follows trends in emerging politics, both national and global; supports better democracy, greater fairness, less violence, and wider rights; enjoys learning about and sometimes participating in political action; knows history of political development and cultural integration; recognizes necessity for caution and responsibility.

And let’s add one more definition that will help sort things out:

  • Transhumanist—Supports the use of science and technology to improve human physical and mental characteristics and capacities; regards aspects of the human condition, such as disability, suffering, disease, aging, and involuntary death as unnecessary and undesirable; looks to biotechnologies and other emerging technologies for these purposes; may believe that humans eventually will be able to transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities as to merit the label “posthuman.”

I originally posted this article on H+ Magazine in 2014.

Robin Hanson – Attitudes to the Future – Future Day Discussion 2015

Robin-Hanson-200x200Topics covered: Attitudes to the future, Prediction Markets, SciCast, Blockchain currency, Quadratic Voting, Artificial Intelligence Development etc.

Notes on interview:
People are engaged in extreme futures – heaven or hell scenarios – are people’s attraction towards, or engagement with certain futures informed by evolved biases?

Prediction Markets in contrast to narratives about the future informed by Moralising Tales – whatever is likely to happen is probably a muddled up mix, a mixture of heaven and hell, not just one or the other – Moralising Tale, ignores statistics – it will all be terrible or fantastic, nothing in between…

Could the world do with futurists in industry? Hard to tell. Sometimes firms (i.e. google) are tied to a particular image – google have the image of innovation – google gets attention for projects like calico – pie in the sky moonshot projects are a compliment to their image. Employees are more likely to want to work for google because of its sexiness…

Justin Rattner (former CTO of Intel) spoke about the singularity quite a bit.. but not many CEOs/CTOs bring it up – with the exception of a few… though this could change.

Updates blockchain currency (bitcoin, etherium) – opportunities / risks

Futurists are often eager for big change – enthusiastic – people who are itching for big change often focus on scenarios for the future where there is big change.

Robin-Hanson-Oxford-Adam-Ford-Interview-1Why is there little interest in quadratic voting compared to small iterations in gadgetry (which seems to get a lot of press)?
There is a lot of new and inventive gadgets, and ideas in physics that have huge communities of interest – but social technologies, ways we organise meetings, for instance Quadratic Voting… Many voting systems don’t do a good job at weighing different votes based on how much you care about the issue. QV pays for votes in proportion to the square of the number of votes – can produce outcomes that weigh votes based on how much the voters care about the issue. People can be given votes as a point system, and they can choose to distribute their points based on how much they care about certain issues.

AI Dev – what are the big improvements? Whole new trend? Or progress in existing ideas?

Omens! There was always the new thing, the omen that promised this and that, cries in the wilderness – what kinds of omens should we be listening to? well… don’t follow individual news events, listen to aggregates – for instance there was a whole data series of terrorist attacks – don’t make a decision on one terrorist event.

Prediction Markets / Strategic forecasting – SciCast

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Science, Technology & the Future

The Future of Life in the Universe – Lawrence Krauss at the Singularity Summit Australia 2011

Prof. Lawrence M. Krauss is an internationally known theoretical physicist with wide research interests, including the interface between elementary particle physics and cosmology, where his studies include the early universe, the nature of dark matter, general relativity and neutrino astrophysics. He has investigated questions ranging from the nature of exploding stars to issues of the origin of all mass in the universe. He was born in New York City and moved shortly thereafter to Toronto, Canada, where he grew up. He received undergraduate degrees in both Mathematics and Physics at Carleton University. He received his Ph.D. in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1982), then joined the Harvard Society of Fellows (1982-85). He joined the faculty of the departments of Physics and Astronomy at Yale University as assistant professor in 1985, and associate professor in 1988. In 1993 he was named the Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics, Professor of Astronomy, and Chairman of the department of Physics at Case Western Reserve University. He served in the latter position for 12 years, until 2005. During this period he built up the department, which was ranked among the top 20 Physics Graduate Research Programs in the country in a 2005 national ranking. Among the major new initiatives he spearheaded are included the creation of one of the top particle astrophysics experimental and theoretical programs in the US, and the creation of a groundbreaking Masters Program in Physics Entrepreneurship. In 2002, he was named Director of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case.
Video of talk:

Videoed at the Singularity Summit Australia 2011:

Lawrence Krauss - Singularity Summit 2011

Lawrence Krauss – the Universe is Really Really Big!