The myths that divide us from nature

The ancient idea that whatever enables human consciousness is a basic property of our material world is an elegantly simple philosophical standpoint. But few can conceive how it might work in practice without resorting to some sort of mysticism.

I believe a significant factor is the language we use to describing human consciousness, and in particular how we differentiate it from other animals’ awareness, revealing a long held assumption that our species is almost above nature. As a result, the more removed human consciousness appears to be from nature, the less plausible any suggestion of ‘awareness everywhere’ becomes. Continue reading…

The limits of Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion flags in Bristol July 2019

Why was I absent from Bristol’s Extinction Rebellion protests last week? I’m a left leaning voter who accepts time is running out for climate change action. Last winter I spent eight days upgrading my loft insulation to reduce my gas consumption by about 10% – which is one of many actions I’ve taken to reduce my carbon output. So why did I cycle past the protest each day instead of joining in?

Although XR are doing an important job of keeping climate change in the news cycle, I believe there’s a limit to what XR’s protests will achieve.

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When is a tax not a tax? When it’s a carbon dividend

Oil extraction

Expect to hear more about carbon dividends in the next few years. The latest IPCC report and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events this year in particular, is perhaps finally focusing minds across party lines on ways to make carbon taxes politically acceptable.

Scientists and economists have long advocated carbon taxes as the most effective way to remove carbon from the world economy. While left of centre Europeans like me want increased funding for public services, history shows it’s an uphill task selling the tax increases needed to pay for them, even when voters say they want better schools, hospitals or more police on the street. Taxing carbon may be vital but people rarely vote for new taxes. With climate change the real cost is in the future, and it’s too easy for voters and politicians to think short term and let future generations pay, with the cost of inaction rising all the time.

In different forms, the carbon dividend has long been popular with environmentalists, and the dividend is now gaining traction with Republicans and Libertarians. This appeal across the ideological spectrum means a dividend may be the only way to get carbon taxes implemented – and perhaps more importantly, keep them in place through successive changes of government. Continue reading…

How to build a green roofed garden store

Since I laid out my slate patio a few years back I’ve used it less than expected. I realised lack of storage was one reason for this. Along with the inevitable broken flower pots and recycling bins, the odd bag of rubble or scrap of wood temporarily parked until the next recycling centre trip was giving my back garden a builder’s yard vibe!

Instead of storing my rubbish in an ugly plastic box, I built my own green roofed garden store. I chose Sedum turf instead of wildflower because although both encourage pollinating insects, as Sedums are semi-evergreen they give you something to look at through the winter as well as summer. Continue reading…

Climate change, anxieties and actions

Oil refining
Image courtesy of NASA

This summer’s heatwave through Europe and Asia was one of many extraordinary weather events, which along with forest fires, storms and flash floods, are becoming less extraordinary every year. Scientists are not claiming direct cause and effect for individual weather events, rather there is a very simple principle at work – CO2 and Methane put more energy into our weather systems. The more energy goes in, the more energy comes out, with greater frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

The IPCC October 2018 report and the ‘hothouse earth’ report that rounded off the summer both re-state that climate change may become irreversible, but with the worrying twist that the tipping point may be closer than previously thought. There are more frequent warnings that we really could leave Earth permanently damaged for our species, perhaps within a few generations.

Such headlines grab the attention for a time because our hunter-gatherer brains are hardwired to monitor for immediate threats. However as the solution requires action outside of our control, what remains is often a sense of powerlessness.  Continue reading…

Is subjective experience essential to true consciousness?

traditional view of humans at top of species pyramid

Humans are considered the only truly conscious animals, because we are not just reacting to our environment but we do so through a rich complex inner world. However I think this complicated, self aware, highly subjective experience is just one type of intelligent awareness. In fact as I will argue here, there are even parallels between our subjective experience and a legacy computer system.

Most people would agree our species sits at the top of the evolutionary tree, the apex of the pyramid perhaps, because we have the most complete, even enlightened awareness in the animal kingdom. Analytic thinking, self awareness, subjective experience and so on, were long thought to be uniquely human traits, which makes their appearance in just one species an ever greater mystery.
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Why do people catch a yawn?

seal pup having a nap

No, don’t yawn. You’ll set me off…..

As infectious yawning is only found in apes and humans, the unanswered question of why we do it keeps drawing in the research dollars. Consensus seems to be settling on contagious yawning as a form of social bonding. But I wonder if our hunter-gatherer ancestry means there’s more to it than a symbol of simple social cohesion, unrelated to sleep?
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Two non-problems of modern philosophy

There are two questions in modern philosophy, which I believe are largely created by a failure to compensate for the nature of human perception.

beach ball and shadow image

The (non) hard problem of consciousness

Philosophers like Daniel Dennet who treat this a non-problem, believe the question will eventually be resolved by more research into the brain itself. I have a slightly different take. I believe by asking this basic question about subjective experience; ‘how does seeing the color blue create the sensation of blue?’ David Chalmers is really asking (in a metaphysical not neurological sense) where do sensations of the external world finally end up?
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Video release

After some months of work, I’ve boiled down the content of three previous blog posts on the measurement problem and consciousness into a 28 minute video.


(or on Vimeo https://player.vimeo.com/video/247760088)

The video and blog posts came about because modern science still treats the existence of consciousness in a world made only of atoms and energy as unexplained, even mysterious. Some 25 years after first hearing about the measurement problem, I’ve still not come across a credible account of these things using a scientific or materialist panpsychism. Possibly the word itself is the root of the problem – it just sounds as if Ouija boards must be involved! Advocates of philosophies like panpsychism do sometimes promote unproven ideas, like telepathy or astrology, which may undermine otherwise valid arguments for the scientific community.

However if you properly examine our concept of consciousness in the light of recent scientific research, Continue reading…

BioDiesel. The Good, the Bad, and the Chippy

I do around 2000 miles per year by car. To further reduce carbon emissions and air pollution I’ve been filling up my Golf Tdi mk4 with recycled food oil biodiesel. Crops grown for Biofuels compete with food production for land and water. However recycling food oil into fuel should not be dismissed as it reduces carbon and generally burns more cleanly than standard mineral diesel.

biodiesel tanks on a farm
In use I’ve found no loss of power and the engine runs as smoothly as before, if not slightly better. Because biodiesel contains more Oxygen and cleans deposits from your fuel system, it’s recommended to change the fuel filter after the first 1000 miles. My 2002 Golf Tdi is well suited to running 100% biodiesel. Continue reading…

Frequent fails of barefoot shoes

What’s a long distance to run? 10,000 metres? A marathon? A 100 mile ultra-marathon in mountainous terrain, barely stopping through day and night for 20 hours?

barefoot on leaves

There is a growing understanding that the human body evolved to run for several hours and cover tens of miles daily. Over long distances humans are the fastest animal on the planet because we lose heat efficiently, making us the supreme ‘persistence’ hunters, and our ancestors pursued our prey to collapse for an easy kill. Humans have only made tools for around 200,000 years, so for the first 1.8 million years of human evolution, the ability to run long distances was a probably a key factor preventing our extinction – before large brains and the ability to change our surroundings really gave us the evolutionary leg-up.

Long distances used to be shorter

In 1972 my father watched an athletics event in Edinburgh, where a mix of Olympic hopefuls and lower ranked amateurs were competing. In the 10k the slower runners came in long after the podium places had been decided, but everybody stayed and cheered the stragglers home, feeling that anyone finishing a 10,000m run was achieving something special.

At this time distance running was to the general population a bit eccentric and unnatural. It was the same for many scientists, Continue reading…

10 WordPress plugins for a writer’s blog

WordPress is an excellent tool for getting your writing online, but as a web programmer I know that it lacks some important features ‘out of the box’. When I set up this site I immediately added ten free WordPress plugins to get the basic functionality all good websites need.

Here is my list of ten essential WordPress plugins for any writer’s blog, which I’ve divided into three groups; QA, Extra functionality, Security and utilities. Continue reading “10 WordPress plugins for a writer’s blog”